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Macro Photography - Everything You Always Wanted to Know, But Were Afraid to Ask!

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Sure, looking out at a beautiful mountain range with the expansive valley below can be a beautiful sight.  But instead of looking out at a scene covering hundreds of square miles, how about taking a different approach and look at a few square inches instead?

Partridge Berry in the Arctic Tundra

When we shift our focus from the big scene to the minute details found all around us, we start to see things that most people miss.  The world of Macro Photography opens up a whole new perspective - a tiny little vista of fantastic images!

To get close, you’ll need a few tools and some guidance - and that’s exactly what this article is designed to give you.

First, a definition.

When I was a young photographer in the 1970s, the term Macro meant that the size of the image projected onto the film was at least the same size as the actual subject, but since that time, it has evolved into a looser definition of “close focus”, and that's the definition we'll work with.

The most common tools for creating macro images are macro lenses and extension tubes.

Macro Lenses.  There are an enormous number of lenses out there for your DSLR that carry the macro designation.  Perhaps the most well known are the Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro and the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro. 

These are both spectacular performers with excellent reputations - and that goes for both "L" and non-"L" versions of the Canon.  There are many others too.  For example, Canon's 24-105mm f/4 L IS is one of the single best "walking around" lenses out there - and is macro rated at a close focus distance of 1.48 feet (0.45 meters).

I find that the quickest way to get the closest focus possible is to turn the auto focus (AF) off and manually set the focusing ring all the way to the minimum focus distance, which you'll see on the lens' scale.  Then focus on the subject by moving your entire body and camera back and forth until the image is sharp.

That little trick will save you a lot of fidgeting with the camera and lens!


Extension Tubes.  Now for the star of the show - where the big fun begins!

Phottix Extension Tubes

Extension tubes are simply hollow tubes (no glass inside) that fit between your camera and lens.  It simply creates distance between them.  The better quality extension tubes like these Phottix Extension Tubes pictured above,  also carry the electrical connections from the lens to the camera.  That preserves the ability to easily set your aperture and to use the auto-focus and image stabilization features of the lens


Here's how they work.  Think of your lens as a projector, showing an image on a movie screen (the camera's sensor). 

Moving the projector away from the wall makes the image larger.  But of course, the screen stays the same size.

Much of the image spills outside the boundaries of the screen and is lost - but the part that remains on the screen is magnified - and therein lies the magic of extension tubes.

So how much magnification can you achieve with extension tubes?


Yes, there's a tiny bit of math required if you want to know exactly how much magnification you can achieve with extension tubes.  Here it is:

Magnification = mm of extension / mm of focal length. 

That's it.  Not so hard, right? 

If you were to stack up all three of those Phottix Extension tubes to their 65mm length and us them with a 50mm lens, the magnification is 65/50, or 1.3.  That means that the image that's projected onto your sensor is 1.3 times larger than life-size.

It's completely counter intuitive, but if you change that 50mm lens to a 25mm lens, you'll get MORE magnification.  It would be 65/25, or 2.6 times life-size. 

One more thing.  Extension tubes eat light.  Lots of it. 

Light loss, measured in f/stops = magnification X 2.  So that 65mm extension with the 50mm lens will give you a light loss of 1.3 (magnification) X 2, or 2.6 f/stops!

That means that you'll need to have plenty of light, or raise your camera's ISO to compensate, so your shutter speeds won't be so slow that you get blur from camera shake.

A good guideline is to ensure that the shutter speed is at least 1/focal length X 2.  So for the 50mm lens, try to have a minimum shutter speed of 50 X 2, or 1/100th second.  Of course, faster is better!


The next thing to consider is stand-off distance - that's the distance between the camera and the subject.

Suffice it to say that as magnification goes up (more extension and / or shorter focal lengths), the stand-off distance goes down.  In fact, you can get to the point that the front element of your lens is actually touching the subject and you still need to get closer to achieve focus!

In that case, you need to use some combination of a longer focal length or less extension.

The math to calculate this distance is far more complicated - it's easier to set up your shots by trial and error.

The opposite is true too.  Want to shoot a hornet's nest?  (Why on earth would you???)  But let's say that for some strange reason, hornets are your thing.

Use a long focal length with extension tubes.  You'll get less magnification, but you'll be at a safe distance.  That seems like a good decision, right?

Focusing.  When you're shooting macro images with extension tubes, focusing is a very different enterprise than with normal photography.

In general, you'll focus by moving the entire camera back and forth - NOT with the normal auto-focus function, which has very little effect in macro.

I always recommend switching the auto-focus to the OFF position. 

Using a focusing rail like this Phottix device will help you to fine tune your focus.


Phottix Focus Rail

The focus rail has a tripod mount underneath and a tripod screw that attaches to the camera on top.  This allows the rail to move the camera back and forth in very small increments - and that allows you to nail the precise focus that you're after.

So what can you capture with macro photography?  Anything you can think of!

While I'm mostly a wildlife and nature photographer, I couldn't resist taking an old 4 GB hard drive apart and shooting macro shots of the insides.  These were shot with the Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens and extension tubes.

Hard Drive Parts

Detail of a flexible ribbon cable

But my favorite macro shot is a close up of the arctic tundra as it was in its fall colors in northern Labrador...

Arctic Tundra in Fall Colors - Labrador, Canada

This was as simple as dropping to the ground with the Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS  Macro lens and focusing on the most intense color.

So the next time you're looking for a photographic subject to shoot, look around you - but instead of looking over the miles, look at the inches. 

You'll be amazed at what you 'll find!






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