Digital Camera Lessons - Macro Photography
By Gene Rodman
Now that we are getting a few hints of spring, a few Robin and a Bluebird sightings, I'm keeping my eyes out for crocus and pasque flowers. It means that our world is going to shake off winter and make its mad dash to grow like crazy. Now everyone that has waited to photograph something a little less white knows that these flowers mark the beginning of another year of recording our beautiful Montana world.
Flowers come in a close third next to our children and pets as something we are drawn to photograph. Anyone who has attempted to get a good picture of a flower knows two things; they are usually quite small and they are very near ground level. The ground level thing is easy to fix if you are willing to get down to their level. If you are not willing to get down and personal then flowers are going to be hard for you. Sure there's the old shoot-down-on-them-from-above method but that limits your perspective. Camera manufacturers also know we love to take pictures of flowers because nearly all automatic cameras have a little flower icon on a dial somewhere on the camera. By turning the dial to the flower icon we are telling our camera that we are going to photograph something close and small. Mostly it will adjust the lens so we can focus closer than for a normal picture. It probably adjusts the aperture (the camera's iris) to let in a little more light too. Yes, like our eyes, cameras have an adjustable iris to regulate the amount of light that exposes the film or camera's sensor. Sometimes you'll hear the word f-stop interchanged with the word aperture. An f-stop is a precise measure of light. Each full f-stop is twice as much or half as much light depending which direction you turn the dial.
So now we are ready to get down in the dirt and start photographing flowers. The one thing about photography that most people don't understand is that it is not that easy to get a good shot. Here are a few hints that will make the going a little easier:
- Do not photograph flowers in direct sunlight. It is way too harsh of a light and contrast will be too great, washing out bright colors and killing shadow detail. Many flower photographers carry a diffusion screen to solve this problem.
- Photographing flowers on a cloudy or foggy day allows for great color saturation and low contrast. Low contrast, diffused light, allows for more fine detail. One misconception about photography is that colors are muted when the sun is behind the clouds. Colors are still there but the decrease in light makes it appear they are less colorful.
- Watch out for bright backgrounds or highlights that detract from the flower. To set off the color and shape of the flower a darker background is usually desired. I often use the green foliage of the flower as the background. Shooting a flower with the sky as the background seldom works unless you really know what you are doing because it is brighter than the flower.
- If one is good then more is better. A basic rule of composition is that an odd number rather than even number of objects is more desirable. Arrange your composition so your eye moves from flower to flower easily. But still remember, one is an odd number too.
Those that are a bit more advanced and have a more adjustable camera with changeable lenses might want to know other tricks. There are several ways to get close to flowers with special lenses and filters. Many zoom lenses have a macro setting allowing for closer focusing, though nothing beats a macro lens. Nikon calls their macro lenses micro lenses. Most allow for close to 1:1 or life size reproduction. A 200mm macro lens allows for a greater working distance from your flower than say a 60mm macro. However a 60mm will have slightly more depth of field than the 200mm even though there's not much depth of field with macro photography.
One of the first tricks photographers used to get close was to reversing their normal lens on their camera body. They did this by using a reversal ring. The reversal ring has the camera's mount on one side and a male screw thread on the other allowing the lenses filter thread to be screwed onto the ring. Since the idea of a lens is to gather light and focus it into a smaller area (the film) reversing the lens allows the light (image) to be magnified.
Those of us old photographers have always known that when a lens focuses to a closer object the lens moves away from the camera and the lens gets longer. Many lenses now have internal focus (noted as IF on the lens) and the lens does not get longer as it focuses closer because all the focusing is done internally. To increase close focusing, camera manufacturers make hollow tubes that fit between the camera body and the lens. These extension tubes, usually in three different sizes, allow any lens to focus closer because the lens is further away from the camera body. Another item along this line is the bellows extension. The same principle applies because the bellows is placed between the camera body and the lens except rather than being a fixed size tube the bellows allows the photographer to precisely determine the objects size and magnification during focusing.
Close-up filters are another handy item to include in your camera bag. Like other filters that screw onto the front of your lens these filters, usually also coming in three different magnifications, are like reading glasses for us old folks. They simply magnify what the lens is already seeing. They are less expensive than macro lenses and extension tubes and may work for you.
Now I mentioned earlier that there is not much depth of field the closer you get to an object. Depth of field is basically what's going to be in focus optically. It is often better to allow as much light as you can into the camera by using a large aperture. There usually isn't much light to work with in macro photography and you'll be fighting slow shutter speeds if you close down your aperture for a little more depth of field. Focusing also becomes much more critical the closer you get. Using extension tubes, bellows extension, and close-up filters or a combination of these allow you to get extreme close-ups (larger than life size).
Gene Rodman is a life long photographer and owns Montana Photographic Arts Gallery and Studio. You can view his website at http://www.MTPhotoArts.com.
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