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Macro photography is technically designated as the ability to photograph subjects at magnifications equal to or greater than life size. This means that if the subject’s projection size on the camera’s sensor is the same size as the subject itself, then you have life-size magnification, also known as a 1:1 ratio.
Even though many lenses state they have macro functions, a true macro lens must be able to do 1:1 or greater ratio magnification. These specialized lenses allow for a closer focus distance and have great image quality, but they tend to be expensive.
There are cheaper ways to create macro images though. Reverse rings, extension tubes and close up lenses are good options, but my very favorite one is the macro bellows. In this article, I will show you how to use macro bellows to achieve great extreme macro images the easy way.
I am very proud to be the lucky owner of one of the very rare Spiratone Kenlock tilt-shift macro bellows sold by Hama in the 80s.
This is probably the rarest and the fullest featured bellows out there, designed originally for 35mm SLR cameras.
In fact, it looks like a scaled down monorail camera with the ability to be adapted to an SLR body.
This is an amazing piece of gear, despite the fact it was built in the 80s for film cameras, that remains perfectly actual and can be used with modern digital cameras.
It has removable adapters for different brands of lenses and camera bodies.
In this particular setup, I’m using an M42 mount 50mm Tessar Carl Zeiss Jena DDR 2.8 lens and full frame sensor Canon 5D MKIII.
Because this equipment was made for old cameras with flat fronts without a hand grip like the modern digital ones, I am also using a Canon 25mm Extension Tube between the camera body and the bellows to give me some space for the mount.
This is obviously an expensive setup, but you can find many inexpensive simple function macro bellows that can be used with your existing camera and lenses.
The magnification ratio is simply the relationship between the size of the (in-focus) subject’s projection on the imaging sensor and the subject’s size in reality.
Imagine a subject like a bug that is 1cm long in real life;
This magnification is achieved by the extension of the bellows operated by two knobs that allow you to move the front and rear elements.
There is some really complex optics math behind this magnification process that I am not able to calculate myself. So I used an online calculator to try to understand what I could achieve with this setup and these are the results I got.
I was able to find out that the combination of this particular lens with this macro bellows allows me to get a magnification of 3:1 with the bellows at its minimum extension and 5:1 at its maximum extension.
The process of focusing is done by moving the whole set constituted by the lens, macro bellows and camera body along a rail, making it closer or further to the subject.
Although it might sound simple, it is, in fact, a very hard process due to the scale of the image we are composing. Any minimal movement throws everything out of focus. So the use of a sturdy tripod and making sure the subject doesn’t move are critical factors to minimize error and allow precise control.
The focusing process is usually done with the lens at its widest aperture to allow enough light in and then it is changed to the chosen aperture for the image capture.
This aperture open/close process is done automatically in modern cameras and lenses, but with most bellows, it is not possible to have the communication between the camera and the lens due to the lack of electronic contacts, so it has to be done manually.
Sometimes this simple act of changing the lens aperture is enough to change the focus plane, making it a really hard process to control.
This is for sure the toughest factor to control in macro photography. The depth of field is extremely reduced at this magnification even when photographing with the lens’s narrowest aperture.
A tilt and shift bellows like the one I am using helps to minimize the depth of field issues with some focal plane movements. But many macro photographers choose to use a much more complex technique called focus stacking. The process consists of digitally merging multiple images taken at different focus distances, resulting in a greater depth of field in the final image.
Now we’ve gone through the basic technicalities it is time to put everything in action.
For this setup, I will be photographing a dead house fly I found near my living room window. The fact that is not moving makes it a perfect case study to use in a macro stage.
To allow me full control of the equipment, I prepared a tethered setup with the camera connected to a computer, being operated by its native capture software. This way I can avoid touching the camera to release the shutter.
For lighting, I will use two speedlights controlled by a transmitter connected to the camera’s hotshoe that also allows power control through software.
The intention was to create some light and shadow volume on the fly and separate it from the dark background. Here is the result:
Illuminating such a small subject is a very difficult task as the smallest changes produce totally different results. Such is the case in this next image with softer light where I used only one flash and one reflector, instead of two speedlights.
To me, it is really fascinating to see a fly at this magnification with all the small details. It is a creepy experience for sure.
This was just with the macro bellows retracted. For the full magnification experience, I will now extend the bellows all the way and experiment greater magnification.
This time I will focus on the fly’s head and the lighting will be done with an LED panel and a small reflector.
Here is the result:
It is amazing how an old lens and macro bellows can produce such a high-quality image.
Give this technique a try, I’m sure you will have a lot of fun and make some great images along the way! Please share your macro images with a bellows in the comment area below.