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Macro Photography: Up Close and Personal

Macro Photographs

Have you ever seen a photo of an insect so clear that you could see individual hairs on its legs, or a flower petal with drops of dew that looked like oversized rain drops?

Although at times “macro photography” and “close-up photography” are used interchangeably, purists make a distinction: close-up photography refers to photos taken in the range of 1:10 (image is one-tenth life size) to 1:1 (life size). Macro photography refers to images captured at life-size and larger.

Close-up photography can be achieved with a zoom lens with a macro setting which allows up to a 1:4 image ratio. Magnification beyond this level becomes more complex — and expensive. Macro photography is not a field for rookies.

Macro photography requires positioning the lens very close to the subject, but the larger the image becomes on the film, the lower the light level falls and the more shallow the depth of field becomes. Reduced DOF necessitates focus on just one element of the subject, since areas even one millimeter closer or further from the point of focus can be noticeably blurry. Very small apertures are needed to remedy the shallower depth of field, which lowers the light level on the film even more. For this reason, normal hand-held exposures are not effective. For best results, a dedicated single or twin flash is used, along with a camera that offers aperture priority mode, although some macro photographers simply use reflected artificial light sources.

A tripod is a must for steadiness due to the magnification of camera shake with macro photography. Some camera makers are now using anti-shake sensors to ameliorate the effects of the magnification.

Macro photography requires manual through-the-lens flash metering, where a sensor inside the camera reads the amount of light being reflected off the film and determines when the exposure is sufficient. As digital photography becomes more sophisticated, so does TTL. For example, Canon has developed E-TTL II, a more-advanced flash algorithm for use with digital cameras.

Auxiliary close-up lenses of varying diopters can be attached to a standard 35 mm lens to achieve greater magnification, although many photographers simply purchase a long-barrel 50 mm macro lens to use with or without close-up lenses. Macro photographers also make use of extension tubes and telephoto extenders, with no optical components, that simply increase the distance between the film and the lens, enabling greater magnification; but because the distance between the light source and the film also increases, longer exposure times are necessary.

Reversing a lens is a relatively inexpensive way to achieve greater magnification. A lens with less focal distance can be reversed and placed in front of the normal or macro lens using a low-cost macro coupler or a special adapter known as a reversing ring.

Some pros make use of a versatile accessory called a macro bellows for ultra close-ups, although they are cumbersome, difficult to work with, and expensive and consequently have not gained great favor among photographers.

Fascinating and unidentifiable ultra macro photographs of DNA, skin cells, blades of grass, paint chips, tree bark, grains of sugar, and butterfly wings may be transformed into neckties, greeting cards, and prized works of art. Patience, experimentation, and trial-and-error are fundamental to the success — personal or professional — of dedicated macro photographers.

Author: Commissioned,  Originally published: 2008-03-19