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Cheat Sheet

Digital Macro & Close-Up Photography For Dummies

Digital macro and close-up photography bring new possibilities to your digital images. Where once you saw landscapes and portraits, you might now turn your camera to the tiny bug crawling along the soil or the mole on a subject's neck. You end up with intimate images that show the world anew. But you have to overcome new sets of challenges to make that happen.

Equipment for Macro and Close-Up Photography

To achieve macro and close-up photographic results, you need to focus on subjects at a closer-than-normal distance. To get closer to your subjects, you need specific macro and close-up equipment and techniques. Here are some of the ways that macro and close-up photographers get the shots they want:

  • Use a macro-specific fixed lens. Unlike ordinary lenses, macro lenses enable you to shoot at very close distances to your subject while still achieving sharp focus. Most macro lenses get you close enough to capture a 1:1 magnification ratio. This means your subject appears life-size on your camera's digital sensor.

  • Use an extension tube to supplement your lens. Extension tubes are hollow accessories that attach between your camera body and the lens. They provide space between the lens and sensor, enabling you to focus closer than usual. The relationship between the size of the extension tube and the lens's focal length determines how close you can get. A 50mm extension tube paired with a 50mm lens provides a maximum 1:1 ratio, however, a 50mm extension tube paired with a 100mm lens only provides a maximum 1:2 ratio.

  • Attach a tele-converter to your lens to increase magnification. Tele-converters are optical devices that attach between the camera and the lens. They magnify the image produced by your lens to appear larger on your camera's digital sensor. When using a tele-converter, your image is magnified but you don't have to move closer to your subject. This makes tele-convertors ideal for photographing subjects that scare easily or that are in hard-to-reach areas.

  • Reverse your lens to increase your ability to focus near your subjects. By detaching the lens and turning it around (so your camera is looking through the front element and out of the back element), you can get closer to your subject and achieve greater amounts of magnification. Try this method by simply handholding the lens in front of the camera. If you're pleased with the results, consider purchasing a reversing ring (an accessory that enables you to fix a reversed lens to the camera body) to hold the lens in place.

Lighting Your Macro and Close-up Photography Subjects

Macro and close-up photography typically require you to be very close to your subjects. This can be problematic when it comes to light, as your camera's lens (or your head) can cast a shadow into the scene or onto the subject. The closer you are to the subject, the more likely you are to block the light.

When working with natural light, choose scenarios in which the subject is lit from the side, there is an ambient type of light, or the subject is backlit. A front-lit situation causes you to be between the subject and the light.

When your scene doesn't offer the perfect lighting situation for the shot, you can take matters into your own hands:

  • Use a reflector to bounce light into your scene. Doing so helps you control the direction of light and ensure your subject isn't in shadow. You can use any surface that reflects light, such as a mirror, a white piece of foam core, or a shiny, metallic type of surface.

  • Keep a small, battery-operated flash in your camera bag. A flash lets you light your subjects from whatever direction you want. Just make sure that you have the proper set-up to fire the flash from off-camera, as an on-camera flash is somewhat useless in macro and close-up situations.

  • Attach a macro-specific ring light to your lens. A ring light surrounds the edge of the lens, providing a flat, even light in close-up scenes. It enables you to light your subject from the front without having to worry about casting your own shadow on it.

Managing Depth of Field in Macro and Close-Up Photography

High levels of magnification mean that your depth of field naturally becomes more shallow than normal. That might be fine when you really want to emphasize your subject, but if you want more depth of field, you need to adjust.

If you want to use a shallow depth of field to create a composition with selective focus (only one spot in the image appears in sharp focus), then you can use a large aperture setting (such as f/2.8). Your focusing has to be precise in this situation so it appears exactly where you want it. Use a tripod to stabilize the camera; doing so ensures that your point of focus doesn't move after you've set it. A focusing rail (device that enables you to move the camera with precision toward and away from your subject) can help to manage your point of focus.

If you want instead to maximize your depth of field, then you need a small aperture (such as f/22). This type of aperture lets in a small amount of light and requires you to use slower shutter speeds in order to expose your scene properly. A tripod helps to keep the camera steady during the exposure, eliminating the motion blur that camera shake causes.

Enhancing Your Macro and Close-Up Images in Postproduction

All is not lost if you don't get the perfect shot. Postproduction photo-editing software enables you to enhance your macro and close-up digital images, as well as to correct minor mistakes that took place while shooting. By learning how to use this type of program, you can make your images pop and achieve technical perfection.

  • Sharpening an image in postproduction helps to create crisper edges and can be used to enhance an already sharp image or to fix an image that was taken slightly out of focus. (This tool isn't a miracle worker, so remember that it's always better to capture an image in sharp focus than to rely on postproduction sharpening.) Be careful not to over-sharpen an image, which causes a halo to appear around your edges — a sure sign to viewers that you've used the sharpen tool.

  • Adjust your exposure by brightening or darkening an image in postproduction. You can make small adjustments or correct an exposure mishap. But, like most postproduction techniques, adjusting the exposure too much can cause a major loss of quality in images and can appear obvious to viewers. You can use a curves adjustment to adjust exposure in certain areas without affecting others. For instance, if your highlights look great, but your shadows appear too dark, raise the shadow area of the curve, keeping the highlight area as-is. Doing so brightens your shadows without affecting your highlights.

  • Retouch flaws to eliminate distractions. When your focal point is very close to the lens (specifically, if you're using a small aperture for a great depth of field) the dust on your lens often shows up clearly in your photograph. Any sort of dust, scratches, unwanted hot spots, or shadows can draw a viewer's eye away from your subject or make an image appear polluted. Most photo-editing software programs offer a variety of tools that enable you to spot, clone, or retouch an image. Use these tools to eliminate flaws and distractions so that you draw your viewers to the subject.

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