Macro Photography - What it is, how to do it, and why it's so incredibly cool

What is macro photography?

Macro photography is taking pictures of really small things. The definition of a macro photograph used to be that the photograph would have to be on the scale 1:1 on the negative. This means that if you took a picture of a ruler, then if you put the ruler on the developed negative, the picture of the ruler would be as big as, or bigger, as the ruler itself.

Nowadays, however, this definition has been abandoned by the manufacturers of Macro lenses. The new definition seems to be that the scale 1:2 (i.e the negative is half the size of the real life object) defines "macro"

Most digital cameras have a "macro" function. In general, this means one of two things; 1) you tell the camera that whatever you try to photograph is close, so not to bother about focusing far away 2) true macro, down to extremely short focal distances.

For the main part, macro photography is exclusive to systems with exchangable lenses, such as SLR or medium format system cameras. Most compact cameras won't be able to focus on short distances.

What is a macro lens?

A macro lens is a lens that is manufactured in a special way. Normal lenses are made so the sharpness and contrast get better the closer you focus to infinity. With a macro lens, however, this is the other way around. Most macro lenses are quite good on the longer focal ranges, but they really excel on shorter ranges.

In practice, a macro lens means that you can take pictures on short distance. The most extreme macro lenses can focus down to 2 cm (approx 0.8 inch). these kinds of lenses are often found on digital cameras (in particular the models from Casio and Nikon

Do you need a macro lens for macro photography?

Not really, although this is probably the most normal approach.

Ways to do macro photography:

  • The cheapest way: Turn the lens around. Do you have a 50mm prime lens? Use it! Take it off you camera, and just hold it the wrong way around against your camera. Look at something really close, and prepare to be amazed! There are actually special reversal rings that hold the lens in place for you, giving great macro photographs at a low price. you can turn pretty much any lens around to make a macro lens out of it. The general rule is that if you have a shorter focal range (such as 28mm), you get closer, and vice versa (such as 100mm). Zoom lenses, however, are not recommended (although they will work)
  • The medium-cheap way: Get an extension tube. An extension tube is really just a mecanical spacer between your camera and the lens. The result of this is basically the same as turning your lens around, but it is easier (you don't have to hold your lens), more safe (you don't risk dropping your expensive lenses), and more practical (you don't risk light spilling between your lens and your camera, ruining your pictures) Using this (and most other, but especially this) approach, you might need extra light. FOr this, you might find a ring flash to be handy.
  • The extreme way: Use bellows and reversal rings. With this system, you use a bellow (you know, one of those metal-and-fabric things that you can move back and forth) and a reversal ring for extreme close-ups. With this way, you can magnify your image a lot. Have you ever seen a picture of the eye of a house fly? That was most likely taken using this method
  • The practical way: Get a macro lens. By getting a macro lens, you have a system where you can take good closeup pictures, and you get a good lens that you can use for other things as well

Why is macro photography so cool?

Photography is all about "freezing" light, and showing what you saw to others. With a regular 50mm prime lens, you show people what you saw, when you saw it, as if they were there themselves. However, photography opens a range of other possibilities: you can show people things that they could never see otherwise. A long Tele lens (basically a set of binoculars in front of your camera) can get objects normally only seen from a distance (such as athletes and wild animals, without any further comparison :) up close. Macro photography is on the other side of this spectre. What does a flower look like up close? What does a person's eye look like up close?

There are many patterns, shapes, colors and phenomenons in nature and in people that most have never seen, and macro photography opens this world to "the common man".


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