Macro photography 101
December 3, 2007 6:23 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to know about before I get into macro photography?

I've been interested in photography for a few years, and I've noticed I like to take close up shots a lot. My cheap camera has recently packed up, so I'm looking to replace it with something much more suitable for macro photography. Up until now, I've just used either the "close up" or "auto" modes on the camera, which are quite hit-and-miss, and don't generally give good results. So, while I have no idea where to start, or what to look for when buying a camera, I want more control over the shot I'm taking.

I figure I'm going to need a light box, tripod, etc. And probably some kind of remote shutter release for the camera (I'm assuming this will be some kind of cable with a button on the end). What is a rough estimate for the cost of this stuff?

Is there any particular model of camera I should look for (ie, should I be looking for a sticker that says "macro suitable", or anything like that)? Any particular make that's better at taking macro shots than others?

Please don't assume I know anything about the subject when you reply. All I know is that I love taking close up shots, and that I want them to be the best they can be. All hints and tips will be gratefully received.
posted by Rabulah to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Having a macro lens for your camera makes a big difference, so I would suggest getting a camera that at least supports an attachable macro lens. Other than that I'm sure others on here will give better suggestions than me for an exact setup for you.

One other thing you might want to do is look through a photography site like flickr and find macro shots that you like. Look up or ask the photographer what gear she was using to get the shot, and for any details of how exactly it was taken. You also might want to look for photography forums and ask for advice from experts.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:31 AM on December 3, 2007

For true 1:1 (life:size on sensor) macro photography, you're going to need to get an SLR with a macro lens. If you get a used Canon Rebel XT and slap Canon's 100mm macro lens (a great lens in itself for portraits, too!), you'll be well on your way. A light box is not strictly required, but a tripod is. In macro photos, you may have noticed that the background is usually incredibly blurred - that's because the depth of field (x meters away to y meters away -in this case, x and y <1>
With the Rebel XT there's a small wireless remote you can buy cheap, plus you lock up the shutter. Beyond that it's all art and learning.
posted by notsnot at 6:35 AM on December 3, 2007

Damn, forgot to add my flickr page with a bunch of macro shots. Many in that group aren't but...
posted by notsnot at 6:40 AM on December 3, 2007

This isn't much of a substitute for a "real" setup, but if you want to experiment, try holding another lens backwards in front of your current lens or just reverse your lens and hold it against the body. Open up the aperture on the hand-held one.
posted by cmiller at 6:44 AM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Definitely look into an SLR. The Canon Digital Rebel series is good enough for a beginner, and you can actually get decent close-up shots with the $80 50mm lens. A used Rebel XT body should be less than $500. If you want 1:1 or better, you’ll need a longer, more expensive lens. Sigma makes a Canon-compatible 70-300mm telephoto/macro lens that will give you a 1:2 image, meaning the photo will appear magnified 2x. It runs about $200. You won’t necessarily need a tripod with the 50mm lens, but you will definitely need it for a 300mm.

Most SLR cameras have a built-in time release shutter setting, which you can use if you don’t have a remote or cable release. The time-release should work fine for still-life close-up shots.

You can find kits on eBay that include a cubic light tent and a pair of continuous (not flash) lights and light stands for around $50. I haven’t used them myself, but they should be fine for a beginner.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 6:48 AM on December 3, 2007

You can make your own lightbox for cheap cheap.
posted by o0dano0o at 7:29 AM on December 3, 2007

The Sigma 70-300 does 1:2 magnification - true - but that means the image will be 1/2 the size on the sensor as it is in real life. Here is a series of shots I took (oh noes, selflink!) using the 70-300 at maximum or near maximum magnification on a 5D (36x24mm sensor).

What you want to do is invest in the following:
  • A DSLR - doesn't have to be expensive, a crop boy will be even better for you than a high-end full frame. I'm going to recommend the Rebel XTi/400D because I know Canon.
  • A macro lens - the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 or EF 100 f/2.8 are both great lenses for you. The 100mm is capable of 1:1 magnification, which is pretty much where *real* macro begins.
  • An off camera strobe - in photography terms, this means any type of flash. I'd recommend a small flash like the Vivitar 285HV (around $100). I favor a strobe over continuous light for 3 reasons: heat, power and size. Macro photography lives in the f/16 and darker range. Usually, this would be hard for a small strobe to handle, but since you're using them up close it's not a problem.
  • Kenko macro rings - you can pick these up on ebay (I bought them from hong kong) for less then $100. They will increase the magnification of any lens. Sure, there's light loss, but worth it. A set of these will let you get past 1:1 with the EF 50mm f/1.8 lens ($70).
  • Tripod. Obviously. The DOF you have even at f/22 with extreme closeups is so small, handholding becomes a major chore. Look at the lip pics I linked earlier, most of those are at f/32 an still the DOF doesn't capture her entire lips in some of them.
  • Light: Science and Magic. This is the best book on lighting I've ever seen. It will teach you how to control and use light. When you're working with larger subjects (people) a stray shadow or highlight her and there doesn't relaly mean that much. When your entire subject is 15mm across, it's a much bigger deal.

posted by jedrek at 7:43 AM on December 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I've tried Kenko extension rings with a 50/1.8 prime and I've tried a proper 100mm macro lens (the Tokina instead of the Canon) on my Canon DSLR and I can tell you that a proper macro lens is MUCH easier to use than extension rings. If you go the DSLR route, I would suggest going straight for a macro lens.

On the other hand, you don't necessarily need to get a DSLR to do close-up photography. My impression from your post is that you probably don't have in mind dropping US$1000.

In fact, point and shoot cameras have one distinct advantage with close-up photography since they have a wider depth of field than DSLRs. That being said, I don't have a recommendation as to which point and shoot takes particularly good close-up shots.

Here are some more ideas for modifying your flash set-up. Unlike that Strobist link, these ideas are a bit more mobile and thus suitable for insect macro photography.
posted by alidarbac at 8:31 AM on December 3, 2007

yeah, get a SLR, digital or not. and learn to use it in manual (you seth both aperture -- the 2.8, 4, 5.6 numbers that indicate the aperture of the lens, how m,uch light gets in) and shutter speed (1/250, 1/125, 1/60, etc, they're fractions of a second, it's the time the shutter stays open to allow light in), it's easy and the best way to gain control over your images

also, this lens is probably THE best macro lens ever made. you can find it for cheap on eBay. get a cheap used Nikon body (excellent film Nikons are sold for nothing as of late, their basic DSLRs are quite convenient too) and get started. have fun
posted by matteo at 8:56 AM on December 3, 2007

If you don't want to go the SLR route, a lot of cameras have macro modes. Find a few marketed this way, find reviews online, and go from there. (As a new convert to digital SLRs: they're awesome, but I don't know how much you're looking to spend.)

I almost bought this camera (around $300-350 if you shop around), which supports ultra macro modes.
posted by fogster at 10:14 AM on December 3, 2007

All comments above are very good. Just a few more thoughts (disclaimer - I am using Nikon equipment and thus the advice is skewed towards it):
Nothing replaces instant gratification as an incentive to do macrophotography (or in fact most photography). Thus get a digital camera.

Also, get a decent macro lens: I have a Nikon 60mm f/2.8 which is very good but at 1:1 takes you too close to the subject. A longer lens such as a 105 or 150 mm would be better but they are more expensive. DO NOT TAKE A VR (vibration reduction) lens. It is useless on the tripod and just adds costs.

Get a focussing rail - that allows the camera to move back and forth on a rail and helps a lot when focussing. BTW - you will not be using autofocus much so a manual lens is OK as well.

If you want to have fun, get a Lensbaby 2.0 (the older version) or 3G (the fancier one) with the macro lens set and start playing - it's really lots of fun.

N-thing Flickr and other similar sites where you can learn about photography and get inspired by pictures taken by others.

Another somewhat useful add-on is a right angle viewer that magnifies the image and helps with fine tuning. Good luck!
posted by Parsnip at 11:01 AM on December 3, 2007

Here is a thread from a photography forum showing some of the things people use for macro photography, mainly with SLRs. Having some way to precisely focus is important.
posted by TedW at 11:01 AM on December 3, 2007

Nthing the SLR/DSLR route. There are numerous quality lenses that you can get, and several homebrew techniques that can let you do this seriously on the cheap.

cmiller mentioned flipping a normal lens to use as a macro. I can speak from experience and state that if you flip an old 50mm prime you can get amazingly close to what you are shooting (like seeing the imperfections on the edge of a dime close).

A lightbox is also really useful, but again, see the above suggestions about building your own. The only non-camera things I would suggest as essential are a good flash and a tripod, but I've shot macro with neither and had it work, but the vast majority of the time you will need one or both for a really good shot.

And, while it's handy, you don't need a remote trigger, you can put the camera in timer mode on a tripod, press the shutter and wait 10 seconds to have the thing fire with no hands touching/ moving the camera body.

Start off cheap. If you are even a little bit handy, you can build almost everything you will ever need for macro photography. You will also learn more, and really appreciate it when you replace little bits here and there with something more professional, as needed.
posted by quin at 11:06 AM on December 3, 2007

Oh - another thought: read John Shaw's "Closeups in Nature". It's one of the best books for field macros.
posted by Parsnip at 11:09 AM on December 3, 2007

« Older How do I make a really big book?   |   Suddenly homeless in Seattle Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.