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This is the final in a series of four lessons on close-up and macro photography by Andrew S Gibson, author of Up Close: A Guide to Macro & Close Up Photography.
In my previous articles I looked at three techniques for getting closer to your subject – you can catch up on them here:
All of these techniques have one thing in common – they help you use lenses that you already own to get close-up or macro photos. They are ideal if you are on a budget, or want to dabble without committing to the purchase of a macro lens.
There’s no doubt though that, when it comes to macro and close-up photography, you will get the best results from a macro lens. If you are serious about this genre of photography, especially if you have aspirations to sell your images, then you should consider buying a macro lens. Here are some of the reasons why:
Life-size (also called 1:1) reproduction means that you can get close enough to the subject to photograph something that is the same size as your camera’s sensor.
Most macro lenses are designed to give you 1:1 (also called life-sized or 1x) reproduction at the minimum focusing distance. This means that, if your camera’s sensor measures, say 36x24mm (the size of a full-frame sensor), the camera will capture an area of your subject also measuring 36x24mm. This holds true whatever the size of the sensor in your camera.
Most (although not all) macro lenses let you do this.
Canon’s MP-E65 f2.8 1-5x macro lens (above) goes even better. It lets you take photos up to 5x life-size – that’s really close. It’s the only macro lens I know of that does that.
Macro lenses are designed to give their best optical performance at their minimum focusing distance. This makes sense, as anybody buying a macro lens is likely to use it for that purpose.
Non-macro lenses are designed to give their best optical performance at the focusing distances where they are most likely to be used (around one metre from the camera to infinity). When you add a close-up lens, extension tube or reversed lens to enable your lens to focus more closely to the subject, you are pushing it beyond the limits of its design.
That doesn’t mean you can’t get great image quality from those techniques, it just means that you shouldn’t expect to get the same image quality that you can from a good macro lens. This is especially true at wide apertures.
Macro lenses may have other features that make taking macro and close-up photographs easier.
Some macro lenses have a tripod collar. The collar lets you switch a tripod-mounted camera between landscape and portrait formats while still keeping the lens focused on the subject. Without a tripod collar, you would have to reposition the camera each time that you did this.
You can buy macro lenses with an Image Stabiliser (that’s Canon’s term, Nikon call it Vibration Reduction). Some of you will have cameras with an Image Stabiliser built in to the body, so this is not an important factor.
Canon’s EF 100mm f2.8L Macro IS USM lens (above) has a Hybrid Image Stabiliser (HIS). This is a new type of stabiliser that counteracts the particular type of camera shake that you get when hand-holding a macro lens and focusing on something close to the camera. Again, it’s the only macro lens I’m aware of with this feature.
Macro lenses are not just for taking macro and close-up photos. You can use them for taking photos of other subjects as well. For example, many macro lenses also make great portrait lenses, especially on crop-sensor cameras.
One of the main objections to buying a macro lens is the price. But macro lenses aren’t always as expensive as you might think. One way to save money is to buy a third-party lens rather than the ones made by your camera’s manufacturer.
A visit to the B&H website shows that you can buy a Sigma 50mm f2.8 EX DG Macro autofocus lens for $369 (excluding taxes). This is a prime macro lens with 1:1 reproduction. The reviews on the website are good and it will double as a useful standard lens on a full-frame camera or a portrait lens on a crop-sensor camera. There are more macro lenses available from Sigma, Tamron and Tokina.
A final consideration when it comes to buying a macro lens is the focal length. If you are buying one to photograph insects or other wildlife, then a longer focal length (100mm plus) will mean you don’t have to get as physically close to your subject to take a photo. This helps avoid scaring the insect away (or getting stung!)
If you get really serious about your macro photography, most camera manufacturers make a ring flash or portable flash that attaches to the front of your macro lens to light the subject. This makes it easier to take photos in low light levels or to use low ISOs. The photo above was taken with a Canon MR-14EX Macrolite flash unit attached to a Canon EF 60mm macro lens.
In my ebook Up Close I interviewed two photographers that use macro lenses to take wonderful photos of flowers, insects and food. I recommend that you visit the websites of Celine Steen and Mandy Disher to see just what can be achieved with a little imagination and a good macro lens.
You can learn more about close-up and macro photography in my new ebook Up Close: A Guide to Macro & Close Up Photography, available now from Craft & Vision for just $5.