Let’s get small

The art of macro photography is the art of seeing the unseen. It is the visual exploration of a world on a scale so small that most of us pass by it daily. You can find exotic, almost alien landscapes and subjects that can be no farther away than your backyard of even your pocket. A blade of grass becomes a verdant jungle, a lowly coin turns into a bronze sculpture and simple rain drops on a car window become tiny lenses, reflecting the world around them.


(Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 17-55mm @ 26mm. Exposure: 1/125th sec. @ f/22. ISO: 400)


(Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 105mm macro. Exposure: 1/125th sec. @ f/22. ISO: 400)

A couple of weeks ago when I pulled into a parking lot at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, it was lightly sprinkling. Behind me was Burns Tower, one of the city’s iconic features. I waited 5 to 10 minutes for the rain drops to bead up on the rear window of the company car and used a 105mm macro lens to capture them photographically. Each drop projected an image of the tower, distorted due to the irregular shapes of the drops. ┬áHere are some tips to on shooting close-ups:


A close-up of the back of a dollar coin. (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 17-55mm @ 17mm-reversed. Exposure: 1/125th sec. @ f/22 w/ Dyna-Lite strobes. ISO: 400)

1. Use a macro lens. As lenses go, they’re relatively inexpensive, ranging from $200 to $300. Typically the focal length will be from 50mm to 100mm and give a 1:2 or 1:1 reproduction. Try to stay away from lenses that call themselves macro, but only give 1:4 reproduction or less. To me, that’s just not close enough. That means what ever you’re shooting will be the same size or 1/2 the size on the sensor (or film, if you’re so inclined), as it is in reality. There are other less expensive means of shooting close-ups. You can buy close-up filters that screw into the front of your camera lens. They’re cheap and easy to use, but you’ll lose a lot of sharpness. There’s also the old trick of turning the lens around (usually a 50mm) so that the front is pressed against the camera body. You’ll have to hold the lens in one hand while shooting with the other (In the old days, you used to get a “reversing ring” made that would hold the lens in place, perhaps they’re still manufactured or can be found on ebay). You’ll also lose the ability to autofocus, accurately control the lens’ aperture and again, there’s a loss of sharpness. Hardcore macro shooters invest in extension tubes and bellows to get even closer, but for most people they’re an unnecessary expense.


Rain drops cling to blossoms on a western redbud tree in front of the Faye Spanos Concert Hall University of Pacific in Stockton. (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 105mm macro. Exposure: 1/500th sec. @ f/5.6. ISO: 400)

2. When magnifying tiny subjects, any movement of the camera is also increased. That can lead to blurred pictures. I’ve had my own heartbeat cause the camera to vibrate almost imperceptibly, but enough to show up in the picture when using slow enough shutter speeds at close-up magnifications. If you can, use a fast shutter speed or a tripod (or both) to eliminate camera shake.


Rain drops cling to a blade of grass on Knoles Lawn on the campus of University of Pacific in Stockton. (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 105mm macro. Exposure: 1/250th sec. @ f/5.6. ISO: 400)

3. At close distances, the depth of field, the range from front to back that is in focus, becomes very shallow. Use the smallest aperture (given as the highest f/ number) as you can. It can be difficult to do, especially when using a high shutter speed to stop camera movement. You may have to bump up the camera’s ISO (light sensitivity) or if you can, move your subject to where there is more light.


Rain drops rest on a leaf at the University of Pacific in Stockton. (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 105mm macro. Exposure: 1/500th sec. @ f/5.6. ISO: 400)

4. Turn off the autofocus. I’ve found that the camera will “hunt” back and forth when trying to focus in the macro range. What I usually do is to rack the lens to its minimum focus point (the closest distance that you can focus the lens) and move the entire camera in and out until what I want to be in focus is sharp.

5. Find an area that’s protected by the wind. Because of the narrow depth of field, the slightest breeze can throw your subject out of focus. You also have to be careful not to breathe too heavily lest your own breath does the same thing. Shooting where the wind is blocked or better yet, where there is no wind at all, can eliminate that.

So go out or even stay in to start looking for pictures that may be small in size but big on imagination.

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