Focus on Macro. (Part 2)

I am going to wrap up my Focus on Macro series with this post. In my experience (chasing bugs afield) I have found two systems that are most effective: 1) true macro lenses and 2) telephoto zooms + 500D. There are many more solutions to “get close” but they usually reduce the over all effectiveness of your shooting system. A few examples: extension tubes do not auto focus and usually render your light meter inaccurate, bellows systems (for 35mm) cancel both AF & metering and force you to work on a tripod. Stacking a reversed lens is all of the above PLUS the lens that is reversed will have such bad dust contamination after one day of shooting–you’ll have to send it in for service and cleaning! For those reasons I won’t waste your time detailing those flawed systems of macro shooting.

So, to continue where we left off last time: “the Jack-of-all trades…is a master of nothing.” Not always accurate but it is a simple fact–tools that are optimized for a specific task usually work the best. Of course, I am referring to my tele-zoom lens + close-up filter VS. a true macro lens.

The last time I detailed my use of the Nikkor 70-200 VR + tele-converter + Canon 500D close-up filter to achieve some very good macro results. However one of the biggest problems with that system is the reduced maximum lens aperture. By adding the TC, I went from f/2.8 to f/5.6 (wide open). Now when shooting macros you usually want to stop down to improve your depth of field but a reduction in maximum aperture will wreak havoc with your ability to focus through the (darkened) viewfinder. That is one of the most challenging things about macro photography–getting critical focus, where you want it!

The second problem with the 70-200 system is its massive size and weight! The 70-200 is already a big lens–3.2 lbs. Add the TC (12.5 oz) and 500D (77mm = 6 oz); we are talking about 4.5 lbs worth of lens!!! Then add to that a 3 lb pro DSLR body–that is a serious pain in the neck! Muscle strain aside, the more pressing problem with the size and weight is its effect on my ability to hand hold the system. After a couple of hours I find myself spending more time searching for trees, rocks, anything to brace against rather than looking for bugs–not good. At that point I will usually take a break: switch lenses or just put the camera down all together. A monopod would help but, like a tripod, it limits mobility and speed of composition.

Top: Nikkor 70-200 system. Bottom: Sigma 150.

For those with sharp eyes, you will notice my TC in these images is the TC-17E and not the TC-20E. I apologize, my TC-20E is buried in my “surf case” some where and I didn’t want to tear through it to dig it out. (^^;)

The obvious solution (once you decide you are serious about macro photography) is to purchase a true macro/micro lens. A good macro lens will provide you with a 1:1 (life size) maximum reproduction ratio. Every lens maker has at least one true 1:1 lens solution. A great “bug lens” however will not only give you 1:1 but it will also give you a larger working distance (more on that later in the write up). My personal macro lenses are the Nikkor 85mm f/2.8 PC Micro and the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 Macro.

What’s the diff between “micro” and “macro”? Besides their dictionary definitions? Beats me! Lens makers interchange the two words, freely, to describe lenses that do the same things. I guess it just depends on your personal view of the world.

The Nikkor 85mm PC is a manual focus lens with a brain. It is “chipped” to allow metering, distance, and lens information to be communicated between it and a capable camera body. This is my studio macro lens. The ability to control perspective (depth of focus!) with tilt and shift movements are invaluable tools–but only practical while mounted on a tripod. Sadly, this incredible lens sees little light because of that limitation.

The Sigma 150mm f/2.8, on the other hand, gets used a lot. Four things sold me on this lens: 1) 150mm = good reach, 2) f/2.8 = fast focus 3) HSM or magnetic drive focus = silent operation, and 4) it only weighs 1.9 lbs. Nikon has nothing like this lens. Their new 105 VR Micro is cool but simply does not have the reach. Canon shooters are lucky: their excellent macro system has been around since they switched to EOS, back in 1987. Moving on… ;-)

When I am hunting “bugs” (I use the term loosely to describe insects and reptiles) I will carry my Sigma 150 and the Nikkor 70-200 system. I just accept and deal with the extra weight. Each tool has its strength. I favor the 150mm. It focuses faster and it gives me a true 1:1 reproduction. For bugs that are not shy this lens is perfect. I can get right up to them and make them look HUGE! The working distance, at 1:1, is about 8 inches though so this lens does not work well hunting geckos.

Illustration of working distances.

So when I am chasing geckos, anoles, and other shy “bugs” the 70-200 system is king. When everything is in place the 70-200 system will give me a maximum reproduction ratio of 1:1.5–pretty darn close to life size. The most important feature is my working distance of 18 inches @ max. repro. ratio. That allows me to “get close” without actually needing to get close.

A nagging problem I alluded to earlier about the Canon 500D filter is that it completely offsets your focusing scale. In simple terms, it forces your lens to become near sighted–infinity focus is impossible. It also makes the distance scale on your lens completely useless. Focus points as well as zoom adjustments become unpredictable. The only way to overcome this is to practice, practice, practice. It is frustrating. A strong selling point for any true macro lens is that it will go from 1:1 macro to infinity with just the flick of your wrist (press of AF button).

The last thing I would like to talk about is supplemental lighting. Getting back to that thing about apertures…another problem challenge to overcome is depth of field. At macro distances your depth of field is, literally, paper thin. Bread and butter macro photogs are shooting at f/22 and higher, if they can. At 1:1 and higher (Canon shooters are lucky) f/22 is enough to get heads and eyeballs in focus…So how often do you have bugs sitting around in f/22 level sunlight? Almost never! That is why every macro photographer will carry at least one strobe in their bag at all times.

Nikon, Canon, Sigma, etal, make dedicated macro flash systems. All of them screw onto the front of your lens and are triggered via cable or IR signal. In my experience I have found these to be very limiting and severely under-powered. Solution: use bigger strobes!

Let there be light.

Even though I shoot Nikon I have yet to capitalize on their, creative lighting system (CLS)…what can I say, I am cheap. I’ll use whatever I have till it breaks and forces me to buy new stuff. I use SB-80DX’s and Pocket Wizards for my CLS.

Creative lighting is all about off camera flash! If your flash is on your hotshoe or pops up right above it–the look you will get is flat (boring). For macro photos, shoe mounted and pop up flashes are almost completely ineffective. Most times the shadow of your lens will cover what ever you are shooting. When I need extra light I will usually shoot with one hand and aim the strobe with the other. If I have time, I’ll use a light stand–that almost never happens. Sometimes I get crazy and use two strobes. I will place one in a tree or under a bush with a PW and hand hold the other (Nikon SB’s have built in optical slave triggers). I am not going to go into further detail with lighting. It would take too long (did I mention I am inherently lazy?) and nothing I type will be better than real time practice–get out and shoot! An excellent forum on lighting can be found at STROBIST however. I visit often–someone is always thinking of new ways to do things and I am always willing to learn more. :-)

I hope this write up on macro photography helps. At the very least, I hope you get some ideas for your own photography. Not everyone can–or wants–to buy all of this stuff–just to take photos of some “bugs”. There are cheaper alternatives to every piece of equipment that I talked about but you get what you pay for. The extremes of photography (very close or very far) really test the limits of your equipment–it never hurts to have the right tools for the job.