Introduction to Macrophotography

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Here we explore this niche genre of photography and how one can get started to take good macro photos!

In my conversations with many about my work, this question occasionally pops up, “Why is it called macro photography instead of micro photography? Doesn’t macro mean big and micro mean really really small?” Well, Canon and Nikon often use these terms interchangeably in regards to their lenses but just to put it out there, macro photography is the art of making small subjects, look big (visible to the naked eye).

Why Macrophotography?

There are endless possibilities when it comes to the micro world~ with all that is going on in our lives, we don’t pause and take the time to appreciate the little things in life* pun intended. My interest in the micro world started even before I owned my first DSLR. I was using an Olloclip 3 in 1 mobile lens for the iPhone 4 and was amazed at the intricate details I could capture, whether it was the objects around me, or the little jumping spiders found in my garden. This gave me the opportunity to explore this strange, beautiful yet rarely seen world.

Whether you are shooting in the studio or out in the field, macro photography poses various challenges to the shooter, many of which are unique to this genre (although you will definitely utilise some common techniques in photography). Some of these challenges would include control of depth of field, light, focus, composition and diffusion, all of which I will be talking about in a separate article. There is something new to discover and learn at every single shoot and sharing these discoveries with others are always a joy!

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What is magnification?

Essentially, macro photography is shooting at 1:1 magnification or more. Dedicated macro lenses are able to achieve 1:1 magnification. In a nutshell, it means that your subject is projected at life size onto the camera’s sensor. To illustrate, imagine a subject that is 3cm in length, it would be projected at 3cm on a 35mm full frame sensor, resulting in A LOT of details. If the equipment you are using enables you to shoot at higher magnifications, say 3x life size, the ratio would be 3:1. In contrast, the subject (2cm) being projected at 1cm on the sensor, it is regarded as 1:2.

Is this considered close-up photography? Nope. Close-up photography refers to you being able to fill your frame with your subject. Just because the lens you are using or your camera coming with a “macro mode”, does not mean you are shooting true macro. Simply put, macro lenses enable you to capture the finest details and produce razor sharp images. If i’m using a telephoto lens to zoom in close to a subject, it would be considered pseudo-macro (close up photography) and you will be able to see the difference in image quality. The Macro mode you see on DSLRs and Point & Shoot cameras only assist you in taking close-ups by reducing the minimal focus distance between you and your subject. The shot below is an example of close-up photography, shot under natural light with the Canon EF 100-400mm mkii.

The concept of magnification isn’t as simple as it seems. There are many factors and concepts that come to play when shooting at different magnifications. In many cases, it would also determine the equipment that you need. Do note that sensor size does not affect the degree of magnification ~

In a nutshell, when shooting at higher magnifications, any sort of movement is also magnified. Kinda like looking through binoculars and noticing the difficulty in keeping a steady image. Increasing your shutter speed would then be inevitable. As your magnification increases, your depth of field also decreases, so be prepared to bump up that f-value of yours. Couple all this together with the fact that most macro shoots happen at night, the time when the forest comes alive.

Now, those with experience in photography would probably be wondering so how do you compensate for so much loss of light? Well that’s when flash and diffusion come in. I’ll touch on that as well as settings and techniques in upcoming articles.

How do I get started?

Lets talk a bit about the basic gear needed for Macro photography. Definitely there will be photographers out there who will tell you that “its not about the gear, its about the photographer.” Thats true only to a certain extent. Having the right gear to suit your needs can open up many doors and provide a better platform to further explore your craft. That being said, you do not need expensive gear to take good macro photos.

Needless to say, you would need a camera body and a lens (assuming you invest in a macro lens and not in any alternatives like extension tubes/diopters etc, more on that next time).

However, regardless of which system you use, or camera body type for that matter, you definitely need a macro lens. Besides the ability to go at least 1:1, macro lenses also reduce optical distortions and you won’t have much problem with colour fringing. The fine details and razor sharp images you get in macro lenses cannot be replicated even with the sharpest lenses out there. Furthermore, macro lenses are also suited for portraiture and are fantastic to add to your arsenal. You would also need a flash to help with your depth-of-field, the pop up flash on your camera wouldn’t really help much. A standard speedlight would suffice although you can explore with ring flashes and twin/strobe flashes. I recommend starting with a regular speedlight before looking at alternatives until you understand how diffusion works and how to properly design one.

I hope that you now have a better understanding on this genre of photography and the fundamental concepts that drive this art form. I’m just scratching the surface here, do watch this space if you are keen to learn more (or you can contact me if you have any questions). With just your camera, your macro lens and a flash, you should be able to take pretty interesting macro photos and begin to explore the micro world!

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