Macro PhotographyI

No matter how long you have been taking pictures, and what you are shooting, getting really close to your subject will always be fascinating. Wherever you look, TV, Internet or magazines, we are confronted with an ever-increasing number of closeup images and videos. No wonder that at some point every photographer will want to have a go at macro photography. Suitable subjects can be found anywhere, at any time, in any kind of weather.

Apart from practice and patience, there are a couple of facts you need to know before you delve into this new field. In this article I want to describe the hardware you’ll need and also give you a few tips on what to look out for to quickly get good results.


How Close Can You Get?


Have a look at the lenses you have. Every lens has a certain minimum focusing distance. That’s how close you can get to your object. This, together with the focal length of the lens, will determine how large the object can be projected onto the camera sensor.

The following Table lists a few lenses with their minimum focusing distance (MFD) and the achievable magnification.


Table 1 Macro Ability of Some Lenses (Full Frame Sensor)



MFD (cm)


Canon RF 24-105mm F4 L IS USM



Nikon 24-120mm f/4G AF-S VR



Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS



Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM



Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM



Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM



Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 IS USM Macro



Canon RF 100mm F2.8 L Macro IS USM



Canon MP-E 65mm Macro




Zoom lenses will give you the highest magnification at the tele end. A magnification of 0.25x means that your subject will be “quater life size” on the sensor. For example, a 14 cm sized object will fill a full-frame (36 mm) sensor. Proper macro lenses in general let you go all the way to 1x magnification (or 1:1), which means that a 3.5 cm wide object pretty much fills the entire picture frame.

Strictly speaking, macro photography starts at 1:1 magnification, but you will get impressive results with lenses that take you down to a ratio of 1:2 ratio (0.50x, or half life size).


The Shrinking Depth of Field


In the last issue of D-Photo (#102) we looked at the depth of field (DoF). You might remember that, strictly speaking, there is only one plane at a certain distance from your lens which is absolutely sharp in your photo. In practical terms you get some leeway of sharpness in front and behind the exact point of focus. For objects a couple of meters away, you will get a wider range of sharpness behind the focal point, compared to in front of your object.

Shooting at closer range, the DoF is more evenly spread in front and behind the point of focus – and it is shrinking quickly! At 1:1 magnification the DoF at f/8 is a cool 1.12 mm. Stopping the lens down (narrowing the aperture) will increase the DoF. Most lenses allow you to stop down to f/22, some even to f/32. This does extend the DoF, but another law of optics raises its ugly head: diffraction will ensure that nothing gets really sharp if you stop down to f/16 or smaller (assuming you have an APS or full-frame sensor).

Image 1 shows you part of a circuit board at a magnification of 1:1, shot at an angle of 45° at f/2.8. You can see the very narrow strip (DoF around 0.4 mm!) around the middle, which is in focus. Stopping the lens all the way down to f/32 does increase the DoF – the overall image looks sharper, but because of diffraction, nothing gets tack sharp (Image 2).

Image 1 & 2 – Printed Circuit Board (1:1), Shot at a 45° Angle
(Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 IS USM Macro)

Point-and-shoot cameras with their smaller sensors have an apparent larger DoF, but the diffraction kicks in earlier. That’s why those cameras only allow you to stop down to f/8.

On top of that, the sensor gets less light as the magnification increases: f/8 becomes an effective f/16 at 1:1 – and it gets worse with higher magnifications. In other words, proper lighting is going to be another problem. But we’ll address those issues later on.


Getting Started The Cheapest Option


What do you do if your lens only focuses down to a maximum of 0.25x magnification? Ideally, you’ll go out and get a dedicated macro lens. However, they are expensive! Fortunately, there are a few options that can get you started with your existing gear.

For less than $20 you can get a “reverse ring” for your camera, allowing you to fit any of your lenses in reverse. That puts you instantly in business. Needless to say, all electronic camera connections with the lens are going out the window, but if you have an old lens with a manual aperture setting, you can even stop it down.

A 50 mm lens will give you 1:1 magnification. Wide angle lenses will achieve more, telelenses less magnification.


Close-Up Lenses


Another option to get you going in macro photography is the use of close-up lenses. They screw onto the front of your camera lens like an ordinary filter. If you value best quality, then stick with the camera manufacturer’s option, which are usually higher quality double-element lenses. They are particularly effective with telelenses, whereas standard (50 mm) or wideangle lenses require very strong lenses, impacting picture quality.


Extension Tubes


This is a common, effective and inexpensive way of getting closer to your subject. Extension tubes are simple hollow tubes that fit between camera and the lens. They need to fit the camera bayonet and keep all the communication between camera and lens intact. They usually sell as a set of two or three tubes of different sizes.

Image 3 – A Set of Extension Tubes for the Nikon F Camera


You can easily work out the increase in magnification: size of the extension tube divided by the focal length. For example, I have the Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro lens, which only goes down to 1:2 (0.5x magnification). Combined with 42 mm extension tubes I should get an additional magnification of 0.49x (42/85). Indeed, this combination allows me to use the lens as a 1:1 macro lens.

Teleconverters are typically applied to give your lens a longer reach, but they also come handy to get you into the macro world. A 2x teleconverter will also double the maximum magnification. Keep in mind that you are loosing two stops of light and need to accept some loss in image quality.


Macro Lenses and Some General Tips


Dedicated macrolenses will give you optimal image quality, and they also focus from macro to infinity, without having to fiddle with close-up lenses or extension tubes. Some, like the latest Canon RF 100 mm macro lens, even go beyond 1:1 magnification. They all give you excellent image quality, even fully open, but you’ll want to stop them down, just for the sake of increasing the DoF. Remember that anything beyond f/11 should be avoided, unless maximising the DoF is the priority.

The minumum focusing distancies listed in Table 1 are measured from the sensor to the object. So you don’t have much room to play around, and I consider 85 mm as the minimum focal length for a macro lens. It gets dark pretty quickly once you increase the magnification, image stabilisation won’t be very effective, so you’ll often find yourself reaching for your flash, especially when shooting small and fast moving critters. A ringflash is ideal, but a normal flash is also fine in most cases. If possible, use a tripod, especially for static objects – you’ll be rewarded with better quality.

No matter if you work with a simple reverse ring or the latest super macro lens, with some practice you will get satisfying results. There is only one thing which seems to act like a barrier in macro photography: the very limited depth of field. You never seem to get your entire object into sharp focus. Well, there is a way to overcome this limitations, and that’s what we’ll discuss in the next issue.



Equipment used:

Canon 5D Mark III
Canon EOS R
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM
Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM
Extension Tubes

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