Close Up Photography in Nature (2014)

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Cameras and Lenses

All modern digital cameras are fully capable of shooting excellent close-up and macro images if impeccable technique and a suitable lens are used. Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, and other camera makers all work perfectly fine for shooting close-ups. For the truly dedicated close-up photographer, make sure you are able to buy a long macro lens in the 180–200mm focal length range for your camera. This is important because some camera makers do not yet offer them.

CROP FACTOR VS. FULL-FRAME CAMERAS

To reduce the cost and the weight of both the cameras and lenses, most cameras offer an imaging sensor that is smaller than the normal 36 × 24mm full-frame version. Small sensor sizes vary among camera models. Cameras with small sensors are said to have a magnification factor. Typical magnification factors include 1.3x, 1.5x, 1.6x, and 2x. When you view the image through a camera that has a small sensor, it appears that you are getting more magnification and shooting through a longer lens. In reality, small sensor cameras do not truly offer more magnification. Any sensor smaller than 36 × 24mm merely crops the image that would have been captured if it were shot with a full-frame sensor-sized camera.

To see the crop factor differences, put a 100mm macro lens on a camera with a 1.6x crop factor, for example a Canon 7D or 60D, and that produces a field of view that would be equivalent to a 160mm lens on a full-sized sensor camera. This smaller field of view is highly beneficial because it makes it simple to capture diffused backgrounds that aren’t blemished by distractions. Using a small sensor camera still delivers super quality images while you enjoy the benefits of a less costly lighter camera. Two of the minor drawbacks to small sensor cameras include a reduction in the number and, more importantly, the size of the pixels. If the camera has more megapixels, it is more suitable for making large sharp prints in the 20 × 24 inch range. If more pixels are crowded into a small sensor, they must be tinier, making them more likely to reveal noise because the signal-to-noise ratio is less favorable. Neither of these shortcomings is a valid reason to avoid small sensor cameras. They do a terrific job! In fact, we can easily capture the quality images we need with the bottom of the line Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras to produce this book and to conduct instructional photography programs worldwide. We simply prefer the higher end cameras with full-sized sensors because they offer more features and options.

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The sticky water drops on these tiny sundew leaves enable it to capture insects. Due to its small size, the image is cropped to fill the frame with this group of plants. Fortunately, the full-frame sensor of the Nikon D4 makes this easy to do because there are plenty of pixels in the sensor. Nikon D4, 105 micro, 2.5 seconds, f/22, ISO 200, Cloudy.

FEATURES TO LOOK FOR IN A CAMERA

HIGH MEGAPIXEL COUNT

Most cameras offer plenty of megapixels today, so the number isn’t likely to be a problem. If your camera is a 12MP camera or higher, you have enough for most purposes. Megapixels refer to the number of pixels that are built into the camera’s imaging sensor. If you have eighteen million pixels, then it is an 18-megapixel camera. Not to confuse the issue, but the pixels that make up your sensor are designed to measure photons of light. These photons create a tiny electrical charge at the pixel. Using an on-board analog-to-digital converter, the electrical charge is measured and a number value is assigned to it.

BACK-BUTTON FOCUS

Most cameras have a button to the right of the viewfinder that is a designated autofocus button, or it can be changed to be used as the autofocus button. Using this capability is absolutely crucial because it is the best way to focus precisely on the subject in many situations. Unfortunately, most camera makers neither stress back-button focus in their camera manual nor call it anything recognizable. When you purchase the camera, ask the salesperson if it has a button on the rear of the camera for focusing control. Nearly all cameras have this important feature, and that especially includes Canon and Nikon. One of the few places back-button focusing is not important is close-up and macro photography because it is better to use manual focus to get the sharpest possible focus. However, if your eyesight doesn’t allow you to manually focus the lens, then back-button focusing becomes extremely crucial. Also, if you do any other kind of photography—sports, landscapes, animals, people—then using back-button focusing is the most efficient way to use autofocus. An article, “Back-button Focusing Benefits,” is posted on our web site at www­.ge­rla­chn­atu­rep­hot­o.c­om.

RGB HISTOGRAM

All cameras offer a histogram that shows a graphic display of the tones contained in the image as exposed. Observing the histogram is the best and fastest way to determine when you’ve reached the optimum exposure. The default histogram display is referred to by different names. Typically, it is called the Averaging, Luminance, or Bright histogram. This histogram works okay, except anytime the subject has an abundance of one color over the others or light colorcasts or both, the averaging histogram most often does not prevent you from overexposing that dominant color. For example, a red leaf in the red light of dawn will quickly max out all of the pixels in the imaging sensor that measure red light, while the green-filtered and blue-filtered pixels measure much less light. The averaging histogram may indicate the image is optimally exposed even though the reds are severely overexposed. The RGB histogram display will show the red color channel is clipped.

This specific problem of one color dominating the others is easily solved by activating the RGB histogram color channels display. Make sure your camera provides it. We would not buy a camera that did not have it! The RGB histogram displays a separate histogram for each of the color channels. We’ll discuss how to use it to achieve super exposures in Chapter Two.

LIVE VIEW

Automatic focusing systems do not work well and should not be used when shooting close-up images. Since the depth-of-field is shallow when shooting at higher magnification, even at f/16, it is important to focus carefully on the most important part of the subject. This could be the wings of a butterfly, the eyes of a bee, or the stamens of a flower. The best way to precisely focus the lens is to focus manually. Unfortunately, most folks over forty don’t see fine details as well as we once did—even when wearing glasses. Therefore, the best way for most of us to focus on small objects is to use Live View. When this is activated, a live image appears on the camera’s rear LCD display. There is a box on the display that can be scrolled about the live image. To sharply focus, move the square box over the most important spot and then magnify the image. At 10x, the point that must be sharply focused is obviously in focus—or not—at this magnification. Slowly focus the lens manually until the spot is as sharply focused as possible. If a breeze is blowing, wait patiently for the movement to subside momentarily. Press the shutter button with a cable or remote release as soon as the subject is completely still. If the subject is wiggling at all, the motion is easily detected in the magnified live image. Don’t shoot until all motion has ceased!

LIVE HISTOGRAM

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The Canon 5D Mark III can display a live histogram when using Live View. The live histogram is useful for quickly arriving at the optimum exposure. However, if the camera detects a flash is being used, the display turns gray to indicate it is no longer accurate because the camera does not know how much light from the flash will be added to the subject.

Some cameras provide a live histogram in Live View. This means you get to view the image’s histogram and determine the ideal exposure before shooting the image! It is something to look for in a new camera. Hopefully, your present camera has this feature. Be sure to activate it. Using a live histogram will greatly decrease the time it takes you to arrive at the optimum exposure.

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF CAMERA OPTIONS

COLOR SPACE

Adobe RGB 1998 and sRGB are the two most prevalent color spaces offered on cameras. Adobe RGB 1998 offers a wider color gamut. This simply means that Adobe RGB more completely covers the range of colors that we can see with our eyes. Many cameras, however, especially Canons, display the images on the LCD more colorfully if the sRGB color space is selected. Also, most viewing accessories are really set up for the sRGB color space—the Internet—for example, and many companies that produce prints also are calibrated for the sRGB color space. There is no wrong answer, but we feel JPEG shooters should use the sRGB color space. If you shoot RAW images, then you do indeed need to decide to use a color space with a larger color gamut, so you might pick Adobe RGB 1998.

We routinely shoot both a large JPEG and a large RAW file for all of our close-up images. Shooting both files at once fills the memory card and the camera’s buffer faster, but this is seldom a problem with the slower pace of close-up photography—unlike wildlife photography. By using the sRGB color space, our JPEGs look great when we view them on the back of the camera, projected, or on the web. We aren’t giving up anything, though, as a larger color gamut can be selected when a RAW image is processed with the Photoshop or Lightroom RAW converter software without any loss of quality. Barbara is a student of a master printer—Charlie Cramer! Charlie and many other excellent printers select a color space with a broader color gamut called ProPhoto. This color space is not an option with any cameras that we know of, but is a common option in software that can process RAW images.

IMAGE SIZE ON THE LCD

Horizontal (landscape) images nicely fill the camera’s LCD, making it much easier to see image detail. However, if you shoot a vertical, the camera will not be properly orientated when you view the LCD unless you turn the camera to the vertical. Therefore, your camera may offer you a menu choice to make vertical images appear vertical on the LCD when holding the camera horizontally. When this option is chosen the displayed images appear considerably smaller. It is more effective to turn the camera to the vertical to see a vertical image that occupies the entire LCD display. The cameras we use offer an important valuable option. We can set the camera to make vertical images fill the LCD by keeping them displayed horizontally, but when they are downloaded to a computer, the vertical images are displayed vertically, saving you time because you don’t have to rotate each vertical image individually to properly view it on the computer monitor.

REVERSE THE EXPOSURE CONTROL DIALS

We nearly always use and recommend using Manual exposure in close-up photography. Once you learn to do everything manually it is quicker and faster to achieve optimum exposure than continually fussing with exposure dials or buttons to assist auto exposure modes in arriving at the optimum exposure.

We’ll cover exposure in Chapter Two, but for now, it is helpful to have a camera that offers a separate dial for adjusting the shutter speed and the f/stop (aperture). When viewed from the back of the camera, it makes the most sense to turn the dials to the right (clockwise) to add light and to the left (counterclockwise) to subtract light. Adding light moves the histogram data to the right and vice-versa. Unfortunately, most camera default setups are the opposite. This means to add light and move the histogram data to the right, you must turn the dial to the left—the opposite way. Fortunately, many cameras now provide a way to reverse the dial direction with a menu choice (most Nikons) or a custom function (most Canon models). By way of an example, the Canon 5D Mark III dials can be reversed by going to the C.Fn2: Disp./Operation menu. Then go to Dial Direction during Tv/Av and set it to Reverse Direction. Now turning the main control dial on top of the Canon 5D Mark III to the right slows the shutter speed down and adds light. The histogram data moves right when the live histogram is activated. It can be seen and reviewed immediately. Turning the quick control dial on the back of the camera to the right opens up the aperture. This adds light and moves the histogram data to the right. Most photographers find it is more intuitive to turn the exposure control dials the same direction they want the histogram data to move. If you don’t have a live histogram, shoot the image after you adjust an exposure dial. You’ll see the histogram data move to the right when adding light and to the left when subtracting light.

REVERSE THE EXPOSURE INDICATOR INSIDE THE VIEWFINDER

Every camera we encounter has an exposure scale that can be viewed when looking in the viewfinder. Usually, the scale can be found at the bottom of the viewfinder, but it could be placed along the side. The exposure scale is quite simple. Though it depends on the camera model, a typical display shows a scale that represents plus or minus 2 stops of light in 1/2 or 1/3 stop increments. On Canon cameras and other brands, the plus side is on the right side of the scale. This is a convenient way for the scale to be set up. After all, if you wish to add light with Manual exposure, and your dials are set as such, turning them to the right (as viewed from the rear of the camera) does add light — it is only logical to have the metering scale set up the same way. Then, when the shutter speed dial or aperture dial is turned clockwise, the exposure indicator index line also moves to the right. However, some cameras, especially Nikons, have the positive side of the exposure indicator scale on the left side. Obviously, this is confusing to many photographers and makes absolutely no sense at all. Fortunately, many Nikon camera models, especially expensive ones, provide a menu selection to reverse the exposure scale. If your camera default is set up with the plus side of the exposure scale on the left, be sure to reverse the scale’s direction if the camera allows this to be done.

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This frosted maple leaf caught in the needles of a pine tree is a wonderful macro subject. The air is absolutely still, but mirror lock-up must be used to obtain the maximum sharpness, especially at the 1/8 second shutter speed. Vibration caused by the movement of the mirror is especially troublesome in the 1/4 second to 1/30 second shutter speed range. Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/8, f/16, ISO 200, Sun.

MIRROR LOCK-UP

Even when shooting images on a sturdy tripod, the action of the mirror can cause the camera to shake a tiny bit, causing a slight loss of sharpness. This problem is most acute with shutter speeds in the 1/4 second to 1/30 second range. Select a camera that offers a way to lock the mirror in the upright position prior to the exposure. However, if you use Live View, then locking the mirror up prior to the exposure isn’t necessary because the mirror is already up and out of the way to enable a live image.

BUILT-IN WIRELESS FLASH CONTROL

Being able to use electronic flash effortlessly is utterly crucial for close-up and macro photography. We regularly mix flash with natural light when photographing small subjects. It is a convenient bonus if your camera has a built-in pop-up flash that can be programmed to command an external flash. However, if your camera doesn’t have a pop-up flash, then there are other ways to gain off-camera flash control.

TWO-SECOND SELF-TIMER

Any time you must shoot exposures of 1/60 second and longer on a tripod-mounted camera with natural light, be sure to avoid touching the camera or tripod during the exposure. Touching the equipment most likely will cause the camera to vibrate a tiny amount, which may produce a slightly soft image. Always use a remote release or cable release, or trip the camera by pushing the shutter button gently with your finger to activate a two-second self-timer. The camera counts down two-seconds before tripping the shutter, giving any vibrations that might be caused by pushing the shutter button with your finger time to dissipate.

CAMERA STRAP?

Almost certainly a camera strap came in the box with your new camera. Without giving it a thought, virtually all photographers automatically fasten the strap to their camera. Is it a good idea? It is true that a camera strap can support the camera if the strap is wrapped around your neck. It could save your camera from a watery demise, sudden impact on granite, or some other tragedy should you accidentally drop it. However, in nearly all cases, the best quality close-up images must be shot on a solid tripod using impeccable technique. We almost never use a camera strap for any photography using a tripod, which is most of the time. This especially includes close-up and macro photography. Camera straps constantly get in the way and slow us down. All too often straps must be moved away from the LCD display on the rear of the camera to see the histogram or when manually focusing the image using Live View or through the viewfinder. Sometimes the strap gets caught in the tripod legs. Since many close-up subjects are close to the ground, the camera strap occasionally dangles between the lens and the subject. The swinging strap may bump or spook the subject and ruin the shot. The camera strap slows you down, is a nuisance, and will cost you many fine images. Just because a camera strap is included with your camera does not mean you have to use it. My Canon 5 Mark III camera strap works just fine for supporting Zeiss binoculars around my neck, but never my camera.

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A cable or wireless release isn’t necessary to trip the shutter because this Morel mushroom won’t wiggle in a slight breeze. Using the two-second self-timer is a convenient and effective way to fire the camera. Nikon D300, 200mm, 2-seconds, f/20, ISO 200, Cloudy, fill-flash.

We know many photographers are comforted by using a camera strap. Fine! Go ahead and use it if you insist, but please don’t put the strap around your neck when shooting on a tripod. The idea of tying myself to the tripod gives me the heebie-jeebies. Especially for close-up photography, the camera strap around your neck is a horrible idea. Most close-up images benefit from some flash being used to the side or behind the subject. This means you must be able to get away from the tripod to position the flash correctly, which is made impossible if you are tied to the tripod with a short leash. We consider both camera straps and straps for most large lenses to be a nuisance and totally avoid them. Of course, when handheld photography is required, then camera straps are useful for supporting the camera. Wider camera straps work better than skinny ones because the weight of the camera is spread over a larger area so the strap doesn’t so quickly wear a groove into your neck.

BATTERIES

Your camera probably came with a rechargeable battery and a charger. That’s convenient and will save you a lot of money over the long run. Since modern rechargeable batteries work just fine if you charge them after each use, always do so. It is always wise to have at least one extra fully charged battery with you at all times. Nobody wants to be forced to quit shooting suddenly when the only battery they have quits. Therefore, buy at least one additional battery, and two is even better. If you go on an expensive photo vacation, consider having at least two extra batteries and one spare battery charger in case one charger fails.

Many camera systems offer a battery pack for your camera. This allows you to use two batteries at once to keep the camera running for a long time. While it might be worth doing this for wildlife photography when the action is furious, it is most likely unnecessary for close-up photography where the shooting pace tends to be much slower. We normally do not buy battery packs, but would do so if it would offer a convenience that we could not get any other way.

MEMORY CARDS

Your camera may use Compact Flash (CF), Secure Digital, or some other type of card on which to store images. Due to the slower and more deliberate shooting speed of close-up photography, card speed and capacity are not as crucial as they are in wildlife and sports photography. However, since we do all kinds of photography and love fast action, we tend to buy the faster memory cards with larger capacities.

We have used SanDisk Extreme CF cards without problems all of these years. Currently, we are using 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB cards. Other quality memory card brands include Delkin, Lexar, and Kingston. Protect your memory cards in a plastic card wallet. To avoid corrupting the card, never turn the camera off when it is writing to the card. Always keep the card clean. When the images are successfully downloaded to your storage device (we use 1TB external hard drives), double-check to be sure it downloaded properly. Then format the memory card in the camera where it will be used next. This better prepares the card to receive more images, rather than erasing images off the card and reusing it. Remember, always format the card only in the camera!

LENSES AND ACCESSORIES

The photography of small subjects often requires lenses and accessories designed specifically for that task. Many options can serve the technical needs and budgets of the close-up photographer, but no one lens or no one accessory is best for all users in all circumstances. Even experienced pros sometimes have heated discussions as to what’s the best gear for this task or that. I will describe many of your possible choices along with their pros and cons and tell you exactly what equipment I use for what and the reason I use it.

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Since these frosted strawberry leaves will not move during the exposure, any shutter speed can be used if the camera is firmly supported on a tripod and the shutter is activated with the two-second self-timer. Nikon D3, 85mm, 1/2, f/22, ISO 200, Cloudy.

MAGNIFICATION

We’ll be talking a lot about magnification. It is a good idea to get a little grounding early on. Magnification, which we’ll often refer to as m, is merely a comparison between the actual size of a subject and the size of its image on the camera’s sensor. It’s the ratio of those two sizes, or as the arithmetic geek might say, m = (image size) ÷ (subject size). So, if we photograph a dime, and the image of that dime on our sensor is exactly the size of the dime itself, i.e., life-size, then m = 1, or as we sometimes say, m = 1x. Sometimes magnification is called the reproduction ratio. For a subject photographed at half life-size, the reproduction ratio might be written as 1/2x or 1:2.

If we photograph a mosquito, and the image on the sensor is three times as large as the mosquito itself, then m = 3x. At least those 3x mosquito images don’t bite! But, if we photograph a silver dollar, a life-sized image probably will not fit on our sensor, so to quantify the magnification m, we’d still consider the size of the image that is on the sensor and divide it by the size of that portion of the silver dollar so represented. In this case, it might be something like m = 0.6x.

MACRO LENSES

Is it macro or is it not? Now that we’ve reviewed magnification, let’s get one more confusing definition out of the way. It’s no big deal, but there’s close-up photography and there’s that special case of close-up photography we call macro photography. The generally accepted practice is to refer to close-up photography when dealing with magnifications of less than 1x. It’s bigger subjects and smaller images. Perhaps m = 1/2x where the image is only half the size of the subject or perhaps m = 1/4x or m = 1/10x etc. In the realm of big images and small subjects, specifically where m = 1x or larger, say, m = 2x, 3x, etc., we’re discussing macro photography. All of that notwithstanding, we’ll use the terms close-up and macro interchangeably unless we’re making some specific technical point.

Macro lenses are designed to permit focusing closer to the subject than their non-macro cousins and to produce sharp images at those close distances and are optically corrected to produce super-sharp images across the entire frame with little sharpness falloff near the edges of the frame. It’s by focusing closely that we achieve the larger magnifications of macro photography. All lenses have a minimum focusing distance (MFD), but non-macro lenses just don’t get close enough. An extreme example is the Canon 800mm lens with an MFD approaching 20 feet! Most photographers at my age, or probably at any age, can’t even see a mosquito at 20 feet away let alone photograph it! A less extreme example, but still quite unsuited for macro shooting, is a Nikon 50mm lens, a so-called normal focal length, but one with an MFD of about 3 feet. This is still way too far for a 1x image of that mosquito.

Close-up photography has become very popular in recent times, and lens makers offer a wide range of products. Looking at Canon’s lenses, we see about six capable of 1x or greater, and Nikon products have a similar line-up. Camera manufacturers such as Olympus, Pentax, Sigma, Sony, and others, offer one or more macro lenses. The marketplace of macro lenses offers different focal lengths and different maximum apertures, different magnification abilities, prime lenses and zooms, expensive and not so. How’s a poor photographer to choose? Oh, by the way, Nikon doesn’t sell macro lenses. Nikon sells micro lenses. Not to worry, it’s a difference in name only.

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This peacock feather is photographed at precisely life-size (1:1 or 1x) magnification. The size of the focused image on the camera’s sensor is exactly the same size as the subject. Nikon D4, 200mm, 1/13, f/22, ISO 320, Shade.

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The angle of view of a 50mm lens is so wide that it makes it difficult to photograph the Twelve-spot Dragonfly without a distracting background. Canon 5D Mark III, 24–70 lens at 50mm, 1/10, f/14, ISO 200, Cloudy, fill-flash.

ANGLE OF VIEW

The angle of view of a macro lens has an enormous effect on the images it produces. The greater the angle of view, the more background information is included in the image. Too much background information is usually considered a distraction in macro shooting and thus detrimental to the image quality. Do you want an out-of-focus industrial warehouse in the background of your otherwise lovely flower shot? Well, the longer the focal length of our macro lens, the narrower the field of view, and the less unwanted background material is included in the image. It’s nearly impossible to get a nicely defocused and distraction free background with a 50mm lens, or with the misleadingly named macro position on an inexpensive short zoom lens.

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The Canon 180mm macro lens produces a far more homogeneous background due to its smaller angle of view. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, 1/10, f/13, ISO 200, Cloudy, fill-flash.

With a long focal length lens, like Canon’s or Sigma’s 180mm macro lens or Nikon’s 200mm micro lens, distracting backgrounds are minimized. By carefully selecting a shooting position and angle, you can easily avoid an unfavorably messy background. Background distraction is so important to excellent macro photography that the focal length of your lens is a major consideration, and, just like photography vacations, the longer the better.

WORKING DISTANCE

Another extremely important characteristic of a macro lens is its working distance. Suppose you’re photographing an Acmon Blue butterfly, slightly less than 1 inch long. You’re planning a composition with the butterfly at 1x and, luckily, your macro lens is easily capable of 1x.

Despite that, your macro lens achieves its 1x magnification at a working distance of 4 inches, so the lens must be that close to the butterfly to get it in focus. Not a chance! The critter suddenly vanishes—rightly terrified by the enormous glass and metal overcast suddenly looming a mere 4 inches away. How very frustrating. Every Acmon Blue you find promptly executes a fleet flit afar before you can get close enough to focus on it at 1x. The solution is a macro lens with a long working distance. Good examples are offered by Nikon, Sigma, and Canon, with working distances closer to 18 or 20 inches when focused to 1x.

Often these working distances are shown on the lens. For example, the Canon 180mm macro shows the working distance is exactly 1.56 feet when the lens is focused to 1x magnification. At .5x magnification (1:2x), the working distance is 2.15 feet.

Working distance always varies with the focal length of macro lenses. Canon’s 180mm f/3.5 and Canon’s 100mm f/2.8 both offer magnifications up to 1x, but when focused at m = 1x, the 100mm lens is 1 foot from the subject and the 180mm lens is 1.56 feet from the subject. The longer lens offers several inches of additional working distance.

Consider further the benefit of a long working distance as it relates to physically disturbing the subject. Practitioners of the macro shoot are invariably using tripods, especially under diffused light. The farther from the subject you can remain, the less likely a chance movement of the tripod will disturb the foliage or alarm the subject. Also, and slightly more esoteric, is the effect of your body heat. On a very calm and cool morning, an extremely fragile dewy spider web can easily be set in motion by the mere movement of nearby air caused by the shooter’s body heat. Remember your physics—warm air rises and cooler air slides in to take its place. Nobody wants a wiggly macro subject—making you yearn once more for a lens with a long working distance.

THE TRIPOD COLLAR

Consider once again the short focal length macro lens. It attaches to the camera and the camera is attached to the tripod. Typically the arrangement provides for horizontal image orientation, and to shoot vertical images one must reconfigure the tripod head. Not only is that a nuisance, but the center of gravity and weight distribution of the gear keeps changing. Moreover, as the focal length of the lens increases, the lens size and weight increases. This adds potentially damaging stresses to the camera. Finally, when the lens is cantilevered off the camera, the pendulum effect causes an increased tendency for image-softening low-frequency vibration.

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A tripod collar on a lens makes it convenient and easy to change from a horizontal to a vertical composition or any angle in-between.

Camera makers have largely eliminated these problems by fitting longer lenses with a tripod collar. Now the camera and lens assembly is attached to the tripod head by the lens collar so that the camera is suspended from the rear of the lens. The weight distribution is better, the center of gravity of the system is better aligned with the center of the tripod footprint, and there is less mechanical stress on the camera’s lens mount. Vibration effects are reduced, and another significant benefit is that both camera and lens are easily and conveniently rotated between horizontal to vertical in minimum time with minimum effort, with minimum change in the center of gravity, and with minimum photographer frustration. Barb and I hereby proclaim that tripod collars are incredible and wish all lenses had them!

KNOW YOUR LIMIT CONTROLS

One client complained that his new Canon 180mm macro lens—the one I had suggested he get—would not focus on small subjects. It turns out that some manufacturers have designed their lenses with two (the Sigma 180 macro has three) ranges of focus. For example, the Canon 180mm macro lens has a selectable choice of a focusing range from infinity down to 1.5 meters or a closer focusing range from infinity down to .48 meters. Using a focus limiter switch on the lens, two ranges are provided to allow users to select the range more suited for the upcoming shot. A restricted range reduces the amount of searching for correct focus that the lens must do and thus speeds up autofocusing. Faster focusing saves battery power, results in less lens wear and tear, and reduces that all-important photographer frustration. Use it to your advantage.

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Many autofocus macro lenses provide a Limit switch. Be careful! This Limit switch confuses many photographers. If you unknowingly set it, you will have a problem. Pictured is the Limit switch on a Canon 100mm macro. If the lens is set to infinity focus, and then the switch is set to Limit, the lens cannot focus to the higher magnification range. If the lens is set to 1x, and the Limit switch is then set, the lens cannot focus on large objects. The Limit switch speeds up autofocus if you set it to cover the magnification range you are working in. However, we rarely use autofocus in close-up photography and always leave the switch set to Full.

Focusing ranges are offered on many lenses. Be certain you are aware whether or not your lens offers it, and learn to set it correctly. In the Canon 180mm macro example, setting the range from infinity to 1.5 meters—as my client had done—makes it impossible to autofocus to magnifications greater than about 1/5 life-size. Setting the focusing range to .48 meters to infinity allows magnifications all the way up to life-size (1x).

While you may be using the autofocus capability of your macro lens when using it for non-macro shooting, it’s almost certain you will not use autofocus in macro work. Selection of the correct focus point in a macro subject is way too critical to be left up to a mere camera—the photographer needs to do it. Additional detailed discussion on this topic will be presented later.

THE EFFECT OF SENSOR SIZE

This topic relates more to the camera body than to lenses, but has a significant effect on our ongoing discussion of lenses, so here it is.

As I mentioned earlier, some cameras have a full-size or full-frame sensor, so-called because it’s the same size as a frame of 35mm film which is 36mm × 24mm. Why is 35mm film, which some of us can’t even remember, of any importance? Well, as a well-known fiddler once sang, “It’s tradition!” And most of today’s cameras have a smaller sensor. Nikon calls them DX cameras. The smaller size gives rise to a characteristic called a crop factor or occasionally a bit misleadingly called a magnification factor. We’ll call it a crop factor. Irrespective of name, the effect is that a given image size on a smaller sensor is a larger portion of the sensor size than if the same image size were on a full-sized sensor. To get that image proportion on a full-frame sensor at the same subject distance, a longer lens must be used so the small sensor image thus appears to have been made by a longer lens.

Just for reference, the 36mm × 24mm full-frame sensor is 1.5 inches long and 1 inch high. A typical DX sensor is 0.9 inches long and 0.6 inches high. Let’s do a life-size (1x) shot of a big beautiful busy bumble bee that’s 1/2 inch long. It doesn’t matter whether we use a long lens or short. It doesn’t matter if the sensor is full-frame or smaller. If it’s a 1x shot, the bee image on the sensor is always 1/2 inch long. On the small sensor camera, the bee image is a larger portion of the sensor size than on a full-frame camera and seemingly made by a longer lens. Yet the image was not made by a longer lens. Nothing has been magnified. It’s merely that the smaller sensor crops the bee’s surroundings more than the full-frame sensor does. “To bee or not …” Oh, never mind.

So the effect of the small sensor is that small sensor images appear to have been made by longer lenses. Even though focal length is focal length and lenses get no longer on a small sensor camera, we do enjoy the narrower field of view that a longer lens provides. A Canon Rebel has a crop factor of 1.6. This causes the field of view of a 100mm lens to be the same as that of a 160mm lens used on a full-sized sensor. The longer effective focal length gives better background control with its generally beneficial improvement in image quality. Just keep in mind that for any given subject, m is determined by image size, not by sensor size.

180MM AND 200MM MACRO LENSES

We’ve discussed the importance of having a narrow field of view, greater working distance, and a tripod collar, so Barbara and I have an easy choice of macro lenses. Barbara uses Nikon’s 200mm f/4 AF Micro Nikkor lens while I use my Canon 180mm f/3.5 macro lens.

We’ve convinced many a student of the merits of these lenses, and each and every student who’s acquired one has been happy with it. They’re just superb for macro shooting. Despite that, they’re costly, they’re heavy, and they’re bulky. If you seek convenience, get something else. But, if you want excellent macro images and have a supporting budget, they are the lenses of choice. A fine alternative is the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 macro, and this one has optical stabilization, a boon for shooting handheld while stalking butterflies and other fast-moving targets where a tripod would be problematic. I recently received this macro lens from Sigma to test during the spring and summer of 2013. It is an awesome lens, but alas, it is expensive!

100MM MACRO LENSES

These are fine lenses for most macro shooting, but like most choices a photographer makes, there are pluses and minuses. Let’s look at both sides:

On the plus side:

•They are extremely effective macro lenses as long as one remembers the shorter working distance, and moves slowly and carefully so as not to disturb delicate or wary subjects.

•They are smaller, lighter, and far less costly than the longer macro lenses, and many shooters’ priorities lie in these characteristics.

On the minus side:

•Shorter lenses generally have less working distance than longer lenses, although by moving slowly and carefully, you can approach most subjects closely enough for good images. This problem can be somewhat mitigated by small sensor cameras, which for a given subject size, will fill the frame at greater working distances.

•Shorter lenses also have a wider angle of view than the longer lenses, which is generally undesirable, although a careful selection of shooting position can often achieve a satisfactorily non-distracting background.

•No tripod collar. This is a shortcoming of convenience; that is to say, it’s a nuisance to switch back and forth between horizontal and vertical shots. Some macro shooters have image files that are 95 percent horizontal and 5 percent vertical only because it’s such a pain to be changing formats without a tripod collar. Most of the inconvenience can be eliminated by using an L-bracket on the camera.

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Pacific Chorus Frogs are wary of potential predators such as an approaching photographer. The long macro lenses we favor in the 180–200mm range offer considerably more working distance than shorter lenses, which makes it easier to get within adequate photo range. Nikon D4, 200mm micro, 1/2, f/22, ISO 100, Cloudy.

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Dragonflies make great portraits! A Kenko 36mm extension tube is used on a 200mm lens to achieve greater magnification to fill the frame. Nikon D4, 200mm, 1/1.3, f/22, ISO 200, Cloudy.

50MM MACROS

While 50mm macros are exceptional for in-studio and copy work, these lenses are just too short for serious in-the-field macro shooting. Their wide angle of view can encompass half the entire world as a background when you’d much rather prefer the highly constrained background of a very narrow field of view. The short macro has a working distance about the size of the insect you’re photographing, and, without great care, the insect may be crawling on the front element of your lens! The extremely wide angle of view and miniscule working distance offered by 50mm lenses makes them difficult to use most of the time.

It’s hard to hide our distaste for these lenses when used as infield macro tools. Yet they can offer large magnifications when used with extension tubes. The mathematics of extension mean that extension tubes used on short lenses give lots of magnification. Therefore, they are suitable for high magnification images and studio work.

Barb and I will always work hard to help our students achieve the best possible results when they use short lenses, but we always recommend upgrading to a longer lens.

CANON MACRO PHOTO LENS MP-E 65MM F/2.8 1-5X

This unique lens permits extremely high magnifications. At a minimum, yes, a minimum, it gives m=1x, meaning that you can handily shoot a life-sized image of a robber fly face. Turn the focusing mechanism of the lens a little and you get an astonishing 5x magnification. If you want a mosquito face or a spider eye image, this is the lens for you.

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The iridescent colors in the beetle and the dewdrops are attractive. The specialized Canon 65mm macro lens that begins at life-size (1x) magnification and increases all the way to 5x is used to capture this image. Canon 5D Mark III, 65mm macro, 1/1.3, f/14, ISO 160, Cloudy.

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The fascinating pattern in the compound eyes of this horse fly is highly photogenic. Canon 5D Mark III, 65mm macro, 1/6, f/16, ISO 200, Cloudy.

A dedicated Canon lens without peer among other manufacturers, it features manual focusing with no autofocus capability, but that’s acceptable for macro work. The wide field of view of a 65mm lens is somewhat mitigated by the extremely limited depth-of-field encountered at high magnifications. Backgrounds aren’t distracting because they are so thoroughly out of focus at these high magnifications.

At high magnifications, especially at 2x and greater, all lenses become extremely critical to focus and incredibly susceptible to any movement or vibration of the subject or the camera. Moreover, the working distance is minimal—only about 4″ at 1x, falling to about 1.5″ at 5x. A good focusing rail is an essential accessory at these magnifications, and of course, so is a very sturdy tripod.

I’ve owned one of these lenses for several years and love shooting high-magnification images with it. I highly recommend it. That having been said, be aware that shooting at very high magnifications is much easier done in the studio than in the field. However, using a Plamp to hold the subject perfectly still in the field does make the 65mm macro easier to use.

PERSPECTIVE CONTROL (TILT-SHIFT) LENSES

These lenses have mechanical movements, allowing them, when mounted on a camera, to shift and to tilt. Shift is a lens movement up and down, or side to side, or on some intermediate angle, where the longitudinal axis of the lens, that is, the line through the center of the lens from front to back, remains perpendicular to the sensor. Stated another way, when shifting, the lens moves up and down, or side to side, or on some intermediate angle, where the planes of the glass elements remain parallel to the sensor. Tilt is a lens movement that changes the angle between the longitudinal axis of the lens and the plane of the sensor. Usually that angle is a right angle, 90 degrees, or we can say that the longitudinal axis is perpendicular to the sensor. When tilting, we adjust the lens for some different angle, causing the lens to point up, down, to one side or the other or some intermediate combination. It is important to realize that tilt and shift are two different controls that solve different problems. Of the two, tilt is far more useful in close-up photography.

Some lenses will only shift and some will both shift and tilt. Lenses that only shift are used, for example, in architectural photography, to keep vertical lines from converging, and, buildings from looking like they’re falling over backwards. The nature shooter might like them for tall trees and tall waterfalls, but they’re not very useful in close-up work. Lenses with tilt capability, however, are very useful to the close-up shooter. They allow extreme ranges of focus, such as when shooting a nearby flower and wanting both the flower and the distant mountain to be in focus. The tilt lens is superb for photographing the raindrops clustered on a leaf at an angle to the plane of the leaf to make the drops sparkle more. Likewise, it works for the angled upturned wings of a butterfly.

The best choices for close-up work are the Nikon 85mm f/2.8 PC-E Micro lens and the Canon 90mm f2.8 T/S lens. Both focus quite closely without accessories, and by using even short extension tubes, greater magnifications are easily achieved.

The ability of these lenses to give an extreme focus range even at very large apertures is best explained by the Scheimpflug Principle, the details of which are beyond the scope of this book and best left to your own research. However, one piece of geek speak might be helpful here: Tilt lenses do not, as often thought, increase depth-of-field. The depth-of-field is largely determined by aperture and magnification. What tilt lenses do is allow the photographer to change the orientation of the plane of focus, as best helps the image.

It’s unfortunate that tilt-shift lenses aren’t offered by other manufacturers, but they’re expensive, and the limited markets of third-party makers don’t warrant the engineering and production costs of adding them to the product line. Barbara and I find plenty of applications for them and wouldn’t want to be without them. In any event, exceptional close-up photography is easily accomplished otherwise, so don’t agonize if you don’t have one! With the recent advances in focus stacking—to be discussed in the flower chapter—the need for owning a lens that can tilt has diminished.

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These fungi growing on a White Birch log make an interesting pattern. The diagonal birch log with the red maple leaf and fungi were shot at a 45 degree angle. To get the log, fungi, and maple leaf sharp, a Canon 90mm tilt and shift lens is used. The lens is tilted slightly down to make the plane of focus coincide with the plane of the log. Canon 5D Mark III, 90mm T/S lens, 1/4, f/18, ISO 100, Cloudy.

ZOOM MACROS

Some zoom lenses, particularly the lower cost so-called consumer-grade lenses, are occasionally advertised as having a macro mode. Yet many fall far short of m=1x, a requirement of a true macro lens. Moreover, many offer close-up focusing only at the shorter focal lengths where the wider angle of view is decidedly unfavorable.

The big advantage of the zoom lens is the ability to adjust the compositional framing by adjusting lens focal length and not having to move a tripod around, or worse (many think), move the photographer around. That’s an ability less needed in digital photography where one can shoot loose and crop later, but it’s always a much better idea to maximize image detail by filling the frame nicely and not cropping during postcapture editing. One of the better zoom macros is the Sigma 70–300mm f/4-5.6 DL Macro Super II. At 300mm, this lens can be focused close enough to achieve a magnification of 1/2x. This doesn’t reach the true macro range, but 1/2x fills the image with many small subjects.

NON-MACRO ZOOM LENSES

There’s a plethora of zoom lenses on the market that themselves do not focus close enough to be useful for general close-up usage, but when augmented by certain accessories they can shoot excellent close-up images. If you already own a zoom lens that reaches out to say, 200 or ideally 300mm, you might consider adding a good quality close-up lens to your underlying zoom. Such lenses include the Canon 70–300mm and 100–400mm, Nikon 28–300mm and 70–200mm, and the Sigma 70–300mm.

CLOSE-UP LENSES

Close-up lenses, also known as supplementary lenses or diopters, are filter-like accessories that screw onto the filter thread of your lens. They enable the underlying lens to obtain greater magnification and can allow the photographer to fill their frame with a small subject. Consider the Canon 100–400 f/4.5–5.6 lens. Alone, it can achieve only m=0.2x, meaning 1/5 life-size at a working distance of about 16 inches. If you add a 77mm Canon 500D close-up lens to the front of the zoom lens, the combination allows m=0.8x—pretty close to life-size. While you benefit from a much narrower angle of view, you also get ample working distance, and you have a tripod collar as well. It’s an efficient setup that delivers quality images!

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A close-up lens is attached to the front of a Canon 300mm lens to make it focus much closer. The close-up lens looks like a filter and screws on to the front of your regular lens. They are wonderful for reaching higher magnifications with fixed focal length and zoom lenses alike.

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The portrait of a sulfur butterfly is captured by screwing a 62mm close-up lens on to the front of a 200mm micro lens. Nikon D4, 200mm micro, Nikon 5T close-up lens, 1/2.5, f/22, ISO 200, Cloudy, and with flash as the main light.

Close-up lenses are relatively inexpensive, lightweight, compact, easy to use, and attenuate very little light. But, buyer beware! There are many poorly made inexpensive close-up lenses that produce poor quality images of degraded color, lowered contrast, and poor sharpness. Good close-up lenses, though, like the double-element Canon mentioned above and the double-element Nikon 5T and 6T offerings, can cost upwards of $100, but they produce first-rate quality images.

The Canon offerings include versions with and without a D as a part of the model number. The D designates the double-element close-up lens. The quality it produces is better than the non-D versions, so when you buy Canon, be sure to get the D model. Close-up lenses have a thread that mates with the filter thread of the underlying lens. Canon close-up lenses come in different magnification factors. The 250 series generates less magnification than the 500 series, so we always use the latter. Also, these lenses come with threads of 52mm, 58mm, 72mm, and 77mm to match (hopefully) the filter threads on the front of the lens that will be used with it. It would be nice to have one of those close-ups lenses for each lens you intend to use for close-up work, but a less expensive option is to get a single close-up lens for the largest of your underlying lenses and buy inexpensive adapter rings to use the large thread close-up lens with your smaller thread underlying lenses.

Actually, it’s nearly always a good idea to use a close-up lens, or any filter at all for that matter, that’s larger than the thread of the underlying lens. Use a simple and inexpensive step-up ring to mate the larger accessories to smaller lenses. The combination helps avoid darkening of image corners, you save the costs of buying close-up filters in different sizes, and the weight difference is not great.

Despite all of the advantages of using close-up lenses on a zoom, Barbara and I still prefer to use a long focal length macro lens. We must move our tripods around to get the compositions we want, but we’re accustomed to doing it. This remains our preference, but we admit it isn’t the best choice for everyone because price and weight and the convenience of zooming to compose are important to others.

One can also use close-up lenses on prime (non-zoom) underlying lenses. An avid close-up shooter frequently attending our Michigan workshops even puts a close-up lens on his long macro lens. His Nikon 200mm AF Micro lens gets m=1x unaided, but he puts a good-quality Nikon 6T close-up lens on it and gets m=1.8x, great for in-field dewy dragonfly heads and the like. When feeling photographically warlike and aggressive, he puts both a Nikon 6T and 5T on the same lens, and gets m=2.2x. With both configurations, he enjoys a good working distance. Many outstanding photographers use close-up lenses successfully and without having to spend a great deal of money on their close-up photography.

OTHER FILTERS

The quality close-up lenses we’ve recommended notwithstanding, adding any glass in front of your camera lens risks some image degradation. So you should ignore the common advice to buy the high profit filter to protect your lens at the camera store. They’re often of poor quality and will cause a loss of sharpness and will increase lens flare—doing considerably more harm than good. I’ve seen more than one lens irreparably dropped onto the rocks below, but in 40 years, Barb and I have never damaged a lens in a way that a filter would have helped. Therefore, we have never owned protection filters and do not recommend them. Instead, maximize your image quality by using reasonable care and rely on your lens hood for protection!

For a specific photographic purpose, though, some filters are valuable. A good quality polarizer is nearly always valuable in shooting foliage, anything wet, and of course, the sky. A blunder, though, is stacking your polarizer on top of a UV protection filter. That’s a serious no-no practically guaranteed to degrade your images! When the positives of using a polarizer outweigh the miniscule loss of image sharpness, go ahead and use the filter!

EXTENSION TUBES

An extension tube is just a light-tight and glass-free empty spacer that moves a lens farther from the camera body. The lens being farther away allows closer focusing and thus greater magnification. Extension tubes are rugged, easy to carry, and fairly inexpensive. They are easy to use. Attach the extension tube to the camera and then the lens to the extension tube. Canon, Nikon, and independent manufacturer Kenko all offer extension tubes of excellent quality. They come in different lengths and can easily be combined for greater length. Canon offers 12mm and 25mm tubes.

I have a set of three Kenko tubes made for Canon that include a 12, 20, and 36 millimeter tube. I also have a Canon 12mm and two 25mm extension tubes. The Kenko extension tube set is an essential part of my camera bag. In a separate long-lens bag, I keep two Canon 25mm extension tubes to make my 500mm and 800mm lenses focus closer for small bird and mammal photography. Extension tubes are usually used one at a time, but they can be added together to achieve even greater magnification. Don’t overdo it because it is possible to add too many and the whole system bows in the middle.

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A polarizing filter is necessary to subdue the glare from this attractive assemblage of seashells. Nikon D4, 200mm micro with polarizer, 1.3 seconds, f/22, ISO 200, Auto.

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Without the polarizer, notice the glare that is hiding the color and detail in the shells. We normally don’t use a polarizer when shooting close-ups because they absorb too much light, but they are helpful when glare is a serious problem. Nikon D4, 200mm micro with polarizer, 1/2, f/22, ISO 200, Auto.

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The Canon 300/4 lens focuses down to a minimum focusing distance of 4.9 feet. At the closest focusing distance, this 3 inch long seashell is too small in the image. Canon 5D Mark III, 300mm, 1/3, f/16, ISO 100, Shade.

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A Kenko 36mm extension tube is inserted between the camera and the 300mm lens. Extension tubes don’t contain glass, but serve as a spacer to allow any lens to focus closer. Now the seashell can nicely fill the frame. Extension tubes are superb for achieving higher magnification. Canon 5D Mark III, 300mm, 1/2.5, f/16, ISO 100, Shade, Kenko 36mm extension tube.

Barbara uses a Kenko set of tubes made for her Nikon system. Like Canon, Nikon builds their own extension tubes. They offer an 8mm, 14mm, 27.5mm, and the remarkable PN-11 52.5mm extension tube with a built-in rotatable tripod collar! That collar is an enormous boon when using lenses otherwise without one. One minor downside of the Nikon tubes is that they don’t permit autofocus operation. But, as we’ve already pointed out, autofocus is not generally used in macro photography. However, if you want to use the tubes with longer lenses for wildlife photography, preserving autofocus is crucial. In that case, select the Kenko extension tube set for Nikon.

Regardless of brand, extension tubes offer many opportunities for use. As mentioned, I sometimes use one or two tubes on the back of my 500mm or 800mm lens to reduce its minimum focus distance, so I can capture larger images of small birds and mammals. Tubes are effective for reaching higher magnifications than otherwise would be possible. Put a set of Kenko tubes behind a 100mm macro lens, focus the lens to life-size, and the tubes will allow a magnification much higher than life-size.

I also use tubes to convert my 300mm prime lens into a great macro lens, thus acquiring a very narrow field of view and a long working distance—a combination that would bring smiles to most any close-up photographer. I do a lot of hummingbird and Black-capped chickadee photography, and that’s a great combination! In fact, I’ve made some measurements, and my 300mm lens on a camera with a 1.6x crop factor gave these results:

300mm Lens on 1.6x Crop Factor Body

Subject Size that Fills the Frame

Apparent Magnification

Lens alone.

3.75 inches

0.24X

With a 12mm tube.

3.00 inches

0.30X

With a 20mm tube.

2.75 inches

0.33X

With a 36mm tube.

2.25 inches

0.40X

With stacked 20 and 36mm tubes (56mm total).

1.75 inches

0.51X

With stacked 12, 20, and 36mm, tubes (68mm total).

1.50 inches

0.60X

You can see that the 300mm lens with extension is capable of reaching quite reasonable magnifications. You can’t fill the frame with a single dewdrop, but you can photograph many macro subjects well with a 300mm lens and extension tubes. Image quality is not compromised because there’s no glass in the extension tubes to cause distortion, flare, or lack of sharpness. One obtains a very small angle of view, a very comfortable working distance, and a tripod collar to make tripod use more convenient.

At one time or another, Barbara and I have used tubes on nearly every lens we own, including macro, tilt-shift, zoom, wide-angle, and super-telephoto lenses. We have always found them to be very useful. Note that when using extension tubes, the ability to focus the lens at long distances is lost. It’s a compromise that has confused many a workshop student trying an extension tube for the first time and finding that the tree a few feet away can’t be brought into focus. I demonstrate what’s happening by having them try to focus on my hand while I gradually bring it closer. If you’re a newcomer to extension tubes, it’ll take a short while for you to become accustomed to the changes brought about by the tubes.

It’s often helpful to know what magnification to expect when using this tube or that. We tried to stick to our promise to hold down the arithmetic, but this simple formula might be useful:

m = extension tube length ÷ lens focal length

Example: with a lens focal length of 100mm, add a tube that’s 50mm long.

m = 50/100 = 1/2x

So, with m = 1/2x, a butterfly that’s 1 inch long will have an image size of 1/2 inch on the sensor, or half life-size. And if you instead use a Canon 25mm tube on a 100mm lens, m = 25 ÷ 100 = 1/4x, an image size one-fourth that of the subject.

To avoid the arithmetic, just approximate things. Precise numbers are not needed for most shooting. If your extension is about the same length as the focal length of the lens, you’re going to get about 1x. If the extension is about half the focal length of the lens, you’ll get about 1/2x, and so on. Do remember your lens has a built-in focusing range of its own. Focusing the lens to the closest focusing distance while using the extension tube will produce a magnification that is somewhat greater than the formula calculates. With practice, it doesn’t take long to be able to accurately guess what extension tube size is needed to adequately magnify a subject with a favorite lens.

All is not peaches and cream, though. There’s always some light loss when using tubes, but generally the loss is easily offset by ISO, aperture, or shutter speed adjustments. There are some arcane equations to calculate the loss of light, but the results aren’t usually important in this day of RGB histograms and highlight alert exposure controls.

One more caveat—don’t go wild in stacking multiple tubes. The mechanical stresses on the tubes, the lens and the camera may add up to a dangerous level causing mechanical or electrical failure. In the field, we rarely use much more than 50mm of extension.

To summarize, extension tubes are useful accessories for nearly all close-up shooters. Heck, we don’t know how any photographer—even those who don’t shoot close-ups—can get by without them. Buy either the tubes offered by your camera maker, or, alternatively, a set of the Kenko tubes configured for your camera body and lenses. Currently, Kenko offers tubes for Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony Alpha.

TELECONVERTERS

Teleconverters, also known as tele-extenders, or TCs, are like extension tubes in that they fit between lens and camera body. But, unlike the completely hollow extension tubes, teleconverters contain internal glass optics that operate to multiply the focal length of the underlying lens on which they’re used. Canon, Olympus, and Sony, all offer high-quality teleconverters for their own systems, in powers of 1.4x and 2.0x. Nikon has three, with powers of 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2.0x.

By the way, do not confuse the focal length multiplication factors above with image-magnification factors! A 2x teleconverter multiplies focal length by two times, but absent other information, says nothing about m, the image magnification. In simpler words, a 2x teleconverter doubles the focal length, but that does not mean the magnification is 2x.

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Teleconverters and extension tubes are effective for achieving higher magnifications than would otherwise be possible. A Canon 25mm extension tube is on the left. A Kenko 36mm extension tube is on the right. A Nikon 1.4x teleconverter is at the bottom. Only the teleconverter contains glass. Extension tubes work by enabling the lens to focus closer than otherwise possible. Teleconverters work by multiplying the magnification by the power of the converter.

Another less obvious way is that it’s easy to degrade your images if using an optically unsuited combination of underlying lens and teleconverter. Good image quality, especially at higher magnifications, requires both lens and teleconverter to be of excellent quality. In fact, many writers and practitioners maintain that both products should be made by the same manufacturer, and we agree.

The close-up photographer finds that a teleconverter not only provides greater magnification, but has several other effects, not all of them are good. Contemplate the results of adding a 2x teleconverter to a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens:

•The focal length has doubled to 200mm.

•The linear magnification has doubled.

•The working distance has not diminished.

•The maximum aperture has dropped 2 stops from the original f/2.8 to f/5.6.

•Light is lost by the lowered maximum aperture. Focusing will be hindered due to the darker viewfinder making it more difficult to see.

•The loss of light may require changing your ISO or shutter speed needs to deal with wind on your subjects.

•The depth-of-field at any given image size and aperture remains the same, but at the small aperture end of the lens’s f/stop scale, you gain 2 f/stops and hence additional DOF at the new f/stops. For example, it the aperture originally went down to f/22, it now goes to f/45, and the new aperture range will have commensurate depths-of-field. Watch out for diffraction-induced image softening at those miniscule f/stops!

COMBINE EXTENSION TUBES AND TELECONVERTERS (TC)

If a little is good, more is better, so they say. There are times when you may want more than a full-frame shot of a mosquito, you want a full-frame image of the mosquito’s head. Here is a way to do it. You can savor a substantial boost in magnification by using extension tubes and teleconverters at the same time. Add a 2x teleconverter to your camera. Now add a 50mm extension tube, and finally mount a 100mm macro lens. When the lens is focused at life-size (1x), the 50mm extension tube will increase the magnification to 1.5x. The 2x teleconverter then doubles m to about 3x. Your mosquito-head image is imminent!

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A Nikon 1.7x teleconverter is inserted behind a Nikon 200–400mm lens to fill the frame with this resting Whooper Swan in Japan. The extra working distance provided by the teleconverter makes it possible to photograph this bird without disrupting its pose. Nikon D3, 200–400mm, 1.7x teleconverter, 1/250, f/16, ISO 800, Sun.

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This tiny cluster of blueberries encased in a spider web requires plenty of magnification. A 1.4x teleconverter is attached to the camera. Then a 25mm extension tube is attached to the teleconverter and mounted on a macro lens to achieve higher than life-size magnification. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 100 macro, 1.4x teleconverter, 25mm extension tube, 2 seconds, f/16, ISO 200, Cloudy, fill-flash.

Two caveats:

•Be certain that the TC is on the camera and the extension tube is between the TC and the lens. Mounting them in reverse significantly reduces magnification.

•At these large magnifications, you need to think Rock of Gibraltar! Nothing can move, neither the camera nor the subject! Use only very sturdy and very rigid tripods—the $29 department store special is not in competition. Use solid tripod heads that lock down tightly and are designed for the weight of your camera and lens setup. Use mirror lock-up prior to the exposure to reduce vibration or the Live View option to get the mirror up ahead of time. Trip the camera with a remote or self-timer release. Shoot when the subject is absolutely motionless and stays still for the entire exposure. Even a teensy-weensy wiggle anywhere in the system will reduce the sharpness of your image.

If you can juggle all of those stability balls, you can fill your frame with a dewdrop using your 50mm macro augmented by a 50mm tube and a 2x teleconverter. Now your magnification is up to 4x! You also achieve a hard-to-focus very dark viewfinder and a woefully short working distance, but if you’re very careful and very patient, you can get decent results in the field or studio.

FOCUSING RAILS

It’s difficult to focus precisely and reliably when shooting at 1x and greater. Generally, to achieve the highest magnification, you don’t want to change the lens’s focus. Instead, you want to move the camera back and forth a miniscule distance. Ouch! Have you ever tried to move your entire tripod and camera back and forth a tiny fraction of an inch or so, while the entire setup is all bogged in badly bouncing bushes or mired in miserable mucky mud? Meanwhile, try to do so without alarming the bashful black beetle.

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A focusing rail is beneficial to all close-up photographers. The rail makes it easy to move the camera forward and backward in tiny increments. Some focusing rails allow side-to-side movement.

A great solution is to use a focusing rail, sometimes called a slider or macro slider. It is a rack-and-pinion device mounted between the tripod head and the camera, or between the tripod head and the lens collar. It provides a knob that can precisely move the entire camera and lens assembly back and forth in small amounts, or, as needed, in amounts up to a few inches. There are even models that additionally allow small side-to-side movement for precise control of composition.

Our own focus rails are made by Kirk Enterprises of Angola, Indiana, but there are other models that work as well.

BELLOWS

In the good old days, Barb and I often used a bellows for our high magnification macro work. A bellows is a light-tight variable structure, as seen on the view cameras of yesteryear, mounting a lens at one end and a camera body at the other. This allows the distance between camera and lens to be changed by a small knob. It is essentially a variable length extension tube.

The variable camera-to-lens distance gives an adjustable magnification that is highly desirable in close-up work. However, a bellows is often heavy, generally fragile, bulky, prone to catching the breeze and causing vibration, and in some models, not as stable as one might like. In essence, bellows are not very convenient in the field and few are made. Today’s photographers seem to prefer macro lenses, close-up lenses on zooms, solid extension tubes, or a combination of these devices.

STACKING LENSES

When I first learned to shoot high-magnification images way back in the 1970s, many shooters mounted a short focal length lens backwards onto the front of a longer focal length lens. By using a very inexpensive adapter ring, the lenses were mounted nose-to-nose, so to speak, that is, filter thread to filter thread, with the longer lens on the camera.

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The Canon 1x–5x 65mm macro lens is terrific for shooting very high magnifications. If you commonly shoot higher than 1x magnification, consider getting this lens. Even Nikon, Sony, and other non-Canon users often buy an inexpensive Canon camera so they can use this lens. The green bug is captured in 29 images and merged into one single image with incredible depth-of-field and overall sharpness using the 65mm macro and Helicon Focus software. Canon 5D Mark III, 65mm macro, 1/15, f/10, ISO 400, Shade, 19 images combined with Helicon Focus.

When the add-on lens was focused at infinity, the magnification achieved was the ratio of the focal lengths. If one were to mount a 200mm lens on the camera and reverse-mount a 50mm lens to the 200mm lens, the resulting magnification was 200 ÷ 50, a magnification of 4x. Lots of m, pretty easy to do, and often it didn’t require any expenditure beyond the adapter ring. Now that zoom lenses rule, many observers thought that the system didn’t provide the best image quality when using zoom lenses and thought there were better ways to preserve decent working distances, so this technique has fallen out of favor for most.

But, if you already have a 50mm and a 200mm prime lens, reversing the 50mm lens on the front of the 200mm lens still works. For whatever reason, good or bad, today’s shooters seem to prefer using macro lenses with various combinations of close-up diopters, teleconverters, and extension tubes to achieve the desired magnification.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Barbara and I continue to favor the use of long focal length macro lenses for the majority of our work. In fact, most of the images in this book were shot with either Barb’s Nikon 200mm micro lens or my own Canon 180 macro lens. Both lenses do an exceptional job offering highly constrained fields of view for good background control while preserving excellent working distances. The built-in tripod collar makes them a pleasure to use on a tripod.

However, we often recommend that our workshop students who already own a long zoom lens reaching 300mm (for example a 75–300mm) merely attach a high-quality close-up lens to the front of it. We also encourage using any of the good quality and widely available 100mm macro lenses, equipped as needed, with extension tubes and teleconverters.

There’s many a way to reach 1x (and above), and more often than not, you can configure a satisfactory system at minimum expense by creatively using your existing lens or lenses with appropriate inexpensive accessories.

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Paradoxically, even with all of the exotic animals at the San Diego Wildlife Safari Park, the unanimous crowd pleaser was a family of Mallard ducklings that briskly swam through the legs of a flock of flamingos. Barbara used a Wimberley Sidekick to convert her Kirk BH-1 ball head into a gimbal tripod head making it easy to pan with this dashing duckling. Barbara placed a single AF point on the head of the duckling, held down the back button focus control to activate continuous autofocus, and fired a rapid burst of images when it swam at the optimal angle for her to shoot. Barbara rapidly zoomed the lens to make a lovely composition. Nikon D4, Nikon 200–400mm at 400mm, ISO 1000, f/11, 1/640, Cloudy WB.

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Many insects roost on flowers at night. At dawn we always check flowers carefully to see who might be sleeping on them. This green-eyed bee remains perfectly still on a cool dewy Michigan morning. A Plamp is attached to the flower stem to hold it still. Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/1.3, f/22, ISO 200, Cloudy