Big tips for shooting small

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w360_6415757_tutorialbannerfordotmailerWhat’s not to like about macro (close up) photography? Getting closer to your subjects to see them in greater detail will always appeal, so picking up a few techniques to help you get better at shooting close ups is always worthwhile. Before we get down to the picture taking, let’s cover off the basics.

First, to get the best results you’re going to need a macro lens. That doesn’t mean a lens that has a macro setting, it means a proper macro lens. Such optics aren’t only suitable for close up work. The FUJIFILM XF60mm F2.4 Macro lens that we’re using here, for example, doubles as an excellent lens for shooting portraits, but it’s optically engineered to excel at close ups.

When it comes to macro lenses you’ll often hear the term ‘reproduction ratio’, such as 1:2 or lifesize. Put simply, this refers to the size the lens can reproduce what it’s being pointed at. A macro lens that offers a lifesize (or 1:1) ratio will reproduce the subject at the same size on the sensor as it is in real life. 1:2 means the subject will be reproduced at half lifesize, and so on. The XF60mm offers a 1:2 reproduction ratio.

Finally for now, it’s important to know that the closer you get to a subject, the smaller the area that appears in sharp focus. Given this, focusing has to be extremely precise, which is why a tripod or some other form of support is recommended.


Scenario 1: Shooting macro outdoors

With spring just around the corner, it’s obvious to brush up on your macro skills so you can shoot flowers. Indeed, for this very blog, I found a clump of snowdrops in my local park. Shooting macro images outdoors brings a number of challenges. The light levels vary which can cause exposure issues and, on the day I shot, it was windy, which causes delicate flowers like this to blow around a lot. That means you’ll need to shoot plenty of images, so make sure your battery is fully charged and you there’s plenty of room on your memory card.

I used an X-T1 for all these images as the fold out LCD is an absolute godsend. As I was working at ground level, it avoided me having to lay down on the cold ground. Instead, I popped out the LCD and rested the camera on a rolled up coat for support as my tripod didn’t go low enough.

I picked my subject carefully, finding one bloom that was isolated away from a larger group so I could focus attention on it and still get some complementary colours in the background; always check what is behind your subject before you shoot.

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The first shot I took (above) was with the XF18-55mm set to 55mm and at its closest focusing distance. To be fair, this isn’t a bad result at all, but doesn’t really have a huge amount of impact as the bloom is quite small. So I reached for the macro lens and took this:

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It’s a big improvement with the bloom occupying more of the frame, but the light is a little flat, so I used a small silver reflector placed under the snowdrop to push some more light in and get an even better shot:

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I could have stopped there and been happy, but I also had the FUJIFILM MCEX-11 and MCEX-16 extension tubes with me, so I gave them a try. The tubes fit between the lens and body and allow you to focus even closer. Both tubes maintain all functionality between lens and camera including autofocus, but the focus can hunt a little more and as I was getting so close to the snowdrop I opted to switch to manual focus and use Focus Assist to enlarge the subject on the X-T1’s rear LCD for focusing accuracy. AF hunting isn’t the end of the world, but means you can end up with shots like this where it’s focused on the background rather than the single bloom.

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I took three further sets of images, one with the 11mm, one with the 16mm and then one with the two combined, which got me closest of all. The reflector stayed in place for each image, but the sun was in and out hence the variations in light levels. Take your pick!


Scenario 2: Focus stacking indoors

Time to warm up and head indoors to try another macro technique: focus stacking. Here, you take a range of shots with the lens focused on different parts of the subject before using Photoshop to stack them all together and get one super sharp image.

As previously mentioned, the closer you get to the subject, the smaller the zone of sharp focus so it can be difficult to get the image sharp from front to back. One solution would be to put the camera on a tripod and use a small aperture. But this could make for a long exposure, plus lenses aren’t always at their optical best at smaller apertures. It’s better to pick a central aperture – here I used F5.6 – and stack the images together.

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To make this technique work, you’ll need something called a focusing rail. This attaches to your camera and allows you to make precise incremental changes by using the measure on the side of the rail. I used the 454 Micropositioning Sliding Plate by Manfrotto. I attached this to the X-Pro2 and XF60mm with MCEX-11 extension tube I was using inside, then put both on a tripod and framed up my subject – a dusty snooker scoreboard. In case you wondering why I didn’t remove the dust, this is purely to show how much detail you can get using the stacking technique.

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With the XF60mm set at F5.6 and manually focused on the number 9, here’s the result I got (above). The 9 is nice and sharp, but the in focus area soon drops off on either side. Next, I didn’t touch the focus on lens and moved the focusing rail until the point nearest the camera came into focus. Noting the distance on the rail, I took a shot. I then moved the rail until the furthest point from the camera into focus and took another shot. Again, nothing on the camera was changed and I noted the distance on the rail.

The distance between the two focus points needed the rail to be moved by 4cm. So, again, by not touching any settings on the camera or lens, I moved the rail incrementally by 2mm at a time and took further shots. This gave me a total of around 20 images. Shooting over, I went to my computer and fired up Photoshop.

I opened all the files at once in Photoshop and then chose File>Scripts>Load File into Stack then on the dialogue box that opened, I chose Add Open Files and OK. With this complete, I then opened the Layers palette in the resulting image and selected all the Layers before choosing Edit>Auto-Align Layers. Once this was complete, I then selected all the Layers again and chose Edit>Auto-Blend Layers. On the resulting dialogue box, I chose Stack Images and then hit OK.

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Depending on how much RAM your computer has, these processes may take a while, but once Photoshop has weaved its magic, you should find a sharp image where all the frames are stacked together. There is a possibility that your image will have some odd overlapping elements caused by the slight variance in camera angle between each frame as you move the camera along the rail. In this case, I did, but I was able to crop in slightly to removing the offending areas. If that’s not an option, you’ll need to try a different subject matter and preferably shoot on a plain background such as white or black.

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If you’re happy with the result, finish by choosing Layer>Flatten Image and you’re done!

So there you have it – macro in a nutshell. One final point to bear in mind, macro photography is time-consuming to get right. Don’t expect great results straightaway, although there’s little doubt that patience will be rewarded. So when it comes to macro ideas, think big!

Extension tubes open up a whole new world!

Ben Cherry Macro

Ben CherryWith travel photography, one of the issues is prioritising equipment. You simply can’t carry everything you could possibly want to bring. If you do then it often hampers the overall travel experience as you’re weighed down by equipment and have to constantly look after it. For me, on my current trip that meant I couldn’t justify bringing a dedicated macro lens, especially when I had the XF56mm and XF50-140mm covering the similar focal lengths offered by the two available macro options. Instead I chose to pack both the 11 and 16mm extension tubes (MCEX-11 / 16). Offering camera-lens communication that allows autofocus, these simple compact devices can turn nearly any lens into a macro option (but please check lens compatibility).

My primary role in Costa Rica is to work as a researcher for a scarlet macaw program, so macro functions weren’t really at the top of the list. However the wildlife in this region is remarkable and macro functionality quickly became important. One of the sites we regularly see is a trail of leaf cutter ants marching through the forest taking supplies from the canopy to their nest. Following the tiny motorway, which has been carved out of the rainforest floor you’ll eventually find yourself at the base of a tree that’s being harvested.

Although I am focusing on leaf cutter ants, the general principles apply to all types of macro photography.

Leaf Cutter F4

Leaf Cutter F4-2
It is possible to get macro photos with wide apertures, these were taken at F4 with the XF50-140mm and X-T1, using ISO 3200(!) because the rainforest undergrowth was so dark (ominous clouds were gathering) and the ants were moving so fast, I needed fast shutter speeds, 1/600, 1/400 to help freeze the motion as I wasn’t using any flash.


Macro Photography fundamentals

For this type of photography you generally want to be using very high F Stops e.g. F22. The reason for this is when you start to focus on very close objects; the depth of field becomes very thin with more regular F Stops like F4, 5.6, 8. Even the maximum aperture on your lens is often not enough to get most of the frame sharp. One technique employed is to focus stack. Taking multiple pictures of a static subject, moving the focus throughout the frame and then stacking the pictures in postproduction. This wasn’t an option for me unfortunately as the ants were moving continuously (so fast when you’re looking at a macro frame!).

Leaf Cutter F22 normal flash
Using flash helps to stop these fast moving insects in their tracks. Note that the bokeh does degrade because of extension tubes. Taken with X-T1, XF50-140mm and stacked extension tubes. I used a Nissin i40 to light the scene from just above the camera.


Extension tubes – what are they?

They are simply extensions of the lens barrel, extending the distance between the rear lens element and the sensor. This shifts the focus, so for example instead of focusing at over 10 metres according to the lens, you’re actually focused 0.5 metres away when using an extension tube. There are two extension tubes available from Fujifilm a 11mm and 16mm. This gives you three options as you can stack the two together. The greater the distance, the closer the focusing.


Some lenses have very close native focusing distances

There are non-macro focused lenses that do actually have very close minimum focusing distances. For me, the two lenses spring to mind – the XF10-24mm and XF16mm. Though not particularly helpful for ‘normal’ macro photography because of they’re wide-angle lenses. However, I really like using both of these lenses for placing my subject within its environment, the benefit of these two is that my subject can be an elephant or an ant, both lenses are capable.

XF10-24mm macro

A frog from Borneo
Above were taken with the XF10-24mm
Taken with the XF16mm
Taken with the XF16mm


Downsides to extension tubes?

Well as you might have seen on some of the images, the bokeh can regress from the wonderfully smooth circles we are all used to from Fujifilm lenses, to something more like heptagon! The high image quality we are also used to does degrade somewhat, but this is to be expected when you’re pushing a lens from what is designed for. What you have to remember is that these are ultra lightweight, convenient macro inducers that save you money and carrying around another lens.

I am only touching the fringes of what is possible with macro photography, there are many out there who know a lot more about macro, but the benefit of extension tubes for those on the go is obvious.


Macro Creativity

With a little time and patience you can really start to create some interesting images. Though the images below are nothing particularly new, it was nevertheless satisfying to produce them. Using an off camera flash, placed behind the ants shooting back towards the camera backlights the ants and produces some interesting silhouettes/shadows thanks to the leaf cuttings.

Ben Cherry Macro backlight

Ben Cherry Macro backlight-2

I hope this has been helpful. Here is a short video of how I went about creating these images. Filmed and edited by Ellice Dart. If you liked this blog and video then please leave a constructive comment below.

Happy Shooting.

 

Ben is an environmental photojournalist, zoologist and Fujifilm X-Photographer. His passion is showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Find more of his work at: