There are some things in life for which recipes work amazingly well. Cooking from a cook-book, assembling a gearbox from an exploded-view diagram and mixing dangerous chemical substances, in volatile environments – to end up with (drum roll) common household cleaner. For photography, music and speeches, the written word is a guideline that could, and probably should, be broken. Breaking rules are fine, if you know the rules and why they are there, but they do exist for a reason. In the photographic-universe, as old as it is, we have no shortage of rules and guidelines. The Sunny16, the rule of thirds, the 1/focal-length rule for hand-shake… but they are nothing but principles that aid in the creation of something artistic, something that the artist had his own ideas (hopefully) about. By golly, the last thing we need is more images on foo-stock of dirt hands under a tap.
Macro-photography, which I am not going to explain in detail myself, is a high-magnification style of photography that tries to show the world the true view, and perspective of little things. Insects, ball-point pen tips, grains of rice and flower stamen at 1:1 or larger magnifications, deliver shock and awe to a viewer. It comes at a price however.
This sort of photography puts an immense amount of strain on the photographer, both mentally and physically. I can not explain this, macro-photographers everywhere know all too well what muddy knees, gravel-impaled elbows, backsides filled with thorns and shaky, sore fore-arm muscles feel like. The gear also takes strain, rain, wind, getting near the ground and being used at its limits of resolutions, output powers and never given a break. It goes without saying that I’m not undermining other genres of photographers, each of them have their own skills and demands… I for one have no eye (yet) for landscape work, it’s hard, difficult, needs a keen eye. Street photographers have balls the size of larger balls (like volley balls) and sport photographers have oodles of massive lens and shutter speed skills I can only dream of [as I fail at being a great birder].
Finally, down to the point now. I started macro work on my Pentax K100D, CCD sensor based slr, with a 70-300 (cheapest I could find, FA-J I think?) and a Raynox DCR-250. This was more than 10 years ago, and in that time, I progressed a lot. However, I never experienced the true-blue DIY of reversing lenses and welding up my own rigs. It was easier for me to buy the Raynox, then move on to extension tubes (cheap, manual kenko’s) and then eventually combining them. It was my personal opinion that I got good results, even though I had missed focus points, some bad composition and noisy images. In the recent years, I could finally afford a dedicated macro lens, so I bought my Sigma 105, used it for a year, then moved on to the current Nikon micro 85. I am extremely happy with my results, and I am even more aware that I could be doing better (in terms of magnification and resolving power), but sharpness stands second to detail. Composition stands second to DOF, and color+light stands back for tack sharp images.
I cannot use tripods, and I do not own a monopod, although there is a plan to buy one soon. Much doubt exists if I would actually like it, or benefit from it, because in macro, the freedom of movement and portability is amazingly powerful. Insects are wildlife, they are alive and move around (because I care/respect and conserve the environment, to my own future advantage) and macro shoots are to me, a mix between a street photographer, a sports photographer and war photographer. Good and bad things happen, without warning, all the time. You need to be standing, kneeling and prowling around at 6AM in the fresh cold winter mornings, then move on to lying on your back under the blazing sun firing upward from under the massive leaf of a Monstera deliciosa. Situation normal…
You spend all day, doing your best, tracking the little critters from their habitats, to where they feed, mate and spend their waking hours. You get everything just right, you take breaks, you escape without a headache, without sunburn, and some SD cards filled with nicely ETTR‘d images that looked super sharp on the LCD. Then you go home, copy everything down to your backlog directory, make a backup (hopefully!) and launch your workflow processing software.
80% of everything is soft, blurry. What happened?
I don’t know. The end, no one does.
Ok, so maybe we should look into it. We have to refer back to paragraph three above, equipment and personal strains. What causes soft images? The only explanations I can come up with, are the ones that have burnt me before, the stuff that commonly gets asked on forums, and guideline rule breaks that eventually come back to bite you ( a small price to pay for being a creative).
Humans are not solid at all.
Again, without getting into the details of what and how macro is, one thing it certainly needs is the ability to hold still. Lateral movement will move your subject around in the frame, but backward-forward movement is everything. You _have_ to do it to move your focal plane around, but then you need to hold that pose to take the shot. This is easier said than done, because if you breathe, you move and if you stop breathing, you shake. It’s human, and you can probably improve it with muscle strength exercises and eating healthier, but it will always be there. Learn to work with it, or it will frustrate you to no end. With that said, the accidental movements, and taking rapid’ish shots, usually delivers a lucky compound eye here and there.
Humans have moods.
This goes for everything. The wrong mood, will ruin the food. You cannot make the perfect bacon if you’re not feeling it, and you certainly cannot write a good song, or get into the mind of a character in your horror novel, if your mind isn’t there. Be smart, bail if you must. Take a break, come back later, in an hour or tomorrow or take a two-week break. Enjoy it, it is not a chore. Amazingly enough, if you’re with the right people, they can swing a mood around, motivate you.
Shutter speeds are serious.
Common knowledge. You want that background lit by ambient light, you might not want the black-background look for that image, so you choose a slower shutter speed, perhaps 1/50. This is super slow however for hand-holding, and even with stabilization, it’s going to end in tears. The old 1/focal length rule says you should be able to get a sufficiently stable and sharp image at one-over-the-focal-length of what you are shooting at. With the 85mm micro, that means I need to be at 1/85th of a second of shutter speed to shoot sharp. This is of course OK with a stabilised lens providing 2 or 3 stops of improvement, but in most cases you should not rely on it. Use IS/VR/OS as an aid, not a given.
To continue using that shutter speed, you might have to use a different flash mode, or use a tripod. Just keep an open mind, even if you could hand-hold it steady at 1/50, the spider could move 2 mm forward in that time and cause a totally soft image, one that becomes hard to diagnose.
But aperture values too.
Another sad little reality of optical physics, one that no amount of money can fix, light. Your lens may be optically amazing, but some hard truths remain. Wide open, at 1.8 or 2.8 or 3.5, whatever it may be, you will not get the most amazing images from it. Chromatic aberration and vignetting could be staring you in the face, even on lenses that try to correct for it very well, not to mention the depth of field being extremely shallow at wider open aperture values. At the opposite end of the scale, stopping down to tiny aperture opening (higher f number) will solve all your depth of field issues, and then hit you hard in the groin with diffraction (google airy-disks of diffraction), which will give the image a soft look. In most day to day image, the kind of diffraction you may see at f11 or f13, would not be a bother, but it could mean the end of sharp eyes on a bug. You alone can determine your magical numbers, where you feel the trade-offs between sharp, deep and DOF, suites your needs. I have to say though, I see more than not, that macro photographers are of the opinion that DOF trumps diffraction, and detail trumps sharpness… something to think about. It’s not all about the sharpness (apparently) 🙂
Flash modes actually mean a lot.
This is a sore subject, because it’s something I never understood and eventually only got around to now. Sync speeds on cameras are nothing other than shutter blades having to synchronise with the flash, simply put, so the flash of light can occur during the time which the full sensor is exposed. Anything faster, and shutter curtains start going into a territory where they form a slit that moves across the sensor, and it means the flash will only illuminate one little piece of slit/area of the sensor. Not great, at all.
One mode is called rear-curtain, and basically stated, means that the flash is fired at the end of the shutter sweeping process. If you had the shutter open for example 1 second (1″), the flash would only fire at the very end. What does this mean for macro? Well now you can use that 1/50th shutter speed, and “Drag the shutter” by collecting nice background ambient light (should there be enough), and then just at the end, pop the flash blitz. This will mean that the background had some nice time to expose, and now at the very end, you get the benefit of the extremely fast blast of light (much, much shorter duration than the shutter could do) exposing the foreground subject, your spider, and freezing it in time, hopefully sharp as a tack.
This needs some thinking, exploring and trial and error to learn. Look at it, it makes sense.
Alcohol and coffee, cake and carrots.
There is nothing to be said here, but keep in mind that your mood, stability and creatively be affected by external influences. Coffee will make you shake, these stupid sinus-tablets sometimes helps with hand-shake, but completely ruins a mood and makes you tired. Good sleep, a healthy diet and the right vitamins, will go a long way. Getting the muscle strength up in your arms, and even legs and back will make massive amounts of strides in stability and flexibility. Think about it.
Water, Hot days, warm clothes.
A last thing to consider, more of a healthy bit of advice to follow is to drink enough water. Stay hydrated. When you feel thirsty, you’ve already done some damage to your body and by golly, it really does make you shake as dehydration causes increased heart rates. In winter, stay warm. Not only will being cold affect your immune system and bring on a cold or sore-throat, but it also makes you shake and definitely causes hesitance to plonk your knee down on the cold ground before sunrise. Take breaks, rest, use sunblock… many things, do them all, be a machine.
The last thing that makes your images pop, is the post-processing sweep. I believe it’s necessary, 90% of the time, and for those images that you feel don’t need processing, WELL DONE, those are the greats. I won’t go into the things I enjoy about PP, like using monochrome to show more detail, but I do think you need to keep in mind that there is always room for sharpening and local contrast in the end-result. Not all lenses are superb, and when they are, external influences like stray light, wind! or a bad exposure could ruin some contrast and sharpness. Don’t be scared to carefully tweak things like this. Another thing on older bodies are the AA filters on sensors, physical pieces of glass on the sensor well known for robbing some sharpness. Therefore, don’t be affraid to correct for things you have no control over, and boy, there is a long list of them.
That’s it, the real end of this article. I hope it helps you, technically and creatively. I hope it helps you to know that everyone suffers the same issues, in different ways, some cope, some work around it and others use it to their advantage.
Just keep progressing, and getting better, and remember that you’re OUT THERE while you’re working on it. Nice places, things to see and learn about.