Thursday, January 26, 2012

Basic Macro Setup

Macro photography, in particular insect photography, is extremely rewarding. At times it can get tough and you may have to shoot tens maybe hundreds of photos for one good, sharp image of your target. Insects are generally skittish but with time you will learn to read your subject. You will learn when to approach cautiously and when it is OK to have fun and take shots from all angles without your subject budging.

To enter the realm of macro photography can be an expensive exercise, that is if you want to buy equipment specifically designed for macro photography. There are some fantastic macro lenses available, even dedicated macro lenses such as the Canon MP-E 65mm. However, such lenses will cost a lot of money and excluding the MP-E 65mm, most macro lenses will not give you the extended magnification you may require.

Do not despair, there is a cheaper alternative that will offer you equal if not better quality and magnification. The two options below are perfect for the budget minded like myself. Here are some options you may pursue:

Macro filters (diopters)

What? A diopter is a lens like filter that attach to the front of your camera's lens like any other filter. It reduces minimum focal distance which in turn results in subject matter appearing larger on the photo. Best used on zoom lenses, the higher the maximum zoom ability of the lens, the better the magnification. Also, diopters performs best on lenses with a short standard minimum focal distance. For example a diopter will give better magnification effect on a 250mm zoom with a minimum focal distance of 0.3 meters, compared to a 250mm zoom that has a minimum focal distance of 0.8 meters. The general rule is closer is better.

Do's and dont's:
  • Don't stack more than two diopters. In stacking, the strongest diopter must be closest to the lens.
  • Don't use diopters on top of or with existing filters.
  • Use high quality diopters.
  • Shoot at f8.
  • Keep shutter speed above 1/200 sec to prevent camera shake blurring photos.
Pro's and con's:
  • Diopters are cheap, and a quick route into macro photography.
  • It is a simple addition to your existing lenses.
  • You can still make use of lens image stabilization to aid with image sharpness.
  • The downside is you cannot share the same set of diopters between lenses with different filter sizes.
  • Diopters typically results in images with sharp center focus but towards the corners you will see a notable drop in sharpness.
Reverse Mounting

Reverse mounting is where a lens is mounted on the camera wrong way around. The benefit is that you will obtain amazing levels of magnification. Reverse mounting is easy to do. The first component is a good quality prime lens with manual aperture and manual focus control. You can use auto focus lenses but you will find you have no control over depth of field. With an auto focus lens reverse mounted, your results will in most cases not be to your liking.

Now to come to the interesting part, not only will a manual lens give you depth control but you will find that reverse mounting in most cases works out cheaper than using diopters. Why? Because for good macro photography you need high quality diopters, and those do not come cheap. What does come cheap are second hand manual prime lenses on e-bay. Look for either a 50mm or else 28mm f2.8 or faster second hand prime lens. Make sure the optics are free of scratches and mold. The aperture control, must also be fully functional.

The second piece of equipment you will need is a reverse mount adapter. This looks like a filter ring with your camera lens adapter on one side, and filter thread on the other. Make sure the filter side of the adapter matches your second hand prime lens's filter size.

Do's and dont's:
  • Don't have any filters on the lens between the lens and the camera.
  • Do shoot at f8 or higher.
  • Make sure you light your subject well.
  • Make sure you are mindful not to scratch the small end of the lens when shooting close ups.
  • Keep shutter speed above 1/200 sec to prevent movement blurring photos.
Pro's and con's:
  • Old primes can be cheaper than a good set of diopters and will provide far better magnification and higher image quality.
  • Reverse mounting should outperform most dedicated macro lenses.
  • Good lighting is a must. You may use your popup flash but a customized flash unit will perform better. (I will post details of a DIY option in the future)
So, until my next post, here is a photo I've taken recently with a 24mm lens reverse mounted.

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