I was recently asked by an editor of AdvencedCreation‘s printed magazine to write an article about my approach to macro work in a simple way, yet talking about the technical side of things. So since the issue is already out, I decided to share it here as well.
Even though shooting macro tends to be, in my opinion, a bit more on the technical side and requires some specific knowledge in order to achieve great results, which makes it less accessible than other types of photography, I’ll try and keep terms and explanations here as simple as possible. I chose the image above for two reasons – first – it’s one of my favorite macro shots and second – it is such not because I haven’t shot better or harder to execute, but because I took it a few years back, when I was just beginning serious photography and the tools I had at my disposal were very limited at that time (and most of them I still use, which shows that even more extreme macro doesn’t have to be very expensive or totally out of reach for any enthusiast).
I’d like to make another clarification as well – there are a few different ways a person can achieve magnification ratios higher than 1:1 and the solution I’ll be describing is not necessarily the best one and does not necessarily yield the absolute highest image quality, but comparing all of the methods is a subject of a different article entirely. Also, I will accept that you’re familiar with the term magnification, and If not – there a number of good articles on the subject, one of them you can read here: http://www.dpreview.com/articles/6519974919/macro-photography-understanding-magnification
For most of my work I used (and sometimes I still do) an old m42 lens, made by Pentax – the Macro Takumar 50/4 (first version). The reason it’s a macro lens is that these are designed to give maximum sharpness at all apertures, especially when focused on a very close subject and pushing the limits of lens of such type (in step II) will usually give better results, compared to an ordinary 50mm (in this case). And the reason it’s an m42 lens is that an old and used specialty lens was the utmost I could afford as a first year student and honestly – I have never regretted it – it’s a gem in terms of sharpness and build quality, while also being completely system independent – my macro setup has remained the same, while switching four different camera bodies from two manufacturers, everything via appropriate adapters.
Taking it further
Very few lenses were produced, which are able to achieve magnification higher than 1:1 only by themselves and I believe there’s only a single one in production and readily available, made by Canon – the MP-E 65 (with a maximum of 5:1). While this lens is amazing in almost all regards, its price is also quite high and a lot of people may not want or be able to afford an investment this big for an extremely specialized thing, which will not even focus on anything less than 1:1. So the price-conscious decision I made was to use the so-called macro bellows, which is, very simply put, a completely light-isolated tunnel with variable extension, with two bayonets (or in this case – screw-mounts) at both ends, which allows the lens to be attached to the front side and the bellows itself – on the camera bayonet. There are no additional lenses or anything inside it – but by varying the bellows in length, achieving a lot higher magnification becomes possible with any lens, mounted in front of it. Different bellows may offer additional features and benefits, but the very basic job they all do is the same – providing means of reaching higher magnification. An important note is that some bellows may not transfer any information to modern cameras, even if the lens you mount is capable of this and thus, making it impossible to control the aperture from the body, so if you opt for a cheap or third-party bellows, using a lens with a physical aperture control ring is very recommended. On the picture is the bellows I use, which is a very old and not-that-precise piece of Russian engineering.
Putting it all together
And the two images above represent the setup we have so far – which probably won’t win any aesthetic contests, but allows for quite impressive results with a very reasonable investment. The whole macro system is mounted on a Canon EOS body via a m42-EOS adapter. I can’t stress enough how important a quality tripod is for macro, though, pictured is a Manfrotto 055 legs with a Manfrotto 3030 Three-way head, which allows for a relatively easy positioning, even when speaking in terms of high magnification. Also note that the quick release plate is mounted on the bottom of the bellows and not the camera itself, leaving it in the back and thus achieving a lot more stable results, because even very slight vibrations are really apparent when venturing into more extreme macro.
Taking the shot itself
And thus we finally have the camera set in some (preferably stable) way and are eager to take the photo of whatever thing we put in front of it. I tried to recreate the way I actually took the image of the fly back then, and it’s really humble in terms of lighting. Since I didn’t have any flashes at my disposal, I used my reading lamp, positioned to the right and slightly behind the subject. The exposure was judged by its light output and it was 2sec at f16. I also used mirror lockup, in combination with the 2sec self-timer function, to minimize any possible camera shake from physical movement from pressing the shutter button or the mirror mechanism.
The first try was ok, but I felt that something was lacking with just the light, coming form the lamp and remembered that my phone has a flashlight function, so I turned it on and tried painting with its light for the duration of these two seconds and from the left. The light, coming from it, was a lot colder than the light from the lamp (which I would guess was around 2900K, probably even lower than that). This way the right part of the image was warm and the left and was cold, thus making it a bit more interesting visually.
And that was about it.
For work like this, using compact flashes is generally a better decision, due to the fact, that if you shoot in a light-isolated environment, the length of their very short impulse will help to increase the sharpness of the image if minimal residual shake is still present.
Having the precious shot on our cards, it’s time to decide what to do next. Like everything, concerning digital photography, some further corrections are almost always appropriate, although when it comes to macro work, I personally prefer them to be minimal.
As with any other type of photography, shooting macro in RAW is very highly recommended, so the first step is to load our image in a macro convertor. Most of the time I use the Adobe CameraRaw plugin for its great integration with Photoshop and ease of use, newer versions of it also produce a very good image quality with Canon cameras.
Here is a summary of the initial image and the basic corrections applied. In this case they are really basic, just a slight correction of the exposure and the white balance, pumping up the clarity and the vibrance sliders, leaving everything else pretty much as it is, in this case.
Here on the next tab, the tone curves, I make sure that the graph is set to linear, as in most cases it’s better to leave the contrast in the convertor low and the image looking a bit “flat”, but to have more tonal detail to work on later in Photoshop itself.
And last but not least – in the Detail tab of ACR – make sure that both Sharpening and Noise Reduction sliders are turned off. We don’t need them at all now, since we want to preserve maximum detail in our file on this step, which is exactly the opposite of what Noise Reduction does, and Sharpening is the very last step of the processing of any image. And then we open the image in the image editor.
Removing Unwanted Details
Now in our image editing software, in this case – Photoshop, it’s time to get rid of some of the unwanted details that may spoil to some extent the image, which has its main focus on the striking symmetry and fine detail of the facet eyes. First of all, I duplicated the background layer, so that everything I chose to correct is on a separate layer, allowing a great flexibility in the workflow. Then, I started using the clone stamp and the healing brush tools from the panel on the left, carefully picking the sampling points for both instruments. In this particular case it’s a little tricky, because of the color gradients and the really fine details with a repeating texture, so not everything happened with the first click, but in about 10minutes I was able to clean the eyes up well enough.
With the small, distracting details out of the way, it’s finally time to make the image really “pop”. When photographing things that are not very commonly seen, working with color is, in my opinion, relatively easy, because you are not dealing with specific colors, that are regular objects for our perception every single day – like the sky, skin color, grass and so on that may present certain limits when manipulating their color. With this particular image, I used some loosely drawn masks to add saturation and contrast, especially in the facet region, again, using a non-destructive method with everything being on a separate correction layer.
Cropping and Sharpening
I was vaguely aware that I wanted this shot to be square or very close to square by the time of the shooting, but when I actually cropped it, I decided definitely to stick to this proportion. And the last thing that had to be done was sharpening of the final image, which in this case was pretty strong – around 300/0,3, if I remember correctly. Sharpening like this is not uncommon when dealing with higher magnification, but the actual numbers may vary significantly, depending on a number of factors, including the camera body you are currently using and the details you want to strengthen.
With all said and done, the image looks like this: