Larger Than Life

Tools for macro photography
Seen at eight times life size, the iridescent wing scales of a Madagascan sunset moth reveal complexity and color the human eye cannot discern. In his studio, Lepp captured 11 stacked images of a miniscule 4.5x3-millimeter section of wing with a Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro lens at 5x, and Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX flash. Exposure: 1/180 sec., ƒ/3.5, ISO 100.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s define some terms. Macro photography includes captures of subjects from life-size, or 1x, to about 20x on the film or sensor, the point where micro(scopic) photography begins. In nature work, close-ups yield tightly framed captures of small subjects at less than life size on the sensor, but many photographers refer to both close-up and macro photography as “macro,” particularly when the displayed or printed image presents the subject at larger-than-life size. In this column, we’ll discuss some of the macro equipment and techniques that I use, in the field and in the studio. (And please note that none of the suppliers mentioned are paying me to talk about their equipment here.)

Macro Lenses

The best large renditions are achieved with lenses specifically designed for macro photography, although there are a number of ways to get really close to a subject using other optics. Most macro lenses are known for maintaining sharpness across the entire image and the ability to focus from infinity to either 0.5x or 1x without additional accessories. They are available in several focal lengths for application to different subjects.

The standard 50mm to 60mm macro lens has been around the longest; most focus from infinity to 1x. The working distance is quite close, and the front element is often recessed into the lens to achieve even closer focus, making the working distance shorter—a challenge for lighting and a possible disturbance to the subject. An advantage of the 50mm or 60mm macro lens is that it doesn’t take much extension to get the lens past the 1x threshold. The general rule is that it takes another 50mm of extension tube added to a 50mm macro at 1x to achieve 2x, and every additional 50mm of extension will get you another 1x. A 100mm macro lens at 1x will need 100mm of extension tubes or bellows to achieve an additional 1x, and so on. You can see the advantage, except as you get more magnification, your working distance is reduced.

The most popular macro lens is the 100mm to 105mm macro, a fairly good general-purpose optic that can be focused from infinity to 1x. It offers twice the working distance to the subject as the 50mm macro at 1x, so it’s the best utility macro lens if you are going to have just one. The sharpness of some of these lenses is legendary, and they are great for flowers and close-ups of subjects that will allow you to get reasonably close.

The third type of macro, a telephoto macro, comes in focal lengths from 180mm to 200mm, depending on the manufacturer. The main advantage of the telephoto macro is working distance. If you need to stay back from your subject, such as butterflies or other skittish subjects, the 200mm macro offers 4 times the working distance of a 50mm macro. Another advantage of the telephoto macro is that, at similar magnifications to shorter focal length macros, the backgrounds are rendered more out of focus, helping to isolate a subject such as a single flower in a field.

At the upper end of the macro spectrum are specialty high-magnification lenses. I know of only two of these lenses, and I’ve worked extensively with one of them, Canon’s 1-5x MP-E 65mm. The lens does not focus to infinity and is strictly for use in magnifications of 1x and higher. The resolution is excellent when the lens is used properly, and it’s the best way I know to get to 5x and beyond, which I often require when photographing subjects such as snowflakes, butterfly wings and feathers. Magnifications of greater than 5x can be achieved by adding a Canon tele-extender (2x achieves 10x) and/or using a camera with an APS-C sensor for additional crop magnification (16x with the 2x tele-extender attached). This lens is so good, and so unique, that I know several Nikon pros (yes, I have friends who shoot Nikon) who have purchased the MP-E 65mm (currently $1,049 from most vendors) and a Canon body for special macro projects.

Recently a Chinese company, Zhongyi, has introduced the Mitakon 20mm Super Macro, which has a magnification of 4.5x and a maximum aperture of f/2, at $199, with mounts for bodies from eight manufacturers. I haven’t tried this lens, but the results that I have seen online have been impressive, and the price is intriguing.

Tripods And Copy Stands

When you magnify the subject, you magnify the camera movement as well. For most macro photography, a steady base—tripod or copy stand—is needed. The one exception is walking around with a camera, macro lens and macro flash looking for simple one-shot subjects. You have f/16, a fast flash duration, and hopefully a steady hand to place the depth of field in the proper place. The rest of the time, use a tripod or copy stand.

In The Field. I use a tripod with splayed, locked legs to get the camera close to the ground; an articulated center column gets me even lower. My tripod of choice is the Gitzo GT2541EX Series 2 Explorer for both macro and general use. Similar tripods are available from several manufacturers.

I use a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead, because sometimes the combination of camera, lens and flash is heavy, and with a smaller ballhead the setup creeps downward, spoiling the stacking or composition of the intended photograph. A ballhead that has a quick-release clamp will accommodate a focusing slider to move the camera assembly toward and away from the subject so you don’t need to keep moving the whole tripod back and forth. A focusing rail accomplishes the same thing, but with a gear system to make the movements more precise, which facilitates focus stacking in some cases.

In The Studio. A copy stand, or a tripod positioned behind a narrow table, will allow you to position a camera/macro lens above the subject in a stable position that can be maintained while the camera is moved up and down to achieve the optimal magnification and focus. Focus stacking is a useful technique in the macro studio; the technique extends the minimal depth of field associated with high magnifications by capturing and compositing “slices” of overlapping sharpness. To accomplish this, I’ve used two methods. You can move the subject toward or away from the camera in minute segments using a microscope stage, or you can move the camera in precise steps with a focusing rail. My favorite, the Stackshot from Cognisys (cognisys-inc.com), is a computerized controller that can be programmed to make movements from 100mm to 2 microns. If you are serious about focus stacking at high magnifications (over 1x), you need this tool. The price starts at $550; lots of cool accessories are extra. 

Lighting

If you’re shooting close up, that is, right on top of your subject, you’re blocking the ambient light, and there’s no room for standard flash attachments. And if you’re stopping down the lens to increase depth of field, you’re exacerbating the light problem. So when you’re photographing beyond the 1x threshold, you’ll probably need to use more specialized lighting.

Macro Flash. Some of you may recall that, back in the 1970s, I invented and marketed the Lepp Macro Bracket to solve this problem. Now I use the Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX in the field and the studio; Canon also offers the Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II. Nikon’s macro flashes are the R1 and R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlights. Sony’s designated macro flash is the HVL-MT24AM Macro Twin Flash, and Olympus has the Macro Flash Set STF-8. Numerous other companies offer accessory macro flash and ringlights that can be found online. For a quick refresher course, see our article, “Macro Flash Tips & Techniques,” on the Outdoor Photographer website.

Auxiliary Lighting. Small, inexpensive LED book lights are great tools for macro photography in the studio and field. I prefer the brighter units that have multiple light emitters and a color temperature that is close to daylight (use RAW capture and it makes little difference, however). Many run for a long time on several AA or AAA batteries. Most have clamps and moveable necks between the light head and battery that make them easy to position for efficiency and creativity. They may require longer exposures than flashes do, but because you can see where the light will fall, they are easier to set up and position.


Want to learn more about macro photography? For equipment recommendations, see our guide to macro lenses, or get inspired with this introduction to macro photography techniques.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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