Macro Photography Made Easy
A Bug's Life
Macro photography. If you're unfamiliar with the term, macro photography is type of photography that focuses on small subjects, especially insects and other creepy crawlies. Most wildlife photographers tend to go after "big game" like birds and mammals, and those are cool, but there are even cooler ones right under your nose. That dragonfly flitting around the yard? A terrifying predator. That mossy log? An insect metropolis. That spider web? An architectural marvel.
Sure, insects and spiders aren't the cutest animals, but they're animals, nonetheless. Some of them almost look human, like the damselfly pictured to the left. Do you think she's smiling?
Above: Blue-Fronted Dancer (Argia apicalis) - Female. Photo by Teddy Fotiou (me).
What You Need - Cameras - See why you'll never hear a pro photographer say, "cheap".
For any and all aspiring photographers, after getting the hang of composition and framing with a point-and-shoot, you should invest in an SLR. Yes, you can get by with point-and-shoot cameras--and get some great photos--but you will never be able to achieve the eye-popping quality of a full-frame SLR. SLR price tags are high, but the returns are, too, and if you're serious about macro photography (and photography, in general), bite the bullet and get an SLR. After all, would you buy a microwave, you were planning on baking a cake?
If photography is your passion (and, please, ask yourself if you really enjoy photography before you blow hundreds of dollars on a camera and/or lenses), you will quickly outgrow lesser cameras, so it's best to buy a professional grade camera you can grow into. In this way, you will spend your money on one stellar camera--rather than multiple mid-grade cameras--and have extra money for lenses and accessories. So let's take a look at some of the best SLRs for beginners and semi-pros.
There are MANY SLRs out there to choose from, but here are a few to start you off. Some photographers will claim Canon is superior while others will claim Nikon. Really, as many level-headed photographers will tell you, you can't go wrong with either brand. However, if you're looking for a fast camera, you'll probably want a Canon, and if you're looking for a camera that excels in low light, you'll probably want a Nikon.
Your camera choice will also depend on how much money you're willing to spend. Personally, I started off with a Canon Rebel T3; then, I quickly moved up to a Canon 7D. Both Canon and Nikon make cameras of even higher quality and specifications than the ones featured below, but they'll set you back several hundred (or thousand) dollars. You shouldn't settle for a point-and-shoot, but you also shouldn't spend more money than necessary on an SLR. Once you have a full-frame camera, you have unlimited potential, and any extra quality lies solely in YOU and not in the camera.
Best entry-level Canon DSLR.
Best semi-pro Canon DSLR. Please note: this camera does not come with a lens.
What You Need - Lenses & Extension Tubes - Throw Down Cash for Glass.
If you're unfamiliar with SLRs, here's something you need to know: your lens is not fixed to your camera. In many cases, especially for the more expensive SLR models, your camera will not even come with a lens, aka glass. To save money, I recommend buying a camera + lens combo. This will be slightly more expensive, but it will be less expensive than buying them separately. This will also give you a basic lens for random non-macro photography ventures, whether you're photographing friends, family, buildings, or shooting closeups of moderate-sized critters like frogs and snakes. Additionally, if you buy a camera + lens combo, you're probably better off buying an extension tube. However, not all lenses are created equal, and you need to make sure the extension tube is compatible with your particular lens, so please, do your research before buying one.
Now, if you're a serious macro photographer, and you absolutely love bugs more than any other animal, you'll probably want to opt out of the combo/kit lens and go for a true macro lens right away. You have a lot of options to choose from, but I've listed two of the cheapest and most popular lenses below. One for Canon, and one for Nikon.
A great macro lens for Canon users.
A great macro lens for Nikon users.
A great alternative to buying a macro lens for Canon users.
A great alternative to buying a macro lens for Nikon users.
Finding Macro Subjects - Simpler Than It Seems.
Okay, so with all this talk about SLRs, you're probably eager to learn more about the mechanics of macro photography. First off, you need to be incredibly observant. If you look around your backyard (and, I mean, REALLY look), you will be surprised by how many subjects you can find. Scan every leaf, twig, branch...leave no stone or log unturned. The world of arthropods--insects, spiders, and their relatives--is diverse and beautiful.
Now, of course, this depends on where you live and the time of year. If you live in the eastern United States, you won't find many--if any--subjects during the winter. If you live in a tropical or subtropical area like Florida or northeastern Australia or an area with a Mediterranean climate like Southern California or Greece, you'll have no trouble finding subjects year-round.
Photographing Macro Subjects
Get real close! (And learn to use manual focus!)
Once you find your macro subject, you need to get close. Real close. In fact, you should, practically, be touching your subject's face with your lens. Getting close to some subjects is easier than others. Approaching wild butterflies and dragonflies is, generally, harder than building a house of cards (and equally frustrating). Approaching snails and beetles is easier than microwaving hot pockets.
Once you're up-close-and-personal, you will face macro photography's main challenge: focusing. If you're just getting into photography, you'll probably want to start out with autofocus. But, if you want to become a macro photographer, eventually, you'll need to give autofocus up. Autofocus simply does not work well on small subjects. Manual focus allows you to take more precise shots. Once you get the focus rings in just the right spot, you don't (always) need to worry about refocusing on the subject again. Just snap away, and you'll start opening windows into the miniature world.
Don't let manual focus intimidate you: you'll get the hang of it sooner than you know. When I started out as a photographer, I quickly trashed autofocus in favor of manual, and I never looked back.
Photographing Macro Subjects in Low Light - Light is Your Best Friend.
Macro photography is easy in broad daylight, but it's harder in low light. On still subjects, a long exposure doesn't matter. You can set up a tripod and photograph a motionless moth on a tree. In most cases, though, macro subjects--like insects and spiders--are incredibly active, and you only have seconds to capture them in the right posture.
So what's the best way to do this? Well, you have two options: crank up your ISO (you might want to Google this), or use a flash. Cranking up your ISO will allow you to take the shot at higher shutter speeds; however, you will have a problem with digital noise, and more likely than not, all the details on your subject's body will not be highlighted. Both of these problems are grave, since detail is the main focus of macro photography. This makes high ISO undesirable.
So we move to the second option: a flash. Ideally, a serious macro photographer will have a ring flash, which is designed for macro shots, but unless you want to pay an extra $300 or so, you'll probably want to pass on that. This leaves you with your camera's little built-in pop-up flash. For larger subjects, the pop-up isn't always desirable, but for the smaller subjects, it's perfect. In fact, with small subjects, the flash is so powerful that you're, practically, carrying around your own studio.
Yet, this is where the flash's problem lies: the powerful, bright light at close range will overexpose and/or wash out the photo. The photo above is a good example. I photographed a mating pair of common eastern fireflies at dusk, when there was NO light outside. So, understandably, I needed to use a flash. Because of the flash, the fireflies (and the background) were horribly overexposed, and they lost a great deal of color.
So how do you fix this problem? Simple. Using a good photo editing program (Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, and even, Gimp are good choices), you decrease your photo's brightness and increase its saturation. For situations such as these, I recommend shooting in RAW, so you have more freedom playing around with brightness and saturation. If you do decide to shoot in JPEG and edit the photo, save a copy of the original. Why? Because editing JPEGs--even just rotating them--decreases the photo's size and, in turn, loses data.
Anyways, back to the photo. In the photo on the right, you can see the result of decreasing the brightness and increasing the saturation. Decreasing the brightness restored the detail that has been overexposed, and increasing the saturation restored the colors that had been washed out. Voila. A beautiful photo.