Having the right gear and being prepared for multiple scenarios can significantly increase your chances of getting that winning/record shot. As a follow up from my previous article “Introduction to Macrophotography”, this article serves to help photographers of all levels in deciding on what kind of equipment they would need for macro photography.
<Western Rough Wolf Spider (Venator immansueta)>
Let’s start off with the type of camera body, namely DSLR, Mirrorless and Micro 4/3 systems. Ergonomics aside. These cameras have sensors of different sizes which affects the amount of light the camera takes in, the crop factor, low light performance and many more. There are several factors to consider when deciding your type of camera body, do note however, that all types are capable of taking fantastic photos. To ease the discussion, I will group mirrorless and m4/3 systems together under ‘mirrorless systems’ due to their vast similarities. My recommendations and opinions are also skewed towards the macro photographer that shoots out in the field, rather than studio work.
DSLR vs Mirrorless / Micro Four-thirds (m4/3)
The cameras I own are all DSLRs. Having tried all the systems, I noticed a large difference in terms of the user experience in the field. Lets look at some factors to consider when deciding on your body type.
Ergonomics, Size & Weight
Undoubtedly, DSLR cameras are heavier and bulkier, so if you are looking to carry as little weight as possible, especially while travelling, or having a set up that is easier on your wrists, DSLRs may not suit you. Lugging around a set up that weighs approximately 3kg could potentially reduce your stamina and could tire you out extensively during long (~4hr) shoots. In most occasions, you will be required to shoot with one hand, while the other is holding a leaf / stick that your subject is on (just like the photo I took of Andrew above). Note however, that the sheer weight of a DSLR, large lens, a flash and a diffuser could make shooting one-handed a pain and that is probably the biggest advantage of using a mirrorless system. If you have larger hands, the grip of DSLR cameras would benefit you. Getting used to the button placements on your camera is helpful, you wouldn’t want to fumble around with your camera out in the field. DSLRs have generally more buttons than Mirrorless systems and I find it easier for quick changes but not for one-handed operations.
Most mirrorless systems and the newer DSLR cameras come with the latest technology and fancy features like touch screens, wifi and what not. These features are hardly used in macro photography and it should not be a concern, good to have but not a necessity.
A major difference between the systems are the viewfinders. DSLRs have a mirror that reflects light coming through the lens into another mirror or prism which then reflects the light into the optical viewfinder (OVF) that allows the user to preview the photo. This is also the main reason for the bulk of DSLR cameras. A mirrorless system, as the name suggests, lacks the mirror and prism which then allows it to be so compact. They then make use of an electronic viewfinder (EVF) to simulate the optical viewfinder to preview the shot.
If you shoot with a DSLR, turn your camera to live view and adjust your exposure, the preview of your shot would change as well, just like an electronic viewfinder. There are many considerations here. The colours when shooting in live view may not be an accurate representation of your image and in some mirrorless systems, there is a terrible lag present during the preview, especially in low light. When shooting at high magnification, you simply cannot afford any lag. Focusing is generally done manually by moving the camera forward and backwards until you get the subject in focus so with all the magnified movements, coupled with lag, it only results in missed shots and tons of frustration.
The batteries from DSLR cameras are of higher capacity and can last for hours. If you go for a mirrorless system, you definitely need more than 2 batteries since the EVF takes up battery as well.
All this being said, look out for the newer full frame mirrorless systems from Sony and Nikon, they seem really promising!
Choosing your lens
Regardless of your system, there are a vast variety of dedicated, true macro lenses for you to choose from. Do your due diligence before making your purchase as it may affect numerous factors down the road.
Focal length & focusing distance
DSLR macro lenses have a much larger range of focal lengths compared to Mirrorless macro lenses. Standard focal lengths to look out for is 60mm to 100mm primes although Canon even has a 180mm macro lens. The focal length of your lens would affect your minimal focusing distance. This is extremely important. Having the ability to shoot further and still fill your frame would greatly increase your hit rate especially when shooting skittish subjects such as jumping spiders. Not to mention it is definitely safer and preferred to keep those fingers away from dangerous vertebrates such as scorpions or venomous arachnids. Personally, I usually shoot with the highly popular Canon EF 100mm f2.8 L Macro lens on an EOS 80D (APSC) body and shooting macro is simple even at an effective 160mm (1.6x crop factor).
I had the opportunity to take the newly introduced EOS M50 and EF-M 28mm f/3.5 STM Macro Lens with Built-In Ring Light out for a review. I coupled the setup with a diffuser I borrowed from Andrew.
The results from this combination was fantastic and I was getting tact sharp images handheld even with the super macro mode that goes 2:1, however, the largest issue was in fact the short focusing distance to get to just 1:1 (almost just a cm). It resulted in many missed shots especially when attempting to shoot orb weavers or insects deep in bushes. Cropping power was not great either. The combo is more suited for studio work and the built-in focus light is definitely not bright enough to help you in focus in the dark. I’ll attempt to build a separate diffuser for this set up and try again. That being said, having a decent minimal focusing distance to get to 1:1 would greatly increase your hit rate.
Depending on your shooting style and what you would like to achieve you can explore other options such as wide macro lenses such as the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro Lens for more interesting compositions, the MP-E65mm f2.8 1-5x Extreme Macro Lens to get even closer, or the newly introduced Laowa 24mm f/14 2x Macro Probe which can help you pull of some interesting shots not possible with normal macro lenses. Some of these lenses may not allow you to focus to infinity so just to reiterate, do your research before purchase!
My recommendation however is to get the basics right with a regular macro lens before venturing out into these specialised macro lenses as they can be extremely difficult to handle and beginners will have a hard time getting good results with them.
For those who are unsure or unwilling to invest fully in a macro set-up yet can turn to simple alternatives that are available in the market such as extension tubes, close up filters, diopters, reversal rings etc. The popular ones are extension tubes from Canon/Kenko that can be stacked for you to focus even closer (note, not really useful in the field). The more expensive extension tubes come with contact points that still allow autofocus and full aperture control, others are fully manual. Users can also explore into getting diopters such as the Raynox DCR 250, an inexpensive method to get up to 2.5:1 but depth of field (DOF) would be severely reduced (more on this will be touched on in an article about settings and mastering DOF).
Full-Frame vs Crop-Sensor
Is it worth the investment in an expensive full frame camera for macro? Not necessarily. In order to achieve the highest detail and magnification possible, what matters is pixel density. Trying not to get too technical here, the most pixels per square millimetre of your camera’s sensor would give you more detail. To illustrate, even if you have a 50 megapixel full frame camera, you would probably get more detail using a 24 megapixel APSC Crop sensor camera as the smaller sensor has more pixels per square millimetre as compared to the full frame sensor. Furthermore, in most wildlife/macro photography, the unspoken truth is that most of the photos are cropped. With the larger field of view on a full frame camera, you will still have to crop in to match the same magnification of a photo from a cropped sensor.
Nonetheless, full frame cameras are really useful due to their superior low light performance and image quality. You do not always have to shoot at 1:1 in macro, sometimes you just can’t! It would not be possible to project a large tarantula or large mantis at life size on a full frame 35mm sensor. This is where cropped sensors lose out as you will have to take steps back and there will be the issue of getting more ambient diffused light on a huge subject.
In conclusion, the advantages that come with full frame cameras are not as essential in macro photography and you can get away with awesome images with just a cropped camera.
Flashes are essential for macro and don’t bother leaving home for a macro shoot without it unless you tons of natural light. Pop-up flashes don’t work because of the output and how low it is located. You would not want your pop-up flash to cast a shadow over your subject because of your lens! To compensate for the relatively higher shutter speed (for magnified shakes or longer focal lengths), the large DOF (F8-16) and during low light situations (night shoots), get yourself a flash unit.
For basic macro photography, you do not need to be a master of flash photography, a simple speedlight, whether fully manual or with TTL functions will get the job done. Flashes can be expensive especially if you go for the big brands but cheaper alternatives are available (Yongnuo, Godox etc). Do note however, that if you go for the 3rd party flashes, there may not be after service support available in your country. After my YN 568EXii died on me, I opted for a cheap SGD$30 Neewer TT560 manual flash and it has been working fine ever since. (FYI, cheaper flashes may not come with full hotshoe contact points and may only have a single contact point to trigger your flash, this means that you may not be able to trigger your flash in live view, rendering your articulating screen useless).
Once you get used to your flash, you can explore other techniques like slaving another flash for additional lighting/backlighting, 2nd curtain sync etc.
Canon EOS 6Dii + EF 100mm f2.8 L + MT-26EX-RT Macro Twin Lite Flash
Canon EOS 5DSR + EF 100mm f2.8 L + YN-14EX Ring Flash
Besides standard speed lights, there are other options such as ring lights, twin strobes, twin flashes, or even small slave flashes that you can trigger wirelessly. It is really up your creativity on how you want your set up to work. Choosing a flash unit is important as it determines how you will build your DIY diffuser which is probably the most important aspect of macro photography. Stay tuned for tutorials on how to diffuse light for macro.
Look out for build quality in the gear you are purchasing. Other features such as optic/image stabilisation are really especially useful if you intend to shoot handheld and not with a tripod/monopod. If all your gear is weather-sealed, you wouldn’t have to worry much about rain, it happens sometimes!
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if you would like to contribute some pointers to this discussion!
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