Poor Man's Macro
27 Feb 2007
Macro photography is a lot of fun. Objects look very different when you view them up close, and the most ordinary things often make the most surprising close-ups. In your house, in your back yard, everywhere around you are countless things that, ordinary as they may seem to your eye, suddenly become very strange and beautiful when you look closely enough.
Trouble is, the proper SLR lenses for the job are expensive and very special-purpose. Close-up filters are relatively cheap, but all they do is push the focal plane even closer to the lens, and that only gets you so far. And compact cameras are excluded from this world of photography almost entirely. All that 'macro' button on your camera does is tell the camera to try and focus as close up as it can.
What you really need is MAGNIFICATION.
The Poor Man's Macro technique is very simple. All you need is your favorite camera and a spare SLR lens. Turn the spare lens around so that its front side faces your camera's lens, and hold the two close together. Congratulations, you're ready to start shooting! Okay, it's not quite as simple as that. The results you get will depend on what kind of lens you have on your camera (let's call it the 'primary'), what kind of spare lens you have (call that one 'secondary'), and on how you have them adjusted. But now that you have the principle- a second lens backwards in front of your camera- the rest is just a matter of experimentation to find what works best for what you've got.
No-frills 50mm prime lenses make great secondaries. They're cheap, often easier to find than the cameras they go with, and usually have nice, big apertures. You'll want a big aperture on the secondary and a somewhat long focal length on the primary, because that way the primary can look through the secondary with less vignetting and more useful area in your frame. (This will be very clear the first time you try it, I promise.) However, depending on what kind of secondary lens you have, getting the aperture open can be a tad tricky.
Lenses with manual aperture settings are easy; just twist the ring to the biggest aperture setting. Older lenses that don't have an internal aperture motor usually have a little metal arm on the back that you can gently slide to one side to open the aperture. In the picture of my lens' back, you can just see it inside the metal coupling. I use a bit of folded-up paper wedged in there to hold that arm to one side. Newer lenses with an internal aperture motor can be trickier, but if you have a camera that matches that lens, you can usually just put it on the camera, set the aperture, and take it off again without it changing back.
After setting the aperture, you have to worry about how you're going to hold your secondary lens. Hand-held is almost never a good option. What's ideal is a thing called a 'macro coupling ring', just a metal ring that's threaded on both ends to screw onto a lens like a filter. They're about $8 online. You can also make your own by gluing together a couple of filters, or gluing together two lens caps and drilling out the center. Unfortunately, all of the really good solutions only work on SLR lenses. If you have a compact camera, chances are it can't take standard-size filters or lens caps, and it's usually not a good idea to attempt to hang the weight of a secondary lens on the little pop-out zoom lens on your camera. So get crafty and jerry-rig something! I've even been known to tape a couple inches of cardboard tube to my S70 as a spacer, and then tape the secondary lens on top of that. You'll have to figure out what works best for your camera. You can buy filter holder accessories for many compact cameras that may make it easier to jerry-rig a macro coupling. Just be careful not to let the lenses bump together and possibly break or scratch.
Now, down to the actual photography. There's just a few things that you're going to have to keep in mind. First, you will no doubt find that your auto-focus is almost useless. It's best switch your camera to manual focus and simply move it forward and back from your subject to get the focus you want. Second, your depth of field is going to be tiny, sometimes as little as one millimeter. Stepping down your camera's aperture will improve the situation, but make a habit of taking lots and lots of pictures while you move the camera forward and back in tiny increments so that you're bound to get one that's just right. Finally, there usually isn't a great deal of light that manages to make it all the way through both lenses. You're either going to need a flash (or two) right up close to get your subject brightly lit, or you're going to have to do long exposures. If you're doing a long exposure, make sure that your setup is completely vibration-free, because even microscopic movements will show up in your pictures. Use your self-timer or a cable release so that you're not touching the camera when you shoot, and use the mirror lockup feature if you're using an SLR.
All that's left is experimentation. What works best will vary depending on what you have available to you, and there's lots of room for you to be creative and invent your own solutions to the problems you encounter.
One experiment you might eventually want to try is to figure out if your pictures are technically 'macro' or not. Purists don't like it when you throw around the word 'macro' willy-nilly, because 'macro' doesn't just mean 'small', it means '1:1 magnification or greater'. That is, the size of the frame must be no bigger than the size of the sensor or film in your camera. My Canon Powershot S70 has a 1" x 1.8" CCD, so if I can get something smaller than an inch tall to fill the frame, I've got a macro. If you want to figure out what your magnification is, simply take a picture of a ruler as close as you can get it in focus, and divide the size of your film or sensor by the length of ruler in frame. Don't let the purists get you down, though. The 1:1 magnification threshold doesn't mean a great deal when you're just trying to take great pictures, and taking pictures of things that are merely small can be just as fun as taking pictures of things that are really teeny.
In no time you'll be looking at everything around you a little differently, wondering what seemingly ordinary things will look strange and beautiful when you look a little closer.