[Skill Level - Intermediate]
Shooting small subjects without a tripod can be a challenge, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. You don’t have as much control as you would in a studio environment, so you have to take a few special considerations when shooting.
I recommend aperture priority mode or manual mode. Set your aperture to something small. If you have enough light, f/8 to f/16 would be ideal. When you are working at such short distances, your depth of field will be tiny. It will be very hard to get your entire subject in focus. Shooting at a small aperture will help. I don’t recommend going beyond f/16 because lens diffraction will start to soften your images beyond that.
Next, you must consider shutter speed and ISO.
How long is your macro lens? Does it have stabilization? If it does not, remember your shutter speed needs to be 1/[focal length]. So if you have a 100mm lens, your shutter speed needs to be 1/100. If you have stabilization, you can usually do 2-3 stops slower. So you might be able to shoot handheld at 1/20 if your subject is super still. Remember that image stabilization removes motion blur from camera shake. It cannot remove motion blur from movement of your subject. If it is windy, you may have to crank that shutter speed right back up.
So, what if you have your camera at f/16, but your shutter speed is too slow? This is where ISO comes into play. Meter your scene, look at your shutter speed. Bump up your ISO until that shutter speed is fast enough to eliminate motion blur from camera shake and subject movement. If your ISO starts getting crazy high, then you might consider opening up your aperture and sacrificing a bit of depth of field.
It’s all a balancing act between priority and compromise.
The next big challenge is focus. There are two main approaches. Locking in an autofocus point and manual focus.
Using autofocus is best when you aren’t going for extreme magnification. For the photo of the wasp nest above, autofocus did okay. For the toothpicks, I had to focus manually.
I recommend framing up your subject, and then picking a single focus point that is suitable for your photo. Your camera may not guess very well at close distance, so locking in a focus point can solve that. It will also focus much quicker. Remember that the center focus point on most cameras is best, especially in low light.
The trick to this technique is being fast. Once your camera locks in focus, you have to snap the photo immediately. The smallest movement of your camera or subject will cause you to lose focus. If you wait too long, you won’t get the shot. Turning on your focus beep is very helpful. Hear the beep, hit the button. Fast as you can.
Hear the beep. Snap.
Hear the beep. Snap.
And so on.
And don’t take one picture and hope you got it. Take dozens. This will ensure that a few of them will be sharp.
Most experienced macro photographers will use manual focus, but the technique is a little different than for normal photography.
First, you get the framing you desire. Figure out the basic composition of your shot and how far away you plan to be.
Next, you want to turn the manual focus ring to get your subject in approximate focus. Don’t worry about getting it exact, just get it in the ballpark.
The final step is where practice comes in handy. To get the subject in sharp focus you are going to physically move your camera back and forth in almost infinitesimal increments. I suggest a very slight rocking motion. Get a sense of where the focus is. Half press your shutter button and be ready to snap the shot. The rest is timing. Hitting that button at the exact moment you have focus. This may take several tries, so be patient.
Many think lighting is only for indoor studio work. But even on a sunny day, adding a little of your own light can be quite helpful. There are tons of macro lighting solutions. Adding a light can get you faster shutter speeds, smaller apertures, and the lowest ISO possible for a nice clean image.
Here are a few lighting solutions, moving down the list from simplest and least expensive to most complicated and expensive.
LED Video Light
Advantages: An LED video light is a cheap but powerful resource. It is easy to carry around and will fit in most camera bags. When lighting your subjects, it’s easy to maneuver. Since it’s a continuous light source, you can see what your picture will look like when you look through the lens, and the extra light will help you get better focus.
Disadvantages: It’s hard to hold the camera in one hand while holding the light in the other. Sometimes that can make it hard to get a steady shot with the camera. However, you can attach it to GorillaPod (plus cold shoe) so that you can use both hands on the camera. The other disadvantage is that an LED light is not nearly as powerful as a regular camera flash, so it will only give you a few extra stops to get a faster shutter speed, smaller aperture, or a lower ISO.
Yongnuo ($137) <— larger but more powerful
Speedlight with Mini SoftBox
Since macro subjects are so close in front of your lens, you can’t mount your flash on top of the camera as you traditionally would. This means you have to take the flash off the camera and point it at your subject from another angle.
The cheapest way to do this is to get a TTL cord and attach it to your speedlight so you can hold the flash and aim it however you like. By adding the mini SoftBox, you can diffuse the light and create softer shadows to keep the image from looking sterile and blown-out.
Advantages: A speedlight is much more powerful, and you can choose any combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Note: Because of the quick flash duration of a speedlight, you do not need a fast shutter speed to freeze your subject. The flash will do that for you. The only factor shutter speed will control is the amount of ambient light in the picture. Slow shutter speed for more ambient light, or a fast shutter speed to black out the background. (Check camera manual for your camera’s highest flash sync speed and do not set shutter faster than that.)
Disadvantages: Once again, you have to use the camera with one hand and hold the flash with the other. The TTL cord can be awkward to maneuver. You can try using wireless TTL with a gorillapod.
Vello TTL cable for Canon ($20)
Vello TTL cable for Nikon ($20)
Wireless TTL ($78)
LumiQuest SoftBox ($50)
Macro Ring Light
A macro ring light attaches to the front of your lens. It shines light directly on your subject.
Advantages: A ring light allows you to use both hands to operate the camera, plus you can get as close as you want to the subject without having to worry about shadows interfering. The continuous ring light also makes it very easy to get accurate focus because you get a very bright view of the subject in your viewfinder.
Disadvantages: Since it projects all the light directly in front of the subject instead of coming from the sides, it can make for a flat picture that lacks dimensionality.
NEEWER Ring Light ($35)
Stellar Lighting Systems Ring Light ($230) <— much more powerful
Macro Ring Flash
A ring flash is similar to a ring light, only it is not a continuous light source. It is essentially like using a speedlight on the front of your lens.
Advantages: It’s much more powerful than a continuous light source. It allows you to choose any aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for your image.
Note: Some ring flashes or ring lights allow you to light up only one hemisphere of the light at a time to try to achieve a more three-dimensional photo. However, due to the closeness of macro subjects, it is not always successful.
Sigma Ring Flash ($350)
Canon Macro Twin Lite & Nikon Close-up Speedlight Kit
The Canon Macro Twin Lite and Nikon R1C1 flashes are considered by many to be the ultimate portable macro lighting solution. They have two small speedlights attached to your lens.
Advantages: The lights can be rotated, and angled inwards and outwards for optimal lighting positioning. You can create different lighting ratios to help create dimensionality. They also allow you to angle them to light your subject with one light and light your background with another. They have small, incandescent focusing lamps that allow you to light your subject and get good focus before you take the picture. Essentially giving you a preview of what the shot will look like.
They use TTL metering, so your camera can automatically determine the correct exposure. You can also get small diffusers to go over the flashes and create softer light. They are some of the most powerful, portable macro lighting solutions available. In most situations, you can shoot all your macros at ISO 100 and the smallest aperture possible with no problem.
Disadvantages: The only disadvantage to this lighting solution is that it costs about $800.
Nikon Variant ($720)
- Use aperture priority or manual mode and choose the smallest aperture you can to increase depth of field. Try to avoid going above f/16 to prevent soft images.
- If your lens does not have stabilization, raise your ISO until your shutter speed is 1/[lens focal length]. A 100mm lens would need a 1/100 shutter speed.
- If using autofocus, remember to turn on the focusing beep. You must take the picture the moment you hear the beep. Take dozens of shots to make sure you get a sharp one.
- If using manual focus, get your subject in near focus and then move your lens back and forth. Time when it is in focus and take your shot. This requires a great deal of practice but can often get you consistent results.
- Even if outdoors, adding your own lighting can help you achieve smaller apertures, faster shutter speeds, and lower ISOs.