MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY TUTORIAL FOR BEGINNERS
Hi there! I put together a small macro photography tutorial….I started my photography with macro. It fascinated me the most.The beginnings were very frustrating and I’m sure you’ll agree if you’re a beginner yourself All the information presented in this tutorial is based upon my own personal experience which I gained through trial and error. This article has been written to my best current knowledge & ability. I hope this tutorial helps you on your photographic journey.
My first camera body was Canon 450D. I liked it very much. The pixel resolution was just about right for the sensor size (14MP) and the image quality was very good. I eventually changed it to a full frame body because I started to photograph landscapes too. Canon 5D Mark II is my main workhorse nowadays, but I do use 550D occasionally. I don’t like its ISO performance and image quality though. Many beginners are being turned off by a high equipment cost. Equipment does matter otherwise we wouldn’t invest so much money in it. However, it’s not the most important thing in photography. You don’t believe me? Thomas Shahan used an old Pentax K7 and 10$ used reversed lens and he took macro photos which shook the world. Absolutely stunning macros. So don’t ever get discouraged by it. You can take stunning photos at a very low cost. It’s more about time, motivation and determination than anything else. You can’t buy those qualities. Which manufacturer makes the best cameras and lenses for macro photography? I use Canon and I’m very happy with it. Both Canon and Nikon are great and I’m sure Pentax too. There’s one thing you should consider if you are serious about macro photography. There’s a macro lens called Canon MP-E 65mm which allows you to shoot at 1-5x magnification. Nikon doesn’t have its counterpart. Therefore I believe Canon is a slightly better choice for serious macro photographers.
FULL FRAME, CROPPED SENSOR OR A COMPACT CAMERA?
The main advantages of full frame body are better image quality, more accurate colours, better ISO performance and also weather sealing (important factor if you’re an outdoor photographer). However, cropped sensor camera body offers certain advantages in macro and long telephoto photography. What do I mean by that? Let’s say you use the same Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens on both full frame and cropped sensor camera. You can fill the frame with 3.5cm subject on a full frame while the cropped sensor camera can fill the frame with 2.2cm subject. That’s a considerable difference. There was a thread on a Flickr forum discussing this and some users pointed out that you can simply crop off the „padding“ on a full frame to get the same image. Wrong. You can’t. If you do your final image will have much smaller resolution than cropped sensor camera image. So to a certain extend cropped sensor camera offers advantage in macro. It’s a trade off and only you can make that decision. If you’re a capable photographer who can get close to insects then full frame is a better choice. If you’re on a budget and you’d like to try out macro photography without investing too much money you can buy a second hand cropped camera body with about 14-16mp and live view function. Live view will help you to focus more accurately right on your display. It’s a very useful feature for macro photography. Canon 450D would be a good cheap choice.
My second recommendation is obviously Canon 5D Mark II. I grew in love with it and it became my travelling companion. We’ve been through some rough weather and terrain together. It has never let me down once and although there are new bodies out there with more whistles and bells I don’t feel the need to upgrade it at all. Canon 5D mark III upgrade is definitely not worth the money (in my opinion) and I can’t recommend it. Canon 7D? It’s too much money for a cropped sensor camera body and it has too many pixels on a small sensor. It may not show its flaws when shooting macros at 1:1, but it will show it at 3-5x magnification.
I can’t recommend any compact camera for serious work. There are photographers who managed to squeeze good quality out of it, but I don’t think it’s worth it. Second hand camera body like Canon 450D with any macro lens will beat compact camera easily. The macro accessories range is limited too. If you strive for the best possible image quality or to print large prints I think DSLR is a much better choice in a long run.
I’m going to present a list of lenses I owned and tried over the years.
CANON EF 100mm f2.8 USM This has been my first macro lens. I believe this is one of the best lenses for a starting macro photographer. It’s very sharp with great contrast and weight. Autofocus is fast and accurate. It can be used as a great portrait lens too (on a full frame)Built quality/size/weight ratio is exceptionally good. I only changed it to Sigma 150mm because I needed more working distance for shooting live insects.
SIGMA 50mm f/2.8 EX DG I tried this lens, but I found this focal length to be too short for any live insects work. It’s also harder to control background because you see too much of it. I wouldn’t recommend to buy a macro lens shorter than 90mm.
SIGMA 150mm f/2.8 MACRO LENS This is my favourite macro lens for situations where magnification factor is lower or equal to 1:1 It’s a fat baby and it weighs a lot. But it also gives you extra reach and smoother backgrounds. It’s usage as a telephoto lens is limited due to a fairly slow autofocus and no image stabilisation (unless you decide to spill out a lot of money for stabilised version) Image quality is excellent and bokeh is very smooth. This focal length gives you a long working distance from your subject (absolutely crucial with live insects) Background control is great too. Built quality is superb and it can handle some battering outdoors. Sigma recently released an OS version of this lens which is almost twice as expensive. You’re paying quite a lot of money for something you won’t use much. Consider that vast majority of your macro work will be shot on a tripod with OS switched off. You also focus manually. A small detail which also comes in handy is a tripod collar. You want to shoot a horizontal? All you have to do is twist the lens in a collar. Done. I know this does not seem to be a significant issue, but believe me things like these build up into a nerve racking breakdown in the terrain. I still use this lens and I’m happy with it. It’s not very suitable in connection with extension tubes though. Why? Very short lenses are the best for extension tubes. We’re talking 50mm macro lenses here. 50mm of extension tubes on a 50mm macro lens will get you to 2:1 magnification. 50mm of extension tubes on a 150mm lens will only give you about 30% extra magnification. The entire combo is very clumsy and it’s hard to use outdoors. Your camera bayonet will not thank you, too. Overall, I can highly recommend a non-OS version of this lens because of its price, image quality and its focal length.
TAMRON AF 90mm f/2.8 Di SP A/M 1:1 This is the best bang for buck lens. This may be your best option if you are on a tight budget. Built quality is slightly inferior. It has plastic feel to it like Canon 50mm 1.8II. It’s still a superb sharp lens which can be used as a portrait lens too. It’s very small & lightweight. It’s a perfect companion to a landscape photographer who’s carrying 3-4 other lenses.
CANON MP-E EF65mm f2.8 This is the ultimate macro lens. Are you interested in taking those individual compound eyes shots? This is the baby. I wouldn’t recommend it for a complete beginner because it costs a lot of money and it takes time to learn to use it properly. On the other hand, there’s no better solution for macro photography on any DSLR platform. You can start at 1:1 and move to 4:1 instantly by a short twist of a barrel. No need to hassle around with extension tubes, close-up lenses or flash. I think every serious Canon macro photographer has this one on his list or they own it already.
CANON EF 180mm f3.5L I have never used it. It’s a top of the line macro lens, but I wouldn’t splash that kind of money for it. It’s only 1:1 macro lens whichever way you look at it. I tried it in a shop. It’s a large and heavy lens. From what I’ve read on the internet the quality difference compared to Sigma is not that big. The price difference is huge though. Currently, I can’t see any reason why I should purchase it. I’m very happy with the Sigma 150mm and I seriously doubt it would make any improvements in my macro photography. Quality or otherwise. Some people swear by it, but I think you can get similar results with much cheaper lenses.
TRIPOD & TRIPOD HEADS Sturdy tripod is absolutely essential for every aspiring photographer. I have previously owned about 3 or 4 different types from Triopo to Gitzo until I found the one I really like. It’s Manfrotto 055CXPRO3. I previously owned Manfrotto 190CXPRO4. It’s a decent small tripod, but it’s not very suitable for landscape photography or heavier set-ups. It’s okay when you shoot in a city, but it’s too unstable if you use it on a top of the hill with high winds. Its four sections are too thin and more prone to vibration. It’s a good flexible tripod but Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 is a much better choice in my opinion. I’ve used it for last 2 years and I had no problems with it. It’s sturdy, lightweight and reliable. I’ve used it standing in the middle of a strong current, on the top of the mountain with very heavy winds and also in a deep snow. One important thing to consider when choosing a tripod for macro photography is how low it can operate. You will need to get down low if you work outdoors as most flowers and insects reside there. One of the reasons why I like this particular tripod is its capability to switch centre column into a horizontal position. It’s a true blessing and I don’t think I can work without it. I also had a chance to try Gitzo Systematic 2 GT2532S. Gitzo tripods are the best. They’re in a league of their own. It’s the most stable tripod I’ve ever tried thanks to its wide base and high quality carbon fibre legs. The only thing that put me off from buying it is the cost of the centre column which is a separate accessory. Do you want to know how much does it cost? It’s nearly £200! For a centre column which is not even from a carbon fibre, – it’s from aluminium. True greed indeed. I bought Manfrotto instead and saved a lot of money for travel expenses and petrol. But don’t take me wrong. If it was reasonably priced I’d pefer Gitzo tripod for sure.
CARBON FIBER VS ALUMINIUM If you’re a strong experienced hiker or you don’t travel too far for many days, you can buy an aluminium version. If you count every gram before a longer trip to mountains where you have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, cooker and some other stuff then carbon fibre would be a better choice. Every kilo counts during those trips. That’s also one of the reasons why I use lightweight Benro B1 ball-head. It’s a very reasonably priced ball-head which is sturdy and it’s locking mechanism is Arca-swiss. I found it to be better than Manfrotto’s. I tried 3-way tripod heads in the past, but I think it’s too complicated to setup and use. First you have to screw on two handles here and then another one there – it’s just not my style of work. I like ball-heads for both macro and landscape work. Occasionally I also use a monopod. Especially when I’m after live insects during the day or chasing some dragonfly in a swamp. It acts as my third leg support which is very important when working in water. One slip and you can say good-bye to your little friend… (camera)
MACRO ACCESSORIES There are many accessories available for macro photography which are there to help you achieve the desired results. One of them are
EXTENSION TUBES Extension tubes are hollow plastic barrels which come in different sizes. They’re suitable for shorter focal length macro lenses. Let’s say you’re using a 50mm macro lens which enables you to shoot at 1:1 ratio. If you add 50mm of extension tubes you can shoot macros at 2:1. The main disadvantage of extension tubes is that they dim the viewfinder, so it’s harder to focus precisely. It does not influence the image quality though. Why is it suitable for shorter lenses only? Let’s say you want to use it with 150mm Sigma. You will need to add 150mm of extension tubes if you want to shoot at 2:1. I’m sure you can see the problem right away. Sigma 150mm is a long and heavy lens and once you add extension tubes to the mix it’s going to be a small disaster. Extension tubes are available on Ebay or any better equipped camera shop. They’re fairly cheap and they usually come in three different sizes which can be combined together.
TELECONVERTERS Teleconverters magnify the lens you use with them. The most usual types are 1.4x and 2x Let’s say you use 100mm macro lens with 2x teleconverter. It becomes a 200mm macro lens. It enables you to shoot at 2:1 magnification ratio from a longer distance. They are usually used with telephoto lenses to make them longer. It contains glass and slightly degrades the image quality. TC 2x degrades image quality more than TC 1.4x The main disadvantage of teleconverters is that you also lose stops of light. You will lose about 1 stop of light when using TC 1.4x and 2 stops of light when using TC 2x. So if your lens is f2.8 it becomes f5.6 when used with TC 2x. They can be combined together with extension tubes and close-up lenses to achieve more magnification. I’ve done it, but the quality suffers a bit. Don’t expect razor sharp images and full of contrast when experimenting at 3x or even 4x magnification. You will need a different teleconverter for Sigma and a different one for Canon lens. They’re not cheap, but it’s a better solution for longer focal length lenses than extension tubes.
CLOSE-UP FILTER LENS High quality close-up lenses are 2-glass elements which screw on the top of your lens like a polariser filter. You will have to buy a correct diameter for your lens. The only close-up lens I would recommend for Canon users is Canon 500D. You can find how much it magnifies the image with a particular lens on a Canon web site (manual or specification for close-up lens 500d). I used to combine it with extension tubes or a teleconverter. The image quality is good. It can be used with a zoom lens if you want to try a macro photography, but I don’t recommend experimenting with zoom lenses too much. Image quality is much worse when compared to any macro lens which are all prime lenses designed to be sharpest when focused at close distance.
LENS STACKING I’ve never tried this technique. You will need a longer focal length lens mounted on your camera. Then you reverse a good manual prime lens like 50mm. You will need on older one where you can set aperture manually because there’s no camera connection once you reverse it. There’s a special adaptor which allows you to mount it together. This technique can get you even to 4x magnification ratio. The image quality is fairly good. Please Google the technique and do some research on it, because I’m not an expert at it. I just thought I should definitely mention it.
MACRO RAILS One last accessory I should mention is a macro rail. It’s very handy for precise focusing. The focus is achieved by twisting a macro rail knob which allows you to precisely move the lens closer or away from the subject. It’s more suitable for still subjects. I usually detach the part which moves the rail from left to right and I only use the forward/backward rail. It’s much less bulky to carry around.
FLASH Flash is a very important accessory which you’ll use a lot in macro photography. Light fades away very quickly when you shoot at 2x-5x magnification ratios. I started out with a Canon flash mounted onto a C-shaped bracket. I mounted a flash diffuser onto it and positioned it above the lens so it was touching it slightly (the lens supported the flash). My subjects were lit from the top. It produces a good light for macro photography. I’d recommend a Yongnuo brand if you’re on a budget or some manual Metz flash.. A fairly good choice would be Canon 220ex which I used outdoors with success because of its small size and weight. There are ring light flashes which I never used and I’m not impressed with the flat light they produce. There’s a special macro flash called Canon MT-24EX which is usually being used together with Canon Mp-e 65mm. It’s a very expensive flash but it’s easy to operate and it can produce impressive results combined with Canon Mp-65mm.
FLASH DIFFUSERS You will need to diffuse your flash. I have to say many commercially produced diffusers are not good enough for macro photography. There are many DIY flash diffuser manuals on the internet which work better than commercially produced ones. Find the one that you can assemble easily and experiment with it. I’ve seen very good results with a diffuser made from a can of coke or a milk bottle. There’s a lot to choose from and it’s also a matter of personal taste and preference. Lumiquest flash diffuser with a blank piece of paper can be used too. I currently use Gary Fong domes which I shaped and cut. It fits my needs but I feel it could be improved. Sometimes I combine it with Sto-fens. Lately I have been carring a wirelessly triggered flash with small double diffused softbox. Sometimes I simply use small reflector which is a great tool for macro photography.
That concludes our small tutorial on macro photography gear. I hope you find it useful. The last and most important advice: Be flexible in your approach and try to find what suits you best. I wish you the best in your photography. Feel free to share this article or to drop a comment. D.