Photographic Super Course: Macro Photograqphy

Scarlet Macaw feathers were photographed at 1:2 (half life size) using a Nikon 105mm macro lens at f/32, with illumination from an off-camera electronic flash unit connected with a sync extension cord.


Tree frog, 60mm Micro-Nikkor lens, 1:2, off-camera flash.


Cactus flower at 1:2, 1:1 and 2:1 (the latter achieved by adding a tele-extender to the 105mm Micro-Nikkor lens).


Macro lenses focus much closer than standard lenses of similar focal length, generally close enough to produce a life-size (1:1) image of the subject on film. Shown is Tamron's SP AF90mm f/2.8, a short-telephoto macro lens whose focal length is also ideal for portraits.


Longer macro lenses, such as this Pentax SMCP-FA Macro 200mm f/4 ED[IF], allow you to put more space between you and your subject—handy when the subject is hazardous, or you want more lighting flexibility.


While many zoom lenses are touted as "macro" zooms, few provide true macrofocusing capability. This AF Zoom Micro-Nikkor ED 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6 actually does: it focuses down to larger than 1/2 life size.


Close-up lenses screw onto the lens' front just like filters.


A No. 1 close-up lens lets you focus one meter away, a No. 4 lets you focus 1/4 meter away, and a No. 1 plus a No. 4 equal a No. 5 and let you focus 1/5 meter away from the subject. These distances apply when the camera lens is focused at infinity, and hold no matter what the focal length of the camera lens. So this No. 1-No. 4 combo on a 200mm lens lets you focus down to 1/5 meter (about 8 inches)—lots of magnification from a 200mm lens.


A split-field lens is just a close-up lens cut in half and mounted in a threaded ring. Like close-up lenses, split-field lenses are available from several manufacturers, including the producer of this one, Hoya.
Photos by Jack and Sue Drafahl

One of the most common bits of advice drummed into new photographers is "get closer to your subject!" In that context, it means that novice shooters generally shoot from too far away, so their subject is lost among all the other stuff in the picture. Macro (or close-up) photography takes this to the extreme: shooting subjects from closer than is possible with normal camera lenses. Macro photography lets you explore new worlds, and create exciting photos as you do so. You can zero-in on a small portion of a large subject to create an interesting abstract image, or fill the frame with a tiny subject. Either way, close-up photography enables you to produce images that you can't see easily with your unaided eye.

Close-up photography does require some special equipment. But this equipment isn't all costly. There are a number of ways to get closer: close-up lenses, extension tubes, bellows units, macro lenses and more. Here are the pluses and minuses of the various ways to get close.

Macro Lenses
The easiest (albeit not the least costly) way to do close-up photography is with a macro lens, because you operate in the same manner as for normal photography—the macro lens just focuses a lot closer than standard non-macro lenses do. Most macro lenses today will focus close enough to produce life-size (1:1) images on the film (most of those that don't come with a "life-size adapter," a short short extension tube—more on extension tubes in a bit—that enables them to do so), but they'll also focus out to infinity just as standard lenses do, something that can't be done with other close-up devices. Macro lenses are also optically optimized for close shooting distances, so they produce great image quality in close-ups (as well as excellent results at normal shooting distances).

Macro lenses come in standard (50-60mm), short telephoto (90-105mm) and moderate telephoto (180-200mm) focal lengths. Longer macro lenses will produce a given magnification from farther away than a shorter macro lens will. A 200mm macro lens will produce a life-size image from 4X as far away as a 50mm macro lens—handy if your subject is a deadly snake or a skittish insect, and giving you more room to position your light source (if you're using artificial lighting, such as electronic flash). If you're interested in close-up work, and don't already have a telephoto lens, a macro tele would be a great choice (the short macro teles are great for portraits, and the longer macro teles are great for action shooting, too).

Of course, nothing is without its drawbacks, and macro lenses have theirs: lack of lens speed compared to nonmacro lenses of equal focal length (most have a maximum aperture of f/2.8, which is pretty slow for a 50-60mm lens), added bulk, and higher cost.

Many zoom lenses are touted as being "macro." Most really aren't—they'll focus only close enough to produce 1/4- or 1/5-life-size images on the film, and macro really means life-size (or at least half life-size) images on the film. But there are a few that come close to true macro, including Nikon's AF Zoom-Micro Nikkor 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6D ED, which focuses down to 1:1.32 (3/4 life-size), and Sigma's 70-210mm f/3.5-4.5 APO Zoom Macro, which provides a 1:2 (half-life-size) image size at its macro setting.

Close-Up Lenses
Close-up lenses are the simplest and least-expensive way to get your camera lens to focus closer than its normal minimum focusing distance. These filter-like devices are actually plus-diopter elements similar to those used in eyeglasses to correct farsightedness, and just as the eyeglasses enable the eyes to focus on closer objects than they normally can, close-up lenses enable the camera lens to focus on closer objects than it normally can. Like filters, close-up lenses screw into the front of the camera lens.

The strength of a close-up lens is expressed as a diopter number. The diopter number indicates how close your camera lens can focus with the close-up lens attached, in fractions of a meter. A +2 close-up lens will let you focus 1/2 meter away, a +3 close-up lens 1/3 meter away, and so on. These distances apply regardless of the focal length of the camera lens—a +4 close-up lens will let you focus 1/4 meter away whether attached to a 50mm lens or a 200mm lens. Note: These focused distances are based on the camera lens being set at infinity. When the camera lens is focused closer than its infinity setting, the combination of camera lens and close-up lens will focus even closer.

Close-up lenses are available individually or in handy sets that contain three lenses: +1, +2, and +3 or +4. To focus even closer, you can combine close-up lenses: for example, a +1 and a +4 equal a +5 (you can focus 1/5 meter away). Attach the higher-numbered close-up lens to the camera lens, and the lower-numbered close-up lens to the higher-numbered one for best results.

Naturally, the longer the focal length of the camera lens, the larger the image at a given camera-to-subject distance. A +2 close-up lens attached to a 200mm camera lens will produce a much greater magnification than the same +2 close-up lens attached to a 50mm camera lens.

Close-up lenses offer the advantages of simplicity, relatively low cost and no exposure compensation required, but they also have a couple of limitations. First, close-up lenses won't give you much more than life-size (1:1) magnification, and second, close-up lenses cause a loss of image quality, especially around the edges. This loss of sharpness becomes greater as the strength of the close-up lens increases. For really serious close-up work, extension tubes and bellows are better choices. (Note: Stopping the camera lens down improves sharpness when using close-up lenses. And there are two-element close-up lenses that provide better image quality, especially with telephoto lenses.)

There are some neat devices called spit-field lenses. These are close-up lenses cut in half and mounted in a threaded mounting ring. They allow you to focus on a very near subject (through the close-up lens half) and a distant one (through the empty half) simultaneously.