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The advent of digital photography swept away one of the most challenging problems in image capture: how to shoot macro without a pile of specialized gear. Now you can get down, dirty, and close in the image capture business, and make macro the digital way with a 100 percent success rate.
I know I’m not alone when I say that macro photography is an absorbing activity: to be able to reach into ‘near space’ and record an image that is not easily visible to the naked eye is an attractive option. There is nothing more satisfying than to make a huge print of an insect, mineral specimen, or any small object that is normally so tiny to the naked eye and captured with the technique of macro photography.
To shoot macro in the days of film — aside from the requirement of using an SLR camera — you needed a few add-ons to take highly magnified images of extremely small subjects.
You could begin by slipping a diopter lens to the front of the existing standard lens, which would impart a degree of magnification; you could also install extension tubes between your normal lens and the camera body; you could also acquire a set of macro bellows and place them between lens and body; and finally, you could invest in a fairly expensive — and optically superb — macro lens that was dedicated to macro shooting. Another option was to fit a reversing ring that allowed you to mount the lens on backward, which improved the close-up resolution and allowed you to focus much more closely. But to be honest, it was a hassle — although you can still use these methods if using a DSLR to shoot macro.
These days, digital does it with a dash! With a digital camera — compact, mirrorless, or DSLR — even newbies are surprised by how easy it is to capture really, really big shots of tiny subjects.
In truth, you can make digital macro photography as basic or as complex as you wish it to be. Even with a budget camera, you can capture images of the tiny world before you, subjects as small as a matchbox, a match-head, or even tinier. The higher-priced compact digital cameras can do it even better, some offering macro shooting with a powerful zoom lens, so you can stand back a bit.
The other approach is to use a DSLR or a mirrorless model; it is surprising how powerful a macro camera circa-$1200 USD can become.
First, an explanatory note for all those with a modicum of photo history and tech basics: the term macro used to refer to the capture of an insect or whatever that resulted in an image on the 35mm film frame (24x36mm) that ranged from 1:10 to 1:1 the size of the original subject. The term micro referred to a film image that was larger than 1:1; micro photography could easily give you a 35mm film image of an ant that was itself larger than the original ant.
A CCD or CMOS sensor can be as tiny as 3x4mm, so any definition term that applied in the film days is now obsolete. But the rules that apply in accomplishing successful and satisfying macro photography still stand.
Normal photography works in using a camera to record a sharp image by adjusting the lens-to-sensor distance to attain precise focus. For distant subjects at infinity, like landscapes, the lens is positioned at a minimum lens-to-sensor distance; to capture sharp images of closer subjects, like people, the lens-to-sensor is increased.
In macro photography, a sharp image of a tiny object requires the lens to be positioned much closer still, with the lens moved even further out than for normal photography.
Just about all compact cameras and some DSLRs have a selectable macro mode. In some cameras you can select the macro mode via an external control, while in others you must select it in the internal menu.
Think about it: no extra lenses, no macro tubes or bellows, no special lenses. What a wonderful world in which to shoot macro!
Being curious about how digital cameras can capture macro so easily, I investigated the subject. Here are my findings, gained by chatting to the tech expert at a major camera company.
Engage macro mode on a digital camera, and the system adjusts the lens elements to re-arrange them into an array that best suits close focusing. Quite a feat, as even simple camera lenses have a surprising number of lens elements to juggle.
Unfortunately, by engaging macro mode with the vast majority of cameras, you lose control of both the lens aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed.
Why is this so important?
The best macro photography — regardless of camera — requires that you use the smallest lens aperture to gain optimum image sharpness and depth of field. Using a small lens aperture means you need more light, so you need to extend the exposure time to make a correctly exposed photograph.
So you can’t reduce the lens aperture to a smaller, more favorable setting, nor can you slow the shutter speed to permit the use of a smaller lens aperture.
For the keen macro makers, I’ve discovered a few digital cameras that do allow the use of macro mode and lens and shutter speed adjustment.
With DSLR cameras, the macro operation is somewhat different. Select a macro mode and you activate a different chain of events: With any lens fixed to the camera, engaging macro mode on the camera commands the lens aperture to close to its minimum, therefore extending the depth of field and allowing you to move closer to the subject.
Shooting macro with a compact camera is easy, but you have to forgo a fair bit of control, and you need to understand that the demands of an amateur as far as resolution and color quality are less stringent than the pros.
The pro approach would be to use a purpose-built macro lens on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Dedicated macro lenses are not cheap, but they are optimized to operate at closer than normal distances. With macro lenses, you are unlikely to experience problems such as color fringing and optical distortion; many macro lenses also compensate for the additional exposure necessary when racking out the lens to distances very different from those used in normal photography.
Read the second part of this series here: Macro Photography for Beginners, Part 2.