The above shot was hand held between 2-3X magnification and
stacked from 5 images - click on it for actual file
If you are
willing to invest three days doing some exercises you can
improve the quality of your live insect macro photographs
dramatically. Even if think you know what the outcome will
be from these exercises, do them anyway as the results need
to sink in. Plus, if you do them later on if a photo
fails you have a better understanding as to why.
thing about macro photography is it always has to be
exceptionally sharp. These exercises will help you find out
how sharp of an image you can get with your equipment. They
will also show you what you are trading off if you change
aperture settings to increase depth of field. With macro
photography virtually all options to increase magnification
work well in component users hands.
Plus, If you
cannot get consistently sharp images in a controlled
environment you are wasting your time if you think you can
do it in the wild where there are numerous other obstacles
A DSLR with a method of getting to
1:1 magnification or higher
Off camera flash
Flash bracket to get the flash to the
end of the lens
Flash cable to connect the flash
Optional – remote shutter release
Day One - The Settings for the Sharpest
The purpose of this day’s exercise is to
prove that when a shot does not come out sharp it is not the
equipment but the operator. If you skip this you will always
blame the equipment. I can assure you it is not the
equipment, it is you.
This is the most
important thing you can do to improve your photographs and the one most people will never do
is learn their
equipment and its limitations. There are numerous ways to get to 1:1
magnification and higher, the method you choose does not
really matter as long as you know the maximum quality that
can be produced by it and how to get that quality. I mention this because it is easy to
blame equipment when it is really the operator. Excellent
quality images can be created by all the methods you read
about, such as tubes, a bellows, a reversed lens, a stacked
lens etc. You can also get poor images with the most
expensive macro lens out there if you don't know how to use
it. For instance you will see a lot of impressive shots
have been made with Canon's MPE-65. It is a great lens but
don't bother shooting at f14 at 4X, it is just to soft at
f/8 it is a completely different story.
If you have not done so already begin by
opening the manual that came with your camera and read it
cover to cover. Learn about all the options your camera has
to offer and how to set them, pay particular attention to
manually adjusting the aperture and shutter speed in the
manual mode. Also learn to set it to shoot in RAW and turn
on and off mirror lock up. If you are a real pro you have
most likely have done this already and you can skip it.
I once did a
workshop and asked the question how many have read their
camera manual cover to cover - out of 25 people three raised
their hands. Then I asked how many read the manual that came
with their lens, two raised their hands. These were the best
photographers in the group and they were retired
professional photographers the others were
amateurs/hobbyists. I only asked the question as when using
a macro lens in the macro mode light falls off at different
magnifications (bellows factor) and this is explained in the manual. It took
me six months to figure it out on my own because I didn't
read the manual.
Bring a pencil outside and place it on a
table in the sunlight. Mount your camera on a tripod and
focus on the pencil’s eraser; you should see very fine
detail (the texture of the eraser). Shoot at different ISO
settings and apertures, only changing the shutter speed to
get the proper exposure. Always use the mirror lock up
function or a cable release to remove any camera movement
and do not use flash at this point.
Once finished shooting, transfer the photos to a PC and look
for the sharpest one. To do so use the 100% view or higher.
When looking for the sharpest one you are looking for the
sharpest “portion of an image”. In other words that razor
thin slice that is super sharp. At 1:1 it should be around
1-1.5 mm in width. You are not looking for the one that
appears to be the most in focus but is not quite as overall
sharp. Keep in mind that this is as good as it can possibly get,
as you have control over everything at this point. You will
find that it will be at ISO 100 and f/8 in most cases. Then
look at f/11, f/16 etc and see how they compare. The reason
is you want as much DOF as possible without sacrificing
image quality. When comparing you will not see much of a
difference between two consecutive stops such as f/8 and
f/11 but you will notice it when you skip one stop and go
from f/8 to f/16. What you are looking at here is diffraction,
how much can you live with?
You will also see a little difference in ISO; very little
but you are after the best shot possible at this point, not
what you can live with. If you have a little extra time go
online and look for sharp macro shots and take a look at
what they used. The majority of them will have been shot at
around f/11 and ISO 100 or 200. You will see some that look
real nice at f/16 but they are not quite as crisp.
Please note this is based upon Canon’s settings and they
don’t adjust for the Bellows Factor (light drop off) like
Nikon does. So if you are using a Canon with a real macro
lens or a lens that is entirely manual these settings apply.
If you are shooting a Nikon with a real macro lens at 1:1
you need to add two stops. So in the Nikon display you would
be at f/22 not f/11.
Next go online and look at shots of bugs
and see if you can determine at what angle the camera was at
when the shot was taken.
Day 2 - Camera Movement
Camera movement is the number 1 cause of
poor macro shots and doing the exercises below will prove
it and help you eliminate it. Begin by bringing the pencil outside again
and place it on a table in the sunlight. Hold your camera
steady without touching the table with your hands or elbows.
Set your camera to the best settings from day one. You will
most likely be at ISO 100 and f/8 or f/11. Hold the camera
as you normally would and focus by setting
the camera to the closest focusing point and then move into
the object. Take 5 photographs of the pencil at one angle
and then try another angle each time focusing on the eraser.
How many good ones did you get, with good being as good as
yesterday’s when you used a tripod, any? What is happening
is that you are getting camera movement and this has to be
eliminated to get the exceptional sharpness that you want.
Keep in mind you proved to yourself in Day One it is not the
equipment and the only difference is the tripod.
Next, do the same again only with your
right elbow tucked in, the eyepiece firmly placed against
your head and with the other hand supporting the end of the
lens with that arm's elbow tucked in as well. When you look at these shots
you should have more good ones and it was just by holding
the camera in a different manner.
Repeat the exercises above only this time rest your elbows
or your hands on the table, push the eyepiece of your camera
firmly to your head. Compare your results to those in the
last test. You should have even more good shots, still not many
but some. So, now we know, if possible to always put our
elbows down on something or rest the lens on our hand or
something else like a bean bag.
Next hold the pencil in your hand and
rest the end of your lens in the same hand that is holding
the pencil. You should have more good shots than in the
previous tests. So now if we see the opportunity to hold the
stem of a plant that the insect is on we know we have a
better chance of getting a good shot, than if just using our
hands or elbows for support. What is happening is that the
camera and subject are now moving at the same speed, just
like you do in panning. Some bugs will actually let you do
this for quite a while, others will be gone as soon as you
touch the stem.
Hopefully it has sunk in that it is
exceptionally difficult to consistently get good shots when
hand holding your camera in natural daylight. The issue is
camera movement as it can be nothing else as we know our
equipment's capability. Can it be done, yes, and the odds of
getting a good shot can be increased by resting your hands
or elbows on something for support. The odds are even better
if you can hold the item and the lens in the same hand as
they are both moving at the same speed. To increase the
chances of a good shot even more you can add flash. By using
these techniques and by adding flash you can actually shoot
a stack of images and use focus stacking software to gain
Next, mount your flash to the hot shoe on
your camera, set the camera to the highest sync speed (you
learned this by reading the manual), and enter your desired
aperture and ISO. Since you are shooting a pencil by the
eraser there is a silver or gold band that is highly
reflective. (Many bugs are highly reflective as well -
that's why a pencil is used for these tests) If you have a
little softbox or diffuser add that and take some shots in
the flash’s manual mode adjusting the flash power to get the
If you don’t have a diffuser a paper
towel, tissue paper etc. can be used as well. Keep on adding
more diffusion until the spot is more manageable. When
adjusting the flash output look at the histogram in the
separate color mode after each shot to make sure no colors
are individually blown out.
When using flash you do not want to shoot
as far to the right as possible even if there are no blown
out spots as some of the light bleeds over to the next pixel
on the sensor and the images will appear to be not as sharp.
This is when you really know your equipment as it is sensor
Once you have a good shot, place the
pencil at an angle to the camera and while slightly shaking
the camera (on purpose) take some shots. Take about 30-40
photos like this and if there is no movement there will be
that thin line that is razor sharp in each image. Naturally
since you are slightly shaking the camera it will not always
be in the same spot. But it doesn’t matter as the point is,
it is not movement free, if it was one portion would be as
sharp as the tripod shot. What you will find is that the
perfect sharp spot is
not in each image as camera movement still exists. In other
words, flash does not always stop all camera movement and
that is a fact - you just proved it.
Next use a flash bracket to move
the flash closer to the end of the lens and repeat the
process. Since the flash is closer you will have to cut down
on the flash exposure. When doing so what you are actually
doing is cutting down on the flash duration (the time the
flash remains on). As you move it closer your percentage of
images with the crisp line will increase. Usually you will
be about movement free at ¼ to 1/8 flash power depending
upon the magnification. I have gotten camera movement at
1/32 power on a few occasions and once on 1/64 power. Keep
practicing until all the shots are as sharp as the tripod
Now take some shots with a light
background, a dark background and no background so that you
get a good understanding of the flash power you need for
these different situations. Now in the field if you elect to
use ETTL flash you will still have a good understanding of
what the flash duration is.
Day 3 - The Magic Angle
Now it is time to go looking for bugs to
photograph as you should have the ability to consistently
hand hold your camera and get a sharp image. If you cannot,
practice more until you can.
The key to
making the image stand out is the same in all photographs
“Composition”. The difficulty is the bugs are live moving
creatures and for the most part very uncooperative. When you
see one pre-focus and move in and take the shot always
focusing on the eyes. Once you start getting the eyes
consistently in focus start looking for the “Magic Angle”.
The magic angle is just the angle used to get as much in
focus as possible and finding it initially comes from
practice, and viewing other people’s shots.
It is not uncommon for someone teaching a class in how to
take Portraits to tell the students to look at other peoples
work and see if they can determine where the lights were
placed. In macro photography when starting out view others
work and see “what is the angle they used” followed by what
“did they use for a diffuser” as you become more advanced.
With practice you will automatically know
the angle you want but you may not be able to move into that
position for numerous reasons. So you need to improvise. For
instance the shot below, I would have preferred to be lower
but the diameter of my lens was so big I could not place it
lower, so I was forced to shoot at more of a downward angle
than I would have preferred.
This shot was taken at f11 with a
magnification between 2X and 3X. The entire spider is about
4-5 mm wide and perhaps 6-7mm long. When shooting at this
magnification at 2X the DOF is at .594mm and at 3X it is
.352mm. So it is around .45mm or a half of a millimeter.
To get a shot like this you focus on the
eyes and rotate the camera left and right to match the angle
of the eyes to the camera sensor so they will both be in
focus. Next you tilt the camera up and down to get as much
in focus as possible and then you have the “Magic Angle” for
this shot. Although decent the shot is about .05 mm off on the
left to right angle.
A closer look
Looking closer you can see that A, B, and
C are in focus but the top of the right eye “D” is slightly
out of focus but the bottom of it is in focus. I would be
surprised if it was off more than 1/20 of a mm. Regardless
it is off it would be better if B was closer to the camera
so that the bottom of the eye would be in perfect focus.
Below is another with about the same magnification only dead
A closer look
can clearly see the reflection of the hairs in both eyes and
there is more in focus in the front of the eyes than in the
back to draw the viewer in.
When you are not focusing on two eyes you pick the closest
and angle the camera so that as much of the body as possible
can be in focus.
A Closer Look
Now it is just practice as you have the mechanics down and
when an image fails you know it is what you did wrong.