Macro Images in the Digital Age

Back in the late 1980’s I was particularly fascinated by macro photography. At that time I was shooting an Olympus OM-4T camera body and my macro lens was a Vivitar 100mm 1:1 lens.  In time I added an Olympus T-28 Macro twin-flash system that mounted to the end of the lens and provided adjustable directional lighting – kind of like movable studio lighting on rolling light stands.  The OM T-28 system allowed me to point one of the flash units at the subject, and the other flash unit at the background – both units controlled by a unit that sat on the camera’s hot-shoe and performed the TTL (through-the-lens) function of image exposure control.  With some practice I learned how to compose images that looked more naturally lit – without the black background so common when using single light sources on macro subjects.

I define macro photography as an image of a small subject taken in order to emphasize it through magnification. Some like to say the image has to have a ratio of 1:1, or life size magnification, to be true macro photography …. but I don’t, that excludes too much.  For me, it’s all about composing an image to emphasize it through magnification – at any level, even 1:4 (quarter life size) or 1:8 (one eighth life size).  While a true macro lens like either Nikon’s 105mm f2.8 1:1 macro, or their 60mm f2.8 1:1 macro, or Canon’s similar lenses will go life size, you don’t have to rack it out that far in order to shoot macro images. The Mexican Blue butterfly (below) was shot at about 1:6 life size so I could include the Prairie Clover.  

The side-by-side comparison (above, both shot on Kodachrome 64) of a Mexican Blue photographed with just a single flash (left), versus two flashes (right) from the OM T-28 twin flash.  A single flash, up close on a macro subject, would yield a black background if the background was any distance away.  Many professionals shot macro images in the studio, using multiple lights, under very controlled conditions and rarely ventured into the field with multiple flashes.

While film was a tremendously limiting medium back then, it was the only game in town.  About the highest ASA (ISO today) film you could use was 400 – and it was poor.  The four 35mm films I primarily shot were Kodak 64 Pro, Fuji Velvia 50, Fuji Provia 100 (sometimes pushed to 400), and Kodachrome 200. On the 120mm medium format side I rarely shot anything but Fuji Velvia 50 roll film.  These were all slide films – magazine photo editors weren’t likely to accept any negative films, just slides – or “chromes”. They were better quality films, had a higher contrast ratio and more importantly, put on a light table an editor could see exactly what he had and could edit through many images quickly.  Another drawback to film was there could be no mistake in exposure….zero….none.
High contrast, mid-day lighting in the lizard image (above, shot on Fuji Provia 100) was a definite drawback in producing a quality macro-type image. By using the twin flash (below) lighting could be improved and produce a better quality image with more even lighting. Digital photography has become a game changer for macro photographers.
Once you get an idea of how macro lighting (flash) will affect the look of the image you can more carefully look for subjects that will benefit from it.  In today’s digital photography world, with the ability to alter the subject’s highlights and shadows in processing, and with much greater latitude in choosing an ISO appropriate for the lighting conditions – macro photography couldn’t be much easier.  While macro photography has transitioned from film to digital – getting close to your subject has never changed.When I evolved from Olympus (a system I loved, but not large enough in terms of equipment and lens options) to Nikon, and then from film to digital, the need for flash decreased.  Flash didn’t go away, but it was needed as often.  With an Fx sensored camera, like a Nikon D4s or Canon 1Dx, the ability to push iso levels above 1600 reduced the need for flash in many lowlight situations.

One thing that hasn’t changed has been the need for depth-of-field (dof) in macro images where the subject is very close to the lens.  All the images shown so far were taken at f16 – a very small f-stop producing maximum dof, but at the cost of shutter-speed, which is where the flash came in providing extra light. Being able to shoot macro subjects at ISO 1600 (digital) instead of ASA 100 (film) is a 4 stop increase in ambient light hitting the subject at the same f-stop, negating the need for flash in many situations.Today it takes a tripod and a reasonable iso setting to get an image in nearly impossible lighting conditions. The Mountain Lady’s Slipper (above) image was taken in near total deep forest darkness. It was shot at f11 at iso 3200 at a shutter-speed of 1/30th second using my Induro tripod. No flash, no reflectors or fill of any kind. That image would have required a full second of exposure on film or more, which for an image with detail up-close, would have required many images – even with a tripod – to guarantee success.
This is another image(above) that would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, back in the days of slow-speed film.  Shot in the field in Death Valley National Park, the afternoon wind blowing a gale – yet, a high iso, an appropriate f-stop, and hand held due to difficultly maneuvering a tripod still resulted in a great macro image. Still, this is a true 1:1 life size macro image.

So given that macro photography has become much easier with our modern equipment and image processing abilities – that leaves one final key – and that is learning how to look and find great macro subjects.
While not strictly a macro image (above), it is a macro subject – a small piece of a bigger subject. I was working through some folded and eroded sandstone up on the roof in Zion National Park, near Checkerboard Mesa when I stepped over this Gambel’s Oak leaf. I didn’t touch or move it – just shot it with my medium format Mamiya camera as it was.  Macro photography is about seeing small.  Zion can be overwhelmingly big, with broad landscapes and rock monoliths that take your breath away – but I had my knee pads on and I was prepared to look small.

Digital photography allows us to crop-in to an image, increasing the apparent magnification without actually using a macro lens, or even getting close.  As sensors grow in pixels our ability to crop-in even farther increases – that wasn’t true with film. The grain in the film emulsion was such that any cropping-in highlighted the grain (think noise in digital photography) and decreased the quality of the image.  In other words, you had to get in close with a macro lens to produce a macro looking image on film.  No more.
This sharp, colorful image of tiny mustang clover in Sequoia National Park is just a small piece of a much larger image showing a 16″ x 24″ patch of flowers.  This cropped-in image shows about 2″ x 3″ of that larger image.  I did shoot this with a 60mm f2.8 1:1 macro lens, but at about 1:8 magnification.  In other words, I wasn’t shooting the lens at its maximum close focusing ability.  You might ask, “why not?”

One aspect of macro photography is working distance – how far the camera is from the subject.  Getting close to a butterfly sounds good, but if it means immersing yourself in the bushes with its other insect life (think bees, wasps, spiders, etc) then it doesn’t seem so attractive.  Using a longer lens, standing back farther and then cropping in can result in just as dramatic an image without the squeamishness of a close approach. The same is true if your subject is snakes and lizards … things that bite.
As a wildlife photographer I don’t carry my macro lens with me in the field – I usually leave it in my truck unless I know I will use it. No sense carrying more weight than I have to – the 500mm f4 lens and tripod are heavy enough. So there are times (above) when I’m seeing macro images  and only have my 500mm lens, so I shoot them with that.  This image was taken with my 500mm telephoto lenses at minimum focus distance – and I know that because I had to back up 2″ to get it in focus.  And then for this final image I cropped-in and discarded about 50% of the whole image. The final presentation here is at about 1:4 life size.

There are other ways to turn your standard lens into a macro-workable lens. The two most common are close-up screw-in filters that come in different magnifications, and extension tubes that move the lens farther from the camera body thus increasing magnification. The filters are less expensive, but easier to lose and get fingerprints on. The extension tubes come in different lengths, have no glass in them (they just move the lens farther from the body) but in using them you lose the longer focus of the lens … no focusing to infinity. Both of these methods (there are others as well – bellows, reverse mounting lenses, etc) are workable, but time consuming. I have a 8mm extension tube that I use on my 500mm lens occasionally and it works pretty well on meadow butterflies.

No matter what lens you use, straight or in combination with filters or tubes, there is an amazing world down at ground level – you just have to go down on your knees or stomach to find some of them. BRP

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About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
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