Ready for your close-up: getting the most out of macro flower photography
By: Phillip Smith - 15/04/2011
We love close-ups of flowers. But they are often a bit out of focus, or not very well lit – just not as exciting as you think they ought to be. How can this be improved?
Every year in the International Garden Photographer of the Year competitionwe get thousands upon thousands of flower close-ups. Petals enlarged so that they are just a blur of colour and texture – stamens so big you could hide a bulldozer in them. The colour, the weird shapes, the feeling of visiting an alien but very beautiful world – all provide a very attractive technique for photographers.
Heavy metal Hibiscus by Michael Lowe.
Finalist in International Garden Photographer of the Year 2010
So what is macro photography?
And what special equipment do you need for it? Macro lenses are made by all the major camera manufacturers. Unless they are made by someone you have never heard of, they will be of superb quality. You can get comparisons of lenses from magazines and websites like our media colleagues, Amateur Photographer and What Digital Camera, who regularly carry out thorough reviews of what’s on offer.
If a lens is designated as ‘Macro’ then it means you can get closer to your subject – therefore the subject can be bigger in the frame than would otherwise be the case. But you can have a standard length macro lens – say 55 mm – and a long macro lens – say 185 mm. With the longer lens you can get your subject big in the frame from further away. This means that, if you are able to get your long lens near to your subject, then the subject will be MUCH bigger in the frame.
The closest distance to the subject –
Same subject – 185 macro lens f4.5.
A good long focal length macro lens is expensive – too expensive for many of us. When I was starting out I couldn’t afford one, so I used cheap extension tubes. These are metal, glassless rings that you fit in between the camera and the lens. They were, and are, brilliant because your lens imaging quality is not affected – though the amount of light hitting the sensor does decrease, so you have to adjust. You may lose some automatic functions especially on older cameras. But they are much much cheaper.
So you’ve got your tripod, your lens, your tubes...
... now you're on your way. But there is a bit of learning to do. There is one photographic concept you are going to need for every shot. And I mean every shot. If you don’t understand depth of field you will never be in control of your macro photography, no matter how clever you think your camera is.
Depth of field is very simple. Like the iris of an eye, your lens aperture opens up to more let light in if it’s needed, and closes up if there is too much light. OK so far. But unlike your eye, the size of the lens aperture determines the amount of the scene that can be in focus. The measure of the amount of the scene that’s in focus is the depth of field.
The wider the aperture, the less of the scene will be sharp.
With a long macro lenses, the depth of field is very shallow because the degree of magnification is much greater than standard lenses- even with the aperture on a small setting such as f22. The depth of field can be very shallow indeed - down to millimetres - making focusing with long macro lenses tricky. The margin of error is very small.
185mm macro lens – f32 the smallest aperture setting on this lens. Note even with this very small aperture some of the image is still not in focus.
185mm macro lens – f3.5 the largest aperture setting on this lens. The amount in sharp focus is now tiny.
Ah! but with auto-focus the camera takes care of all that and I don’t have to worry about it! Not so.
Your camera’s auto-focus ‘roams’ around the scene looking for something to focus on. With macro, the distances between objects on the scene are absolutely tiny – and so it’s very easy for auto-focus to lock onto the wrong bit. Typically, you see photographs where an insignificant part of a stamen is in focus, and with the dominant shapes being slightly ‘soft’. Most pro photographers use only manual focus because they want total control and precision.
So how do you increase your chances of getting more depth of field? And how can you improve the lighting of macro images?
That’s what we’ll be looking at in the next blog. In the meantime, enjoy the spring and enjoy shallow depth of field – you can put this 'limitation' to great creative uses!
Tulip 'Helmar' by Philip Smith
- Phillip -
About Philip Smith
Philip Smith is a professional photographer specialising in gardens and plants with 15 years’ experience. His photography has featured in many magazines and books including The English Garden, The Garden (RHS) , and Gardeners’ World. His work has also featured in exhibitions at Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and London.
As co-founder and Managing Director of the International Garden Photographer of the Year Philip is responsible for the world’s premier competition in the field, which culminates in an annual exhibition at Kew Gardens and other venues. Philip is the author of Better Plant and Garden Photography.
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