10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Macro tips

Presenting a quick summary of all the non-obvious things I’ve learned in my years of shooting up close and personal.

Disclaimer: As with every other article in this series, I’m assuming you know the basics already.

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Lange Datograph. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

10: Watch your reflections! Every time I shoot something polished and reflective, I keep thinking of this viral internet meme called reflectoporn. Don’t google it. You have been warned.

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Gyrotourbillon 2 tourbillon. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G with 72mm extension.

9: Use bellows or extension tubes to get more magnification. I’ve got both; remember you need to compensate exposure for light loss as your magnification increases. The Nikons do this automatically, but most other cameras don’t. Macro lenses and extension tubes/ bellows work great; make sure they’re high quality items because cheap ones will have non-planar mounts, and result in odd distortion. Note that some lenses won’t work with bellows or tubes because they either bring the focal point inside the rear element of the lens, or the lens design isn’t compatible because the focusing elements are internal.

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There’s no way you’re getting the entire dragonfly in focus without focus stacking. And they don’t stay still for that long. Nikon D3, 105/2.8 VR + 1.4x TC

8: Diffraction vs. DoF: a tradeoff. Pick one. As you stop down more, your DoF increases; but go too far and you also start to lose resolution because of diffraction. Exactly when this kicks in depends on your focal length and the pixel pitch of your camera; on the D700 with a 60mm lens, it starts around f22 and becomes very noticeable by f32. There are a couple of solutions: use a shorter focal length – the 35 ASPH FLE gives me more DoF by f16; or use a tilt shift lens.

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Ants are skittish. Don’t get too close. I’ve had bugs jump on my lens before. Nikon D200, 105/2.8 VR

7: Working distance is your friend. There’s more room for lighting, and less chance of disturbing the subject (especially for those of you who shoot small bugs or insects). For product shoots, since you’re further away, reflections are smaller – and thus require less retouching.

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Speake-Marin Immortal Dragon. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon

6: Macro lenses are used for macro work for a reason. That’s because they’re optimized for near subject distances; the plane of focus is flat and they have correction for common aberrations (spherical, lateral CA, LoCA) especially close up. With a normal lens, as you get closer, the aberrations and distortions get more and more obvious – which is why you don’t want to use a normal lens and extension tubes. There are two exceptions: when you have no choice, and when using certain particular lenses. A good example is the Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE; who’d have thought a documentary/ reportage lens with a 70cm near focus limit performs spectacularly on a D700 with extension tubes?

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Gyrotourbillon I. Nikon D700, Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE

5: Continuous light sources are good. Not for primary lighting, but for helping focus and composition. Better yet if you mirror your lighting position with the secondary lights. I use a pair of 120 LED video light panels.

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Critical focus plane. Roger Dubuis MuchMore. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G + 36mm extension tube.

4: Use DOF preview to check your composition. DOF preview? Composition? How are there related? Simple: as you stop down, your composition changes again. And there’s a big difference between f2.8 and f22 at macro distances.

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Sinn 556. This looked very different in the finder because almost nothing was in the plane of focus. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

3: Clean your subject well! The better the lighting, the more uniform the subject texture, and the higher the magnification, the more dust you’re going to see. It’s much easier to clean the real object than try to do it in photoshop.

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Lange Datograph. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G. Focus stack of 20 images with bellows and extension tubes. Magnification set, then camera moved on a rail. If I didn’t, the images wouldn’t align properly because they’d all be at different magnifications. The blue screws at left are about 0.5mm across.

2: Set magnification, not focus. What’s the difference? Each lens gives a certain magnification ratio for a particular focus distance; if you focus first (or only focus) then you’ll find the composition changing – especially at the borders – as the image snaps into focus. I decide how much of the subject I want to cover, and then move the camera to focus. This is especially important at high magnifications – I work all the way up to 6:1.

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Speake-Marin SM2. A short exposure time stops the balance dead – and this thing rotates through 270 degrees eight times per second. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G + 72mm of extension tubes.

1: Keep your exposure times short. You’re going to be wondering how. I use a flash and the highest sync speed the camera supports; because you’re stopped down and at base ISO, 99.9% or more of the light comes from the flash. And flash times – even at maximum power – are less than 1/1000s usually. Lower power ratings are even faster – this is more than enough to stop camera shake even at very high magnifications. The upshot? I don’t use tripods; they’ve been relegated to holding my flashes! I value the freedom of composition given by handholding the rig. The one exception to this rule is when I need to do focus stacking. MT

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Be creative. Girard Perregaux F1-047. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

More of my watch work can be seen here on flickr

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