Macro Technique Tutorial

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dalantech's avatar

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I’ve been asked a couple of times to do a tutorial on macro photography, and I’ve given a few "quick and dirty" explanations on various forums. But it’s easier to write about it formally in an article and just point someone to a link. So here goes :)

Disclaimer: I am not the last word, nor in my humble opinion is anyone the last word, on any photographic discipline! There are many different ways to take a photo, and I really don’t think that any technique is inherently wrong -just different. In this article I’m going to explain how I shoot macro and hopefully there will be something that you can use. The important thing to remember is that my technique was developed based on my experience with a camera -and the things that I do may be detrimental to you! So take my techniques, experiment with them, and adapt them to your own style of shooting. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to have a certain piece of equipment for a particular type of photography -think outside the box! If I listened to the conventional wisdom concerning macro photography I’d be chasing fast moving insects with a camera on a tripod and only have a handful of usable images...

In this article I’m only going to cover using a flash as the primary light source. In another article I’ll go over using natural light with the flash as fill.

Now let’s get into the nuts and bolts of shooting macro :)

When I’m shooting at life size I usually have my camera set to manual mode, F11 for the aperture, 1/250 of a second for the shutter, and the ISO set to 100. At those settings I’m shooting a full two stops below the ambient exposure for the scene –and that’s on a bright sunny day. So the flash is going to be my primary light source and if it doesn’t fire then the scene will be completely black -and that’s a good thing since I want to use the short duration of the flash to freeze motion.

Even though the shutter is open for 1/250 of a second there isn’t enough natural light (ambient) to be registered by the camera’s sensor. The photo receptors (or the photo sensitive grains in film) act like buckets for photons: If the buckets don’t get full enough you’ll get an under exposed image and if they get too full the scene will be over exposed. So the flash becomes a “virtual shutter” since it’s the only light that is registered by the camera. Remember that the intensity of the light from your flash does not change from exposure to exposure, but the flash duration does. One of the tricks to getting sharp hand held macro images is to get that virtual shutter as fast as possible and the easiest way to do that is to get the flash as close to the subject as possible. Flash duration increases with the distance from the flash to the subject, so increasing the distance between the flash and the subject will cause more glare and decrease your ability to freeze motion.

You can use any flash to shoot macro, you don’t have to use a dedicated macro flash unit. I think that it’s easier to use a macro flash though and if you take a lot of macro photos then getting one is a good investment. The MR-14EX ring flash is easy to use right out of the box –just remember to set the ratio control to make one flash head brighter than the other so your images won’t look “flat” (I’ve used from a 2:1 to a 4:1 ratio). I currently use the MT-24EX without ratio control (I place the flash heads on the flash mount at a 90 degree angle to each other to get dynamic lighting) and I diffused the heads with a set of Gary Fong Puffer diffusers –amazing what you can do with a hot glue gun ;)

Why hand held?

I shoot a lot of fast moving insects –critters that just won’t sit still long enough for me to set up a tripod. Plus a tripod, at best, will only eliminate my movement but it can’t stop the subject. So I diffuse my flash and get it as close as possible to what I’m photographing and I rely on the short duration of the light from the flash to freeze all the motion in the scene. I do look for ways to brace myself and the camera, and I look for subjects that will put me at an advantage (I never shoot anything that’s above eye level).

I think one of the big misconceptions with using a flash for macro photography is that no matter what the duration of the flash is it will always be fast enough to freeze motion -and I’m convinced that it just isn’t true. The amount of information in a macro scene is a lot higher than a shot of the beach at sunset so small movements, of less than a pixel or two, during the exposure of a macro shot can result in a blurred image. It won’t look like motion blur, you’ll think that you missed the focus or that diffraction was a problem.

One of the other big misconceptions is that you have to use a tripod for macro photography. Even if the critters didn’t move, the wind blowing across the legs of the tripod or the mirror slapping up into the mirror chamber when you take a photo could cause enough vibration to ruin an image. I can get just as much stability with resting my elbow on my knee as I can with a tripod –and the “knee pod” is a lot faster to set up and take down ;)

I often get asked how I get so much depth of field in my photos. There isn’t any magic to it really, it’s just technique. Don’t be afraid to stop the lens down. Diffraction can be a problem, but it’s a minor player in effecting overall image quality –nailing the focus, keeping the flash duration low, and bracing yourself are far more important. I shoot at F11 with an MPE-65mm macro lens all the way up to 5x and I’ll take the lens all the way to F14 if I have to. I avoid F16 above 2x with the MPE-65mm because I think the lens performs poorly at F16 at high magnification (but I don’t think the problem is diffraction). Sometimes getting more depth in a scene is more important that getting an image that’s razor sharp…

Remember that the plane of sharp focus is perpendicular to your lens and although it’s flat it has some “thickness” to it. If you move in toward a critter until its eyes are in focus, and then press the shutter release, then the plane of sharp focus starts at the eyes and ends somewhere between the critter and your lens –possibly out in the middle of nowhere in an area that you don’t need it! Often I move in toward an insect until the eyes are in focus and I keep moving in until they go out of focus again, and then I move away from it until the eyes are sharp and then take the shot. That way the area of sharp focus starts at the critter’s eyes and extends into its body where I need the extra detail…

Look for “magic angles”. Since the plane of sharp focus is perpendicular to the lens you can lay it over your subject so that it covers the critter like a blanket. You can make a scene look like there is more depth of field than what is really there. If you are shooting an insect from the side it’s a good idea to make sure the lens is perpendicular to the plane of its body so that the entire length of critter is in sharp focus –but it’s not necessary to do it all the time. You can use a shallow depth of field to draw the viewer’s attention to a particular area in a scene, so going for maximum depth of field all the time might be a mistake..

I take multiple frames of each composition and I refocus for each frame. Sometimes what looks good in the viewfinder doesn’t look good when I see it on my computer but as long as I refocus for every shot I’m sure to get at least one frame that has the area of sharp where I want it. I focus the lens by moving my body –there is no focus ring on the MPE-65. When I’m shooting with Canon’s 100mm macro I sometimes use the focus ring as a course adjustment and use my body for the fine tuning.

I always shoot RAW because of the JPG compression penalty: When you take an image in high quality JPG mode the camera is compressing the data, and since JPG is a “lossy” form of compression data is thrown out to make the file smaller than a RAW image. I’m going to have to edit the shot even if I nail the exposure, since I can never get away from dust spots showing up in an image no matter how often I clean the sensor in my camera. After getting rid of the dust and doing the other minor post processing I’d have to save the file as a JPG and even more information gets tossed out during the compression. But by shooting in RAW I only pay the JPG compression penalty one time –when I save my RAW file edits. The end result is sharp images without having to use Unsharp Mask.

Last but not least no matter how you shoot macro have fun! Find ways to make taking high magnification images enjoyable for you and you’ll keep doing it… :)
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xs-deviant's avatar
See thanks to snomanda who pointed me to these manuals I now picked up this flash freezing thing. Promise the next Ant Emoji Ant Emoji I will send you will be in the spotlight :-)
Very good of you to put out the tutorial, and great images. Your techniques obviously work very well for you. 

Your technical explanations of flash duration is flawed; its not distance but intensity that dictates duration. A dimmer flash exposure is a shorter exposure. Additionally, where you set your focal plane dictates the centre of focus, not the back of it. Hold down your DOF preview button to see it in action.

Keep up the great work, and thanks for sharing!
dalantech's avatar
Actually my explanation is correct: The intensity of the light that a flash produces is constant. But what does change from one exposure to anothet is the length of time the flash fires, and getting your flash closer to the subject will give you a shorter burst of light and make it easier to freeze motion. 
StingRay2469's avatar
Awesome tutorial. FYI Outdoor Photographer April 2011, has another great article on macro's
vvneagleone's avatar
Best macro tutorial I've ever read.
CauterizeSetsFire's avatar
Thanks i can wait to try it out! Great information! ;)
g3ckko's avatar
Okay mate this helped me a lot mate. Thanks. I had some good results with the MPE but not always. This read helps a lot.


I only increased the contrast slightly :)
bloknayrb's avatar
Interesting read, thanks for the tips! Due to my limited budget I'm currently using a lens reversal ring to shoot macro and I have no control over my lens aperture. Do you think it would work to cut a hole in a piece of cardboard and mount it over the front-facing part of the lens, or would that only result in vignetting?
Liz-in-BackoBourke's avatar
WOW! will expeiiment, and thanks. I always wondered how to start
comet166's avatar
thank you for sharing, great to get new information, can't wait to try it out. [link]
floggerSG's avatar
Thanks for the writeup. Changed the way I shoot w/ my flash and ghetto softbox, I like the results!

dalantech's avatar
I get a "file not found" error when I click on the link :(
floggerSG's avatar
dalantech's avatar
Excellent image!
floggerSG's avatar
Thanks! The whole underexpose thing, and custom flash settings were key :)
dalantech's avatar
Happy to help :)
keldererik's avatar
Would you recommend the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM above the EF-S 60mm Macro? Maybe it's a stupid question since the first is L-glass. I'm just wondering if it's worth the extra money.
dalantech's avatar
I'd actually recommend the EF-S 60mm. [link]
Ramography's avatar
Wow, what a really detailed tutorial..i salute for putting such effort into this masterpiece..Thank you :)
dalantech's avatar
Thanks for the feedback!
ChromaToast's avatar
Thank you for the interesting tutorial. I love macros. Thinking of trying a few myself. This will surely help. :clap:
dalantech's avatar
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