Tack-Sharp Macro Photography Tips

Tips for tack-sharp macro photography

Macro photography opens the door to a new world of photography. The closer you get, the more you’ll see things you never knew existed. Details become primary compositional elements. Small parts of the whole take on dramatic importance. It’s an investigation into the miniscule. The deeper into it you explore, the more you’ll find. The most commonly photographed subject for macro photography is flowers, but there’s very little out there that isn’t fair game.

How To Get Close:

a) The most common tool, but the most expensive, is a true macro lens. If you go this route, I encourage you to get a longer focal length version as wider ones force you to get close to your subject. This makes it difficult to use auxiliary flashes to modify the light. Additionally, if you get into photographing insects, the longer focal length gives you a greater working distance so you won’t scare the bug away. The longer ones range in the 180-200mm range.

b) Extension tubes are commonly used as they’re a less expensive alternative. They fit between the camera body and lens, which in turn allows any lens to focus closer. The bigger the tube, the closer the lens can focus. They contain no glass elements.

c) Tele Converters are a good alternative as they increase the focal length of the lens by a factor of the specific extender: 1.4 / 1.7 / 2.0. These tools are used less often as they’re not compatible with all lenses.

Tips for tack-sharp macro photography

d) “Macro Zooms”—many zoom lenses claim to be macro, but they don’t have the close focusing capabilities of a true macro lens, so be wary of a manufacturer’s claim.

e) Close up filters work well if you stick with Achromatic quality. They screw on to the front element of your lens, making them very easy to use. When attached to a zoom, they provide great versatility as varying magnifications can be had based on the chosen focal length. While not cheap by filter standards, they’re one of the least expensive ways to get into macro photography. They also provide excellent quality. Realize they can be only as good as the lens to which they’re attached.

How to Get Sharp:

Critical Focusing: Macro photography is all about magnifying details in your subjects. Hand in hand goes the fact that because you’re magnifying the subject matter, you’re also magnifying mistakes. A minute error in focusing determines if the photo is a keeper or an image destined for the delete button. Focusing rails assist in attaining critical focus as they allow the camera to move in precise increments. Alternatively, move the camera backward and forward rather than try to focus the lens. At the moment you see the plane you want sharp come into focus, press the shutter.

Stability: It’s essential the camera is held steady when making macro photos. This necessitates the use of a sturdy tripod. Again, in that you’re magnifying your subject matter, a small amount of camera shake is magnified into a big mistake.

Tips for tack-sharp macro photography

Cable Release: Pressing the shutter can introduce movement. The use of an electronic cable release prevents this as the camera is fired without having to touch the shutter.

Mirror Lock Up: For subjects that are stationary or not impacted by the wind, if your camera has mirror lock up capability, I encourage you to use it. Mirror slap creates movement, which in turn reduces the sharpness. If the mirror is locked in the UP position, there’s no negative impact.

Depth of Field: The more a subject is magnified, the less depth of field. If you need to extend the DOF, you need to stop the lens down. This translates to slower shutter speeds, which impact sharpness due to camera movement. Be cognizant of the required DOF so you’ll know how it impacts the outcome. The use of flash or other means of adding more light can help alleviate some of the potential problems.

Selective Focusing: The use of selective focus gets into the creative aspect of macro photography. Long lenses placed very close to the subject and shot wide open are the norm. The effect is painterly as just a sliver of the subject is sharp. It works well with flowers. A benefit is that some of the above concerns become less critical as fast shutter speeds are used and important DOF issues have less impact.

Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.

Photography is what motivates me to move through life in a positive way. Photography is ͞All About The Light͟ and it’s the first thing I seek out before I press the shutter. Optimally, I pursue great subjects in great light, but if there’s an ordinary subject in great light, I still press the shutter. I love to share the photographic knowledge I’ve accumulated and I hope my enthusiasm is contagious so I can motivate others to feel the same way I do about my photography.


    Great examples and great checklist, but missing a couple I personally could not do without:

    1. Focus stacking rail which opens a new world on the new world of macro – I have the RRS model

    2. Wireless remote shutter release – of the 2.4G variety, not infra-red because it can be sensed from behind the camera

    Russ, thanks for this excellent article about macro photography. There is so much information that you could make this a series of articles so that you could dig deeply into each of key subjects. Plus you could add post processing ideas to finish the photos as fine art.

    To David Greenberg’s checklist additions, I would add a Hoodloupe to check the focus on the LCD screen before and after releasing the shutter; and possibly a 2 second delay to reduce the natural camera shake.

    Summary: Great article.

    Bill Brennan

    Bill Brennan

    Awesome article Russ! I love the subjects too. 🙂 I would also like to add that to get these beautiful crisp photographs you will need to stack your shots. David and Bill have great suggestions and I’d like to add another….try stacking your images. Helicon and/or Zerene Stacker are amazing programs to combine your images together and they both let you try their software for free. It’s a WOW moment when you see your work merged together knowing your focal point is tack sharp.

    Thanks to all for the suggested additions. I agree that focus stacking is great new technology BUT the subject has to be perfectly still. Note that the photo of the swallowtail butterfly and the bee wouldn’t work with stacking in that neither subject would sit still long enough to run through the different focus points. Thanks to all for the positive feedback. I hope you learn lots of new techniques from my Tips.

    You’ve left out one technique that I use with good results – a lens on a reversing ring. I have not yet added a true macro to my arsenal, but I still have the lenses from my old film Pentax ME-Super. With a small investment for a reversal ring I’m able to use for example the 50mm f/1.8 prime from the Pentax on my Canon 6D. Because the lens has aperture controls on the barrel, I can set shutter speed and ISO in the camera, f/stop on the lens, and focus by moving the camera or subject. For greater precision I have a focusing rail. Then if I’m really looking for an added edge I’ll do focus stacking. http://truelightphoto.weebly.com/week-19—may-12.html

    Nice Piece Russ.

    Just to add a point if I may.
    When positioning for a subject, bare in mind its form and how that will affect which parts are in or out of focus when shooting at wide apertures. you need to be prepared to get down to your subjects level and parallel if you are shooting something like a butterfly where you want the whole side of the body, head and wing in focus as in your shoot above. or shoot head on and use a wide aperture to create a more artistic feel where the rest of the animal trails off in focus.

    I also always carry a pair of scissors with me as well, to snip away any intruding undergrowth as its rare you will get a clean shot. its the best way of clearing clutter without disturbing the animal itself or what it is resting on.

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