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Macro photography – A beginners guide to lenses and setup

First, what is macro photography? The term refers to extreme close ups or highly magnified shots of objects that allow us to see much more detail than the naked eye, or a regular lens can see. There are several different ways to achieve this effect, with varying levels of control, quality and cost. We’ll look at the options here listing some pros and cons.

For the purpose of continuity I will be using the Nikon system in my examples as it’s what I use and prefer. All the options listed are available to fit Canon and other manufacturers, with a few exceptions.

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Option 1: Dedicated Macro lenses

These are lenses specifically designed for macro use, if buying Nikkor lenses they will be called ‘Micro”. These lenses typically combine a short minimum focus distance with a long focal length, they will zoom right in on objects that are close. How close they can effectively fill the frame with an object is shown as a ratio on the lens. a 1:1 ratio means an image will be reproduced on your sensor at actual size. a 1:2 indicates a half size reproduction and so on. Using a dedicated lens means full integration with your camera. Auto focus and aperture control will function properly, as will TTL flash and all the other clever trickery. A good quality prime macro lens is undoubtedly the best option, with the downside being they are often very expensive and have limited use elsewhere. Nikon make some superb but costly lenses for dedicated macro use.

Option 2: Macro adapters/Magnifiers

These are magnifying lenses of varying strengths that screw onto the front of your existing lens to increase magnification at the same focal length. On the whole these are utterly rubbish and should be avoided at all costs. These can be found extremely cheaply all over ebay and are mass produced, low quality glass. Because they can often be combined to produce different reproduction ratios they can be a good way to determine whether macro is for you, and what lens to buy but if you’re after quality results you may be disappointed by these adapters. Every time you put another piece of glass in front of yur lens, you are lowering the quality of the image. The following options are not as convenient, but are a cheaper and better way to try macro on a budget.

Option 3: Extension tubes

We know that a lens collects an image and shrinks is down so it fits onto your camera sensor. It follows that as you move your lens further from the sensor the image covers more than the area of the sensor. Or, the sensor sees a smaller portion of the image. Extension tubes are available to fit directly onto your camera and provide a perfectly straight extension to move your lens further away, thus increasing magnification. The advantage of this is that your camera still remains sealed and aligned and no extra glass is in the way. If you start with a good lens, you can get great results with tubes. Extensions are available with or without CPU contacts. If you go for the CPU option, you will retain full control over auto focus, aperture and distance information. If you choose the cheaper non CPU models, everything will have to be done manually. Canon users must use CPU extension tubes as canon lenses do not have an aperture tab or ring.

Option 4: Reverse adapters

This is my personal favourite. A reverse adapter is designed to screw into the filter thread at the front of your lens and allow you to mount it backwards on your camera mount. Instead of taking a wide view and making it sensor sized, it does the opposite. Takes a tiny view and enlarges it dramatically. The advantage here is that you probably already own a lens that will work like this, with adapters costing under £5. There are restrictions to using a reverse adapter. You have to get very close to your subject to focus so it’s not ideal for wildlife and focus itself is achieved by moving the whole camera, so care is needed. Another drawback is that you must use a lens with a manual aperture ring, as the camera will have no control with the lens on backwards. I use a Nikkor 50mm 1.8D for reverse macro, the newer G models will only work wide open at f1.8. Giving you a very shallow depth of field. For Canon users, your 50mm 1.8 does not have an aperture ring, rather than spend hundreds on a dedicated macro lens, just buy a used nikon 50mm and a canon reverse adapter for high quality and control. Just a thought…

Once you have chosen your setup here’s some tips before you start.

  • If your using an extension tube or reverse adaper you will need to shoot in manual mode. A,S, and P modes will not function without a CPU lens attached.
  • Use a tripod if possible. Like long lenses, camera shake is a problem with extreme magnification. Use a tripod, or gorillapod if shooting static objects.
  • With a the camera so close you may find the flash is obscured, try lighting your subject with an off camera flash, or try holding a sheet of white paper above and behind your object to reflect your on camera flash.
  • Depth of field (the area that looks in focus) is extremely limited with short distances and large apertures. Until you get used to it, take lots of shots and make notes about where you thought the focus point was when you took the shot. You can compare these later on screen.

FX vs. DX

So is a full frame or a crop sensor camera better for macro? Each has it’s pros and cons.

FX cameras present a wider field of view so will magnify an image less than DX. However, because of this the apparent depth of field (area in focus) is smaller. If out of focus blur is your aim, FX is your friend. FX cameras often have much better ISO performance too, this will allow a much faster shutter speed if shooting in natural light.

DX is pretty much the opposite, ISO performance will not be as good, but if you are using flash, or don’t have to worry about light levels, a DX camera will allow you the closest view of your subject due to the cropped sensor.

As a side note, Pro line camera’s such as the D300 / D700 / D800 can function using full TTL and auto-ISO with reversed lenses making them great with changing conditions. Consumer level cameras will require manual adjustments for correct exposure.

I hope this has been helpful. Now go shoot some macro!