Rediscovering macrophotography

Forget-me-not

A couple of years ago I bought a secondhand macro lens (Nikon 105mm Micro) and did some focus stacking with withered roses to get a sharp image all the way down into the roses. Now, during the corona crisis, that I am confined to my house and garden, I start to value the little things in life, like a budding flower, or a bumblebee. So now, I am using my macrolens continuously to capture all these beauties. I never thought I would be taking pictures of flowers and insects. Honestly, it is much harder than I expected. Almost always I am facing challenges, and I love it.

Budding of pink rhododendron flowers

To share the love for these beauties of nature I hunt everyday in my garden to find new buds, flowers, or insects. I know my garden now much better than before. The pictures I like, I share them on Instagram (have a look at the right column of this blog). The pictures that are of the highest quality are submitted to Dreamstime. Currently the review process takes less than one hour.

In the ideal world a flower (or a detail) should be the main subject of the picture, well-lit, tack sharp, with a non-disturbing blurry background. And, of course, no noise in the picture. The combination turns out to be a challenge.

As you probably know, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO depend on each other. Changing one has an effect on the others. This is called the Photographic Triangle.

For example, the depth-of-field at 30cm from the flower for a 105mm lens at f/11 is only 0.4cm. Can you imagine! If you move just a little bit the flower is out of focus. Increasing the depth-of-field to 0.7cm by going to f/22 means either a slower shutter speed or an increase of ISO (introducing some noise in the picture).

A consequence of an increase of ISO means that objects in the background become more visible, distracting attention from the flower. A slower shutter speed, on the other hand, seems fine if we use a tripod; however, if it is too windy or if the insect is moving, it is not going to work. All in all, it is not as easy as I thought.

In the upcoming posts I will have a closer look at some of these challenges.

Tiny white-purple flowers

My first macro pictures

Withered roses

A couple of years ago somebody showed me some pictures of macro photography. They looked interesting, however, it did not resonate with me. Now, many years later, I read the book Praktijkboek Macrofotografie (in Dutch) and looked at videos on Youtube. It turns out that macro photography is a lot more than taking pictures of plants and insects and laying on the ground. So, there was a growing interest.
After realising that my regular lenses would not suffice, I looked at possible cheap adjustments:

  • close-up filters are put on a regular lens and they magnify. The disadvantage is the you add more glass between the subject and the sensor, thereby reducing the quality of the picture substantially;
  • extension tubes are put between your regular lens and the body of the camera. They are used to reduce the focal distance and thereby increase the magnification. The disadvantage is that it mainly helps up to roughly 50mm, beyond that the reduction of the focal distance is not substantial anymore.

So I decided to look for a macro lens (Nikon calls it a micro lens). They are expensive. The Nikon 200mm micro lens costs something like €1500. Beyond my budget for a hobby. So I settled for a secondhand Nikon 105mm. And I am very pleased with it. Very sharp pictures.
My first experiments with macro photography immediately showed that getting the subject in focus is quite a challenge. Even more than I expected. For example, at a distance of 40cm the 105mm lens at f/8 has a Depth of Field (DoF) of only 0.5cm. Handheld this is not going to work. Even by breathing you move more than 0.5cm. So, you need a tripod. Although I am not very fond of a tripod for macro photography it is an essential tool.

Macro photography in action

Like I said, with f/8 the DoF is only 0.5cm. In some cases this is fine,  however, if you take a picture of a flower, maybe you want a larger DoF, like 1.5cm. In this case the aperture should be f/22. This means that if you are indoors, you need to use flashes. Below you see my set up in the garage. It consists of two flashes and a camera, all three on a tripod. I had set the shutter speed at 1/100th of a second, and the camera in Command Mode using TTL and a -1 compensation for both flashes. The subject are roses I gave to my wife for our 35 year wedding anniversary. I used them just before they were thrown away.
The next step is to get the right part of the roses in focus. I set the aperture to f/3.8 to get enough light in the camera. Autofocus does not always work, so I use Live View to visually focus. You can even magnify the screen to better focus. After that I set the aperture back to  f/22 and take a picture.
At the top and below you see two of my first pictures. I am satisfied with the quality of the picture, however, I still need to learn more about composition in macro photography.
Withered roses