6 Tips For Macro Photography With Any Camera

1/200th, F/13, ISO 400, flash fired from the lower right at 1/128th power.

1/200th, F/13, ISO 400, flash fired from the lower right at 1/128th power.

With everything from backpacking to kayaking, I have always loved experiencing the outdoors. Usually, it is the expansive vistas that grab my attention, but recently the macro world has been opening up to me.

Having just purchased a Nikon 105mm F2.8 macro lens, the world of macro photography is now available to me in a way that I have not been able to see before. Last week I captured a few images of a giant moth and was astonished at the level of detail, which is always there but rarely enjoyed.

A few days ago I came home and found that a spider smaller than a dime had taken up residence between two lawn chairs in front of my screen door. With full sunlight coming in from the left and a perfect dark background, the spider and the web were well illuminated for a macro shot. 

These are a few tips from things I have learned through trial and error, and a few "on the cheap" ideas for how to do macro photography without lots of fancy gear.

1) Give your camera time to acclimate to the air temperature.

I was excited to photograph this spider, so I ran inside, grabbed the camera and macro lens, and ran back out. But it only took two seconds after taking my camera from the cool, air conditioned 75 degree living room, to the humid, 95+ degree summer air for me to realize I wouldn't be shooting for a few minutes due to condensation that immediately formed all over the camera.

This shows up as a watery, hazy blur on the front of the lens, on the viewfinder, on the screen, and the entire body of the camera, and while you can wipe it off somewhat, it simply takes time for your camera to adapt to the outside air temperature. 

On some cameras that do not have weather sealing, this condensation can actually be very harmful, causing water droplets to get inside the camera and fry the electronics. If you have condensation forming, take your batteries out until the camera becomes acclimated, then wipe it down. Ideally, you want to have your camera in a bag that you sit down with the lid cracked open in the new temperature, giving the camera time to slowly make the change.

If you run outside, maybe at a wedding or event, intending to take photos immediately on a hot summer day, condensation may form and you will have difficulty shooting for the next few minutes, which probably won't go over well with the group you are photographing. Many times, there is no great work around for this, but it is something to be aware of.

2) Use a tripod.

The setup. A Nikon D600 with a Nikon 105mm 2.8 lens mounted on a Vanguard tripod, with a Photix Mitro+ flash in the upper right.

Once again it only took a short time, 2-3 frames of the spider, for me to realize that hand-holding the camera for this tiny subject was going to be nearly impossible, and I wouldn't have the control that I wanted.

For the image of the moth, the subject was significantly larger and completely stationary, so a tripod was unnecessary and would have slowed me down. In this case, a tripod was absolutely necessary to bring stability to the camera and allow me to nail the focus. 

On the cheap: Use a bag, table, or anything sturdy can stand in place of a tripod in a pinch. Use a 2 or 5 second timer for added stability.

3) Focus manually.

Auto focus wasn't going to cut it here. Although the Nikon D600 and 105mm F2.8 have very good auto focus, it would still jump around, and it couldn't match the web as it moved in the breeze. Any breeze would send the spider's web jittering back and forth, and focusing manually allowed me to better adjust for the conditions.

On the cheap: Your cell phone is able to focus surprisingly close to subjects, so use it in place of a fancy camera and lens. For added macro ability, place a single drop of water on your cell phone lens. Try it, it's cool.

4) Close down your aperture.

Most of the time, opening up the camera's aperture is the better way to go. Not only do you let in more light by having a lower F-stop, but you blur out distracting backgrounds and put the emphasis on the subject. The same rules apply with macro photography, but they don't work out the same practically.

When you get just a few inches away from your subject, the focus range of any F-stop is reduced, and it becomes impossible to focus with a macro lens on a subject at lower F-stops. At 2.8, the 105mm would cast a razor thin line of focus, which would be almost impossible to nail perfectly on the subject, especially with a breeze moving the spider. But even if you did nail the focus, it would still be razor thin and only show a sliver of the subject.

The image at the top of this post was shot at F/13, which is an aperture that I would normally reserve for very specific situations, for things like landscapes, incredibly bright days, or long exposures, any shot where I want a much of the image in focus. Closing down the aperture to F/13 allowed me to have almost all of the spider's body in focus and sharp.

On the cheap: If you don't understand how to use manual settings on your camera yet, you can trick your cell phone or the auto feature of your camera into giving you a small aperture (large F-stop) by shining a lot of light on your subject, locking the exposure, then removing the light source. You camera will think it needs to shut out the light, and give you a small aperture and greater focus.

5) Bring in more light if needed.

Without a small amount of flash firing from the lower right, the spider would have been very dark. This gave it a better outline, showing the spider and the web more clearly, and it emphasizes specular highlights, giving greater sharpness to the in-focus area.

On the cheap: Use a reflector, a white poster board, or anything large and white in place of the flash to bound light back on the right side of the spider and achieve a similar effect.

6) Patience!

This is my most prized lesson. I had to wait for the condensation to go away, I had to wait for the spider to stop moving around the web, I had to wait for the web to stop blowing in the breeze, I had to take my time to get the exposure correct, and I had to keep my sweat from dripping all over the camera. It was tempting to call it quits earlier, to not bring out the tripod or the flash. But I am happy that I stayed out as long as I did to capture this image, and to see the incredible world of macro photography.

These are two other shots that I liked, but weren't quite as strong as the above image.