A Guide to Macro Photography - Part I: Equipment

- deutsche version -

Part 1: The Equipment

Part 2: The Preparation

Part 3: The camera settings

I want to share my experience in macro photography, so I decided to make a series of blog posts explaining my workflow. One thing in advance: The following guide is tailored to my photographic style, leading to the kind of images you can see in my "Portfolio" section. For example, I never use a flash and highly recommend the use of a tripod, whereas different areas of macrophotography highly benefit from a flash. Nevertheless, many points I will mention in this series are valid for general macro photography of all kinds.

To start off, I want to show what kind of equipment I use, why I use it and what I like / dislike about it. 

The typical content of my photography backpack (details see below)

Here is a list of things that typically are in my backpack (from top left to bottom right): 

Note: Novoflex is a german company and the prices in US are insane...

The Essentials:

I. The camera:

I use the Olympus E-M5 as my current main camera. Although macro photography is quite undemanding with a camera, some features will make your life easier. First of all, you want to have an implementation of "live view", allowing you to magnify an area of your screen. This feature is a blessing when it comes to manual focussing (which I highly recommend for macro photography). Further, the E-M5 offers a tilt-screen. Since nature macro photography oftentimes happens at ground level, this is a feature I never want to miss again.

All Olympus cameras have a µFT-sensor, having 1/4 of the size of a full frame sensor. While this has negative consequences for the image quality in terms of noise-performance in low light and dynamic range, a smaller sensor offers advantages for macro photographers. The µFT sensor is 17.3 mm wide, thus, with a 1:1 macro lens attached, you will be able to "fill" your whole image with a 17.3 mm long motive. As an example, the size of a house fly is 6 mm. Thus, at maximum magnification, the fly would occupy roughly 1/3 of your frame. In comparison, a full frame sensor has a sensor width of 36 mm. Thus, with the same 1:1 macro lens attached and at maximum magnification, the same fly would only cover 1/6 of your image width. In the praxis this does mean that you will have crop your macro images much more often if your camera has a bigger sensor (which you usually can do, because bigger sensors oftentimes offer more megapixels, but for me it is by far not as satisfying as capturing the high magnification image right away with a smaller sensor). Further, a smaller sensor offers an increased depth of field, allowing you to shoot at wider apertures compared to bigger sensor cameras and still get all the relevant parts in focus. This allows you to keep your exposure times short and even use the sweet spot of your lens in terms of sharpness and bokeh. But, sensor size discussions seem to be as fruitful as Canon vs. Nikon or Windows vs. Mac discussions, so I will stop at this point. In parallel to my µFT equipment, I use a full frame Sony A7 and I find the smaller sensor size to be beneficial for my kind of macro photography.

II. The tripod:

When you are new to macro photography, you will quickly discover two frustrating things. Your depth of field will always be too small, preventing you from getting all the things in focus that you wanted to. Second, your shutter speed will always be too long (because you had to close the aperture to get more depth of field - a vicious circle), resulting in blurred images. A tripod helps with both problems. If you are searching for a suitable tripod, check how low to the ground you can get with it. The vast majority of your subjects will be below knee level. For my tripod, I actually modified it to remove the middle column, allowing me to spread its legs completely to get to ground level. My tripod is still a relict from my DSLR equipment, thus being really oversized for my current, small camera setup. The smaller size of mirrorless cameras would allow you to downscale other equipment parts such as the tripod and ball head.

III. The macro lens:

On a first note: All modern macro lenses are sufficiently sharp. I have used many lenses and I yet have to stumble across a bad macro lens from any manufacturer. However, there are some things that really help. First, the longer the focal length the easier it will be for you to position your tripod without chasing away your subject. Recently, Panasonic released a 30 mm macro lens for the µFT system, a focal length that I would consider useless for my kind of macrophotography. At maximum magnification, your subject will almost stick to the front lens and your lens will likely cast an annoying shadow on it. However, if you master such a lens, you might be able to get some unique perspectives into the macro world.
Second, a tripod collar is a very valuable feature of a macro lens and I am very disappointed that many of the modern macro lenses don't offer this feature. A tripod collar allows you to rotate your camera (e.g. switching from portrait format to landscape format) without disturbing your focal plane. I will tell you why this is useful when I come to the techniques-part of this blog series. In my case, I primarily use a 25 year old manual legacy macro lens (OM zuiko 90mm f/2) with an adapter. For this adapter, Novoflex offers an accessory tripod collar. I really hope, Olympus will at some point extend their "pro" lineup by a 100 mm macro with a tripod collar.

The Optionals:

I. Rice Bag / Bean Bag:

Sometimes your tripod doesn't get you as low as needed, or sometimes you just want to go low weight and leave your heavy tripod at home. In these cases, a beanbag comes in handy. It is easily self made and I like to use it for amphibian or plant photography at ground level.

II. "The Plamp":

I suppose the name of this little helper comes from "clamp" and "plant", which is what I use it for in most cases. In macro photography, you deal with high magnifications and relatively long shutter speeds, making wind the macro photographers natural enemy. The Plamp, or a similar selfmade device, can help to stabilize your motive. Despite being mentioned in the shops description, I would not recommend to attach the plamp to your tripod, because that way you obviously can't move your tripod anymore to achieve slight changes in angles etc. Instead, I attach one end of the plamp to a knife which I then use as a peg to attach it to the ground.

III. Knife and Scissor:

As mentioned above, I use a knife as a peg for the plamp. Scissors are useful to cut blades of grass that you don't want in your frame (note: think before you cut something in nature and obey the rules of nature reserves).

IV. Remote control:

Camera vibration is especially detrimental when you shoot at high magnifications. The slightest camera shake will significantly blur your image. Even the slight shock induced by the DSLR mirror or the shutter might lead to this effect. To prevent it, use a sturdy tripod, enable vibration-reducing functions in your camera (mirror lockup, "anti-shock" etc.) and use a remote control. If you don't own one, that can be replaced by the self-timer function (e.g. 2 seconds).

V. Diffusor / Reflector: 

These can be bought as collapsible all-in-one devices including a diffusor and multiple reflector covers in different colors. I use the diffusor quite often to soften the light. Since my main motives are insects and these have a highly reflective cuticle, direct sunlight on them will decrease the amount of details you can capture. In addition, by casting a diffused shade on your subject and leaving the background in sunlight, you will be able to create bright, vibrant background colors. 

VI. Macro Rail:

If you want to do focus stacking (i.e. combining multiple images with different focal plains to one image), you will need a macro rail to move your camera without changing your frame and magnification. But also for normal macro photography, a macro rail is useful to precisely adjust your frame or focus. But I would rate it pretty low on the priority list.

 

If you have any questions, just drop me a comment.

 

Stay tuned. The next entry will describe the preparations for a successful macro tour.

best,

Sören