High magnification close-ups

Left Image: 100mm f-2.8 macro lens, extension tube, Flash held off camera, Bogen tripod and ball head. Multi-segment metering, 1/250 sec at f-16 on aperture priority and manual focus.

For most close-up shots 1/2 to life-size magnifications are enough. A macro lens or other lenses used with extension tubes or bellows will provide the coverage you need. What if you want to photograph very small insects, or take a portrait of a butterfly? Your macro lens can't do the job alone. Besides, a mosquito or a bee at life-size won't fill the frame. You need much higher magnifications, perhaps 2X or even 4X life-size. At 2X you can get a full frame shot of smaller insects, at 4X you come face to face with them. There are several ways you can achieve high magnifications. I explained this in close-ups section. Please see Close-ups for information on how to get life-size or higher magnifications.

Your main problem at very high magnifications will be depth-of-field. If your subject won't stand still, you'll have problem stopping its motion. The closer you get to your subject the shallower the depth-of-field gets. One way to gain more depth-of-field is to stop down. You'll find yourself shooting at f-22 or f-32 apertures. At f-22 or f-32 your shutter speed will be too low to freeze motion. You definitely need a flash. Flash can provide faster shutter speeds while allowing you to use a small f-stop. The other problem you will have is finding your tiny subject through the viewfinder. You must move the camera around to find and compose your shot. Tripods make this very difficult. Even the slightest adjustment can throw your subject out of the viewfinder. You need to handhold the camera which means faster shutter speeds with flash. You don't need a very powerful flash for close-ups. Small units will do just fine. Positioning the flash needs some considerations. Your camera's hot shoe won't work. At high magnifications, your distance from the subject is too close. Your lens will be aiming at one direction while your flash will be aiming at another. Your lens and lens hood will block most of the light which can create shadows. You need a flash bracket. Flash brackets are attached to the camera and hold the flash. With a bracket you can position your flash at different angels to obtain different results. You need to experiment to find the best position. Start by keeping the flash at a 45 degrees and a few inches above the lens. This will give good lighting for many situations, but does not work all the time. I'm not a fan of macro flash units. These are ring flashes that attach to the front of the lens like a filter. They produce unnatural light since the light is fired directly at the subject. Flash brackets allow much more control over lighting the subject and the background. Your background will come out black unless your flash can give it enough coverage. This depends on the flash to background distance. If you like a black background, your main concern is illuminating the subject, so you can ignore the background. For a more natural looking background, you can do several things. You can use your main flash for the subject, and a second flash for the background. Calculate the distance between your subject and the main flash, and the background distance and the second flash to make sure you have enough coverage. You may have to move your flashes closer or farther to get enough coverage. Without a second flash, you have to position your flash farther away from your main subject to cover the background. This means opening up by one or two stops to compensate for the main subject.

Right Image: Tamron 70-210mm f-2.8 lens, Kenko extension tubes, 1/125
 at f-8.

Calculating correct exposure can also be a problem. Some people believe, since they are using flash, they will get proper exposure. Not true. TTL-flash like other metering systems are designed to give middle tone results. If your subject is middle tone, you are all set. For lighter or darker than middle tone subjects, you must compensate. With flash, you must open up for dark and stop down for light objects. You can do this with a manual flash or an auto flash with manual setting. Auto flashes won't work on auto setting. When you open up or close down, the flash will compensate for any changes. In this case use your compensation dial. Set it to plus for lighter subjects and minus for darker ones. You have to decide how light or dark you want your subject to be, and dial in enough compensations.

High close-up photography is a lot of fun and you'll discover a totally new world. Respect your tiny subjects as you would with other larger creatures. Some people like to kill or freeze insects before photographing them. I prefer to photograph them alive. A dead lion or a dead eagle will look dead on film no matter how you arrange them. The same is true with butterflies, spiders, and bees.

Recommended reading:

Digital Macro Photography

With a close-up camera lens, shutterbugs can capture a landscape in a water droplet, a dragon’s face in a dragonfly, an alien planet in a backyard fungus, or a futuristic civilization in a computer circuit board. The magic field of macro photography comes alive through digital cameras and Photoshop programs, as simple instructions combine with jargon-busting tips to demonstrate each essential technique. Over 200 full-color photos and 750 illustrations showcase the possibilities for making spectacular images with ordinary equipment. Besides ideas for making framed photos, special sections show how to create greeting cards, stationery, and other practical items and gifts.