Closeup or macro photography is the art of photographing a subject close up. For some that may mean photographing a subject at the maximum magnification of the photographic equipment they have. For others, in means getting more involved in the process through the use of extreme closeup techniques with extension tubes, teleconverters, magnifying lenses, inverting lenses, and even using microscopic equipment.
The following articles are from our book and closeup and macro photography workshop, “I Long To Be Close To You: Closeup Photography”.
This series of articles explores techniques for closeup nature photography, exploring the small things nature has to provide. Aimed at the beginner to intermediate level photographer, we’ll help you understand how different lenses magnify, depth of field, selective focus, and various lighting techniques for closeup or macro photography.
Just as there are many types of spiders, there are many types of webs. A favorite of ours is the sheet web.
Lying flat across plants and grasses, Brent and I are impressed by these diligent web makers as they work on the horizontal rather than vertical. Our front “yard” filled with knick-knick, Oregon Grape, and sahlal, native Pacific Northwest plants, is a haven for sheet web-making spiders.
In the fall, the rain comes down, drenching these sturdy webs with water drops. Brent was able to get in close to capture the droplets without disturbing the web.
I love the patterns, the wet texture, and the lovely colors of nature in this photograph. Made into a puzzle, this one would be a tough image to put together.
This dried thistle head in the Painted Hills of Oregon caught my attention with its textures and lines. I’ve always loved thistles, alive and vital with their fluffy tops, and dried out cone-like structures of mystery and pattern.
To isolate this thistle, I used flash to force the background to go to black. The flash also dove into the textures highlighting the dimensional quality of the seed head. The black background brings out the delicate curves of the plant.
To create this yourself, get close to your subject and use full flash. I recommend putting your camera on a tripod to maximize the sharp focus of the subject.
If the subject like this thistle is moving in the breeze, just be patient and wait for it to pause. The flash allows the camera to photograph at higher speeds, but you want all the odds on your side.
It was freezing cold outside. And dark. Not the kind of dark that just comes with night but the dark that happens when the earth passes between the sun and the moon.
It was February 20, 2008, and I was in our new temporary home in Gaston, Oregon, an hour west of Portland, in time for the total eclipse of the moon. Brent and I stood in the cold for hours to photograph and watch this rare event.
NASA explained that the difference between this eclipse and other annual eclipses is that this one was first visible to the majority of people on the planet, covering the Americans, Europe, Africa, and western Asia. The full eclipse happens only when there is a full moon and only if the moon passes through some portion of Earth’s shadow, when the earth, sun, and moon are in total alignment.
We are used to seeing solar eclipses, where the moon blocks the sun for a few minutes. A lunar eclipse lasts for hours as the earth blocks the light hitting the moon. No special glasses are required for a lunar eclipse, unlike a solar eclipse. The previous total or full lunar eclipse was three years before. The next one is April 15, 2014.
There are two shadows that the earth cats on the moon, an inner an outer shadow. It is the inner shadow, the umbra, that happens when earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the moon, making it totally dark. If the moon passes through the umbra, it is a partial eclipse. If the moon passes through both the umbral (outer shadow), then a total eclipse occurs. We were in for a total eclipse.
As the moon passes through the various stages of the eclipse, it turns from red to dark brown and dark gray. That is what we experienced.
For us, it was a rare enough event as clouds didn’t interfere with the show. Continue reading →
The Seattle Arboretum is a glorious place to wander year around, but in the spring, the rows and rows of flowering trees are wonders to behold.
I often led many nature photography tours in and around Seattle’s most famous park, a long green belt that starts near the University of Washington and Museum of History and Industry, along the ship canals between Lake Union and Lake Washington, and runs for 230 acres along the Lake Washington waterfront, all the way to Madison Park area.
This was taken many years ago during one of the first photo excursions I led to the Arboretum. I had set up my camera for the participants and students to see how they could control the background by using the blossoms of the tree itself to frame the petals of interest, creating a blur of pastels. Along the way, I snapped a few pictures as teaching slides, but this particular one fascinated me.
This image has been used on book covers, posters, note cards, and just as artwork in addition to it holding a special place in many of my photography workshops and classes. It makes a great teaching point, but it is also just lovely to look at.
Just reminds me that you never know when you press the shutter, what the future of that image will bring.
I love the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival and have many years of photographs from its bountiful rainbow of tulips. This one is from the 2007 festival, a very gray sky and wet few weeks.
We always bring our full camera gear, different tripods, lenses, everything we can to get the landscape views as well as the close in macro photography perspective.
I liked this purple and yellow tulip dripping with rain water, the patterns in the petals and veins of color. I knelt down on a knee pad with my camera upside down on the tripod to get low to the ground, moving in as close as I dared. I wanted to get in closer, but the heat of my body in the freezing cold morning created a slight breeze, shaking the tulip, so I zoomed in from about three feet to fill the frame. Even then, it was hard to get the maximum depth of field in the low light while maintaining enough for focus. I took a dozen pictures of this and this is the best of the collection.
I look at this picture and see pictures within pictures, telling me there was more that could have been told in this flower. I see that I could have zoomed in and focused on any of the specific pattern details, the raindrops, or the fascinating stem that is so smooth moving from stem to petal. Digitally, I could zoom in and crop these, but the lack of true sharpness in the original makes these tough for that kind of magnification.
Still, thoughts like these always serve to remind me to work harder, in spite of the cold and wet, to really explore a photographic subject and look beyond the surface pretty.
Risk. Danger. Anticipation. And nerves of steel. These are the thrills and spills of photographing water droplets. There is a constant threat of danger as they dangle, so close to the edge, hanging on until the last second…then splat. Gone.
We love photographing water droplets. They are lenses within your lens, offering a new perspective on the world around us. Like tiny fish-eye lenses, they shrink down the scene and give it a circular distortion, smoothing the edges on a harsh, sharp world.
Water droplets form from rain and condensation. In nature, they tend to cling to the fine hairs and fibers of plants. They line up in rows along spider webs. They stay for a short time in the early morning of summer before the heat blasts them away for the day. In winter, they can freeze into icicles, creating long daggers off the edges of anything that stays still long enough.
Photographing water droplets is all about timing and perspective. The key is to photograph the droplet before it drops, and not to do anything to encourage it to drop. It sounds much simpler than you might think.
Any wind or motion around or against your subject will usually knock the water droplet off. The heat of your body can cause wind on cool days, shaking the water droplet. This is especially true when photographing delicate dew-covered spider webs. As the heat of the day rises with the sun, a slight breeze can make a mess of your water droplet covered subject.
Keep a good working distance from your subject by using a long lens with a zoom on a tripod. This stabilizes the camera for the often low light situations, allows longer exposures to maximize depth of field, and keeps you back a bit from your subject to ensure you don’t bump it.
Water droplets are found hanging from edges and nestled in leaves and flowers, held there like water storage tanks for as long as possible, feeding and cooling the plant at the same time.
Photographing them may involve bending over your subject and photographing down upon it, or getting low to the ground so you are at “eye level” with the water droplets hanging from grasses, flowers stems, branches, or on spider webs. Be sure and wear water proof gear if you are working within a lot of wet and damp. At least bring a plastic sheet and/or kneeling pad so you don’t get too wet.
As you look through a water droplet, the subjects behind it are reduced down to fit within the small globe. Move slightly to the right or left, up or down, and the view changes, depending upon how close the background subject is.
There are two ways of photographing a water droplet. You can photograph it as part of an overall scene, such as the water droplets on the grasses in the photograph at the top of this article. The water droplets are part of the story of the grasses right after the rain. They look like jewelry, glittering along the grass stem.
The other method is to photograph the view through the water droplet. The water droplet shrinks the background so we see it clearly, though slightly distorted. It isn’t necessary that we see the whole background since it is inside of the droplet, but it helps to see just enough of an echo of the background to add to the sensation that we are viewing the world beyond through a secondary lens beyond our camera.
If the water droplet is the focus, then keep your camera’s focus on the water droplet, not the background, a challenge with some of today’s auto focus cameras which may fight for a subject to focus on. With the camera on the tripod, focus on the water droplet in the center area of your viewfinder, then turn off the auto focus to position the water drop in your frame as desired. Or switch to manual focus and focus it accordingly.
Fill as much of the frame with the droplet to capture the image inside. Carefully choose how much of the background you want within the picture’s frame, but keep the water droplet on center stage. Remember, the subject is what is seen inside the water drop, not just the water drop. Not all views through a droplet work. Choose your background scene carefully. As with all photographs, keep the scene simple and free from unnecessary distractions.
Determining the aperture and depth of field for the photograph of a water droplet is a challenge. The focus is on the water droplet. What is in focus in front or beyond is part of your creative decisions. If the background is too much in focus, you might lose the water droplet in the picture. If it is too much out of focus, the echo of the background in your image might distract more than echo. A good background perspective choice is to echo the view inside of the water drop, not overwhelm it.
In the two comparison photographs here, you see that one has more depth of field, so the grasses are visible as lines even though they are still out of focus. The other, vertical image, has a much more narrow depth of field, so the background grasses blur into a soft color behind. We know they are grasses, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t clearly see them. We see them in the water droplets, and get the “impression” they are grasses, so our mind fills in the blank.
Generally, a low to middle range apertures will work best. Bracket your aperture to experiment with the various depth of field perspectives to find the one you like best.
Water Droplets in the Studio
Photographing water droplets is not limited to outdoors in nature. If the weather or lifestyle isn’t cooperating, you can create your own droplets in a studio, be it your kitchen, living room, or photography studio.
Using the natural light coming in from the sliding glass doors of our living room, we photographed these water droplets on the stem of a flower, with the flower behind it echoing the image inside of the water droplets.
The stem was held in place with the weight of a lamp in front of the camera on its tripod. We spritzed water onto the stem until we formed a good looking water droplet. You can also use clear glycerin to fake a water droplet. The thick liquid will stay longer and have less chance of falling, too.
The flower behind it was set in a vase, positioned to maximize the image in the droplet and far enough away so our depth of field would still allow for enough recognizable focus to create an image echo.
We used a gold reflector to brighten up and warm the image and balance the side light from the windows, and took a variety of bracketed photographs to make sure we got the effect we wanted.
As we worked, Brent noticed that the process of spraying the water on the stem caused water droplets to sit in the window screen next to the camera, forming many water droplets reflecting the view of the backyard inside of them. He moved the flower behind the window screen and instantly saw dozens of flowers in the water droplets. He played with fill flash and natural light and bracketed across apertures to get the final image here.
Experiment with water droplets to see what you may see. A whole new world inside of a drop of water.
It was even a bigger delight to see the award winner was a friend of mine, Charles Krebs, whose closeup of a fly’s face and eyes is incredible. In an interview for Wired, Mama Don’t Take My Microscope, the story of the house fly is explained:
That’s just the sense of awe that Charles Krebs gets from his fly. Krebs stands out from the other competitors as the only professional photographer among university-based scientists. Krebs scrounged equipment on eBay and still managed to claim top prize with the help of a 6-megapixel digital camera and sophisticated image-processing software that let him combine a stack of photos into a picture of one perfectly focused hairy little fly with velvety eyes.
“For the past 25 to 30 years, I did a lot of travel and nature photography. I won’t say you get jaded, but it’s hard to find something new and better. If I were to shoot a cityscape of New York (and it wasn’t) different from 99 percent of what I’ve done before, it’s kind of a downer,” says Krebs. “Now I can go down to the pond like a little kid and get a jar of water and see things I’ve never seen in my life. It’s always fun to see and photograph new things, and this is all new to me.”
The news of this contest, especially of the common house fly photographed by Charles Krebs, has spread all over the net, and I want to personally say, great work, Charlie. You continue to set the trend and push the limits for nature photography. Oh, and Charlie, when are you ever going to get your own web page? ;-)
Closeup nature photography, or macro photography, presents the photographer with a wide range of challenges, from how to get close to how to capture a reluctant subject. For serious closeup photographers, the process involves not only an understanding of the technical and mathematical concepts but a deeper understanding of the natural science behind their subjects. Macro photographers who specialize in flowers become infatuated with the whirls, swirls and angles within the inside of a flower. Entomologists, capturing close images spiders or butterflies, are in awe of the variations in color and texture unseen by the human eye.
During our many years of photographing nature, we are continually awed by the response of someone looking over our shoulder to see what it is we see through our camera, and then their amazement when we invite them to actually see what we see. We are constantly surrounded with “I never knew that!” and “Wow! That is amazing!” but most of all our favorite response is “How did you ever see that?”
Learning to “see” closeup is a skill enhanced by photography. When you become aware of the little things around you, under your feet, hiding in corners, a new world opens up to you. The curve in a blade of grass suddenly becomes more important. A dew covered spider’s web suddenly becomes valuable as nature’s necklaces. Your step becomes gentler, softer, as you realize there is a whole world below that you have been ignoring.
Closeup photography is not limited to the things under your feet, but it is a good place to start. The techniques within this book will help you see the world in new and unusual ways, moving closer and closer, as much as your equipment will allow. Tree bark covered with lichens will become patterns to puzzle out. A trip to a fruit stand with your camera will become more fascinating as you move in close on onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Vacation pictures will begin to include door handles, brick and tile, and the little things you missed before along your path.
As you open your eyes to the little things around you, you will find your inner eyes opening up to a new sense of peace and sensitivity within you. Macro photography requires intense concentration, focus, determination, and amazing levels of patience as you fight with equipment, wind, sun, and uncooperative subjects. Remember that as you learn, it will be difficult at first. Over time it will become easier as you master each step along the way. The rewards are part of the magic of the closeup world.
The Class Notes
These notes are meant to cover much of the detail taught in our program. Many aspects of photography are covered in depth and others are covered only lightly. Foremost, we recommend the first book purchase you make be John Shaw’s The Nature Photographers’ Field Guide (formerly known as The Nature Photographers Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques).
We also highly recommend John Shaw’s book, Closeups in Nature, to further explore the technical and artistic aspects of close up or macro photography. His step-by-step approach makes even the most complicated aspects of close up photography easy. We highly recommend reviewing our book recommendations for more nature photography books to learn more about specific areas of interest, or visit our book recommendations for even more nature and travel photography books.
If nature photography is new to you, we recommend that you explore our online basics of nature photography book, How To? What For?, to get a grasp of the terminology, equipment, and references we made in the following series of articles on close up photography. Close up photography is exciting but it is not for the newly initiated. Start with a solid familiarity with nature photography in general, then open up your mind to the fascinating possibilities of macro photography.
What is a closeup?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a close-up as
1) a picture taken at close range and
2) a close or intimate look.
Either definition applies, as we are about to look at photographs made at close range, showing a more intimate look at something than we usually see. We are going to look at the way leaves are scattered across the ground in the Autumn, then at the patterns in a single leaf. At the grasses which cover the ground, one blade at a time. We will look at a field covered with spider webs, the web shapes themselves, and portrait views of spiders.
We will discuss about the equipment and methods used to produce the images, both of which may be different than used for general photography. We will show you how to get the most out of what you already own, and give you some inexpensive ideas for your next purchase.
Finding a Subject
How do you find an interesting subject for closeup or macro photography? The answer is as simple as paying more attention to the little things. Go outside and look at your feet. Okay, so your feet look the same outside as inside. My mistake. Look at the things that are under your feet, beside your feet, and generally at foot level. Get low. Look into the flowers and weeds in the garden. Look under the flower at the insects that live on the stalks. Go outside after a rain shower and study the way the drops cling to everything in sight. Look into the drops and see the world upside down and magnified.
A favorite quote of ours is: “I spent the whole summer traveling, I made it halfway across my back yard.” There are so many things in the natural world to look at, and nature is so detailed, it offers a wide range of photographic possibilities.
It’s important to study the field guides for the particular area you’re photographing. Find out what kinds of plants and animals live there, and what is in bloom. Make a list of subjects and visit the habitats they call home. Make both documentary photos showing how and where the plant or animal lives, as well as more artistic interpretations that may or may not be identifiable as a particular species. Now, start looking for a different way to view the subject, whether from underneath, or really close up, or whatever. Look for any insects that live on the flower, patterns in the leaves or stem, and other small details you typically may notice.
When we do this, we never complete our list, because, usually right from the start, we find things we never knew existed, or see old things in new ways. The list keeps growing, and we go back to the same places time after time.
When there is a particular subject you want but can’t find, ask rangers at the national parks. Or ask anyone who is interested enough to ask why are you lying flat on your stomach in the mud and what are you seeing through the camera. Sometimes you can get some good tips. Read and study about the various subjects you find to learn more.
Basic composition elements include the Rule of Thirds (moving the image out of the center), simplification of the image, keeping horizontal and vertical lines horizontal and vertical, and avoiding distracting elements in the foreground and background. These compositional elements don’t change for closeup photography, but some become even more critical to your closeup techniques.
The Greeks researched art and found that when the subject of interest is moved away from the center, instead of having our eye locked onto the subject, it is free to rest on the main subject and then roam around the picture to return to rest on the main subject again. They call this the “concert of the eye”. When you capture closeup images, sometimes the main subject of the image is not the main subject but a part of the main subject. For instance, photographing this moth up close, the body of the moth is in the center of the image. Yet, is the body the most interesting part of the picture? Since we tend to look for eyes and heads, familiar subjects, when looking at photographs of animals and insects, possibly the main subject of interest is the fuzzy head of the moth rather than the body. Since the head is out of the center, the eye tends to rest on that spot and then explore the other elements in the image before returning to the head.
The closer we are to our subject with our camera, the shallower the depth of field, therefore what is out of focus becomes just as important as what is in focus. We call this process selective focus. We also examine other techniques for developing and mastering the creative aspect of closeup photography including creative uses of backgrounds and lighting later within this book.
One of the first things to understand when talking about closeups is the concept of the reproduction ratio. This is simply the ratio of the size of the image on the film to the size of the object in real life. If you photographed a steel ruler and after you got the film back from the lab, you placed the ruler side by side with the slide, and if one inch on the slide was the same length as one inch on the ruler, you would have a 1 to 1 reproduction ratio. You would have photographed the ruler at “life-size”. At a reproduction ratio of 1 to 2, or 1/2 life-size, the image on the slide would be half the size of the real ruler. When the reproduction ratio is a number greater than one, say 4 times life-size, or 4X, the image on the slide would be four times as big as the real subject. Prints made from the slide or negative, or slides projected on a screen, of course, show the subject as much larger, but the reproduction ratio refers to the image size on the film itself.
Understanding all the technical aspects of closeup photograph does mean going back to basic photography skills such as exposure and depth of field. While the extensive topics involved in both of these are beyond the scope of this book, here is a quick review and information on how these relate to closeup photography.
In the world of closeups, the concept of a fast moving subject is very different from what we know about the bigger world. Cars move fast. Football players run fast. So do cheetahs and antelopes. And fast moving subjects require fast shutter speeds to stop their motion on film.
For miniature subjects, the challenge of working with moving subjects escalates. Exposures are slow because we are typically photographing subjects found in very dim and low light areas, and our camera can block the light as well. Due to the low light, we’re forced to shoot at very slow shutter speeds – 1/2 second to 4 seconds are common exposures. And then we have magnified the images so much, any movement is too much. The slightest breeze, even if unfelt, will cause a spider web to flutter and sway. On a cold morning, your body heat is enough to start air currents moving which can ruin your photo.
Depth of Field
Depth of field is simply the area of your picture, from front to back, that is sharply in focus. Large apertures like f2.8 and f4 have a very narrow depth of field, while small apertures like f22 and f32 have a relatively large depth of field.
At high magnifications, depth of field becomes precious and very hard to come by. At life-size magnification, depth of field at f2.8 is only about 1/32th of an inch (0.8mm) regardless of lens used. This means that if you placed a quarter on a dollar bill and focused on the face on the quarter, the bill would be out of focus in the distance. Not much room for error, is there?
One of the challenges in working with closeup subjects is battling long exposures that come with small apertures which bring greater depth of field. Working with flash (full or fill flash) and other lighting accessories help increase your shutter speed, but often you are working with shutter speeds from a 30th of a second to several seconds. A tripod is essential.
Flat on/Paralleling the Subject
It is important to position the camera to maximize the available depth of field. This can be accomplished by keeping your camera back parallel with the most important plane of your subject. We call this “paralleling the subject” or being “flat on”. Since closeup photography often involves working with a very narrow depth of field, the more your camera’s film plane (back of the camera) is parallel to the flattest part of the subject, the greater your chances everything will be in focus across your image.
In the case of a raindrop covered leaf, place the camera back parallel to the surface of the leaf, and get the whole subject sharp with a relatively large aperture of about f8. It will not always be obvious, however, what is the most important plane of your subject. For a daisy, should you shoot from the side to keep the entire stem in focus, losing detail in the front and back petals, or should you shoot more down on the flower to keep the petals sharp and let the stem go out of focus? These are creative choices.
Closeup photographs often require long exposures if natural light is being used. Depending on the model of your camera, these exposures may be longer than your camera allows you to set. For example, on the Nikon F4, manual mode only allows exposures up to 4 seconds long. We are frequently shooting at about 8 or 15 or even 30 seconds. So how do you get a long shutter speed if your camera won’t let you set it?
Start by getting a “proper’ exposure at whatever speed and aperture your camera will allow, then mentally adjust down step by step to the proper exposure at the aperture you desire. For instance, if 4 seconds at f5.6 is correct, and your goal is f11, that is a 2 stop difference, so count up in time and down in aperture. For example, f5.6 at 4 seconds to f8 at 8 seconds, to f11 at 15 seconds.
Stopwatch and bulb setting
Most cameras have a bulb or B setting which holds the shutter open for as long as your finger is on the shutter button or cable release. To cut vibrations, we recommend the cable release. The best method to record long exposures is to have a watch with a second hand or a stopwatch, set the camera on B, measure off the proper exposure, and allow the shutter to close. If you don’t have a watch with a second hand, you can count the seconds yourself, so long as your timing is pretty close. Even if your counting is off by a full second in a 15 second exposure, that is still only a fraction of a stop and will not be noticeable. We’ve used this method with excellent results.
An accessory that may be available for your camera system is a data back. Adding this to your camera can be expensive, depending on the kind and the camera. A data back replaces the film back of your camera body and has a small computer built in. It will allow you to program exposure times up to 99 hours and 99 minutes. It may have other features such as time and date stamp, and recording exposure data either within the frame or in the space between photos on a roll of film. If you do lots of long exposures, a data back might be valuable.
The equipment is probably more important in closeups than in any other area of photography. So what kinds of things are important to look for in cameras and lenses and tripods and such? What follows is based on our experience.
Probably the most important camera feature for the serious photographer is the ability to take complete control of the creative process. To deliberately make every choice and have the camera respond is essential. Look for a camera which will let you turn off the program modes and manually set the aperture, shutter speed, and focus when needed. There is nothing wrong with using the advanced features when they make sense, but nothing is more frustrating than having a camera play stubborn and refuse to let you make the calls.
Camera manufacturers have designed most camera bodies with less than a 100% viewfinder – a common coverage is about 92%. When you look through the viewfinder, you only see 92% of what will actually show up in your slide or negative. You carefully compose to eliminate that piece of sky from the corner of the picture, only to have it show up when your film comes back. And you swear that you looked around the entire frame before firing the shutter.
Why would a camera be designed like that? The main reason seems to be cost. It is technically difficult, and therefore expensive, to make a pentaprism which will show 100% of the image. And the resulting viewfinder image would be smaller and harder to see. The cameras which have 100% viewfinders are the professional models like the Nikon F5, F4, Canon EOS 1 series. These cameras also have what is called a “high-eye point” viewfinder, which allows a larger viewfinder image. In a very price-competitive market, few cameras have these features.
The other reason, the manufacturers tell us, is that automatic print machines crop our pictures some when they print them. And slide mounts cover a part of the image. So the 92%, or whatever percentage your model has, is the manufacturer’s approximation so that what you get back from the photo-finisher matches what you saw when you took the picture.
Unfortunately, we find that the approximation is not very accurate for us, and we have to zoom out slightly to check the edges for intruders before exposing our film. We recommend that if you can afford them, 100% viewfinders make tight compositions 100% easier.
When shopping for a camera body, look for a socket for attaching a cable release. Cable releases are important any time you are working with large lenses or high magnification photography. The slightest vibration is multiplied by the magnification of the lens, and your finger on the shutter button might be enough to cause an unsharp image.
A cable release connects to your camera, and allows you to trip the shutter without touching the camera body. Vibrations are reduced and sharper photos result.
Lens caps and cable releases are frequently lost out in the field. Painting them with bright colored nail polish or putting bright colored tape on them helps locate them among the leaves and clutter on the ground.Another solution is to use the self timer button on your camera. By setting the camera for a delayed exposure from the time the button was pushed, the vibrations can dampen out before the picture is made. Some less expensive cameras can’t be used with a cable release, and sometimes you just don’t have one with you (maybe it broke). This is another option. The disadvantage is that you might have to time your exposure between gusts of wind. It may be absolutely calm when you fire the camera, but 10 seconds later the breeze has picked up.
As just mentioned, vibrations can ruin a picture. Using a tripod and cable release will solve most of your camera vibration problems, but there is another potential problem caused by the movement of the reflex mirror. As that mirror snaps out of the way to allow the light to pass through the shutter and on to the film, small vibrations are transmitted throughout the camera body, causing unsharp pictures. The worst shutter speeds are between 1/4 second and 1/15 second. The problem shows up with lenses longer than 200mm and with high magnifications.
The solution is to place your camera on a firm tripod, compose and focus. Then, move the lever which locks the mirror up and out of the way (the viewfinder will go dark). Using your cable release, take the picture. Return the mirror so you can compose the next photo.
Many cameras do not have a mirror lockup button, particularly the newer ones, as the camera manufacturers think (probably correctly) that most people don’t know how or why to use them. Some cameras combine the mirror lockup function with the self timer. On the older Nikon FE2, the mirror locks up when the self timer is activated. Up to 10 seconds later, the shutter fires. On Canon EOS models, a custom function allows you to lock up the mirror with the self timer function, and 2 seconds later, the shutter fires. These may be acceptable work-arounds, but the best solution is to have a dedicated mirror lockup button/function.
Depth of field preview
This is another feature which does not exist on many newer cameras. The depth of field preview button closes the lens aperture to the selected fstop so that you can preview the depth of field before taking the photo. For those who don’t recognize the name, this is the button that makes everything in the viewfinder get darker. The depth of field preview button is useful to see if you have chosen an aperture which will hold the subject sharp, while controlling how out of focus the background is. By closing the aperture to the chosen f-stop, the image seen in the viewfinder gets darker, and it may be hard to really see what is there. With a little practice, however, you can see enough to help you in your aperture choice. The final photo will look normally bright, because you are compensating for a smaller aperture with a longer shutter speed.
Tripods are critical to the success of macro photography. When the photographer is challenged by low light, slow shutter speeds and magnified images, a tripod is the only solution. The tripod holds the camera still, allows it to be precisely positioned and maintain its position while the photographer has his or her hands free for all the critical adjustments that need to be made.
A good tripod must be sturdy and flexible. It should reach eye level and then be able to drop close to the ground. A good tripod for closeup work is usually not light. It needs to be strong enough to support your camera system and the weight of the lens while holding them steady. And it helps if it has some of the following accessories or flexibility.
Reversing Center Post
Some tripods like the professional series tripods from Bogen/Manfrotto, SLIK, Gitzo and others, feature a center post that will either unscrew or come out to be fitted upside down and back into the center post hole. This allows the camera to be used close to the ground. The problem is that the camera is then upside down. A tripod collar will swing the camera to an upright position, if the lens you are using allows for that. Otherwise, a mirror will help you find the buttons and read the dials.
Bogen makes an accessory called the Super Clamp. This handy device will grip anything up to about 2 inches in diameter and has a screw stud for attaching a tripod head or a flash or other device. The Super Clamp is easily attached low on a tripod leg for low subjects, and lets you get down without having to crawl under the tripod.
Tripod collar on lenses
Most big telephoto lenses and some of the smaller lenses have a tripod mount on the lens itself. This allows the attach point to be under the center of balance. The heavy lens does not stick out into space. They also incorporate what is called a tripod collar, allowing you to rotate the lens for a horizontal or vertical (or anywhere in between) without flopping the tripod head to its side. This keeps the weight over the tripod for better balance, but just as importantly, allows you to re-compose without readjusting your tripod. In closeups, a small movement of the tripod can result in a BIG change in composition.
Focusing rail and Arca-Swiss mounts
One of the challenges associated with closeup photography is when you run out of focus and have to move your camera and tripod back and forth by small increments to achieve your closest focus. To ease this process a focusing rail is a device which mounts between the tripod head and the camera. It allows you to precisely move the camera forward and backward, and sometimes sideways, without repositioning the tripod. It usually uses a rack and pinion adjustment system and locks in place at your chosen position. For extremely precise focusing, this is excellent, saving the pain of repositioning.
A different system is the tripod head standard developed by the Arca-Swiss company. The tripod head has a clamp which grips a dovetail mounting plate that is installed on every piece of equipment which will be attached to the tripod. The advantage is the speed with which the camera can be removed from the clamp, hence the term “quick-release’. The clamp can be tightened at any point along the dovetail plate, so like a focusing rail, the camera can be moved forward and backward without repositioning the tripod. You just don’t have the advantage of the rack and pinion adjustment. This system is used by most professional nature photographers for its ease and strength.
Buying a Tripod
When you purchase a tripod, buy the head separately to get specifically what you want. There are basically two kinds of tripod heads: pan-tilt and ball. The pan-tilt head moves horizontally and vertically. The ball head is a ball-in-socket design that allows free motion control in all directions. In general, pan-tilt is good for landscape photography, while a ball head is good for everything else. Experiment with the variety of tripod heads to determine which one will meet your needs.
Take a lesson from Lorelle when it comes to buying a tripod.
“My first tripod was good looking but cheap. A K-Mart special for USD$14.95. It broke three weeks later. I replaced it with a better model for USD$24.95. That lasted about a month. The third tripod, after much investigation, I bought on sale for $59.99 down from $89.99. It broke three months later on a trip. Thinking it a fluke, I replaced the same tripod for $89.99. When that broke four months later, I asked the pros what they were buying. Their tripods were not cheap but they were solid and they used the same tripod for YEARS not weeks. My purchase was finally a Bogen and it cost me $250.00. It’s been 10 years and I still have the same $250 tripod. After having already spent $189.88 for my four disasters, my lesson was an expensive one. And it isn’t unique. I’ve heard from many photographers who started out spending like I did. Don’t you make the same mistake. Buy smart and to last at the beginning.”
Whether with traditional lenses or macro lenses, there are a variety of accessories to add to your lenses which will increase the working distance and/or increase magnification.
We’ve put together a sample of pictures to show you what is possible with the variety of lenses and lens accessories available. This is to help you see the possibilities in the choices you have. Your results may differ so experiment and discover how close you can really get with what you have. Then save up to shop for some of these fun closeup accessories.
These images were taken from the same position in a studio setting in our living room. At each point we focused as close as we could with the lens and accessories we had on and then took the picture. We then changed to the next set of equipment and again focused as close as possible, showing you the closest magnification at each setting without moving from our original position.
70mm lens + 2x teleconverter
70mm + 2x + Extension Tube
70mm + 2x + Extension Tube + Closeup Diopter
Remember Photography 101
From the book of basic photography, here is a reminder about aperture.
“The bigger the hole, the smaller the number. The bigger the number, the smaller the hole.”
Add to this:
“The smaller the number, the smaller depth of field. The bigger the number, the bigger the depth of field.”
Understanding how your lens works and how it sees is a critical part of closeup photography. By understanding the technical aspects of the lens, and what its strengths and limitations are, you can choose the correct lens for the subject and situation.
A lens is labeled for its focal length (how long) and its maximum (widest) aperture. This label gives information to the user about how fast the lens will photograph in any given situation. Closeup photography concentrates on maximizing depth of field, therefore the smallest aperture becomes more important when choosing a macro lens. The largest maximum aperture a lens has tells how capable that lens will be in low light situations. The larger the maximum aperture (the smaller fstop number), the brighter the image in the viewfinder for focusing and the more light that can reach the film for low light photography. In macro photography, we rarely photograph with our lens aperture wide open, but the extra light for focusing is really helpful.
There are a variety of lens types for photographers to use: fixed, zoom, macro, and combinations of fixed and zoom lens with macro capabilities. Let’s examine the differences among them.
Fixed focal length lenses
Most true macro lenses are of fixed focal length, that is, they don’t zoom. Macro lenses are the most highly corrected lenses a manufacturer makes. In making a zoom, there are more optical tradeoffs in the design. For the absolute highest quality, a fixed macro lens is the best choice. They will usually focus to 1/2X or even to life-size.
There are many zoom lenses that claim to be “macro” lenses. These lenses usually only focus to about 1/4X reproduction ratio, which is not as close as the true macros. Zoom lenses frequently have variable apertures, which is ok if you shoot on program mode. For manual exposure, however, this means that at different focal lengths, you will have to readjust your shutter speed as you zoom. Zoom lenses have the advantage of allowing you to move closer or farther without actually moving your tripod or camera. Zooms are also usually slower (have smaller wide open apertures) than fixed lenses.
As already mentioned, macro lenses can be either fixed or zoom lenses, but the best quality is in the fixed lenses. These macro lenses are designed to be at their optical best at close focus. A traditional lens is optically best at medium distances. Most macro lenses will have maximum apertures of about f2.8 or f4, which is slower than traditional fixed focus lenses which often are f1.4 or f2.8.
Internal focusing lenses
The simplest way for a lens to focus closer is to physically move the entire lens farther away from the film plane. This is the method used in most middle range focal lengths. Another method was developed where certain groups of smaller elements inside the lens move relative to the lens case, and adjust the focus of the light reaching the film. This is called internal focusing (IF), and is much quicker and easier for the photographer to focus.
Other advantages of an IF lens include a front element which does not rotate, so use with a polarizer is simplified. There is no need to keep readjusting it when you focus nearer or farther. The other advantage is that you don’t lose light from extension when you focus, so IF lenses are brighter than other lenses when focused close. This is a plus for macro lenses, and the newer macro lenses are often IF lenses.
Close Focusing Distance
Almost every lens made will focus to infinity and can be used for scenics and people and just about anything else you would want to point it at. But at some point, it just won’t focus any closer. For the average 50mm lens, this might be about a foot and a half away. For a 200mm zoom, the close focus distance might be 4 feet, and Nikon’s 500mm f4 telephoto will focus no closer than about 15 feet.
Macro lenses are designed to photograph small things, close things. Nikon’s 55mm macro lens will focus to about 5 inches, and their 200mm manual focus macro will focus to about 20 inches, much closer than their traditional counterparts. If you photograph lots of small things, there are other options, but it might be worth your money to get a macro lens.
Which Lens Took This Picture?
Either lens could have produced this image. The difference is in the working distance.
A 55mm lens requires a much closer working distance to get the exact same image.
A 200mm lens requires a greater working distance to reproduce the same image.
For most subjects in nature, the distance your camera is from the subject won’t influence the subject. But photographing insects, butterflies and such, can be difficult because they are exceptionally attentive to your location and will respond accordingly – often by escaping the situation. Being able to get close and still maintain some distance becomes critical then. Add to this the challenge of low light, and the closer you are to the subject, the greater the chance of casting a shadow.
By using longer lenses, your distance from the subject and the camera increases. This is called the working distance. Working with live creatures, this distance is critical. Either way, it’s nice to have some room between the camera lens and the subject. Here are some examples of working distance based on the closest focusing distances of typical lenses.
Closest Focusing Distance
Teleconverters, extension tubes, and diopters are just some of the accessories available to combine with your lenses to increase your magnification and ability to focus closer to the subject. Some of these accessories cause light loss, which must be taken into consideration. Used alone or in combination, these lens accessories can help you get seriously close.
The most common lens accessory purchased is a teleconverter, also known as a doubler or multiplier. A teleconverter, or multiplier, is a group of glass elements in a small lens casing which can be inserted between the camera and the lens to magnify the image. They are available in 1.4X and 2X magnifications, and some manufacturers even offered a 3X. When a lens is used with a teleconverter, its focal length is multiplied by the magnification factor. A 100mm lens with a 1.4 or 2X teleconverter becomes 140mm or 200mm, for example. The advantage, besides magnification, is that they can be used for far off subjects and macro subjects equally well. And your lens will still focus to the same close range as before.
The disadvantage is that the maximum aperture is reduced by the magnification increase. A 1.4X teleconverter costs 1 stop of light, and a 2X costs 2 stops. So an f2.8 lens becomes f4 or f5.6 with a 1.4X or a 2X, respectively. Light loss makes focusing more difficult, and results in slower shutter speeds. There is also a slight loss of quality with the use of a teleconverter, but if a quality prime lens is used, the loss should be negligible.
We recommend using the same brand teleconverter as the lenses you use, since the manufacturer designs them to work well together. Use Canon with Canon, Tamron with Tamron, etc. And be aware that some lenses will not autofocus when a teleconverter is installed.
Any lens can be made to focus closer if moved physically farther from the film plane. An extension tube accomplishes this. It is a hollow tube which fits between the lens and camera. There is no glass inside, just a coupler on each end of the tube so the camera and lens can attach and communicate. The longer the tube, the closer your lens will focus, and longer lenses require more extension to gain the same magnification. Extension tubes can be stacked as necessary, but can only be used on close subjects, since your lens will no longer focus to infinity while the tube is installed.
It is easy to calculate the right amount of extension to add to get the reproduction ratio you desire. The reproduction ratio attained is equal to the ratio of the length of the extension tube to the focal length of the lens when the lens is focused at infinity:
Reproduction Ratio =
mm of extension
focal length of lens
For example, adding extension tubes to a 100mm lens:
(Half Life Size) 1/2X=
(Life Size) 1X=
A 200mm lens would require twice as much extension to reach the same magnification as a 100mm lens. And if you set the focus on your lens closer than infinity, the extension required would be even less.
Strange things happen when using extension tubes with zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are designed to stay in focus when they zoom from one focal length to another. With an extension tube installed, they no longer work so conveniently. You must constantly readjust the focus and focal length to compose the picture. If using zoom lenses, check out the information on diopters below.
Another device very similar to an extension tube is the bellows. The sides are made of a tough black folded fabric, much like an accordion or a jack-in-the-box toy. It is infinitely variable up to its maximum length, often 150 to 200 millimeters (6 to 8 inches). Bellows are mounted on a metal rack which has the length adjustments and locking mechanisms. Oftentimes, a focusing rail is built for allowing precision movement forward and backward.
While most 35mm camera manufacturers offer a bellows for closeup photography, the only articulating bellows for 35mm cameras that we know about is the Nikon PB4, which was discontinued in the late 80′s. This bellows has the added features of allowing the lens to be tilted and shifted relative to the camera body, giving the photographer the same control over depth of field and composition that the medium and large format cameras have. The new alternatives to bellows are called tilt/shift lenses, discussed below.
A diopter is a supplementary lens which looks like a filter and screws on the front of the prime lens to allow it to focus closer. Some diopters have a single piece of glass, but the two element diopters available from Nikon, Canon and Minolta are technically superior and correct many of the distortions found in the former.
The advantage of diopters is their small size and light weight which allows them to be shoved into any corner of a pocket or camera bag. If you do lots of hiking, a diopter will give you closeup capability without your having to carry extra lenses or tubes. Diopters, unlike extension tubes and teleconverters, don’t cost you any light. And because diopters screw on the front of a lens, you can mix and match brands. You don’t have to stick with your camera manufacturer’s diopters. The disadvantage is in their sharpness, which is not as good as with other methods. If used with a good prime lens, however, your results should be good. The flower to the right was photographed with a 300mm lens using a combination of two diopters fitted together – 5T and 6T Nikon Diopters.
The following table gives the working distance for any lens used with the diopter when the lens is set at infinity. The Nikon models come in two sizes and strengths. Canon offers four sizes, but only one strength. They are listed here with their relative working distances:
Filter Thread Size
52mm, 58mm, 72mm, 77mm
While more expensive, the larger sizes are the most versatile, since with stepping rings, they can be used on any lens with the same filter thread size or smaller. Of particular interest, the 72mm filter size will fit the 80-200mm f2.8 zooms and the 77mm will even fit the Canon 35-350 f3.5-5.6 zoom.
Reversing a lens
Probably one of the strangest and cheapest of macro tricks is to take a lens, 50mm or shorter, and mount it to your camera with the back side forward. This is called reverse mounting or reversing a lens. The shorter the focal length of the lens used, the more magnification results. A 50mm reversed will give about life-size reproduction, while a 20mm gives 3X or 4X.
You lose lots of light this way, and your camera no longer talks to your lens. You have to focus with the lens wide open and manually close the aperture before exposing the film, much like using a bellows. But the cost of a reversing ring is less than $10 and the results can be amazing. Be careful not to scratch the exposed rear element of the reversed lens! Things get really close.
Another odd trick is to photograph through two lenses at once. That is, choose a prime lens of 100mm to 200mm and reverse mount a smaller focal length lens on the front of the prime lens. The magnification obtained is approximately:
focal length of prime lens
focal length of reversed lens
So if you reverse mount a 50mm lens onto a 100mm prime lens, the magnification is approximately:
2X (Twice Life Size) =
Make sure the reversed lens is wide open, and be really careful of vignetting with this technique. Check through the lens combination while pointed at a white wall or bright area. If you have a depth of field preview button, close your prime lens to f11 or smaller, depress your depth of field preview button, and look for dark corners. If your lenses are vignetting, you will see those results through the viewfinder. Save yourself some trouble now and find a different combination.
This technique requires a filter thread macro coupler which allows you to screw the two lenses together by their threads. If your lenses have different size threads, you must also use stepping ring adapters. If you want to see if this will work for you before spending the $5 to $10, duct tape is really cheap.
In the image to the right, we used the 200mm lens with the 55mm lens reversed and stacked on the end to photograph salt crystals. You can see from the image that there is vignetting. The resulting magnification allowed up to be able to photograph the salt crystals at 10 times life-size.
A unique lens type is currently only available from Canon called a tilt/shift lens. Remember when we told you that the best way to get the maximum amount of depth of field was to align your camera back parallel with the most important plane of your subject? These lenses allow you to break that rule.
The Scheimpflug Principle says that if you tilt the front of a lens so that it is not parallel with the film plane, then the depth of field plane will be tilted in the same direction as the lens. In other words, it allows you to set up your camera without regard to the plane of your subject, and adjust your depth of field for maximum sharpness just before exposing the film. For more in-depth information on the Schleimpflug Principle, see the appendix.
This gives you an enormous amount of flexibility, since you can choose your camera position for convenience or for the background of your choice.
The shift feature allows you to shift the front of the lens left or right or up or down relative to the camera. This has the effect of moving the image in the view finder without having to move the camera. It also allows you to correct for wide angle distortion (the distortion that makes tall buildings lean into the photo) by letting you point the camera straight ahead, rather than up, and shifting the lens for a higher view.
Canon makes three versions of tilt/shift lenses: 24mm, 35mm, and 90mm. These lenses are a specialty item, but are very popular with the pros, and some non-Canon shooters have purchased a Canon EOS body just to use these lenses. They work quite well with teleconverters and extension tubes, and the 90mm makes a wonderful macro lens. Expect to pay around USD$1400 per lens.
Nikon has PC lenses, perspective control lenses, which shift but do not tilt, and are less useful that the Canon lenses for nature photographers.
All the techniques mentioned can be used in combination with each other. For example, you can reverse a lens and use extension tubes and teleconverters, all at the same time, with good results. We’ve photographed up to about 10X in this way (photographing a subject 2.4 by 3.6 millimeters or 1/8 by 3/16 inches). The problem is finding your subject at such high magnifications and seeing to focus. Use a bright focusing light and photograph with flash. With experimentation, you can explore a new dimension in the world of the ultra closeup nature.
Using Close up Lenses in Combination
200mm lens with two extension tubes
200mm lens with two extension tubes combined with a 1.4x teleconverter
Regardless of your photographic interest, light is essential. Photography literally means painting or writing with light. With closeup photography, we are often working so close and under such dimly lit situations, the challenge is not only in getting our subject in focus with the appropriate depth of field but also being able to see what we are photographing as well as to record it on film. Let’s look at some of the different ways to light your subject.
Natural light is the mostly unpredictable light that occurs outside. It can be both the easiest and the most difficult light to work with. Easy, free for the taking, and no expensive equipment required. No fussing with light stands and clamps, no cables, no power supplies. It can be the most difficult, because it seems that it is either not bright enough or is too harsh. In the winter, it only lasts about 8 or 9 hours as the sun stays mostly over the equator, and less hours farther north, sometimes lasting less than a couple of hours. It changes colors throughout the day, becoming golden just after rising and just before setting. As a photographer, you want predictable results. You want to know that whatever conditions occur, you can make excellent quality pictures. What can you do to get around less than perfect lighting?
Reflectors come in various shapes, sizes and colors. Our favorites are the 20 to 22 inch gold and silver circular reflectors that are commercially available which fold up to one third their open size. They are lightweight, easy to carry, and when you need them, they snap open to full size. Use them to bounce light into the dark shadows created by the sun on bright days, or to even out the high contrast that our eyes can see but our film can’t handle.
Simple reflectors can be made at home by stretching reflective fabric across an embroidery hoop, or by crinkling aluminum foil and gluing it partially spread onto a piece of cardboard. We found reflective automobile window shades that work fine. Even the palm of your hand or a white piece of paper can be used for small subjects. The reflector colors the light, so choose with care. Gold is perfect for adding a warm glow, but can easily overpower the subtle shades of some subjects.
When you last had your portrait made, you might have noticed the strobes the photographer used were diffused with a white covering to soften the light and eliminate hard shadows. It’s like bringing a bright overcast day inside. We use the same technique with our closeups by employing a diffusion cloth, nothing more than a thin sheet of white fabric, like rip-stop nylon, which allows light to pass. Place the cloth between the sun and the subject, and you can immediately see the results. The closer to the subject, the brighter the light transmitted. Too far away, and you’re just casting a shadow. There are commercially made diffusers, which fold up like the reflectors above.
Diffusion light can cast a cool, white tone to your subject. By adding an 81B Warming Filter you can bring back some of the color to your image.
Casting shadow on your subject offers an alternative to the direct sun. Lit with the bright sunlight, you may find a lot of hot spots and dark shadows within your subject’s background or foreground. By shading your subject and its surroundings you eliminate these distractions to simplify your image. Shade tends to be blue in color which results in cool images. By adding an 81B Warming Filter to the front of your lens this blue color is neutralized and warmed slightly, creating a pleasant light. Shade’s blue light also dramatically enhances blue colored subjects like flowers.
Comparing Direct Light with Diffused and Shadow
The flowers are lost in the distractions caused by the direct sunlight casting shadows and bright highlights.
Using a diffusion cloth, the bright highlights and shadows are gone and a nice even soft white light highlights the flowers.
Casting a shadow over the subject completely blocks the sun allowing the blue light of the sky to be visible, enhancing the colors of the flowers while also eliminating all distracting elements.
Even working with direct sunlight you can create some powerful effects. Film manufacturers explain to you in their packaging to photograph your subject with the sun behind you, casting front light onto your subject. But there is another choice that is dramatic and exciting. Put the sun behind your subject, but out of your picture, and you can capture the excitement of backlighting.
The sun illuminates the edges around your subject creating rim light. If your subject happens to be transparent, the sun will shine through, allowing you to see the veins in the flower or legs of a grasshopper. Experiment with this effect, metering on the subject itself and not the light and play around with underexposing your subject to create silhouettes, too. Silhouettes work best with subjects that offer familiar outlines such as the human body, a flower, or leaf.
With front lighting, this flower’s underside is delicate and soft. With dramatic backlighting we now see the pedals glowing and the hairs on the stem are lit. This grasshopper shows off its translucent arms and legs and the soft hairs around its body in the backlighting.
Using Backlight to Illuminate Your Subject
With front lighting, this flower’s underside is delicate and soft, and you can see the details in the fine hairs on the stem.
With dramatic backlighting, the same flower is completely different as the light glows behind the flower, highlighting the fine hairs on the underside and clearly defines the veins in the petals.
The grasshopper shows off its translucent arms and legs an the soft hairs around its body in the backlighting.
One of the most useful accessories is a good flash. To use a flash, simply attach it to your camera, set your shutter for any speed up to your camera’s maximum sync speed, and take the picture (See Appendix: Flashes and Sync Speeds). A TTL flash is highly recommended. TTL means that the flash is electrically connected to your camera’s meter, which measures the light coming Through-The-Lens, and sends a signal to turn off the flash when enough light has accumulated for a correct exposure. The flash can be mounted on the camera’s hot shoe or attached with a sync cord.
Exposure compensation works differently with TTL flash than with natural light. With natural light, we can add light or take it away by opening or closing our aperture or by slowing or increasing the shutter speed. With TTL flash, this doesn’t work as expected, because the flash simply puts out less or more light as necessary to give an exposure that the meter thinks is middle toned. So what can you do?
Using Flash to Stop Motion
This water covered leaf was not cooperating as the wind tossed it around. We used flash to stop the action and it also brought a sparkle to the water droplets.
You can trick your camera’s meter into over or under compensating by adjusting the exposure compensation control. This control is usually labeled with a plus or minus to let in more or less light and is calibrated in stops and fractions of stops. For light colored subjects, set the control in the plus direction; opposite for dark. Take the picture and the meter will relay the message to the flash. When done, RESET the compensation control so your next exposure will not be ruined.
Flash helps when working with moving subjects by allowing you to use faster shutter speeds. This works well not just with wildlife and insects, such as butterflies, but it also helps to defeat the motion of the wind on subjects like leaves and flowers.
Many times you are working so close to your subject that your lens gets in the way. If you get back pictures using your flash and you find a curved black shadow in the top section of your photograph, this is an example of your lens blocking part of your flash coverage. By using a flash extension cord, you can connect your flash to your camera’s hot shoe (flash connection on top of your camera) and hold the flash in your hand or placed on another tripod to direct the light onto your subject. Dependent upon the subject, try not to get too close as to overwhelm the subject with light, but keep an appropriate distance to illuminate the subject.
One of the telltale signs of flash photography is a black background. Flash intensity falls off rapidly the farther the light must travel. In fact, for you science nuts, it decreases proportionally with the square of the distance traveled. This is called the inverse square relationship. If your background is twice as far from the flash as your subject, the light reaching the background will be four times less intense, or two stops darker, than the light reaching your subject. The farther the background is, the less it is affected by the flash, and the darker it appears in the photo.
Intensity at background =
Intensity at subject X (Flash to subject distance)2
(Flash to background distance)2
Working in the Dark
There are times when you are so close to your subject in dimly lit situations you can’t even get enough light on the subject to focus. We often use flashlights or lamps when possible to illuminate the subject, turning them off before taking the picture. Some technically advanced flashes have a button to push which allows the flash to stay on for a few seconds, often giving you just enough light to focus on your subject.
If, however, you don’t want a dark background but still need flash, balance the natural light with the flash light and control the relative lighting levels very precisely. This is called balanced flash or fill flash, where the flash is used to fill in the shadows on your subject. Its use is not difficult.
Take a meter reading from the background and set the camera for a proper exposure (remember not to exceed the maximum flash sync speed). Now decide whether the background should be at normal brightness in the final photo, or perhaps a little darker to make the subject stand out. If you want the background at normal brightness, turn on your TTL flash and take the picture.
To make your background one stop darker than normal, manually change your aperture or shutter speed for one stop darker than you measured. This would create a one stop underexposure. Now, turn on your TTL flash, and take the picture. The difference is that your flash will put out enough light to give a proper exposure on your subject, regardless of aperture and shutter speed. But since the background is so much farther away, it is not much affected by the flash, and the natural light will only be bright enough for a one stop underexposure on the background.
You can make the flash intensity LESS than the natural light to simply fill in some of the shadows. Do this by manually setting a proper exposure, then setting your exposure compensation control for underexposure by the desired amount. If you don’t have an exposure compensation control, set your ISO control for a film speed the desired amount higher (this will cause the meter to think you need less light, underexposing the film). Turn on your TTL flash, and take the picture. The meter will control the flash output, and you have manually set the overall exposure. In each case, do not readjust your exposure without resetting the exposure compensator or the ISO to normal. And ALWAYS RESET them before moving to the next subject.
Is there an easier way? Nikon and Canon make both flashes which do these calculations for you. You just set the compensator on the flash and meter and expose like normal. The model numbers are Nikon SB26 and Canon 550EX. Discontinued models which do the same thing for Nikon are the SB24 and SB25.
This fiddlehead fern is illuminated with full direct flash. Notice the very black colored background characteristic of direct flash. Using fill flash, the camera balances the ambient natural light with the flash for a more “natural” appearance and background.
Fiddlehead of a fern photographed with natural light
Fiddlehead of a fern photographed with fill flash, which includes the ambient light in the background.
Why would you want to use more than one flash? Remember how bright sunlight casts very black shadows? A single flash does the same thing. By using two flashes, one brighter than the other by one to two stops, you can control the intensity of the shadows for a more natural look. The brighter light is the prime light source, and the second flash shines from a different direction to fill in the shadows.
The relative intensity of the two lights can be adjusted by positioning the prime flash closer to the subject than the secondary flash, and is discussed in some detail in the appendix titled: Inverse Square Law for Light. If the second flash is twice as far away as the prime flash, and both flashes are equal in power, the secondary flash will be four times, or two stops, less intense. Position it 1.4 times as far away for a one stop difference.
We’ve given you the basics of the equipment necessary for capturing close up photographs, let’s start working with subjects and putting this all into action.
The challenges facing a photographer working on closeups are numerous. Most specifically they include light, moving subjects, difficult positions and angles, camera shake, depth of field issues, and working distances.
As a macro subject is typically close to the ground and often in forests or generally low light situations, the photographer has to deal with two issues: getting light to the subject and getting enough light to focus. Focusing in low light is extremely challenging. Sometimes you just can’t see to focus. Bringing a flashlight, headlamp or some source of light to assist in focusing in extremely low light situations can help. Just remember to turn off the lamp before taking the picture. These light sources can create some interesting colorations on your film.
Photographing this small butterfly involved using a 200mm lens with two extension tubes and a 1.4x teleconverter. It was too dark for natural light so he used an extension cord with a flash to direct the light onto the butterfly.
Be willing to take your flash off your camera and attach a flash extension cord. When we stack on everything we have, teleconverters, multiple extension tubes, and more, we need to get past all of the lens to illuminate our subject. An off-camera flash extension cord or sync cord makes this easy.
Getting enough light to the subject to photograph is a challenge of compromises. Should you use a flash or fill flash and risk making the end result appear artificial? Or should you use natural light and suffer through long exposures? Would a reflector help or is it bright enough you need to diffuse the light? Or what if the subject is moving? Then do you wait for the breeze to die down long enough for the long exposure or get the flash out and give it a try? Depending upon the subject, all of the above are the correct answers.
Studying the behaviors and life of your subject is important in predicting movement, planning your photograph and working with various lighting situations. For example, butterflies are exceptionally heat sensitive. They cannot fly when their wings are damp, and require the ambient temperature to rise above about 56F (13C) degrees before they can fly. Working in the early mornings before the sun warms the plants and butterflies allows you to work with normally moving subjects sitting still. Coated with jewel-like dew drops, they can even look lovelier.
Working with moving subjects requires a knowledge of their natural history but it also requires some planning and patience. You can anticipate their course or movement by studying their behavior, but then they don’t always cooperate. Flash will help speed up the shutter speed and can help you work at a fast enough speed to not require the tripod, freeing your movement.
Some animals require sun, while others require shade, moisture, etc. Removing a frog or tide pool creature from its natural habitat and placing it, even a few centimeters away may subject the animal to extreme dryness and temperature change. Make sure they stay wet and return them to exactly where you found them. Tide pool creatures rarely move more than a few inches in their lifetime and just tossing them back in may place them either in harm’s way or away from their food source.
Working with a fairly cooperative Daddly Long Legs Spider in the wild, Brent found him waiting patiently hanging upside down on a mossy piece of wood. He set up his camera and turned the piece of wood over slowly and prepared to take a picture. The spider climbed away and went back under the piece of wood and stayed there. Brent turned it over again and the spider again returned to his spot hanging upside down. So Brent photographed the spider hanging upaide down and we just turned the picture upside down so it would look like the spider was upright. This is part of the magic of photography. And, when you are working with moving subjects, work with their movement not against.
Read everything you can and then just sit and observe. If you see that the animal, prefers to hang upside down, then photograph it upside down. You can always flip the slide over later. By learning and paying attention to the details, we can work with our subject to improve the quality of our images.
Working in a controlled situation, such as indoors, opens up a wide variety of possibilities. You can control the wind, lighting, background and foreground. Everything seems to be in your favor, though you are missing the magic of natural light. But if you were going to use a flash anyway, there isn’t much lost. Working in the studio is like building a house of legos – you can arrange and rearrange it however you see fit – you’re in charge.
As is highly recommended whether photographing trees and flowers or deer and birds, please keep in mind the safety of the plant or animal. Fragile wildflowers in the high alpine meadows, once trampled, are destroyed. An animal who is frightened and bolts may attract the unwanted attention of a predator or injure itself in escaping your unwanted attention. Please take care to protect the lives of all natural things. Remember we are guests in their home.
Interesting artificial backgrounds can be made from purchased fabric, spray painted plywood boards, or through the use of mosses, leaves and plants. Or maybe even use some driftwood or tree bark. The choices are infinite. Books on portrait photography offer extensive information on how to light people as well as other subjects and, if studio nature photography interests you, we highly recommend investing in sophisticated studio lighting including soft boxes and light bouncers.
Aquariums are great ways of working with a controlled situation indoors. They can be very inexpensive or not. If your locality has a public aquarium, you cost is limited to the price of admission. The challenge comes with working with the moving fish and bouncing flash off the glass (not desirable) and deep enough into the water to illuminate your subject. We highly recommend taking the flash off the camera and aiming it at a 45 degree angle to the glass to prevent glare. If the aquarium is in your house, you may want to buy pieces of glass and “trap’ your subject close to the front of the aquarium while you are working with it.
Using a painted plywood board behind our minature aqaurium, we were able to control the conditions for photographing small freshwater shrimp.
Using front light with a flash, we see the shrimp as they typically appear.
Using backlight created with flash, we capture the same shrimp and they look completely different, their translucent bodies glowing as they move in the water.
Studio/Field Tips and Tricks
Our passion for nature photography and closeup photography seems to know no limits. As we explore the natural world, we face a wide range of challenges and seem to come up with a surprising list of ways to overcome those challenges. We’d like to share some of those tips and tricks with you here.
Out in the field you will often find us crawling around on our hands and knees or spread out on our stomachs. We will lay on our backs and photograph under subjects and twist our bodies around into all kinds of positions to get the image we want. Based upon our field experiences, we have a few tips for you.
Insect Proof Yourself
There are a variety of mosquito and tick repellents available from chemical lotions to electronic devices. Whichever you prefer, use it. And plenty of it. Reapply the lotion per instructions during the day as perspiration wears it down. If you carry electronic devices, make sure you have extra batteries and you check it from time to time to make sure it is working. A mosquito bite isn’t usually deadly, but it is annoying and distracting. A tick bite can bring all sorts of infections, some lasting years if not a lifetime. Some spider bites can also result in serious injury, so take care at all times. And watch for snakes and other deadly creatures as you crawl around on the ground.
We carry several different kinds of pads and protection for crawling around on the ground. The simplest is a large plastic garbage bag to keep the moisture and ground liter off of us. We also carry kneeling pads found at many hardware and gardening stores which consist of a foam pad in a rectangle, large enough for your behind or knees. Camping stores carry inexpensive camping pads for putting under your sleeping bags. These are excellent whole to lay down on or cut up into smaller sizes for sitting or kneeling. We also have knee pads similar to those used by skateboarders with tough plastic knee protection for crawling over tide pool areas sharp with barnacles. Padded gloves help to protect the hands when climbing over rocks and barnacles, too.
Don’t forget that you can get a sunburn even when it is cloudy, so protect yourself thoroughly with sun lotion, especially the backs of your arms and legs as well as the back of your neck and ears. If you host a bald spot, cover that with a hat and/or sun lotion, too. A hat is good protection from the sun, and it will help block the sunlight coming in through the back of your viewfinder which may influence your meter. If you are sun sensitive, wear long pants and long shirt sleeves to really help protect yourself. And always carry extra water!
A water drop becomes nature’s lens as it captures the world behind it and compresses it into the circle of the drop. Working with water droplets in the field are wonderful as they can be found as condensation on spider webs or collections on leaves and flowers after the rain.
Condensation is best found early in the morning as it forms from the cooler air meeting the warmer land. And just after a rainfall is prime time for water drops on everything. As soon as the sun arrives, the warmer air stirs up the wind and begins to dry up the water, so work quickly, but take care to not bump your subject and knock the droplets off.
As with any closeup subject, keep the back of the camera parallel to the subject and use the maximum depth of field to capture the full depth of the water droplet on the subject. A flash can add sparkle to the water droplets when used as direct or fill flash. Some subjects, like spider webs covered with water droplets, totally lose their background to the flash fall-off, become black behind the sparkly beads of water. Whether you use natural light or flash, both create different images so the choice is up to you.
You can also easily create your own water drop projects in your living room studio. It makes it easy to experiment with the natural lens technique, trying a wide range of subjects to place within the water drop. We played around with a flower in some water drops placed on the stem of a similar flower. We set the brightly colored flower behind the water covered step and set up our reflector to cast some soft golden light onto the subject coming in from the window. We moved the flower backwards and forwards until we got the effect we wanted which was the flower in the water drops and the flower behind it just enough out of focus to be visible but still blurred.
Brent decided to try other techniques and sprayed the screen door with water, creating a variety of water drop shapes within the small squares of the screen. Putting the same flower behind the screen, he moved the flower around and experimented with natural light and flash to light the screen. The natural light allowed the screen to fall off into almost silhouette, highlighting the water drops filled with flowers in every one, which is our favorite. You judge for yourself and experiment right in your own living room. All it takes is a flower (or other subject), light, and time.
Water droplets sprayed onto a window screen with a flower behind it, photographed using natural light.
Water droplets on window screen photographed using fill flash to put a bit of sparkle in the water drops.
One of the most fragile things found in nature, spider webs come in all shapes and sizes created by a wide range of the multi-legged creatures. Early in the morning you may find the webs covered with sparkling dew drops. Work quickly but carefully to photograph the webs as once the sun comes up, the air currents will shake and dry the condensation.
If possible, use a long lens to get photographically close to your subject, keeping a good-sized working distance between you and your subject. The webs are so delicate that the heat from your body can cause slight wind currents which can vibrate or shake the web, and also scare away the spider if that is your main subject.
As the sun comes up over the horizon and catches the web, you can use the shallow depth of field to blur parts of the web or condensation drops which can create rainbow effects in your photograph. A depth of field preview helps you determine the best aperture and depth of field for working with the spider webs, too.
Sheet spider web in scrub bushes.
Dew covered sheet web photographed using natural light.
Dew covered sheet web photographed with flash.
Trees are subjects we never tire of. Their bark is a haven for all kinds of fun creatures to investigate. The bark itself makes for a collage of patterns and textures. The branches and leaves and cones offer a wide range of patterns, shapes, and textures, too.
Take care when working with tree bark to keep the subject as parallel to the camera back as possible to maximize your depth of field. As trees are curved in nature, this can offer some challenges. A reflector can add light to your entire image or bounce light in from the side to add more to the shadows on the reverse side for depth, or to illuminate into the shadows of the textured bark. Experiment with light from a reflector in gold and silver to see which works best. Gold tends to be best with warmer colored bark while the silver or white reflector does well with gray colored bark.
The heat of the day usually sends creatures, even insects, into hiding, so plan on exploring the tree’s wildlife early in the morning or late in the afternoon as the air cools and they become more active.
Tree bark offers wonderful opportunities for textures and patterns. Lichen often decorates tree bark with texture and depth. Tree bark can resemble puzzle pieces and abstract art.
The magic of the closeup world is not just the technical expertise it takes to create dramatic macro photography, but also the artistry used to capture the magic.
Depth Of Field Creativity
Depth of field is the amount the image is in focus from back to front. It is controlled by the aperture of the camera. The smaller the aperture (f22, f32 or greater) the deeper the depth of field. The closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field. Landscape photography measures depth of field in miles or kilometers. Closeup photography measures depth of field in millimeters.
Measuring Depth of Field in Millimeters
Aperture of f2.8
Aperture of f32
To show you the difference, we have photographed a US quarter against a US dollar bill at 1:1 magnification or life size. At an aperture of f2.8, focused on the quarter, only the front of the quarter is in focus and the dollar bill behind it is out of focus. At this aperture, our depth of field is literally the thickness of the coin, bare millimeters. When we close down our aperture to the smallest opening, in this case to f32, the collar bill is now in focus. At extreme closeness, our depth of field is barely the depth of the coin.
Understanding how depth of field works is very important for closeup photography. Almost all point-and-shoot cameras do not give you information or the option to adjust your depth of field, so every picture is taken at approximately the widest aperture available, thus the narrowest depth of field. As most point-and-shoot cameras are hand held, a fast shutter speed is essential to prevent camera shake. Some point-and-shoot cameras will not even allow you to take a picture if there isn’t enough light or the focus is off or not found. You must experiment to discover the limitations of your point-and-shoot camera.
Depth of field now becomes part of the compositional elements as you choose what to put into focus and what not to. The out of focus elements can become just as important to the image as the part that are in focus. For example, let’s examine this series of three photographs of the same flower. Moving through the flower from front to back, adjusting only our focusing point as the depth of field is at maximum, look at how the picture and composition completely changes. Which one you like best is up to you, but the point is that you can choose where to focus to change the composition of the image.
Changing Only the Aperture for Changing the Composition
When the depth of field is in millimeters, so shallow that even a focusing shift can create a completely different image, you have what is called “selective focus”. This is where the focus point becomes the subject rather than the subject itself. This is not a series of pictures of a red flower, but much more – artwork.
When you increase your magnification, you enter a new world where what is in focus is the main focus, allowing everything else to fade off into blurs. This process of deciding what to have sharp in the image and what not to is called selective focus. Developed extensively by nature photographer, Mary Ellen Schultz, her amazing studies of the inside of flowers, where focus and depth of field is measured in millimeters if measurable at all, have become classic works of art as she took abstract art and impressionism to new heights. Here are some samples of our work which recall the magic of her work.
As you work with this technique, a depth of field preview is required to help you choose your focus point and determine exactly what is in focus as well as what isn’t. And at extreme closeup magnification, lighting becomes a problem. Use a flashlight or studio lamp to assist you in focusing and composing, then turn it off to capture the natural light, if possible, or use fill flash.
Expanding upon this notion of selective focus, you can also creative your own selective focus “blurs” to enhance your images. Especially when working with wildflowers, you are often challenged with difficult lighting situations as well as distracting foregrounds and backgrounds. By photographing with out-of-focus colorful flower pedals in the foreground, with your main subject in focus, you can create a watercolor wash of color in the foreground of your subject. If the neighboring flowers don’t cooperate, you can pick up some fallen or damaged flowers (we do not recommend picking wildflowers for this process) and hold them up in front of your lens to recreate the same quality. By understanding how your lens sees and working with the depth of field preview or by experimentation, move the flowers in your hand forwards and backward between the lens and the subject until you achieve your desired result.
Using Selective Focus to Change the Foreground
Brent holds up a damaged and fallen flower in front of his subject. Understanding his depth of field range, he moves it around until it blurs the distracting foreground, isolating the subject flower in the background.
With the tree blossoms as an out-of-focus background, they seem to echo the three blossoms in focus in the upper corner.
Focusing on the tree blossoms and using the green field beyond as a neutral, relaxing background, this photograph puts all the interest on the blossoms.
Using the out-of-focus flowers in the foreground, the distractions around this baby blue eyes are gone, simplifying the image.
The distinctive pattern on the wing of the owl butterfly catches the eye of the predator away from the real eye of the butterfly, a good defensive technique.
Our living room aquarium allowed us to photograph a mother convict cichlid protecting her eggs, positioned against the front of the glass.
A cooperative inch worm posed for us in the Olympic National Park of Washington state, allowing us to spend hours photographing it.
Not all closeups have to be extreme. This photograph of a dafodil stands out as the other flowers are just enough out of focus but present to represent a field of flowers just out of the picture, adding drama to the closeup.
Since the eye on the wing of the owl butterfly is one of its most important features, we move in close to photograph it, but not on a living butterfly that wouldn’t tollerate this proximity, but on the wing of a dead butterfly.
Bird feathers? It is a closeup of the wing of a dead butterfly. The similarity to a bird feather, even as small as this, is amazing and another example of the butterfly’s self protection.
Frost is a favorite subject whenever we find it, and these lupine were coated with a fine layer of frost crystals on Mt. Rainier, Washington. We used just a hint of gold reflector to bounce the low morning light onto the leaves before they melted.
We love looking down on the ground for good photographic material and the frost outlined and enhanced this leaf against its monochromotic background.
Sea creatures are wonderful closeup subjects, when you can get close enough. Barnacles, mussels and clams, like these gooseneck barnacles along the Pacific Northwest (US) coast, are the more cooperative of the nature subjects we photograph.
Almost hidden in the undergrowth, we spotted this newt among the mosses and lichens and used a reflector and fill flash to overcome the low light to photograph this charming fellow.
The spiral pattern in the end of a pine tree is fascinating as it slowly opens up the new growth into the pine needles we are accustomed to seeing. Brent propped this branch with a second tripod to keep it from blowing in the wind.
Blurring green leaves and another fallen poppy in the foreground, Brent was able to isolate this poppy blossom from the distractions.
Looking side of an orange poppy flower, shapes become textures and patterns rather than a photograph of a flower. We used closeup diopters to get inside the flower.
Frogs are being more and more endangered and they are a favorite subject of ours, when they cooperate. This frog isn’t much bigger than a US half dollar hiding in the damp moss.
Flowers are always favorite close up subjects and water drops on flowers make them more interesting. We fought the pouring rain and blowing wind among the Tulip Fields of the Skagit Valley, Washington, to photograph these wet tulips.
Look in, over, under, and around plants for delightful insects such as this yellow crab spider hiding in a flower like the stamen, waiting for prey to land.
Butterflies offer unique challenges for photography, especially closeup photography, because they move so fast. Photograph them when they are still cold and damp from the early morning and they will hold still for you.
We love foreign markets for their closeup possibilities and found these wonderful red peppers in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Frost alone can make for an interesting subject of pattern and texture. This particular kind of frost is called “hoar frost”, which is several days of unmelted frost building upon itself.
We used a reflector to bounce light into the low light forest floor for these tiny mushroom toad stools in the Olympic National Park, Washington.
Butterflies are fascinating to photograph, but don’t forget about what they are before they become butteflies. This is a butterfly crystalis, only a few hours before opening. Take care not to harm the crystalis as they can be fragile at this stage.
Brent photographed this caterpillar against the out-of-focus wildflowers in the background.
Trees are great subjects for closeups as they offer an entire world to explore within their textures. This is a piece of twisted driftwood well-lit with the sunset light on the beach.
Bugs and insects of all kinds are fasinating to watch and photograph as they explore nature looking for food, such as this beattle wandering through a flower. The pollen collects to the beattle and it transports it to another flower for fertilization.
Brent worked with this green and purple shorecrab for some time along the Oregon coast as it ducked in and out of its barnacled hole.
After the rain, look for water drops on everything and see what you can see within the water droplet, such as the view of the forest in this droplet off a huckleberry.
Using the blue flowers of the other lupine in the foreground, Brent was able to choose a depth of field to blur the foreground to highlight the lupine in the back.
The following is technical information you may need to know to expand your knowledge of closeup and macro photography. While this information isn’t critical to the success of your closeup nature photography images, it helps to know as much as possible about the techniques and mathematics that go into the why and the where for of how this all works. We look at flash and synch speeds, depth of field and the Inverse Square Law for Light, tilt/shift lenses and the Scheimpflug Principle, and determining reproduction ratios and magnification.
Flashes and Sync Speeds
Every camera that can accommodate a flash has a maximum shutter speed, or a maximum sync speed, that will work with the flash. Why can’t you go faster? Your shutter is actually made of two separate curtains, both traveling in the same direction. The first curtain opens to allow light to reach the film. After a delay controlled by the shutter speed, the second curtain moves to block the light and end the exposure. At some point, the shutter curtains cannot physically move fast enough, and the second curtain begins closing before the first has completely opened.
If you could look at the movement of the shutter curtains in slow motion at high shutter speeds, you would see a narrow slit that moves across the film to expose a complete frame. Different parts of the frame are exposed at slightly different times.
The fastest shutter speed that your camera is capable of using with the first curtain completely open before the second curtain begins to close is called the maximum shutter sync speed. On most older cameras, this speed will be marked in red on the shutter speed dial. On older cameras, the synch speed may be 1/60 or 1/80 of a second. Better and newer cameras have sync speeds of 1/200 to 1/250 of a second. Newer cameras will refuse to use a faster shutter speed, regardless of the settings. Your camera must time the flash output very precisely so that the flash fires while the entire frame is exposed. At any faster shutter speed, only a portion of the frame would receive the light from the flash, because of the slit effect just mentioned. The newest and best cameras use a sophisticated system that fires a rapid series of flashes that “paint” a portion of the image with each strobe. The speed is so high it appears to us to be a single flash, and this method allows the flash sync speeds of up to 1/4000 of a second.
Inverse Square Law for Light
The farther light travels, the more it spreads out. The more it spreads, the less its intensity. The inverse square law is a law of physics which describes the way light levels change as the distance traveled changes. For photographers, an understanding of how this works is important.
The inverse square law says that the light intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance traveled. As distance increases, the intensity decreases. That’s the “inverse” part. In equation form:
Light intensity at point A = (K)
Light intensity at source
(Distance from point A to source)2
We aren’t interested in the actual light intensity, however, because our cameras have meters that figure that out for us. What we want to know is how the light levels between two identical flashes will differ if we place them at various distances from our subject. So let’s modify the equation for a ratio of two distances and see what happens.
If we have two flashes, A and B, the ratio of intensity is:
Light intensity at point A
(K) * Intensity at source
(Distance from point A to source)2
Light intensity at point B
(K) * Intensity at source
(Distance from point B to source)2
(where (K) represents a scientific constant that we don’t need to worry about. It will disappear in a moment.)
Which reduces to a much simpler relation:
Light intensity at point A
(Distance from point B to source)2
Light intensity at point B
(Distance from point A to source)2
Let’s look at an example. If flash A is placed 1 foot from the subject (remember, we are photographing small subjects) and flash B is placed 2 feet away, the relative intensity is:
Light intensity at point A
Light intensity at point B
The light on our subject from flash A will be 4 times as bright as from flash B. That’s a two stop difference. If you want a one stop difference, flash A must be twice as bright as flash B. Working the equation, flash B must be 1.4 times as far from the subject as flash A. We could build a table to make things easier:
To use the table is simple. If you want a 1 stop difference between the two flashes, one flash must be 1.4 times as far away from the subject as the other. If one flash is 10 inches, the other must be 14 inches. In the same way, if you want a 3 stop difference, one flash must be 2.8 times as far away as the other. The table is easy to memorize, as it’s the same series of numbers as the f-stop series – probably imprinted right on your lens.
Tilt/Shift Lenses and the Scheimpflug Principle
When trying to compose a photograph, it sometimes seems impossible to get everything that is important to be in focus. Even with the aperture set at f 32, it is possible that something will be too close or too far away to be acceptably sharp. This problem gets worse with the high magnification of macro photography.
The Schleimpflug principle was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century by Jules Carpentier and Theodor Scheimpflug. It is useful if your subject lies essentially in a single plane that is not parallel with the film plane. A perfect example is a field of flowers that extends to the horizon. The ground is flat and the field of flowers is horizontal, while your film plane is vertical. The flowers near the camera and at the horizon will probably not be acceptably sharp. See the diagram below:
If we could tilt the plane of focus to lie along the tops of the flowers, then it would be possible to photograph the field of flowers with every blossom sharply focused, even with a wide open aperture. This is what the tilt/shift lenses do, and is the practical result of the Scheimpflug principle, which states that the subject plane, the lens plane, and the film plane all intersect at a common point. The front of the lens tilts (as much as plus or minus eight degrees with the Canon lenses), and this brings almost any subject plane in focus. See diagram:
For years, Canon has offered this kind of lens in three versions: 24mm, 45mm, and 90mm. Nikon, in the past, made a special “short-mount’ 100mm lens that worked with a bellows to achieve the same effect, but it was discontinued long ago. Now, Nikon offers two lenses similar to the Canon, a 28mm and an 85mm. The 85mm or 90mm are by far the most useful for macro photography, because their greater focal lengths give the greatest working distances. They allow the photographer to choose the camera position for convenience, and then tilt the lens to align the subject plane with the plane of focus of the lens. The Canon 90mm tilt/shift lens is very sharp, works well with teleconverters and extension tubes, and makes a very flexible tool for macro photography. We haven’t used the Nikon, although we expect it to be equally sharp. All of these are manual focus lenses, and are similar in features with one exception. The Nikon aperture is not automatic, and must be manually opened for focusing and stopped down during exposure. Quality is not cheap, and list prices are about $1900 US for either make. You can expect to pay around $1100 by mail order to purchase the Canons, or about $1200 to $1300 for the Nikons.
The basic rule for calculating reproduction ratio is that with the lens focused at infinity:
Reproduction Ratio = mm of Extension / Focal length
To show how this works, assume that you have a 50mm lens. In order to achieve a reproduction ratio of 1/2X life size, you need 25mm of extension, because 25mm of extension divided by 50mm of focal length equals 1/2X reproduction ratio.
If you want to achieve life-size magnification, or 1X, with the same lens, you need 50mm of extension. 50mm divided by 50mm equals 1X. This, again, is with the lens focused at infinity.
Lets take a more complicated example. The Nikon macro lens that we used for years was a 55mm lens that could focus to 1/2X magnification at its closest focusing distance. This means that the lens had built-in extension (notice that we’ve rearranged the equation algebraically) of:
mm of Extension
=(Rep. Ratio)(Focal length)
If we want to use this lens to achieve life-size magnification, how much extension do we have to add? We know that we need 55mm of extension to reach 1 to 1 (life-size, or 1X) with a 55mm lens. But the lens already has 27.5mm built-in. So we need to add another
(55mm – 27.5mm)=27.5mm of extension
How do you add extension? You use a device called an extension tube, which is little more than a hollow tube that mounts between the lens and the camera body. It pushes the lens away from the body, and allows the lens to focus closer. Nikon manufacturers an extension tube that is 27.5mm long, and it is called the PK-13.
With the PK-13 installed between the 55mm macro lens and the camera, and the focusing ring of the lens set at infinity, the reproduction ratio will be
=(0mm from lens + 27.5mm from tube)
/ 55mm focal length
If we then focus the lens to its closest focusing distance, we get
=(27.5mm from lens + 27.5mm from tube)
/ 55mm focal length
Any Nikon tube can be used on any Nikon lens to make it focus closer. Likewise, any Canon tube, or any Canon-compatible tube, can be used on any Canon lens to make it focus closer, and the same is true for any other brand of equipment. The entire secret is that when the lens is moved farther from the camera body, the lens will focus closer, and the reproduction ratio will increase.