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Macrophotography -- Small Is Beautiful
By Mike Pasini, Editor
Imaging Resource Newsletter

"The most important rule of macrophotography is to stabilize the camera."

Taking close-ups -- extreme close-ups where the recorded image is life-size or larger -- used to require a lot of expensive equipment, like bellows, extension tubes, supplementary lenses, reverse collars, ring strobes, and special macro lenses. Not to mention fast film.

But many consumer-level digital cameras include a macro mode, putting this previously obscure photographic activity in just about everyone's hands.

And, boy, is it fun!

Some of the hard-learned lessons of the old days are worth repeating, but with a digicam most of the drudgery is history. Still, there are important limitations when you start shooting real close-up.

The Macro Lens

Not every digicam offers a macro mode and among those that do, the macro capabilities vary. Cameras with very wide-angle lenses often have very close minimum shooting distances (say, three inches), while cameras with zoom lenses tend to require you to back up to five or six inches (unless, like the Nikon 900 series, you can attach a supplementary wide-angle lens).

Setup

The most important rule of macrophotography is to stabilize the camera. Any camera movement at close range will blur the image.

A tripod will do the job, but it isn't absolutely necessary. A handheld shot often works (and sometimes you have no choice). The point is to stabilize the camera -- and provide some mobility, too. The easiest way to frame your close-up shot is to move the camera, not the lens or the subject.

That's because the critical focusing distance in close-up photography is the opposite of normal photography. We normally focus by changing (ever so slightly) the distance between the lens and the film plane (where the CCD sits) and we change the size of the image by moving the camera closer or further away from the subject. But in macrophotography we focus by moving the lens closer or further from the image and change the magnification by moving the lens further or closer to the film plane.

Stabilizing the camera includes eliminating camera shake when you press the shutter. (See "Rock Steady Without a Tripod" for more on this subject.)

 

Focus

"Throw every beam of light you've got at your subject: candles, flashlights, carbon arcs, halogen headlights . . . "

Focus can be a problem.

If you have an optical viewfinder on your digicam, it almost certainly (there are exceptions) isn't displaying what the lens sees. It's sitting alongside the lens, and in the case of a zoom lens, moving in tandem with it as you zoom in and out.

This isn't a big deal when the subject is middle distance or faraway. The parallax correction (the correction for the difference between what the lens sees and what the viewfinder shows) is minor. But very close up it's significant. Your viewfinder is just not on the same page. And utterly useless.

If you have an LCD monitor, you can frame your shot, but focusing is very difficult. The resolution of the LCD just isn't high enough to let you see when you're in focus. Some camera manufacturers advise hooking up the video out cable to a television monitor and using that to focus.

Assuming you can focus at all. Many cameras, happy with their autofocus, don't provide any means of manually focusing the lens.

This can be a problem with extreme close-ups because not much of the subject is in focus. Focusing manually is the only way to select the fraction of an inch depth of field you want to highlight.

The best workaround for the focus problem is to make sure you are within the manufacturer's stated focal range for the lens and light the subject as brightly as you can. That will make your lens stop down or "squint," and give you the deepest depth of field possible.

Lighting

One blessing of digital imaging is that most cameras automatically balance the light source. Fluorescent overheads in the garage do not make everything look green, incandescent lamps in the living room do not make the walls yellow. Everything looks natural.

You can use that to your advantage when lighting your close-ups.

Throw every beam of light you've got at your subject: candles, flashlights, carbon arcs, halogen headlights, oven lights, matches, lighters, strobes, anything. Don't worry, the camera will balance it.

What about the built-in flash?

Odds are it's optimized for a middle distance group shot. You'll probably have to filter it to get it to illuminate anything close to your lens. It will do in a pinch (but be sure to let the lamp cool between shots if you cover it with a diffuser). Better to rely on other light sources, even off-camera flash triggered by your built-in flash.

Of course, some subjects look unnatural if their natural lighting is disturbed. And some profit from light that isn't white. Just stabilize the camera and let the shot take as long as it takes. But the more light you can provide, the deeper the focus will be.

Subjects

"Valuable small items like coins and stamps are good subjects, too."

Don't put those Christmas ornaments away until you've snapped a few. They're ideal subjects. So is all that holiday jewelry. Who knows, they could end up on the cover of your Christmas cards next year.

Valuable small items like coins and stamps are good subjects, too. They don't move for one, but detailed images of these valuables are much appreciated should you ever have to file an insurance claim for their loss.

This is also a great way to share those priceless keepsakes and mementos with other family members: a grandfather's watch, the engraving on a locket. (Unless, of course, they don't know you have them.)

Close-up photography lets you see many otherwise unappreciated things in a new light. Experiment with your camera's macro capabilities and we think you'll agree, small is beautiful.

This article is reprinted from The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter,
Features Column, published December 17, 1999

 

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