With the release of the new 150mm f/2.8 macro Dragonfly lens and Christmas right around the corner, we thought this might be a good time to offer some insights for creating the best possible macro images. Here’s a quick overview of some methods we recommend.
1. Choose the Right Focal Length
The variety of macro lenses available in today’s market is incredible. With the wide range of focal lengths now available with macro capabilities, it can be difficult to decide which one to choose.
Although shorter zooms are popular, there are 3 distinct limitations with this choice.
- Zoom lenses tend to be slightly less sharp than prime lenses of comparable quality and sharpness is imperative in macro photography.
- Longer focal lengths have inherently shallower depth of field, making it easier to isolate a subject with a wider aperture setting.
- Short focal lengths require working very close to macro subjects. This increases the possibility of disturbing live subjects or accidentally bumping something in the scene. Increasing the lens-to-subject distance can also allow more room to work with supplemental lighting.
Because of the reasons above, many photographers are opting for medium-range telephoto macro lenses, like the Irix 150mm Dragonfly. Another advantage is the ability to use the lens for other genres, like street photos and portraits. Personal preference has a lot to do with your choice of focal length, of course.
One of the most important factors in a macro photo is depth of field.
2. Choose Your Aperture Setting Carefully
One of the most important factors in a macro photo is depth of field. Too shallow and all of your subject won’t be in focus. Too deep and you’ll have sharp elements in the photo that distract from your subject. Shooting at macro magnification means that aperture adjustments and your point of focus can make or break a photo.
There’s no straightforward formula for the “correct” aperture setting, since the right depth of field depends on what you want to emphasize. For instance, you may want to highlight just the structure of the compound eye of an insect, or the whole insect. You may want to isolate just a drop of dew on the stamen of a flower, or the structure of the entire blossom. Determine what you want to show your audience, then select the aperture that produces the right DoF to accomplish that.
If your subject is still enough, you may even want to bracket your aperture setting to ensure you achieve just the right effect. After you’ve selected a focal point, take several shots at different aperture settings, then select the one that works best.
3. Bring Your own Background
Sometimes, it just isn’t possible to remove distractions in the background. A simple sheet of poster board, art paper or something similar can be slipped behind your subject to eliminate the problem without damaging the landscape.
This can be particularly useful when a contrasting color would enhance your subject. For instance, a dark blue or black background might add some “pop” to a close-up photo of white flowers.
Even a multi-colored background can add interest and if you’re close enough to your subject, you can use a wide aperture to create a nice bokeh effect.
…being able to supplement the available lighting, indoors or out will help ensure better quality photos.
4. Use Supplemental Lighting
You may have interpreted that heading to mean “use your flash,” and that’s one possibility. It’s far from the only way to add or modify the lighting in a macro shot, however.
Reflectors are a great way to control shadows in macro photos. Not only do they allow you to simply reflect ambient light, you can use different colors to warm, cool, or otherwise modify the light. Many inexpensive reflector kits even come with a diffuser that can be used to soften harsh light.
Portable LED lighting is a good option in many situations. Of course, one or more flash heads or a ring flash can be a good choice, too, especially when you want to freeze action like insects in flight.
The point is, being able to supplement the available lighting, indoors or out will help ensure better quality photos.
5. Experiment with Backlighting
While we’re on the subject of lighting, let’s talk about shooting into the sun. It’s not a favorite method for many photographers. It can add a whole new dimension for some macro subjects, however.
Insects and arachnids are often covered in tiny hairs that can really stand out when lit from behind. Many plants and fungi have minuscule cilia that can be enhanced the same way. How about the translucent glow that can be seen when the sun shines through a dragonfly’s wings?
You’ll need to adjust your exposure to avoid silhouetting – or capitalize on the opposite by deliberately exposing for the highlights and darkening the subject. With a little careful positioning , you can even catch some nice rim lighting.
6. Compose Your Images
The principles of visual composition apply to close-up and high-magnification images as much as any landscape or portrait.
Pay attention to how you frame your macro shots. Look at different camera angles. Think about ways to draw your viewer’s attention to your subjects, like the Rule of Thirds or sub-framing. Use background elements to convey a sense of perspective.
There are plenty of boring, documentary macro photos out there. Try to build unique images that tell a story, just as you would in any other genre.
7. Bring Your Tripod
It’s nice to have the freedom of shooting handheld macro photos. There are plenty of situations, though, that call for setting up the tripod.
The general rule of thumb for using a tripod is to use it whenever you can’t use a shutter speed that’s at least the reciprocal of your focal length. (1/150s or faster for 150mm, for example)
As we’ve already discussed, opening up your aperture isn’t necessarily the best way to ensure that fast shutter speed, since you might not have the depth of field you need. Increasing the ISO setting will increase noise, so there’s only so far you can go with that.
Don’t hesitate to drag out the tripod and remote release when the situation calls for it. Aside from stabilizing your shot, it can also save your knees and back when you need to get down close.
Note: Don’t forget to turn image stabilization OFF when you’re shooting on a tripod!
8. Focus Manually
One quirk that many photographers discover when practicing macrophotography is that autofocus systems can be problematic. This is often due somewhat to the shallow depth of field in many situations. The small size of the details in a shot can also be a problem. The AF system either focuses on the wrong area or “hunts” for focus without ever resolving it.
There are many reasons that you might miss your intended focus in a macro shot, including your own body movement. Because focusing on the right area is important to the impact of a macro photo, many professionals prefer to focus manually.
This is far from a complete list of tips for macro photography and it certainly isn’t intended to be a tutorial. Macro photography is a very specialized genre and experts in the genre use many techniques we haven’t even touched on here. Focus stacking, for instance, is a great way to extend the sharpness in a macro photo.
Don’t despair; we’ll be bringing you many more articles on macro techniques. Stay tuned! With a quality lens like our 150mm Dragonfly, you’ll be achieving images you never thought possible, in no time at all!