A Poor Man’s Guide to Macro Madness

This is a summary of a presentation I made at the Trinity Arts Photo Club meeting in January 2011 about my macro photography.  It is called the “poor man’s” guide as I do not have the high dollar macro lenses that could be used to make my life easier in this pursuit.  I generally have opted for the lower priced option of extension tubes coupled with a telephoto lens to get my macro shots, although I do have an old used manual 105mm macro lens that I use occasionally. 

But in the interest of overall disclosure, I am going to talk about all the options available in the summary below.

Tools of the Trade

  • Camera (SLR or Compact Camera)
  • Macro Lens or

–      Telephoto Lens + Extension Tubes or

–      Close-up  filters that fit on front of a lens

  • Off Camera Flash
  • Monopod or
  • Tripod if taking photos of subjects that do not move

One of the best practitioners of macro photography I have seen is a gentleman who uses a compact camera coupled with close-up filters in his photography.  So you do not necessarily need the highest dollar equipment to get good results.

Extension tubes fit between the camera and your lens and generally come in a set of three different sizes.  My extension tubes are made by Kenko and come in 12mm, 20mm and 36mm sizes.  You can use one or all to get a different close up effect.  The tubes contain no optical elements; their sole purpose is to move the lens farther from the image plane. The farther away the lens is, the closer the focus, the greater the magnification.  That is mumbo jumbo for the tubes make a normal lens into a poor man’s macro lens.

I like shooting insects, so for me, the monopod is a better option than a tripod.  Insects generally are moving, so a tripod does not give a photographer the flexibility to “follow” the insect as you try to get a shot.  The monopod helps with camera stability compared to taking completely hand held shots, so I use one when I can.

Other considerations for macro photography include the following:

  • Lighting

–      To use flash or not to use flash, that is the question

  • Shutter speed (faster is better, especially for insects)
  • Depth of Field

–      Almost always narrow on macro shots

  • Motion…or lack thereof               

–      What if your subject is moving?

I always have a flash available when I am taking macro shots.  I do not always use it if the natural light is strong enough, but if it is not, it makes the difference between getting a shot and not getting a shot.  I have a Nikon SB-800 flash that I use either on the hot shoe of the camera of off the camera in slave mode letting the camera trigger the flash.  This allows for more creative lighting options.  There are special macro flash units that you can buy, but like with the macro lenses; they would make the job easier, but at a cost.

Shutter speed for capturing shots of moving insects generally has to be 1/250 sec or higher in my experience.  For flowers and non moving subjects, the speed can be lower.

The depth of field on these shots is generally very narrow, so when you focus, it is imperitive that your focus point is on the key item in your photo, the eye of an insect or lizard for example.  Sometimes, it takes several attempts to get that sharp focus, especially for moving insects or if the breeze is blowing.

The important thing is that if you have an interest in macro photography and do not have a macro lens, try the extension tubes or close up filters first (especially if on a budget) and see if you enjoy the challenge.  If you really get into it, you can decide later whether to invest the big bucks in dedicated macro lenses or macro flash units.  Have fun!



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