Macro photography is the art of the close-up and the extreme close-up. With specialized gear and precise control of aperture, the small and mundane quickly become fascinating in their tiny complexity. We’ll explore how to take stunning closeups of all sorts of subjects using macro photography techniques below!
It’s all about the Aperture
We need to get technical for a moment because aperture is the foundation principle for macro photography. Aperture is one of the three foundations of the Exposure Triangle. Aperture is how wide open the hole in the camera lens is that lets in light. Confusingly, the larger the aperture number, the SMALLER the hole. The lens in the photo is set to a higher aperture number, like f/16 or more. If the hole were larger, it might be f/2.8 or less, depending on the maximum aperture of the lens. In macro photography, we will always be dealing with wide open apertures, which means settings of below f/4.0. An open aperture means the depth of field is greatly reduced. And depth of field is the amount of a scene that is in sharp focus.
Notice how the crab and a very fine strip of sand are in sharp focus. The beach in front of and behind the crab is all blurred. This is an example of a very narrow depth of field. If the entire scene were in focus, it would be said to have a very wide depth of field. Depth of field control is important as a creative principle, because this shallow depth of field makes the subject stand out even more from the background. Your attention is focused on the crab as if your eye were perceiving it naturally, to the exclusion of the rest of the scene.
The Right Macro Gear
Unfortunately macro photography can be very gear-intensive. To capture a photo like the spider above, an entire suite of equipment was needed. A tripod and remote shutter, to start with. A multiple flash unit, or perhaps a softbox full of diffused light plus a single flash were needed to achieve optimum exposure. A reversal ring is a thankfully cheap addition that a photographer with nearly any lens can use. Reversal rings allow your lens to be mounted backwards onto the camera body. The result is highly increased magnification at the cost of autofocus and aperture control. Prime lenses are a great choice to combine with a reversal ring. And lastly, you should also consider extension tubes. You may have noticed when taking a closeup that you can only get so close to your subject before the camera can no longer focus properly. Extension tubes create a larger gap between the back of the lens and the image sensor, which allows you to focus from even closer distances. The cheapest extension tubes block all electronic communication between your lens and camera, so no autofocus or aperture control. The more expensive ones allow for full lens control despite the extra distance. And all of this isn’t even taking into account dedicated macro lenses. These lenses have optics optimized for sharpness at the minimum focusing distance, whereas most lenses are the reverse. While all of these tools aren’t required, someone looking to become a dedicated macro photographer should strongly consider investing in their gear a bit more.
Focus Bracketing and Stacking
There’s a software technique to also keep in mind with macro photography. Two, actually, depending on both your camera and your computer software. If you open your user manual and look, there’s a fair chance your DSLR or Mirrorless camera has Focus Bracketing as an option. Focus bracketing allows you to take a preset series of photographs where the depth of field is altered between each picture. The result is a series of images with different focus areas. If you were using a tripod, and your subject was unmoving, the photos are otherwise identical. What you can then do is focus stack the images with the parts in focus you want. Most people will need focus stacking software like HeliconSoft. But more and more of the newer cameras on the market today come with focus stacking as a built-in feature. The camera will first focus bracket the scene. The photographer can then choose the focus points or images that are relevant. And the camera will then merge them into a single photograph. If you’re limited to focus bracketing, then you’ll have to take your collection of photographs, import them using your focus stacking software, and then stack them there. But for precision depth of field control, focus bracketing and stacking is an extremely effective way to create stunning macro photos.
There’s an incredible amount of diversity in macro photography. Photos can be set up using lots of gear for optimum detail capture, like the spider above. Or even lucky moments in the natural world with nature photography tips can make for beautiful photographs if you can get close enough. A final tip to keep in mind for lovers of tiny critters is to try going out in the early morning. The coolness slows the movements and reactions of cold blooded creatures, giving you a better chance of getting close without spooking them. So use your new knowledge of aperture to get up close and personal in the world of macro photography!