I have been ‘trying’ my hand at macro-photography for years, and as with most things, you get on-days and you get off-days. I had some great results from barely-acceptable lenses with a Raynox DCR-250 on, other times I could not get anything past my critics (friends…) for months. I had setups consisting of tripods and complex, but budget, lighting systems, light-tents, window-sill studios and many, many lenses (with and without extension tubes) back in my Pentax days. Most of the time, I produced a variety of images showcasing the intricate details of electronic and chemical things from up close, at 1:1 or larger magnifications. What I struggled with, was nature, insects… plants.
This was a major issue, because the whole reason I got pulled into macro, was nature. I love it, and I want to capture, freeze and document it. We’re killing it off slowly, and the least I can do, is to keep memories of it. As a result, I went out shooting in what the forum posters deemed the best conditions. I set my settings up differently, every time, tried everything, learned photography the hard way. I taught myself everything I needed to know about focal lengths, how magnification works at close focus distances, what did what. This, in my opinion, what held me back, changes… being inconsistent meant that I had nothing to compare results with.
So, with that said, along came the last year or so. I got a Sigma 105 macro, and although I did not enjoy the stabilisation on it at all, I started developing a more consistent style. I settled, got used to and improved on my stances, bracing, metering and decision making around my macro shoots. I started getting a feel for what works, and what doesn’t, and surprise, a lot of what I read and heard about, was not working for me. It is important to say though, there is probably no right or wrong… opinions, theories, personal experiences all differ.
In the last month however, I started getting over my own obstacles again. After a long hiatus of not watching (because I didn’t want to think that I was missing details) YouTube videos, I started searching for macro stuff again. Almost all of the videos were advocating the same things:
- brightest sunlight possible
- highest shutter speed possible
- ring flashes
- expensive lenses
- sacrificing unicorns
- ALWAYS using a tripod
Apart from the unicorn sacrificing (I could not find a sacrificial knife), I tried everything over the last few years.
Super Bright Light
Yes, bright light is amazingly correct. In order to achieve the deeper field of focus that is utterly necessary in macro, small apertures are needed. It’s not uncommon to have to use f/11 or f/13 or smaller (not too much, diffraction!) to achieve that, which means light becomes a luxury. Well, shutter speeds are a problem then. Even with a flash, you could be limited to 1/200 or 1/250 sync speed, and what does this mean? Motion blurs due to wind and moving insects, have more trail action, effectively ruining the photo.
What works for me? Darker areas, shadows. The bolt of lightning from a flash gun, is much, much faster than your typical shutter speed, and when the macro subject is darkish, I regularly get sharp, frozen shots even as low as 1/125. Why? The shutter may be open for a long time, 1/125 or 1/160 is pretty slow after all, but since there is no stray light and heavy sun exposing the sensor, pretty much all that is caught on the sensor is the very, very brief blip of light from the flash, 1/5000, 1/6000 – I don’t know, but it’s fast. It works, for me, probably for no-one else.
Wizzlike warp speed shutter speeds
I think I covered this above. I simply cannot get high shutter speeds. HSS is not an option on my SB400, even if it was, HSS flashing is dim. Anything faster than 1/125 or maybe 1/200 is too dark. Light is everything, and when available light is not an option, then I revert back to my shadow-shooting.
Everyone seems to recommend this. Yes, they are right. Ring flashes are convenient, right in front of the lens, close to the subject. They can be bright, can be set to illuminate from specific sides, or all in one. They can be great, and I think dentists use them solely. But they give flat light, they cost way too much (I don’t get this, who is ripping off who) and they leave nice ring shaped donuts on everything you shoot. I never had one, but we’ve had some on cameras in this house. Not all that wonderful, not to me. Available light, flashes, interesting angles of light – that is what works for me.
Tough one. I have a R9000 valued Micro Nikkor 85 that I am currently using, and obtained by trading in my Sigma 105 macro. There are much more expensive and better lenses out there, and I will try many more as time goes on. But there are some people that put me to shame out there, and all they are using are some simple filters, attachments like Raynox 250’s, reverse mounting lenses and tubes. Chances are, everyone’s got their own idea and style in mind. If the lens and attachments around it can deliver the colour, contrast and sharpness you need, then why worry about anything else? Heck, I have a cheap soft-box on top of my Nikkor, and at times a piece of paper is my diffuser. Perfect? Probably not, but it works.
Tripods and things
Now here is something else. EVERY single post, from forums to stack-exchange answers will say “always use a tripod” and “it’s not possible without a tripod”. I feel like calling crap here, but again, I understand differences in techniques, ideas and equipment. For me, however, tripods will never works. In 90% of my photos, I am seated on the ground, with the camera about 5 to 10cm from the ground, and in the blink of an eye it will be at eye level. A tripod will hold me back, make my hikes slow and inhibit my movements, not to mention how much an annoyance it will pose to other walkers and visitors around me. Monopods are easier, better, but they have some of the same issues. Portability is easier, but not easy. Dynamic shooting, changes, angles are still difficult.
Why do people advocate it so much? Well, shaking’ and blurring’, right? Correct, hand-holding is bloody hard, and decreases the numbers of keepers drastically. I.S on a lens helps a lot, but learning to brace and support, proper stances, breathing, relaxing and most importantly, patience makes all the difference. It’s never easy, takes time and is difficult, but it pays off.
A last thing that is worth mentioning, is metering modes. I use spot metering, for indicative purposes only. I do my macro full manual, not because I am gung-ho, but because in the changing, weirdly composed scenes through a macro lens, I cannot depend on the camera meter. It does weird stuff, a lot of the times. Re-framing, composing, hanging on to the metering buttong for long times while waiting for an insect to make it’s move… these are all things that make Aperture priority mode confused. For the simple reason of dependability, I aim for ISO100 (noise is fine in most images, but anything over ISO 400 starts ruining compound-eyes for me) and I put the aperture into the required setting (usually 9, 11 or 13) and then start with shutter speeds allowing for the natural light + flash. Everything changes, all the time – I got used to it.
With that said, this is nothing other than my opinion. I respect that everyone is different and have different goals. So suck up all the info you can, but try to be consistent. Learn your own things too, combine everything into one, special, unique, you-thing.
That’s the only setting, setup and method that will work for you. It could takes ages to get there, and it will change over time too, but it’s an adventure nevertheless.