Today I’m happy to have blog reader Joseph Calev share with you his thoughts on what you might want to add to your holiday wish list to get great macro shots. Joe shoots exclusively with Canon, so my apologies for the lack of Nikon coverage. However, Nikon has equivalent lenses to several mentioned below so in most cases the same recommendations would still apply.
Macro photography can be both difficult and rewarding. For me, it grew out of a lack of time to take a day off to photograph. With two young kids at home that simply isn’t an option. However, it is quite easy to go outside or to a nearby park to take a few photographs. With macro photography you rarely need to go very far.
Unlike many other types of photography, macro photography does require specialized gear. It also requires significantly different technique from ‘normal’ photography. As this is a holiday gift guide, I will not discuss the technique at all here. I will also not cover macro gear in general, but instead will discuss specifically what I use on a day to do basis to take macro photographs.
The truth is almost any SLR will work for macro photography. The lenses are what make the difference. It is true that many point and shoot cameras work very well for macro photography as they allow very close focus. For example, cameras like the G12 and X10 claim to do macro, but I haven’t experimented with that yet. As a result, I will only focus discuss Canon DSLR’s in this article as that is what I use..
I use two different cameras on a day to day basis – a 5D Mark II and a 7D. The 7D has a few advantages – such as a 1.6 crop and supposedly it works better with the image stabilization in the 100mm f/2.8L Hybrid IS Macro, but I almost never use it for macro. Instead I typically use my 5D Mark II. Why? There are two main reasons.
If you are looking for a DSLR camera specifically for macro, low light performance and larger pixels are what you should consider. For this reason I already have a 1D-X on preorder that will eventually replace both cameras.
Most people are not aware that “macro” photographs may be taken with many different types of lenses. The easiest way to get into macro is to buy either a Canon 500D Close-up Lens (called a diopter) or Kenko Extension Tubes. Canon also makes extension tubes, but unless you are putting them on a large telephoto such as a 400mm the Kenko ones will work just fine. Typically you use a diopter on a telephoto lens (particularly the 100-400mm) and extension tubes on shorter lenses. I will not go further into the details on the difference here – other than to say I have owned both of them and sold the diopter long ago while I still own and use the extension tubes often.
I will first discuss the lenses I use for macro purposes that are not true macro lenses. Note that I am using a fairly loose definition of “macro”. True macro is 1:1 or 1x – meaning on a 35mm sensor a 35mm subject takes the entire frame. However, when I say macro in this article I just mean “close”.
Canon 70-200mm & 2x Extender Combo
One of my favorite lenses for macros is my 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM. Below is a shot taken with it.
The 70-200 2.8 II has a respectable magnification of .21x. It is also an extremely versatile lens - usable for many other purposes than just macro. When combined with the 2x III Extender, the magnification doubles and provides even better macro abilities - though it does reduce the sharpness.
The photograph below was also taken with this combo:.
My 70-200 2.8 II and combined with the 2x III Extender work great for macro, but that is not the only use for this configuration. I also use it for many different purposes - from photographing my kids to travel photography. I also use this combo most often for wildlife photography, so this is a case where an investment in this combo can serve many needs.
Another lens with strong macro capabilities is the 300L F4 IS. In fact, this is the main purpose I purchased the lens. This makes a great lens for photographing dragonflies and butterflies. Dragonflies in particular can be skittish so it is extremely useful there. The shot below was taken with this lens:
As is the case with my 70-200 2.8 II, macro is not the main thing I use this lens for. I also use it for sports, so once again you don’t have to limit yourself to specialty “macro” lenses to get great results.
Wide angle lenses can also make nice macro lenses. They offer a different perspective than the traditional "telephoto" macro and are very useful for taking a close up shot combined with its environment. Not all wide angle lenses work well for macro, but my favorite one is the TS-E 24 II. As with my 70-200 2.8 II and 300/4 IS macro is not the main purpose for this lens either. I use it primarily for architecture but it does a decent job with macro as well. The photo below was taken with it.
As you can see with the above three lenses, they are excellent lenses that have macro capabilities, but they are not typically thought of as specialized “macro” lenses.
While we are on the subject of tilt-shift lenses, it is worth mentioning that I also use the TS-E 90. I use this lens occasionally for portraits and non-macro reasons, but I primarily use it for macro - often with an extension tube. With a native magnification of .29x and the abilities to shift and tilt, this is my preferred lens when photographing flowers.
When photographers hear the word "tilt-shift", they often think of those cute little miniature-like shots, but the truth is they have far more practical uses. One particular use is to selectively blur parts of the background. The shot below was taken with it.
What about dedicated macro lenses?
Thus far I’ve showed you how you don’t have to use specialized macro lenses to get great macro photos. However, I do actually use some dedicated macro lenses as well. I’ll now describe which ones I use and why.
100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro
The most useful macro lens in a general case is the 100mm 2.8 IS Macro. This lens is very similar to the much cheaper 100mm 2.8 Macro that lacks the image stabilization. However, I think the image stabilization is well worth it based on my experience with both lenses.
This lens is my second most used macro lens overall and the only true macro lens I take on vacations. With the image stabilization, I am able to take many shots hand held that simply would not be possible without it. My main targets for it are nature and small objects in stores. The image quality is outstanding and given the price this is one of the biggest bangs you can get for the buck Canon lens-wise. The shot below was taken with it:
Canon 180mm L Macro
Another lens that I have owned in the past is the 180L Macro. My copy this lens was a disappointment as it was nowhere near as sharp as my other macro lenses, so I never really enjoyed using it. Personally I’d recommend the other lenses I’ve suggested thus far over this one as a better use of your money. Ron didn’t care for it much either when he borrowed my copy and wrote this article.
My most used macro overall is the MP-E 65. This lens is significantly different than all others mentioned so far because it can only take macro photographs. This lens compensates for this limitation by offering a native magnification between 1x to an astonishing 5x.
While I love this lens, beginners should not start with this lens. It is an extremely challenging lens to use and requires either a very good tripod or a macro flash to be usable at all. At higher magnifications the depth of field becomes extremely shallow and diffraction becomes an issue. In fact, at this magnification even breathing can violently shakes the camera and ruin a shot.
Another challenge when using this lens is that the viewfinder can be extremely dark making focusing difficult (and this is a manual focus only lens), so a camera with Live View is a must.
I typically use this lens with an MT-24 EX Flash along with the CP-E4 battery back. I also use some specialized sto-fen diffusers and a special hood to both soften the light and prevent some of it from reflecting back into the lens. While this lens is a challenge to use, the results can be extraordinary. The following photos were taken with this combo:
Lighting is a huge concern in macro. As you move in close to subjects, shadows may become more visible. Also, higher apertures are typically required for macro shots - which reduces the light available to the camera. As I previously mentioned, I do shoot many of my photographs hand held - often with just ambient light. Most of the time, however, I need to either use a tripod or artificial lighting. I will discuss artificial lighting first.
There are a number of lighting solutions out there.
Generally I attach the heads of my MT-24EX to the specialty hood made for the MP-E 65. Occasionally this doesn't provide the angle I need - particularly in highly reflective drops from ice. In this case I have a pair of Wimberley Flash Brackets that I attach to the RRS lens plate attached to the lens. These arms allow me to move the flash further away from the subject or even put the flashes slightly behind the lens. In cases where I need to change the angle of light in order to prevent it from bouncing back into the lens this is critical. When I used to own the 180L macro I used these brackets all the time. Now I only use them for the most reflective of surfaces.
Insects typically require a flash at the minimum as a fill light. This is necessary due to their quick movements and to ensure all of the details and facets of their eyes are visible. For flowers and other subjects, however, flash tends to not look very good. The is particularly the case for flowers - where ambient light is generally the preferred way to go. While I do take many of these shots hand held, there are times when a tripod is a necessity. Macro tripods tend to be pricy because they must be extremely strong and capable of holding your gear in very strange positions.
If you read Ron’s Gitzo Primer, then you know this is one of the Explorer type tripods with the extendible arm. In retrospect, I wish I would have ordered the version that has the geared arm instead - though so far I have been able to get around it. Precision is hugely important in macro - as a single millimeter is often the difference between in focus and not or even having your subject in the viewfinder, so the gear can be super helpful.
Attached to my tripod, I have the Acratech GP ball head like Ron featured in his tripod head comparison. I bought this ball head specifically because it is very flexible and I can move the camera to a 90 degree angle. It is also quite strong.
Attached to the ball head I have two Really Right Stuff Macro Rails. These macro rails allow me to change focus with precision in the x and y dimensions. I used to own the Kirk Macro Rail which unlike the Really Right Stuff versions can be switched between holding camera plates and lens plates. While the Kirk rail may be moved quicker, the Really Right Stuff version is much stronger and more precise. If you want to use only a single macro rail for both camera plates and lens plates you need a special adapter. This adapter is not necessary if you use two rails.
Finally, attached to the tripod I have a Wimberley Plamp. I use my plamp all the time to hold leaves and flowers. Sometimes I use it to hold back a leaf or flower that is distracting in the shot while at other times I use it to prevent my subject from blowing with the wind. Very often I have my tripod setup just for the plamp and take the actual shot hand held. This does tend to be a rather expensive way just to hold a plamp though.
As you can see, you don’t have to use specialized macro lenses to get great results – but they are a great tool to have if you are going to do mostly macro photography. I should also point out that Canon is the leader in macro specific products, so this is why I’ve taken a bias to Canon. Simply put, several products mentioned have no counterpart by Nikon or Sony.
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