My Little World - a closer look at macro photography

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

Macro is essentially close-up photography of small subjects such as insects of flowers.

True macro refers to replicating a subject at lifesize - 1:1 scale or smaller.

Grasshopper about to leap

When I first discovered the wonders of macro photography I was amazed and mystified by the astonishing photos I saw in glossy magazines and scientific journals. The images quite literally opened my eyes up to everything around me and it made me see things in a whole new way.

With the old ME Pentax film camera that my father left me when he died in 2001, came a set of close-up filters which screwed onto the front of the lens.

These cheap filters are considered fairly crude and poor in terms of quality as they do not produce particularly sharp images, yet they were perfect for a hobbyist photographer like myself at the time. Looking through the lens and being able to get very close to the subject (often a dozy fly or a slow-plodding ladybird) was a whole new experience for me and I lapped it up! By stacking the filters, one on top of the other, I could get closer still to my chosen target. The number of pictures I took of the veins of leaves (we’ve all done that, I’m sure) and the sheer number of failed attempts at tracking a bee on a flower, cost me a small fortune in spare film. But to me it was worth every penny - I was in my element. Perhaps my favourite image at the time was a close-up of a paper weight I took, which captured the ethereal nature of the blown glass - the unusual pattern and blue shades of colour had a particularly alien quality to it.

This got me thinking - what other strange and otherworldly things could I uncover with my camera?

Droplet on flower

It wasn’t until I started taking night classes for a City & Guilds course in Seaton that I truly discovered macro photography and I learnt to appreciate the many nuances of the technique.

Many kit zoom lenses - such as the one I had at the time for my more modern SLR film camera, a Nikon F55, had ‘macro’ etched on the body. This meant when extended to full length you could twist the barrel of the lens and the focusing distance would be shifted to something like 100mm. However, as my tutor informed me at the time, although it allowed me to get close to a subject it wasn’t ‘true macro’ photography and it was a limited bit of kit. To achieve proper 1:1 macro I would need to buy a dedicated lens.

So I did! On an impulse I went to London Camera Exchange in Exeter and asked for a macro lens to fit my camera - I made the mistake of not researching before buying. I came away with a 70mm Sigma f2.8 lens. I couldn’t wait to get home and try it out on my camera.

Detail view of a feather

However, I was a little disappointed with the results. There was a lot of camera shake as there was no image stabiliser, and for the life of me I couldn’t get my subject in nice sharp focus from back to front such as in the images I’d seen in National Geographic!

At the time, I was employed at Waitrose in Sidmouth and the company runs a scheme where all profits of the business are shared among the entire staff at the end of the trading year - the Partnership Bonus as it’s known. In the early days of my employment we had bonuses in the region of 20% and higher of our annual salary. And so I went on a bit of a spending spree and bought my first DSLR (a Fuji S3 Pro) to accompany my shiny new Sigma lens. I am glad I made the switch to digital as it allowed me to hone my photographic skills without wasting costly film. And I have found that macro photography certainly requires a lot of practice and dedication to achieve the results I want. In fact, I’d go as far to say that in my career as a photographer it is possibly one of if not the hardest skill I’ve tried to master.

Ladybird about to take off

You see, there were a number of things I didn’t appreciate at the time of buying my lens. The biggest learning curve I found was depth of field, or more precisely lack of it! Ordinarily an f2.8 or wider aperture lens is considered quality glass but when it comes to macro you will be hard pressed to get a decent shot at that f-stop. Depth of field (DOF), which is the plane of sharp focus, is very narrow with close-up photography. You might find on a subject like a bee that the eyes will be rendered sharply yet the wings are a complete blur - the plane of focus is like a slither the closer you get with the lens. Therefore you have to make adjustments to compensate - invariably this means stopping the lens down to a minimum of f8 but often this isn’t enough. And of course, the smaller the aperture then the longer the exposure or more sensitive the ISO needs to be. But, if like me, you want to take the pictures on location rather than in a studio then this can become even more problematic. A slight breeze on the leaf or grass or flower say, will test your patience as you try to shoot that butterfly or grasshopper. Again, DOF is your enemy.

Veins of a leaf

I also discovered that 70mm lenses, such as mine, required me to get quite close to the subject to appreciate the benefits of the 1:1 scale. The issue is that quite often the insect will spot you and simply move off. The other problem with my glass was that the barrel itself extended when focusing on nearby elements. The danger was that if I was close to something, such as the face of a model - trying to capture the texture of their skin, and the focus shifts causing the lens to hunt, it would be quite easy to accidentally poke the person in the eye!

I came to the conclusion that, although the lens had taught me a lot about macro, it was not everything I thought it was cracked up to be. I still achieved some nice shots with it but I was just not happy or trusting of the equipment.

And so I traded some spare kit in and with my next Waitrose bonus upgraded to a full frame camera - a Nikon D610. With it, I purchased a new macro lens as well. This time I did my research and went for a Nikon 105mm. This lens, although a lot heavier than my old Sigma, had a longer focusing distance giving me that ability to put a little more space between the subject and lens. It also has an image stabiliser built in and is more forgiving to camera shake. But the biggest benefit I found is that the lens is all housed in a fixed build meaning that it doesn’t physically extend when focusing.

I’ve enjoyed using this lens immensely and it has definitely improved my macro capabilities. I still have the lens today, which I use with my current camera, a D850, to good effect.

The last toe that I have dipped into the world of macro has been going beyond the 1:1 ratio - also known as super macro. This truly is a fascinating realm of photography to explore and I am learning new skills all the time.

Super macro requires extending the capabilities of the macro lens by increasing the distance between the lens and the camera body. This can be done by placing extension ring tubes between the two pieces of equipment. Typically extension tubes come in three or four varying sizes and can be stacked onto each other to increase the length. Another method is to use a bellows extender, but personally I find these too bulky for my liking.

For me, super macro photography is quite simply magical. I get the same buzz from discovering a new pattern or texture from a flower petal as I do from when I am in my darkroom watching images appear on a piece of paper in a dev bath.

One fun experience came during the ‘Mini Beast from the East’ snowy period in March 2018, I picked up my camera, tripod and lens and attempted shooting snowflakes in super macro. This was a real challenge and required true perseverance. Although I never achieved a truly sharp image it was still incredible to be able to see such delicate beauty appearing from a tiny white speck.

I have found that through macro and now super macro photography that there has been a whole new world right under my nose all along just waiting for me to discover it - I just needed to get closer to see it.

Super macro of a snowflake taken during Mini Beast of the East snow storm in March 2018
Super macro of a snowflake

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