A little about me:
When I was 5 maybe 6 years old my Uncle Frank gave me a book about insects and the images were fascinating to me. I never knew there were so many different shapes, sizes, colors, types, etc. This is the earliest memory I can trace back too when it comes to my love for the creepy crawlies. I do remember catching dragonflies when we lived in Florida and letting them loose in our house. My poor mother! Lets fast forward a number of years and I just purchased my first macro lens. The Canon 100mm macro… what a great lens! I had the Canon 20d at the time and we were living in Okinawa. Lots of bugs! I didn’t have a clue about macro photography. I had seen these amazing images being posted on sites like Fred Miranda and the Canon POTN forums and all I knew is I wanted to makes shots like the ones I was seeing. It turned out to be a lot more challenging than I had expected. Did I mention I was fairly new to photography and didn’t really know anything about depth of field, F-stops..or a macro lens… let’s be honest.. I didn’t know anything about using a dSLR or photography. I would shoot and my images were horrible! Why am I only seeing slivers of the insects in focus? Well… for one I was shooting my macro shots @ F/2.8 … wide open on the Canon 100mm macro. After some great tips from the forums I was well on my way. I spent hours and hours learning about macro photography and how to improve my images. I still have tons to learn… but… it’s a journey.If you are starting out and have an interest in macro photography, drop in to the Fred Miranda Macro threadand see the amazing work and resources being offered there. It’s a great resource!
Some thoughts and tips below.
Interesting fact: The number of insects floating and flying through the air are phenomenal. A researcher named P. A. Glick collected insects in special traps that were placed on airplanes flying over Tallulah, Louisiana. He collected 30,033 specimens in the air, including wingless insects and spiders that were air blown. He calculated that a cubic mile of air, starting 50 feet above the ground, contained an average of 25,000,000 insects and other arthropods
Macro lens vs. lenses that say macro on them.
What? My lens says macro on it! It’s a macro lens Hatch…
Well… it could be close but a true macro lens is capable of 1:1 magnification. Meaning if you have an object that is 10mm, when the macro lens is focused to 1:1 magnification it will project on to your cameras sensor the size of 10mm. So if you have a point and shoot or a lens that isn’t a true macro lens… odds are you are close to making a macro image but it isn’t a true macro. (this doesn’t make it a bad thing) Lots of great information here explaining more about macro lenses and magnification.
What do I shoot with you might ask?
I started out with the Canon 100mm macro and used it for a little over 4 years. Canon has since released the newer Canon 100mm L with image stabilization. The older 100mm does not carry the “L” designation or have image stabilization. I can tell you the older 100mm, which is still available for purchase, is a phenomenal lens. From the samples I have seen comparing the two lenses, I would save my money and buy the older 100mm macro. I can’t see a difference in the images worth justifying the large price increase. That’s just me.. and not owning the lens… isn’t really fair to the “L” owners. So… I suggest renting both and deciding which one you like more.
2007-2011… I shoot with the Sigma 180mm macro. Sigma no longer makes the 180mm macro but they do offer the Sigma 150mm macro and a 105mm macro in different mounts. (Canon, Nikon, Olympus) The build quality of the Sigma 180mm macro is fantastic. It’s built like a tank! If you can pick up a nice copy in the used markets.. it’s well worth the investment in my opinion. I have several friends who shoot with the Sigma 150mm and love it.
Why did I sell the Canon 100mm macro for the Sigma 180mm macro?
I loved the Canon and would own another one. It’s a great lens not only for shooting insects. Many wedding photographers use them for the detail shots. I used mine for everything as well. Some photographers use the macro lens for portraits also. I would use caution when using a macro lens for portrait work. The individual being photographed needs to have really good skin or I would suggest using a professional makeup artist as the lens shows all the details… good and bad. I made the switch mainly because of the bokeh the Sigma produces…plus I love the colors and contrast of the lens.
The image on the left is of a sweat bee. I photographed the scene with the Sigma 180 mm macro and the Sigma 1.4xTC attached in natural light. The image on the right was photographed with the Sigma as well but with no teleconverter attached. I shot this around F/5.6 for really diffuse the background. Love the bokeh in this image.
Extension tubes, Teleconverters, Bellows?
Let’s start with extension tubes. (From B&H Photo) Extension tubes are designed to enable a lens to focus closer than its normal set minimum focusing distance. Getting closer has the effect of magnifying your subject (making it appear larger in the viewfinder and in your pictures). They are exceptionally useful for macro photography, enabling you to convert almost any lens into a macro lens at a fraction of the cost while maintaining its original optical quality.
The extension tubes have no optics. They are mounted between the camera body and lens to create more distance between the lens and film plane. By moving the lens father away from the film or CCD sensor in the camera, the lens is forced to focus much closer than normal. The greater the length of the extension tube, the closer the lens can focus.
When using the camera’s TTL metering system, no exposure compensation will be required (exposure compensation is required for hand held meters).
Teleconverters. (From B&H Photo) The 1.4XTC is a high-quality teleconverter that preserves the image quality of the lens it’s mounted to and multiplies its focal length by 1.4x.
Bellows (From B&H Photo) The bellows unit and macro focusing rail,allows for open-aperture metering by employing connections which will close the diaphragm only at the moment of exposure. Using bellows is the classic and proven path to macro and micro photography. “It looks like an accordion for your lens”
I use extension tubes and a teleconverter(1.4xTC) to increase the magnification of the lens. I may use only the Sigma 1.4xTC with the lens or I will stack the extension tubes or I’ll use the 1.4xTC and the tubes together. When you start stacking the tubes there is a trade off for the extra magnification. You loose light for one and the depth of field gets really shallow…we are talking millimeters.
My favorite shooting combo with the Canon 100mm macro is with the Canon 1.4xTC and a 20mm extension tube. The Canon manual will tell you it’s not possible to use a teleconverter with the lens. This is true as you can’t connect the 1.4xTC to the lens. What they left out is you can in fact connect the Canon 1.4xTC to your camera and then place an extension tube on the teleconverter and the last step is to attach the lens the the extension tube. I would shoot with a 20mm extension tube most of the time. The extra magnification was great! Give it a try and see what you think.
Here is an example of a standard U.S. penny. I shot this image with the Canon 100mm macro and all three Kenko extension tubes connected or stacked for increased magnification. The lighting was a single Canon 580ex on it’s side near the coin. Love the details in this image! The image on the right is of a miner bee. It was clasped to the tree branch cleaning off its legs. This is an example of the Canon 100mm macro + Canon 1.4xTC + Kenko 20mm extension tube. Lighting was a Canon 580ex flash.
Tripods? Monopods? Hand-held? Yes!
All over the above. No, I’m not suggestion you have to go out and buy a tripod or a monopod. With the Canon 100mm macro I shot 90% of my macro images hand-held. It’s a light lens(to me) and I didn’t have many issues with camera shake. The Sigma on the other hand is a little more challenging to use (for me) and I shoot it on a monopod and at times a tripod. I’ve found for my shooting style the monopod works best. I find it’s a challenge to chase after insects with a big bulky tripod.
If you want to photograph still objects a tripod is invaluable. Chasing insects a monopod or shooting hand-held gives you the freedom to do so. That being said, you will need good technique to capture sharp images.
I truly believe shooting macro makes you a better photographer. What? Macro photography is one of the most challenge forms of photography in my opinion. Especially if you are trying to capture images of insects. Think about this for a minute. When you are shooting 1:1 or at higher magnifications you are dealing with millimeters when it comes to what will be in focus in the images. Add a moving insect to the mix and now you have to focus on this tiny moving subject only inches away from it and you need to get as much of it in focus as possible. Now, add its movements plus a slight breeze and your breathing which has an impact as well and camera shake from holding the gear. All these factors are working against you and you really have to concentrate on holding your gear steady for sharp shots. Now add manual focusing to all of this. ( I shoot 99% of the time in manual focusing mode) If you can capture sharp macro images then photographing people, landscapes, buildings…etc. really becomes much easier when it comes to getting sharp shots.
I’ve always equated shooting macro to shooting guns. No.. I’m not crazy… hear me out. (smile) To shoot a gun you need to control your breathing, have a solid stance to keep you steady and you need to really focus on your target. All these techniques apply to using your camera and shooting macro.
If possible always try to find a stance or position that will allow you to be as steady as possible. Use a monopod or tripod if you are not the most steady hand-held shooter. Calm your breathing. Remember, you are dealing in millimeters when it comes to the focal plane. Try to photographer your subject at a right angle to the lens. This will allow you to capture more of the subject in focus. Again… working with millimeters here.
Speaking of millimeters and the focal plane. One of my favorite tools to use is a depth of field calculator. Not only for macro work, this tool is very useful in everyday photography. To know your working distances and how much of the image will be in the focal plane is invaluable. Have a look at this great tool.
Good starting points…
You’ve just purchased your first macro lens and you need a good starting point. Well, depending on what look you want this will of course vary. I personally shoot around F/11-F/16 when photographing insects. Wow….f/16! Again… we are not shooting landscapes with a wide angle lens here=… F/16 with the Canon 5D2 and the Sigma 180mm macro when 18 inches away from the subject only provides a depth of field near limit of 17.9 inches and far limit of 18.1 inches for a total of 0.15 inches to work with. Not a lot to work with. You might ask why I wouldn’t shoot say F/22 or stopped even further down. Well… this is where you can experience diffraction. For more about diffraction…click here.
Natural light or Flash? Both!
Depending on the look you want in your images you can use one or the other or a combo. I love natural light but if you use a flash to augment the lighting in the scene it can look very pleasing as well. Not to mention using a flash helps freeze your subject. When photographing insects… it’s a great help! I use the Canon 580ex with an off camera shoe cord or I will leave it in the hot shoe when just adding a little fill light to the scene. There are several specialty macro flash units on the market. I do not own one so I can’t tell you which one to buy or how well they perform.
The robber fly to the left is an example of using the flash to just give a little fill to the image and not really overpower the scene with a harsh flash. The colorful little fly… and when I say little… we are talking maybe 6mm in length… was shot with more power to the flash as I needed more light while using the extension tubes on the camera/lens. This makes the lighting a little more harsh but still acceptable to me.
The image on the left was with natural light only, using the Sigma 180mm macro. The wildflower on the right was shot using a studio strobe in the desert and the lens was the Sigma 180mm macro.
I hope I have piqued your interest in macro photography. It’s amazing to be able to view what the naked eye can’t see without the use of a macro lens. The challenge of capturing something you haven’t seen before can be exhilarating. Give it a try, you might just get hooked. Everyday household objects take on more interest, insects show details you never thought were possible. It’s a fantastic form of photography.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I can only hope you enjoyed the images and the content. I’ve included the article images in an easy viewing gallery… with a few extra ones just for fun.