The secret to great Macros
6 Dec 2012
For those addicted souls who can't seem to get enough photography, macros are a godsend. You can go just about anywhere, and if you are motivated shoot something up close and see things you never imagined where there. I almost never know what I'm going to come up with even if I am sure I have some good, sharp images until I see them on my big monitor: this is the joy of macro!
First thing, of course having a great sharp macro lens is important. My favorite is the Canon 100mm f2.8; it also happens to be the one that is paid for so I have to like it. You can add an extension tube to it fairly cheaply and really get in close. Having a full frame sensor camera allows you to crop severely and still have some nice sharp shots. Being outdoors with sunlight is the best, and having a flash along is good.
But having the great lens, the great full-frame camera, and nice lighting isn't enough. Are the shots blurry when you expected them to be crispy sharp? Is what you "saw" not anything close to what your photo captured? Here's a few ways to improve your macros.
1. The rule of thumb is to have a hand-held shot (in any situation really) is to have the shutter speed exceed the numerical value of your focal length. So, for my 100mm lens, it should be a minimum of 1/100th of a second and preferably twice that. So, whatever your settings are, make sure a hand-held shot is fast enough to avoid motion blur. To be safe, follow the same rule even if you have image stabilization on your lenses.
2. Is your subject moving? With macros, any movement at all puts the focus on an unpredictable spot, with a very shallow depth of field. If your flower or bug is moving, you will have to predict and shoot fast to get one that is actually spot on with your focus. Do NOT shoot in sport mode and expect you'll get sharp shots out of the 500 frames captured. You need to be following these tips and really "seeing" what should be sharp through your viewfinder.
3. PAY ATTENTION - this is the BIG tip: with the very thin depth of field of a macro, you must look for the largest surface area of the object you are photographing that is PARALLEL to the lens and sensor as part of your composition. For example, if you are shooting a butterfly you must move around until you get the side of the insect with its big wing completely parallel to the lens. You might have to tilt your lens up or down once you think you are dead on in order to match the angle of that wing. You will notice that no matter what fstop you shoot at, you will have a much crisper looking shot remembering the "plane of focus" and getting as much of your subject on that plane. This tip applies whether you are shooting wide open apertures or stopped down to f32.
4. Get the smallest aperture possible, given the constraint of your shutter speed and ISO. With today's low noise/high ISO capabilities, you can afford to put your camera to higher ISO's in order to dial down your aperture, and get much more depth of field. This is pretty important if you want to say capture the sharpness of the antennae on the OTHER side of that butterfly in sharp focus.
5. Use flash to gain extra fstops; if you have a remote flash capability, put your flash at an oblique angle to jazz up the shot, and also dial down the aperture for better depth of field.
6. If your subject is static and you have a tripod, USE IT. This is how you would shoot jewelry for example...you can afford to have longer exposures with tiny apertures, and get the most of your depth of field.
7. Don't assume the highest fstop number is going to be the sharpest; every lens has its sweet spot. My 100mm macro can go f32, but I like overall sharpness at f22.
Once I learned the "big tip" #3 above, my macro shots dramatically improved. I encourage you to try it out yourself and let me know how it goes!