When it comes to which lens to use for macro photography, the answer is that most lenses nowadays are capable of at least close-up photography. The difference is that some lenses have a greater magnification ratio than others. The magnification ratio tells you how big the subject is in relation to its real-life size. For example, 1:4 means that the image of the subject that is projected on your camera sensor is up to 4 times smaller than the subject's actual size. Similarly, a 2:1 ratio means that the subject can appear twice as large as it is in real life. The minimum focusing distance also varies from lens to lens and needs to be taken into consideration when deciding which lens to use.
18-55mm vs Telephoto Lens
Your kit lens is a great place to begin when first starting out in the world of macro photography. It will be able to give you a fairly decent close-up shot. Both types of lenses are able to produce close-up shots, however your 18-55mm lens will have a much smaller minimum focusing distance when compared with a telephoto lens. This means that you will need to get a lot closer to your subject with the 18-55mm lens, which increases your chances of scaring away the insect you were trying to photograph.
With the telephoto lens, you can be much farther away from your subject and still produce the same image as the 18-55mm lens, but with much less chance of scaring away your subject. However, with a telephoto lens, you need to be much more conscious of camera shake and hence, the shutter speed you are using.
This shot was taken with an 18 - 200mm lens zoomed right in at 200mm. Notice how shallow the depth of field (DOF) is. This is because the aperture was at f/5.6 to let in as much available light as possible, so that the shutter speed could be increased up to 1/2000 sec in order to combat camera shake, since this shot was taken handheld and without the aid of a tripod.
This shot was taken with a Nikkor 55-200mm kit lens at f/5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/200 sec.
Prime lenses are known for their optical superiority over zoom lenses. This makes them the obvious choice for macro photography, since it's all about capturing the detail. There are many options to choose from and the choice can often leave one's mind slightly overwhelmed on things like the difference between a 50mm or 100mm (or higher) prime macro lens.
Basically, as the focal length of your lens increases, so too does your minimum focusing distance.
This shot was taken handheld with a Nikkor 50mm 1.8 D prime lens. If you open the image full size, you will notice that the DOF is very shallow and is only two or three centimeters deep. This is because the shot was taken at f/2.2, which in turn allowed for a shutter speed of 1/60 sec that would not normally have been possible in these particular light conditions (low light). But notice how clear and sharp the eyes are and what an effective job the lens has done to isolate them from the rest of the elements in the photo due to the fast (or wide) aperture.
This image was taken with a Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 compact macro lens with an aperture of f/4.5. Because the lens has a focal length of 50mm, the camera had to be relatively close to the butterfly for it to be in-focus (increasing the chance that you might scare it away). Also take note how quickly the DOF falls away and that before you even reach the end of the butterfly's abdomen, it's already starting to blur out.
This shot was taken with a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 prime lens. Notice how the DOF is only a couple of millimeters deep and falls away before you even reach the end of the moss.
Illustration of Minimum Focusing Distances
To further illustrate how the minimum focusing distances (i.e. how close you can get with your camera before it won't focus anymore) between lenses can differ, I have made a graphical representation to make it a bit easier to understand:
This image illustrates the minimum focusing distances of the three listed lenses (18-55mm; 55-200; and the 50mm prime). To the right of each image, it also shows what you will be seeing through the viewfinder with those lenses attached to a Nikon D90 (crop sensor 1.5x). Each lens was put to their closest minimum focusing distance and then I took an image of what I could see through the viewfinder. All three photos were taken with exactly the same body and the same settings. The only things that changed was how close the lens was to the subject and the actual lenses themselves.
Extension Tubes and Close-Up Filters
Want to try out macro photography but don't have the funds for a dedicated macro lens? Extension tubes or close-up filters may be an option. Extension tubes are simply hollow cylinders that attach in between your camera and your lens, which allow your lens to focus on much closer objects, hence providing more magnification. You can use these with any lens and they are usually relatively cheap. Be aware though, that the cheapest extension tubes are usually without electrical contacts, meaning your camera body won't 'talk' to your lens anymore, making it so you can't change the aperture setting or use auto-focus.
Close-up filters (also referred to as close-up lenses) attach to the front of a lens as a normal filter would. Basically like a sophisticated magnifying glass, these filters are especially effective when used in combination with telephoto lenses. However, like filters, you might have to buy multiple sizes if you want to use them on more than one lens and they also tend to be more expensive than extension tubes (but still less than a macro lens).
An in-depth discussion of the pros and cons of both extension tubes and close-up filters can be found here.
Tripods and Shutter Release Cables
In order to achieve optimal performance in macro photography, chances are you will need a tripod for support. With a tripod, you will drastically reduce camera shake that leads to blurry photos. The most important 'accessory' after a tripod is a shutter release cable. A shutter release cable will let you take a photo without actually pressing the on-camera button to do so. At high magnifications or low shutter speeds, simply pressing the shutter button when taking a photo will shake the camera enough to ruin your photo, even if it is on a tripod. Shutter release cables solve that problem.
A tripods is not something you want to skimp on. Remember, you're putting all your trust in a tripod not to break or easily topple over, which could destroy your camera. Tripods range from small table models to massive and heavy models. Some you can fold up and put in your bag, while some need their own separate carrying cases. However, there is no tripod that will work in every situation. A tripod for macro will not necessarily work for wildlife shots.
Durability, range of motion, ease of transport, quick release and stability, and how low to the ground the tripod can go are all characteristics you should look for when trying to choose a tripod for macro work. Start by deciding on what type of macro photography you would like to focus on and then, what sort of budget you have. There are 100s of different tripods to choose from, so it may take some time to decide.
Light reflectors are very useful in the world of macro photography. They do just what the name implies, they reflect light on the subject. We can use reflectors to fill in shadows and generally lighten up an entire image. However, because they 'reflect light' they cannot be your main light source. They need a source of light to reflect.
White is normally the color most people choose, but there is some fun to be had with colored reflectors. However, you have to remember white reflects the most light and will therefore fill in shadows more than any other color. Some other popular kinds of reflectors that can be found include silver and gold. Silver will give a crisper, but harsher light. While gold will be a warmer, softer light.
Light reflectors can be fancy or simple. For macro, you can use small reflectors because the subjects are small. If you don't have a "real" light reflector, you can use white cards (index cards, post-cards, envelopes, writing paper) or white fabric. There are also portable, collapsible fabric reflectors that, when opened up, provide different reflective surfaces front and back. With a twist, they can be folded into a small package, one-third its full size and can be stored away. You just have to find what works best for you and your budget.
There are sometimes situations where the goal of light modifiers is to subtract light rather than to add it. In times like this you will need a light subtractor or a gobo, sometimes called a "flag". The term "gobo" comes from the world of theatrical lighting, a mash-up from "goes before optics". In the theater, gobos are metal plates with patterns cut into them. When placed in front of a light source, they project a unique image onto the stage set. A gobo absorbs light instead of reflecting it. This enhances shadows. You can also use dark cards or fabric.
Lens hoods are an easy way to prevent problems like lens flare. They shield your lens from coming into direct view of a light source. If your photos are appearing washed out or have bright spots on the image, then you are experiencing lens flare. These are problems that can be fixed.
You can use a lens hood or lens shade. Lens hoods can also protect your lens if you drop it and keeps smudges and fingerprints off the front lens surface. A lens shade shields the front lens element from stray light that strikes the lens from odd angles not within the frame of the photograph. Sometimes the light bounces around on the lens element and creates lens flare.
A flash is an important part of macro photography. It gives you more light, which will enable you to close down your aperture, allowing for a larger DOF and more detail in your subject. It can also aesthetic details such as catchlights in eyes, for example. Using a flash, you can create rim lights, light up your image in general, or highlight specific parts of your image.
If you are looking to take your flash photography to the next level, take a look at Strobist, where you will find a myriad of flash tutorials.
How to Approach Macro Photography
Know Your Subject and Surroundings
Whenever you take out your camera, it is always a good idea to take a moment to think about what sort of conditions you might be facing. Depending on the situation, you will need to consider different camera settings and equipment. This is something that is useful to do for any type of photography, not just macro. Here are some factors to consider:
Lighting: How much light will you have? Do you need to provide more light with something such as a flash? Or will only low light be available (and/or desired) and a tripod is required?
Subject: Will you be shooting butterflies that move around quickly or a droplet on a feather that you have setup at home? Whether or not you have complete or partial control over your subject can entirely alter the camera settings you use.
Indoor vs. Outdoor: Having control over your environment or not presents similar concerns to having control over your subject. Being outdoors on a calm, sunny day photographing flowers is usually an ideal situation, but what happens when a slight breeze comes along or it suddenly becomes overcast?
These concerns will be addressed in each of the following sections.
Aperture and Depth of Field:
Depth of field (DOF) refers to the area within the photo that appears in focus. Areas in front of and further back from the depth of field appear blurry. A camera can only precisely focus on one point in a photo, but the aperture controls how gradually the blurriness from that point "spreads." A simple demonstration of DOF:
Notice how the f-number increases from the left photo to the right, i.e. the size of the aperture decreases with increasing depth of field. In the f/2.5 photo, the blurriness spreads very quickly, effectively isolating the point of focus from the rest of the photo (small DOF). At f/32, the change in focus is much more gradual, allowing us to see the entire object (almost) clearly (large DOF).
A small DOF is desirable for usually two reasons: subject isolation and faster shutter speeds. If you have a "busy" background or simply want to isolate your subject from it creating more contrast, a shallow DOF is useful. Especially when lighting conditions are less than ideal or you want to photograph a quick-moving subject such as an insect, a wide aperture will allow you to gather light quicker and be able to shoot at faster shutter speeds, reducing the chance of a blurry subject.
On the other hand, a smaller aperture (or larger DOF) will allow for more of the subject to be clear and detailed. Closing down the aperture requires a slower shutter speed, so it may be necessary to use a tripod or flash depending on your light conditions. A large DOF can be useful for subjects that have wide structures, such as certain types of flowers or insects where you want to get as much detail as possible. Take this daffodil for example:
At f/2.5, only one part of the daffodil can be in focus, leaving the other part of the main structure highly blurred. If I want the entire flower to be in-focus, I need to use a smaller aperture. The following series of photos shows the same setup (point of focus unchanged for all three), where the only thing altered is the size of the aperture (camera kept in aperture priority mode):
As the aperture gets smaller, more of the daffodil is in focus. However, with increasing DOF, we also see more of the background, which may be an unwanted side-effect in certain cases. However, keep in mind that as you close down you aperture, the light entering the lens tends to diffract, causing a loss of detail. At what aperture the effects of diffraction become noticeable depends on your particular camera and lens. In addition, loss of detail also tends to occur when the aperture is wide open. Each lens has a 'sweet spot' where it performs the best (good reference here). This is not to say that you shouldn't use the very large or very small aperture settings, just that you should be aware of it and balance the effects with what you want in your particular shot. More discussion on this topic located here.
Some examples that employ a larger DOF:
Getting the right point of focus is critical for macro photography and is tied closely to your aperture size. When using a small DOF, if the focus point is off by even a tiny amount, your photo can be ruined. For these situations, manual focus may be your best option, ensuring that the point of focus is placed exactly where you want it, instead of where the camera thinks that you would like it.
We've already addressed some of the concerns about shutter speed in the previous section. Obviously, you want to have a sharp photo, so an appropriate shutter speed and equipment are very important. However, some situations make it difficult or impossible to use a tripod and/or flash. In these cases, you can also increase your ISO speed. This will introduce more noise into your photo, but it may be worth it. Also, depending on the type of camera you have (and its age), noise may not be as much of an issue. Some noise can also be cleaned up in post-processing.
Here's a quick summary of ways to reduce the chance of a blurry photo:
Use a tripod or monopod (and/or use the self timer or a shutter release cable)
Brace yourself (or your camera) against something such as a wall to reduce the movement of your own body.
Bring your arms and elbows in close to your body instead of having the camera held out at arm's length in front of you
Set your camera on something and use the self timer or a shutter release cable
Use the continuous shooting mode and take a 2 to 3 photos at once in succession, increasing the odds of one being in focus
Use a higher ISO setting
Use a faster shutter speed
Taking a good macro photo is about balancing all of the concerns above. In less-than-ideal situations, you may have to settle for getting only one part of that butterfly in focus or having more noise in your image, because you are taking photos in some place like an aquarium with low light and are unable to use a flash. Understanding your camera's settings and being able to shoot in manual mode will go a long way to help improve your macro photos.
Bokeh: Bokeh comes from the Japanese word romanized as "boke" meaning "blur." For photography, it refers to out-of-focus points of light in a photo. Bokeh occur in areas of a photo that are outside the depth of field and their appearance depends on both lens type and aperture shape.
In order to create bokeh in a photo, you first need an appropriate background. The light that you want to put out of focus can come from many sources. It can be anything from a string of Christmas lights to light filtering through a tree canopy. The main thing is that you need those lights to be out-of-focus. This is most commonly achieved through a small depth of field (large aperture and/or large focal length). You can alter the diameter of the bokeh by changing the aperture size.
In addition to the aesthetic properties of bokeh, it can also be used to help hide a "messy" background that distracts from the subject of your photo.
As with any subject, there is a lot more info out there to be found, but this should at least give you a basic introduction to the topic of macro photography. Please let us know what you thought of the tutorial and if you have any questions or something you'd like to add! We always greatly appreciate feedback.