Tips for Filmmakers Working in the Extreme Close-up End of Image Crafting
Filmmakers love a close-up. However, when you start talking about really super close-ups, not just a head filling the frame (the classic cinema close-up) but an eyeball filling the frame, we leave the “normal” cinematographic world behind and start dealing specifically with the universe of macro photography.
Macro work is whenever you start approaching until the size of the object out there in the world matches up with the size of the object on the sensor. So, if you are shooting a dime, and the image that the lens projects on the sensor is roughly the same size as that dime, which means it’ll be massive on the big screen, that is macro work.
For a long time Macro required the rental of expensive specialized lenses, but in recent years the launch of lenses like the Irix Cine 150mm Macro have offered filmmakers high quality imagery and cinematographic features like repeatable focus in an affordable package. Irix Cine lenses are available in PL, EF, Sony E, MFT, RF, Z and L-mount.
Most filmmakers don’t run into a lot of macro work in their day to day life on set, which is a shame, since macro photography opens up a whole world of creative expression for motion picture artists. Famously and extensively used in films like “Requiem for a dream” and growing in popularity for documentary work, macro shots can help paint a fuller picture of a world you are creating, and can help especially in building transition and introduction sequences. Nothing quite paints a picture of a specific time and place like extreme details that are so close, you feel like you can smell them.
However, Macro work comes with a few tricks and items to pay attention to that will make your exploration of macro work more successful in the future.
1. Macro requires exposure compensation
As you focus closer and closer to the lens, there is a noticeable darkening in the image. This is a natural part of all macro work and not something to be worried about, but it is something to plan for. For instance, many filmmakers tend to light their entire scene to a certain level (let’s say a T2), and shoot the whole scene at that T stop. If you throw on a macro lens, your goal will be to get imagery that matches in exposure, but that is tricky in two ways.
First, the lens might not open as wide as the rest of the lenses in your lineup, and might not even be able to open to the T2 from our example. This slower maximum aperture shows up a lot in macro work; some macro lenses only open to a T16, for instance. This is also just typical of lenses outside the “normal” range (roughly 20-60), which tend to not open as wide as the main-line lenses. As there are many super wide macro and long macro lenses, you are often working stopped further down that you migh have planned.
It gets more complicated when you rack focus really close to the front element of the lens as the scene will look even darker as you lose exposure. To compensate for this in the old film days we had printed charts and graphs telling us how much to adjust our aperture, but with digital imaging you should be able to see your image and use false color and other digital exposure tools to help nail your exposure despite the macro factor.
The key here is being prepared. Much like on a slo-motion shoot where you might use more light volume because of the needs of slo-mo, macro requires more light. More than once I’ve shot a scene, then put on the macro lens for a close-up and pulled the wire or diffusion off a light unit, or dimmed it up if it was dimmed down, to get more stop out of the lights and get good exposure for the macro.
You can ramp up the ISO on your camera, of course, but you will likely run into more noise, and the goal of a good macro shot is to intercut seamlessly with the rest of the scene. Depending on how much movement is involved, it’s often better to change the shutter angle, going to 270° for a little more light on the sensor, rather than bump the ISO, though a gentle ISO bump can often be solved with some light noise correction in post production.
2. Don’t be afraid of a ringlight
One important light to get comfortable with for macro is the ringlight. This is a light that loops around your lens, traditionally an LED unit, that shoots out light straight from the direction of your camera. This is a useful tool for macro since you are often blocking other light with the camera and lens.
Think about it like this; light is always bouncing all around your scene, filling in your object even if you don’t have a specific “fill” light set. If you want to have the lighting on your macro’s match that of the rest of your scene, you need to add a bit of fill to what you are shooting to make up for what you are blocking with your lens, camera body, and often your operator.
A ring light, that you can dim to set precise exposure, can provide a bit of extra fill that would otherwise be missing and liven up your front lit shots.
3. Punch a whole in showcard if you don’t have a powered unit
If you can’t get your hands on a ringlight, cutting a hole in showcard and shooting through it can provide some bounce fill from the other lights in your scene.
Most people have the initial instinct of just cutting it large enough to stick the lens through, and that can indeed be very useful. However, don’t be afraid to test cutting the hole smaller than the barrel of the lens. This isn’t going to work for some setups, but depending on where your focus lands you might get an even smaller hole to shoot through that puts through more bounce on your object and keeps it illuminated.
You can even shine a light on the card to bounce even more light on your subject, but you’ll need to be careful to angle the light so you don’t get unwanted lens flares, just a nice fill on whatever it is you are shooting. The magnetic lens hood that comes with the Irix Cine 150mm helps protect from that flaring and can also work as a great mounting place to attach bounce cards.
4. Shoot more than you think you need
One habit that is good to get into on docs, but still useful on narrative work, is “the macro game.” Every editor likes to have some editor putty, some things to put together between other shots to help create a little more cohesion, to cut together two disparate scenes or takes, or just in general, to play. The goal of the “macro game” is to provide as much of that as possible.
Once you put the Macro lens on the camera, look around your scene for as many possible macro shot options as you can get. As always with cutaways, make each shot an individual clip so the editor has an easier time processing it, but move methodically through your space and try to catch something really unique to that world that can help the post team tell the story. A specific vintage carpet, the fraying of a fabric on a couch, the ash of a cigarette are all details that can help make a transition smoother in the edit when you need it. Get both a shot with all the accessories, and a shot with a detail on just one, and give the post team flexibility. Run through the full range of focus across the object for a bit of sizzle.
5. Vary the background for editorial options
Macro work opens up a whole area of freedom that you might lack on other lower budget jobs. For instance, on a low budget project you can rarely repair the entire wall in a location, or just knock it out entirely. But with macro, we are talking about a smaller area to control, which gives you more flexibility.
For instance, when going in for a macro detail shot, it’s possible you are going to run into a background that just isn’t quite what you are looking for; maybe it’s too dark, creating a moodier feeling than you want.
Macro gives you the freedom to stick a white board, a piece of construction paper, or a light fixture back there and since it will be wildly out of focus all you need to do is get the color or texture you want and you are gold.
You could even shoot it both ways, natural and affected, so for instance the editor could cut to the dark background for a dark moment, or the light background for a light moment, to help the audience navgiate the shifting mood of a sequence.
6. Focus on X and Y Axis Moves
Every filmmaker loves to move the camera, and with a good slider there is no reason you can’t do that with a macro shot. One key here is that it tends to be more dramatic with macro work to focus on X and Y axis moves, meaning pans and tilts, and side to side or up and down motion. Because of the nature of extreme close-up work, these kind of moves create the most dramatic change in the image and give you the best bang for your buck.
7. For Z axis moves Break up your frame.
If you do want to do a z-axis move with your macro lens, meaning a push-in or a pull-out, it’s good to think about how to break up the edges of the frame to make it more dramatic. One trick is to station another object near the edge of frame to dramatically break the edge of frame as you push through it.
However, remember that the depth of field in macro is tiny, which can make pulling focus especially difficult when moving through a macro shot. With the right gear it is doable, but you should be careful to make sure you have that gear if the creative demands those kinds of shots. I wouldn’t write a creative treatment that required a bunch of macro-shot push-ins unless I was sure we had the right follow focus and monitoring gear to give ourselves a fighting chance of getting the shot in focus. That of course includes a repeatable focus Macro lens like the Cine 150mm from Irix that allows for moving the camera predictably and holding focus, something especially tricky with the tiny depth of field available in the macro space.
That is a quick look at some tips for being sure you are ready for integrating more macro photography into your motion picture work. Hopefully the next time you bring along a macro for just a single specially shot you’ll have a whole host of other shots you’ll be able to grab by spending a little more time thinking about working in extreme close-up.