The Ultimate P52 | Week 9 | Macro & Close-Up

It’s macro week! It is, as most of you know, one of my favorite subjects. It is definitely a challenging technique, but I find it very rewarding and peaceful. Macro work requires a fair amount of patience and steadiness. It also requires some specialized equipment, but if you do not own macro gear, don’t worry; you can use the techniques for close up work, which will just end up being a bit wider of a view point and not quite as detailed. 

First, let’s start with a definition of what macro actually is, other than magnifying your subject. I personally shoot a lot with the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 micro lens. It allows me to focus within 3.3” of my subject and at full zoom an image will have 1:1 magnification. What does this mean? A full frame sensor is 36mm x 24mm. When you take an image, it is projected through the lens onto the sensor. If you were to shoot a leaf that is 36mm long, then on the sensor, it would take up the entire width of the sensor when you are shooting at full magnification. But of course we view and print our photos at a much larger scale, so more details are seen in a finished image than we would notice on a 36mm subject with our own eyes. Anything less than 1:1 is not considered a true macro, but for our purposes, we aren’t going to be so precise. 

The following images were taken with the Nikon 105mm.

If you don’t currently own a macro lens but are interested in buying one in the future, B&H has a great guide with offerings from a variety of lensmakers. You will notice that some makers offer 2:1 ratios, which are double sized, and many offer 1:2 ratios, which are half sized. I have two Lensbaby lenses which are 1:2 that I use a lot, and they are more affordable than a traditional macro lens.

What if you only want to do macro occasionally, or you just can’t afford a $500+ lens? There are several other options, all of which are less than $100 and can get you started quickly with macro on a budget.

First up are extension tubes. Although you will not achieve a true 1:1 ratio, tubes work by reducing a lens’ focusing distance. Many people use a standard 50mm lens with extension tubes for an affordable close up option. Tubes range in price based on the manufacturer but I own a set from Meike that I purchased on Amazon for about $35 (I bought them several years ago, and expect that prices have probably gone up a bit since then). I use them with my 50mm and also with other lenses to increase magnification. There is no glass in them, so there is no reduction of lens quality, and they work basically as a spacer between your camera sensor and the glass of your lens. By moving the front element of your lens closer to your subject, you will be able to get more magnification. You might lose a stop or so of light using tubes, but I have never found them to be prohibitively light hungry. If you shop for extension tubes, take care to find a brand that is not only compatible with your camera mount and lenses but that also has electronic pass through so that your EXIF data is preserved and to ensure auto focus. For my Nikon bodies I use the Meike brand, but many people like Kenko. 

The next set of images were taken with a Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens plus a set of extension tubes.

This set used extension tubes with various Lensbaby lenses, most of which have a native 1:2 magnification.

The next budget option is front of lens filters. There are several varieties of these. I own a Raynox Snap-On Super Macro filter. It has an adjustable spring loaded mounting mechanism, similar to a lens cap, which allows you to attach it to lenses of differing sized diameters. On wider diameter lenses you might notice some vignetting as the glass of the filter is smaller than the glass of your lens and the case of the filter obscures the edges of your frame. Because you are putting an extra layer of glass in front of your lens, you will lose some light and you must also take care not to have dirt on the extra glass. Priced around $70, it costs similar to high end extension tubes, but offers a greater magnification as it is akin to mounting a magnifying glass to your lens.

Another option is screw on filters. I have a set for Lensbaby that work on their Optic Swap lenses. These screw on like a traditional filter, and work similarly to the Raynox, but because they screw on, you can stack several together for different magnification. When purchasing these, you must buy the same size as your lens diameter, the way you would for something like a neutral density or polarizing filter. One filter may not fit all your lenses, so be mindful of your desired lens choice and buy accordingly.

This set of images used some version of a front filter; some may have been used in conjuntion with extension tubes (I can tell you for any individual image if you would like to know – leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you).

The last option for getting a macro look is to use your phone, assuming you have an iPhone Pro 13 or 14 (perhaps some Android phones offer similar options). I upgraded my old iPhone 8+ to a 14 Pro Max last month, and I am quite impressed with the details that I am able to bring out from phone images. My first choice will always be a full camera setup, but realizing that a macro lens is out of many people’s budget, I would definitely recommend trying your phone if you have the capability. I have found that when using the macro mode on my phone I need to be much more careful about the background as I can get a lot more clutter, and the computational aspects don’t always clean up the background. Still, it is absolutely better than no macro option at all.

If you have no hardware options for your camera, and your phone is not capable of macro mode, then you can focus on getting in as close as you can with whatever lenses you currently own. Look at your lens lineup and choose the lens with the shortest minimum focusing distance. The closer you can get to your subject, the larger it will seem. The standard 50mm lens typically has a fairly short MFD, at around 18” (a typical 1:1 macro lens will focus between 2” and 12”, depending on focal length). But a 50mm lens is often used for food photography, and you can get some lovely detail shots with this length that would be perfect for this challenge. 

Alternatively, you can go to the other end and choose a very long lens. Shooting between 200-600mm will give you an incredible amount of lens compression due to the focal lengths, and if you keep your subject far from the background (as we talked about in week two) you can have the illusion of a close up image.

If all else fails, then be creative this week and work to get your subject as large as possible in your frame. This is a different mindset than the fill the frame challenge from last week, as you can definitely use negative space to your advantage here to set off your subject. 

Here are some considerations to think about when shooting macro: 

  • Macro work requires you to stop down considerably due to the very narrow depth of field at working so close to your subject. If you are using a narrow aperture, you will likely have to raise ISO and/or lower your shutter speed to hit your exposure. It is not uncommon for me to work on a tripod when doing macro work. This will allow me to use SSs much too low for handholding (1/20-1/30) and still maintain focus.
  • Set your lens to manual focus, and set focus to the minimum focus distance; lenses should be marked infinity at one end, and meter and/or foot distances to the opposite the end; use the end opposite infinity. 
  • Use live view if you have it, and zoom in to your intended focal point. If you have focus peaking, make sure to have that enabled; since I shoot a lot of flowers, I keep my peaking set to blue, which contrasts nicely against most pinks/reds/greens. I recently read a trick to set your camera to shoot in black and white (assuming you use raw) and then the focus peaking is even more noticeable, but I have not yet tried this; if you shoot raw, you can convert back to color in post.
  • When working on a tripod, I find it easier to set the camera and tripod near a table and then slowly slide the subject back and forth within the viewfinder/LCD to catch focus. This is much easier than trying to move the tripod.
  • If you are handholding (which I do when shooting outside because there is typically wind that is going to move my subject anyway), hold your breath and very gently rock back and forth in and out of your subject until you are happy with focus.

Your depth of field choices are up to you; I generally prefer a shallow depth of field for my style of work, but if you wish for more focus (and that is easier for beginners), don’t hesitate to use f/11 or f/16. Some people like to do focus stacking, which ensures full sharpness front to back of your subject, but that is beyond the scope of this week, and often requires focusing rails, which I have never used. I sometimes stack 1-2 images in Photoshop, but the overwhelming majority of my images are single frames.

This week I am including a behind the scenes video from my retired macro class. It is plucked out of a series of videos and I did not re-edit it for this project, so at the end you will hear me talk about using studio lighting in a separate video, and that video is not provided here. But do keep in mind that if you have and know how to use studio light, it’s a great option for this week to maximize your light source.

There is a lot of information this week, so please feel free to message me or leave a comment below with any questions about gear or technique and I will do my best to help you.

Follow along with my Project 52 in 2023

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