Macro Photography, also known as close-up photography, is a unique genre of photography in which the size of the subject in the photograph is greater than it appears in life size. This week we talk to professional photographer, Martin Short, about subjects, lenses, techniques and tricks to mastering macro photography.
NIKON: What elements does an image need to make it a macro photograph?
MARTIN SHORT: Macro is one of the more interesting forms of photography in that one can observe elements that are otherwise lost to the naked eye. Whether a close up of an insect, flower or even unusual portrait; the viewer has the opportunity to view something not seen everyday. The shallow depth of field is a hallmark of the macro lens, since most modern Nikon lenses have an aperture of F2.8 one cannot resist but use it (a lot).
NIKON: Why do you choose macro photography as a genre of specialty?
MS: I wouldn’t say it’s a specialty but rather a form of photography I enjoy immensely. One can never tire of macro; I have always stated that like a vampire, once it has bitten you are addicted for life. Concentration is key to macro photography as the thin line between success and disappointment is very close. When one mentions Macro photography generally we think close up flowers or insects, but it has a much larger use from portraiture, food, still life, commercial and even fine art. The fact of the matter is maybe behind the standard zoom (24-70mm), my macro lens is the most used lens in my camera bag.
NIKON: Macro photography requires specific lenses – can you explain why? What is your lens of choice?
MS: Nikon’s Micro-NIKKOR lenses are designed to work as close as possible to the subject to achieve 1:2 or 1:1 life size reproduction without the need of any accessories. When photographing macro images, life size reproduction and detail is immensely important. When the modern 105mm VR was launched I knew that I had to have it. When attaching the lens to the camera you know by the weight that Nikon had designed this lens to super sharp, it doesn’t disappoint.
NIKON: What is your camera gear of choice and why?
MS: I have an old 55mm Macro that I bought off a college many years ago, it was bunged up outside but the glass was still sharp and it started the addiction. The next logical choice was the 105mm. It’s focal length, glass technology and VR (vibration reduction) was a perfect match for my style of shooting. I’ve currently got it stuck to a Nikon D800; I was disappointed that I didn’t wait for the D4 (a very popular camera) but it didn’t take long before I fell in love with the D800.
NIKON: And how does one go about setting up their camera for macro photography?
MS: Once one has decided which macro lens to purchase I would suggest a good steady tripod. When shooting close to your subject, depth of field is often reduced to millimetres. To ensure a stable platform, a tripod is the best solution. Sometimes getting close to your subject means a tripod is not an option, I would therefore recommend one of Nikon’s macro lenses equipped with Vibration Reduction (VR). These lenses allow for up to 4 stops slower then otherwise possible, giving you a chance in the “field” for a sharp image.
NIKON: Most Nikon Coolpix cameras have a built-in macro or close-up setting. Will this suffice for macro photography?
MS: I think the great advantage is that Coolpix are equipped with Nikkor lenses and some with VR. I’ve tried out the macro function denoted by the flower icon and was pleasantly surprised just how close one can get to the subject .The macro tells the camera to focus closer then it would normally and open up the aperture there by creating a shallower depth of field. Macro photography should not be bound by equipment but rather the creative mind. Should someone new to photography want to test the waters in macro I would not hesitate to suggest starting with a Coolpix camera.
NIKON: What rules of composition should one take into consideration when shooting macro images?
MS: Firstly, I believe that they’re not rules but guidelines (rules cannot be broken). The most common guideline is simplicity; it is the cornerstone of a good macro photo.
Always focus on the eyes when photographing an animal and try to make it stand out from the background by using a shallow depth of field (f 5.6 or wider). By using third guidelines one will never place the centre of interest in the middle. By dividing your viewfinder into thirds both horizontally and vertically and placing your subject where these lines intersect, will make for a pleasing photograph.
NIKON: Is lighting important?
MS: Photography is about painting with light, so yes lighting is important. Whether using a reflector, diffuser or flash, one can improve the image. Because you are shooting close to the subject, the lens can create a shadow. I have recently played with Nikon’s R1C1 wireless close up Speedlight system and have very surprised by the results. By putting the flash at the end of the lens the problem of casting a shadow is a thing of the past.
NIKON: How do you use depth of field to your advantage?
MS: With macro photography, most photographers want to highlight the subject with a shallow depth of field by making the foreground and background out of focus.
Depth of field is achieved by three factors, firstly aperture. The wider it is the shallower the depth of field, most of Nikon’s line up of Macro lenses have aperture of f2.8. The distance the camera is from the subject will also affect the depth of field, the closer the shallower it will become. With Macro lenses being designed to close the shallow depth of field becomes even shallower. Then focal length also has affect on the depth of field. Lastly, I would like to add that Nikon also produce a range of perspective control (also known as tilt and shift) lenses. The 45mm and 85mm f2.8 PC-E allows the photographer to throw area that is in focus to be thrown at a different angle and so create a totally different “look”.
NIKON: What is one of your favourite macro photographs and why?
MS: I don’t have a lasting favourite; my feelings for them change to quickly. However whilst looking through images for a workshop I discovered portraits that I had taken in the studio using a macro lens (my old 55mm). My colleague at CODP, Dirk Boshoff, started playing around on photoshop and came up this one. I find this process very interesting and perhaps in the near future just use macro lenses for portraiture.
NIKON: Are there any challenges that you are faced with in this genre of photography?
MS: The smallest movement, be it left or right, backwards or forwards, could shift your focus point. Wind could shift your subject, as well defensive movements from animals. Macro lenses had a knack of being slower to focus then other lenses, so make sure you know how to manual focus quickly and accurately. Although early mornings are part and parcel of photography this is especially true for macro, as catching a dew droplet (amongst others) will depend on which time of day we photograph it.
Finally, to be a successful macro photographer one needs buckets full of patience, a claim and steady hand, and a passion to get “the” shot.
NIKON: What is your number one tip to macro photography?
MS: Stop using excuses about equipment and just get out and shoot, you’ll learn more from your mistakes then any book.