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Photography Article
Article 6
'Getting close up to photography'
Mastering the art of MacroPhotography

By Rob L. Suisted

(Originally published in New Zealand Outdoor magazine)

I’ve always spent a lot of time in the outdoors but it never ceases to amaze me how I’m always seeing new and expected things on most trips. 

Course this is the reason I lug a camera, but for me a lot of satisfaction is derived from photographing tiny things that are so often overlooked, or taken for granted. For example, recently while having lunch on a hunt in the Haurangi Forest Park I lifted up a rock and looked underneath to find a tiny pair of scorpions! Jeepers, I thought we were safe from these nasties in NZ? A bit of relieved research later I now know that they’re false scorpions, closely related to spiders and mites, but the point is that the miniature world has heaps of surprises and therefore photographic interest.

I remember back being super keen to photograph something really small, I’m not sure what it was but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was my first hunting ‘trophy’. It became quickly apparent that with my standard camera equipment this was a big ask, and I recall being terribly disappointed at the limitation, particularly as I’d just paid what seemed to be a horrendous amount of dough to buy the blimin’ thing - especially when the current exchange rate between possum skins (bless their soles) and the Japanese Yen was so poor.


It soon became apparent that to get some serious close-up equipment that a heck of a lot of furry animals were going to have to be separated from their exterior cladding. Unfortunately, at the time the funds had to compete with the lure of my first car - hell, the price of a good macro lens could buy a black MkI Cortina in fair condition (and did) - but rightly so because transport to Friday night parties was crucial, and trips into the Tararuas were even more so (the first couple made without gearbox oil I seem to remember - second major expense!). The up shot of it was that I just had to make do with what I had - fortunately this was adequate on 99% of occasions.

A few years later I decided to take cameras a bit more seriously and splashed out on a second hand kit of Olympus gear. It came complete with an array of fixed focal length lenses - including a fairly average 28mm Zuiko (Olympus). However I recall just how close I came to ditching the thing. The first time I had this lens on the camera I couldn’t get anything into focus. Now we all know that a wide angle lens should have heaps of depth of field.


Common Gecko peeking over rock. Olympus OM4Ti + 135mm lens with macro bellows unit + two flash units and one reflector. Fujichrome Velvia 50


The best I could do was to focus up on a finger nail! Things seemed rather serious, I thought I’d bought a dud? Only sometime later did I notice that the lens held a glass filter on the front that said “dioptre +4”, it was not your standard UV filter I guessed. Delving into the camera bag amongst the rest of the odds and ends were another couple sporting “dioptre +1” and “dioptre +2”. These were a set of supplementary close up lenses - something I hadn’t struck before. As a bonus of the purchase, these little glass lenses sent me off on my first foray into the world of ‘Macro’ (or close up) photography. Since then, my equipment has become a little more serious, but the satisfaction still remains.

My aim of this article is to destroy some of the common misunderstandings regarding close up photography, and hopefully provide advice to encourage more people to partake. This type of photography used to be reasonably technical, but the advent of things like ‘Through the Lens (TTL) Metering the undertaking is very simple now, unfortunately to many people it still seems complex.

Where to start? There is a variety of equipment available for macro photography and I will give you a run down on how they operate, along with the pros and cons of each. Before I do so though I’d better give a quick explanation of what Macro is all about, as there is a considerable amount of confusion about.


Strictly, macro refers to any photograph that is the same size or larger than the subject taken (larger than real life). Note that many common zoom lenses claim to have macro capabilities but in reality they’re stretching the truth somewhat as you’ll see. If you go and get a slide, or a strip of negative, you’ll see that each frame measures exactly 24mm by 36mm - therefore a true macro photo is of an subject that is 24mm x 36mm or smaller (about half the size of a matchbox). Do not get confused by the size of a print; it is the film frame size that’s important. This is where the ‘Macro Ratio’ comes in. If I have a lens and the smallest thing it could photograph was about half a matchbox (about 24mm x 36mm) it would be referred to as a 1:1 Macro (size of the object equals the size on the negative). If it could only photograph the whole matchbox it would be a 1:2 Macro lens, or if it could photograph down to the size of a 5 cent coin it would be a 2:1 ratio (or 2x magnification) as two coins would fit into the size of the negative in real life. As I mentioned, most zoom lens that claim a macro facility are normally far from the mark, often only achieving a ratio of 1:8 which is around about a size of a post card - I strongly believe they should only claim a ‘close-up’ ability.

If you want to find out what the macro ratio of a lens is it’s really simple. Simply focus as close as possible on a bit of paper and measure the area you can see in the viewfinder. Now see how many times a slide frame (or negative) fits into it. If it’s 12 then the ratio would be 1:12

Close up of underside of leaf. Olympus OM4Ti + 50mm Macro lens with extension tube - natural light. Kodachrome 64.


Luckily there is heaps of scope in equipment available to photograph small objects, as you’ll see. This is good because it provides alternatives for everyone, whether it’s finance that’s a problem, or weight, or versatility.

Supplementary Close Up Lenses.

As previous mentioned, this was the first type of equipment I experienced. They’re what I’d probably recommend to most people to have a crack with first as they’re cheap (you’d get a second-hand set for around $20), and handy. Basically they resemble filters and screw onto the front of your normal lens in the same way, but act like magnifying glasses. They generally come in sets of three (+1, +2 and +4 power). The benefits, apart from cost, are that they’re lightweight, easy to use, don’t interfere with any camera functions such as auto focus and exposure, and importantly don’t waste any light entering the lens. The only problems are that they don’t get right down small and there is a minor loss of image quality, but this can be countered somewhat by using a smaller aperture to improve image quality. Make sure you buy the right size to fit your lens.



Extension Tubes

These are metal tubes of varying lengths that are attached between the camera body and the camera lens. There is a basic principle they exploit to achieve higher magnifications using normal camera lenses. When you pull a slide projector further away from the wall, the image it is projecting will get bigger. This is essentially how extension tubes work; they’re pulling the lens further away from the camera so that the image it projects onto the film surface gets bigger (thereby increasing the magnification of the image). Again these tubes generally come in sets of three different lengths. My set is of 12mm, 20mm and 36mm lengths. The reason for the different measurements is simple because by putting different combinations together I can change the macro ratio as I like. There is a rule that for a given lens focal length (such as 50mm), if you put the same amount of extension tube behind it you’ll end up with a 1:1 macro ration. So if I wanted 1:1 ration with my standard 50mm lens I’d put on the 12mm and 36mm tubes to give me 48mm of extension - I could now take a photograph as small as the film frame.

Orange Pore Fungus (favolaschia calocera). This fungus makes a stunning photo, and it always gets a comment at slide presentations but I’ve since found out that this is an introduced noxious fungi. Olympus OM4Ti + 50mm Macro lens with one flash and reflector. Fujichrome Velvia 50

If I put the 20mm on also I could go smaller. There is no significant loss in image quality when using tubes, however the one draw back is that much less light will reach the film (because of the principle outlined above). The more tubes you use the more the image is enlarged and the less light is caught on film. Prior to today’s type of camera metering (TTL) it was likely that you’d have to be good at maths to calculate the required exposure compensation needed; now you can leave it to the camera. This is the type of macro equipment that I generally carry with me when I’m in the field as its pretty light, compact and versatile. Cost is generally good with a new accessory set likely to cost around $200 but if you keep you eyes out a good second hand set (such as made by Panagor) you’d pay probably less than $100.

Bellows Unit

This unit works exactly the same as the extension tubes but it can be racked in and out to vary the distance between the camera and lens thereby changing the magnification precisely to what’s required. I use a bellows unit a lot because of its versatility, however it is fairly bulky and is something that is generally impractical to use in the outdoors. Mine has a maximum extension length of 200mm (compared to 68mm with all my extension tubes) and can be used for copying slides with a special attachment on the front. The benefit of the long extension range means that fairly high magnifications can be achieved; up to about 12x (that’s something about 8mm in size). However, price is generally pretty high with second hand units starting around $300.


Macro lenses

This is the best way to get into macro photography and the only draw back generally is cost. You’re looking at between $700 - $1500 for a new one, although you can pick up second-hand manual focus from around $200. Generally macro lenses are available in either 50mm or 100mm focal lengths (occasionally up to 200mm). The pros are that they can be used for general photography as they focus from infinity right down to half or even full life size; there is no light loss; very easy to use; and there is no loss of image quality. The choice of lens lengths, either 50mm or 100mm, has little to do with the size of the image you’re after - you should consider the ratio the lens can provide. Basically, a 100mm lens can work nearly twice as far from the subject as a 50mm macro to get the same magnification, which is helpful if you’re photographing timid subjects (or you’re scared of spiders). The lens choice also effects the perspective of the shot, i.e. a 50mm lens will include more background in a shot for the same size subject than a 100mm lens. I would recommend that the 50mm lens should be considered firstly as it can be carried and used as a normal standard lens in the field. Also, you can use extension tubes or bellows with these lens to get the magnification higher.


Many people use a tele-converter to double the focal length of a lens, say to photograph animals. It can also be used as a poor man’s macro extender as it will double your focal length and double the magnification also. Note that you will lose two stops of light, and image quality may not be great.

Tunnel web spider on leaf litter. Taken on the kitchen table 'mini studio' with
Olympus OM4Ti + 135mm lens and Bellows unit. Kodachrome 25.



Special attention must be paid to your technique when attempting macro photos - the smaller you’re photographing the more attention you need. The problem is that the smaller you go, the less depth of focus you will get. This therefore normally requires a smaller aperture to compensate (say f22 instead of f5.6), but generally you won’t get a lot of light in subjects like this and this only compounds the problem. Also, if you’re using bellows, or extension tubes, then you’re also loosing a lot of light this way. If you’re to get serious about macro work, then you will eventually progress to using flashes to illuminate the subject, because they become suddenly very powerful when you’re photographing an ant (imagine it from the subjects perspective)! I would advise that you go for a flash that has TTL flash metering (such as the excellent Olympus system) for macro, as it again removes all need for time consuming exposure calculations if you’re using extension equipment. Steadiness is very important as movement is also magnified. A tripod therefore becomes a necessity for some work. It’s worth noting here that many tripods are hopeless for this type of work.


Check them out - mine has a centre column that I can take out and attach below the tripod allowing for very low photos.

Macro lighting

As mentioned above, flash lighting is a considerable benefit in macro photography but it requires careful consideration. One flash tends to create very harsh unflattering shadows on your subject. The ideal situation is to purchase a ‘Ring light’ flash. As the name implies, it’s a flash that attaches around the front of your lens. It provides perfectly even lighting on your subject as there will be no shadows. It will also provide a perfectly good drain on your funds to purchase, so as an economic alternative I’d advise the use of a reflector. I carry a folded up square of tin foil in my kit for this job. The idea is that you can use a flash on one side of the subject and place the reflector on the other side. This way a good level of light is bounced back into the shadows and gives a nice effect. The other alternative is to use a couple of flash guns but this is getting expensive, weighty and serious.

So, that's all there is to it!

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