Photojojo’s Guide to Macrophotography

photomicrographs

Looking at photomicrography is like walking into a whole new dimension.

It knocks us out that there’s this whole invisible world present, yet utterly ignored, in every aspect of our lives. Plus there’s a whole branch of photography we never even thought of.

The bad news is: 1) most of us don’t have the specialized equipment to really get into photomicrography, and 2) it’s hard to pronounce.

The good news: we can learn to photograph very small things that are visible to the naked eye.

Macro photography is supposed to be for Serious Photographers, but anyone with a decent point-and-shoot can master it.

Come on along and we’ll let you in on the settings, lighting info, and technical gear you need to know about to get started.

Photojojo’s Guide to Macrophotography

Photo credits: Klaus Bolte, Michael Klymkowsky, Dr. Dennis D. Kunkel, and Dr. Heiti Paves.

Why Is Macro Photography Cool?

There’s something very satisfying about being able to see details that your naked eye couldn’t distinguish. Call it curiosity, call it science, call it plain old wonder if you like. It just makes you feel like you accomplished something great.

Inflated-sense-of-self-worth aside, macro photography is really handy to know. Use it to photograph food, or capture the beauty of nature, or record interesting textures like peeling paint or flaking rust. Or heck, use it to improve your pictures when you sell stuff on eBay and make a whole bunch of money.

Macro 101: How to Take Pictures of Tiny Things

raspberriesMacro photography sounds impressive, and it looks impressive, but pretty much anybody can do it. Here’s how:

  1. Use the macro setting (usually symbolized by “MF” or a pictogram of a flower) on your camera. This allows you to focus when you’re very close to your subject.
  2. Zoom in on your subject as far as your lens will allow.
  3. Get as close as you can to the subject while still able to focus.
  4. Hold your breath and take the picture. At such close range, every movement is magnified, and the act of breathing can actually jar your shot out of focus.

See? Told you it was simple!

Macro 102: How To Light Tiny Things

flowersPractice in bright sunlight until you get used to taking macro pictures.

Open shade or overcast days may call for a tripod. Zoomed-in lenses suck up a lot of light, and longer exposures increase your chances of blurred photos. That, plus the magnified movement that comes with close range, means a tripod will make your life a lot easier.

One thing you really don’t want to do is use a flash. At close range, a flash will wash out your picture and flatten out details like a steamroller. Use natural light, or use a tripod. If you really really want to use a flash, make your own macro ringflash from a styrofoam cup. You can also make your own macro studio.

Macro 201: Photographing Tinier Things

lockOnce you get a taste for macro photography, you’ll find you want more. More! MORE!!

The basic zoom method is great, but eventually you want to get closer and see even finer details. If you have an SLR, the cheapest way to get closer is a set of close-up filters.

A close-up filter (a.k.a. close-up lens, achromatic lens, or achromat) is essentially a magnifying glass with threads that you can screw onto your regular lens like a filter. They come in varying powers, usually 1x, 2x, 4x and 10x. Sets of close-up filters can generally be found for under $20.

The picture on the left of a 2-inch-long padlock was taken with a 90mm lens. The picture on the right was taken with a 10x close-up filter added to the same lens.

The great thing about close-up filters is that they’re super affordable, let you get in very close to your subject, and take up practically no room in your camera bag.

The less-than-great aspect of close-up filters is that they have an extremely shallow depth of field, so you need to use a very high aperture number (f16+) to compensate. The small aperture and miniscule depth of field mean that you’ll almost always need to use a tripod, even in full sun. Taking pictures of flowers on windy days is right out; they move too much to allow you to focus.

Macro 301: Photographing Even Tinier Things

DIY macro lensIf you have the money and want to invest in serious macro gear, buy a macro lens. Make sure it’s single focal-length, not a zoom; zoom lenses are more fragile and tend to be lower quality.

Canon, Nikon, Tamron, and Tokina all make good quality single focal-length macro lenses that range from $250 into the thousands.

Of course, if you’re on a budget, dropping even $250 on a lens isn’t likely. Especially if you have a point-and-shoot instead of an SLR. Never fear! If you can get your hands on some optics, you can make yourself a macro lens.

All you really need to make a lens is a piece of glass. We’ve found tutorials on making macro lenses out of a magnifying glass, an old pair of binoculars, a telescope, or even a pair of reading glasses. Do an internet search for “DIY macro lens” and you’ll be amazed at what’s out there.

One of the best things that we’ve tried is a reverse-mounted lens. The concept is simple: mount the lens backward on your camera and shoot through it the wrong way. Reversing any lens instantly turns it into a macro lens. Neat, right?

Micro Photography: Really Super Tiny Things

tiny bugIf you have an old microscope hanging around, or find one at a flea market, you can take pictures through it using your regular camera.

Set your camera to “macro” and aim it through the eyepiece of the microscope. Adjust your focus until the object under the microscope looks sharp. You may need to move the camera physically further away or closer to the eyepiece. When it’s in focus, take a picture!

Using this technique will give you a circular image, but you can always crop it after you’re done shooting. Before trying this out, check out this tutorial on microscope photography for more info and pictures of how to do it.

More Resources:

  • For a really smart rundown of macro photography, how to do it, and why it works, check out Philip Greenspun’s article on Photo.net.
  • If you get really good at shooting through a microscope, enter the Small World photomicrography competition before April 30, 2009.
  • Posted in Guides