Capturing The Macro World

There are a few things that will change the way you look at the world; wide angle lenses, large format cameras and another example could be macro. Recently I have been taking macro a little more seriously, and with it being spring I have had a lot of practise with the spring flora.

water droplets

Macro photography is when you use a lens with a magnification ratio of 1:1 to take a picture. This means when the picture is taken the size of the subject is the same as the size on the sensor (life size). A magnification ratio less than 1:1 like 1:2 ( half-life size) is considered close up photography.
How do you know the magnification ratio of the lens? It is normally written on the lens or in the information of the lens, for example the Canon EF 50mm  has a magnification ratio of 1:7, the sigma 28-300 has a ratio of 1:3.

Macro Options

There are three options for macro photography, going from cheap/low quality to expensive/high quality.

Close-up Filter

The lowest quality is a close-up filter that goes on the end of the lens . These come in different magnification multipliers.  These will create low quality images because you are adding extra glass in front of your lens, very similar to placing a magnifying glass in front of the lens. Usually when using close up filters only the centre of the image is sharp with distortions being found on the edges including vignettes and sometimes barrelling.

Extension Tubes

The medium quality option is to use Extension Tubes. These are tubes that go between the lens and the camera body, they come in different sizes and can be added together to increase the magnification. Good extension tubes usually have connectors will allow your lens to communicate with the camera. Even with the connectors auto focus generally wont work and it is best to focus to infinity and then move the lens in closer to the subject until it is sharp.

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Against all logic adding a big lens to extension tubes does not mean you will get more magnification in fact it is the opposite. The smaller the lens the more magnification you will be able to get. The downside with using a smaller lens  is that the working distance is dramatically reduced. The above slideshow shows how with a standard lens the longer the focal length the larger the magnification, compared to the use of extension tubes when the oppersite is true.

Macro Lenses

Canon 60mm Macro Lens

Macro lenses are the most expensive with the best quality. Macro lenses usually start with a focal length of 50mm and continue to a maximum focal length of 200mm. Macro lenses are prime lenses coming in a single focal length. Macro lenses should not be confused with telephotos or zoom lenses which at their longest focal length can produce life size magnification. Macro lenses are worth the cost as you will get increased sharpness and a higher quality image compared to the other two options.

Wide angle lens reversed and attached to a macro lens.


Another method of creating macro images is to reverse the lens on your camera. This has to be done carefully as it can damage the lens, camera or the sensor itself. You can buy an adapter, which is the safest route or you can also use one of several DIY methods available online.
If you do want to reverse your lens it is best to use an old lens with a manual aperture ring. In reversing the lens you won’t have access to the electronic contacts that allow your lens and camera to communicate therfore you won’t be able to change the aperture. With an old lens the aperture can still be changed when reversed using the aperture ring . Also if you destroy an old lens you may be less upset than if you destroy a newer one.

Light in Macro

In photogrpahy light is important and nothing changes when you get down to the macro level, except it is even more important.  Small shadows become huge casting your entire subject in the shade. The best solution is to bring in some extra light and an on camera flash won’t have the reach or the power. A ring flash is the best solution.

There are several LED ring flashes on the market that could be the answerwhen you do not need too much light. A much better option is a standard ring flash, especially one which allows you to control the power on each side of the ring. These are expensive though and an investment. If you are just starting out and experimenting with macro, the cost of a ring flash maybe too high for you.

What you can do if you have a flashgun, is to extend its reach and soften the flash. Against all preconceptions; if the light source is bigger than the subject, the closer the light source is the softer the ligh will become. Think about the huge soft boxes used in studio portraits. Using a DIY method you can create your own flash for macro photography using a “Pringle Flash” tube.

Simply take a Pringles tube (or a tube which is silver inside) and eat the Pringles. Take one end of the Pringles tube (I would choose the bottom) and cut off the end at a 45 degree angle. Cover the end with some white grease proof paper or tracing paper( to act as a diffuser) and fit the other end on the flash. The tube should allow you extended the flash over a macro lens or a lens with extension tubes attached and allow you to soften any shadows.

Aperture in Macro

It is known even for those with a passing knowledge of macro photography that depth of field is tight. A good Macro shoot needs to have enough of depth of field to keep the subject in focus while at the same time a not too much that the background becomes distracting.

Blossom Macro

In Macro depth of field is controlled by two factors, magnification and aperture. The greater the magnification the shallower the depth of field is. This means the more the subject is magnified the smaller the aperture needs to be (bigger f number).  Changing the aperture in macro adds another dimension, firstly it can make an image less sharp due to diffraction (a topic for another day) and secondly at 1:1 magnification the aperture effectively becomes 2 stops slower, meaning f2.8 becomes 5.6 and f8 becomes f16, letting less light through to the sensor and this will have a knock on effect to your shuter speed needing to be longer or your ISO needing to be higher.

Working Distance

gogo macroWorking distance in macro is important to understand especially if you are thinking about buying a macro lens. A Macro lens will usually note the magnification of the lens which tells you how big your subject will be, focal length and the working distance.

The working distance is the minimum distance of focusing between the front of the lens and the subject. This distance can help indicate if a lens is going to be the best lens for what you want to photograph. For example if you want to photograph insects a longer working distance might be preferable so as not to disturb the subject. Usually a longer focal length has a longer working distance. A longer focal length also  has an effect on the image making it seem flatter and less three dimensional. This is why a shorter length maybe more advantageous as it gives a more three dimensional feel to an image.

To photogrpah the  image on the right I used extension tubes with an 18mm lens. The working distance for this image was a few millimetres with an extremely narrow depth of field. When using extension tubes the longer the lens the bigger the working distance but remembering that the magnification will be less. The magnification ratio for this image is about 10;1

Starting out advice

When I started thinking about macro, I really didn’t want to invest a lot of money if  I wasn’t going to enjoy it. I went down the extension tubes route, not too expensive and they produce good quality images as well as being really fun and easy to experiment with. If I was to advice someone getting into Macro I would tell them to do the same.
Once I know what I like to photogrpah in Macro (I think it will be bugs and flowers) then I will know what focal length macro lens I will want.

Have you ever dabbled in Macro Photogrpahy? or are you just starting out. Let me know any comments of questions in the comment box below.

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All images are the Copyright of Benjamin Rowe , ALL RIGHTS Reserved unless credited to another photographer.
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13 thoughts on “Capturing The Macro World

  1. great information Ben…thanks! I’ve not done much about macro photos…I so much to learn about my camera and simply taking photos first… 🙂

  2. Great information! I really appreciated the slideshow showing the effects of different lenses – much better described in pictures than words. Have been using my Nikon D3200 with a macro lens for photos of my glass work for a few months, macro is so much fun!
    Beautiful work!

    • You are right, trying to describe field of view is not easy and is best done visually. Macro is really fun I am not sure why I like it so much but fun and must be great for glass. will need to experiment with glass as a subject.

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