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Being Thankful for the Little Things

In this time of avoiding unnecessary travel, at least some photographic subjects remain logistically out of reach. Thank goodness for the little things we can shoot close to home. Thank goodness for macro.

The basics of photography don't really change much regardless of subject. Mustering your skills and experience, you point your camera, press the button, and record an image. But if you've ever tried your hand at macro photography, you've no doubt discovered that things do indeed get more difficult as you get closer. Magnification magnifies everything, and it can take time and practice to get good macro results. And thankfully, there are enough challenges with macro to keep both the beginner and the experienced hand occupied at home during a pandemic. We may need to stay six feet apart from each other for the time being, but nothing says we can't get close to our subjects.

One of the first problems when working in the realm of macro is the difficulty of achieving focus. You press the shutter release button halfway to engage auto-focus, and the lens hunts back and forth, first towards one end of its range, then back towards the other. If you look quick enough in the viewfinder as your camera tries with all its might to achieve focus, you may just get a glimpse of an edge or detail come closer to focus, then slip away into the pervading blur that fills the frame. It's hard to take a picture of something if your camera is unable or unwilling to focus on it. Frustration ensues.

As good as modern autofocus is, it has its limits. Photographers want cameras that focus quickly, and so the focus motor proceeds as fast it can. But the scale of things when shooting macro operates on a different order of magnitude entirely. Even a few turns of the motor can shift your focus well beyond the range of distances in the frame. With macro, you're better off taking matters into your own hands by switching to manual focus. Even a small turn of the focusing helicoids can have a big impact, so take your time, and pay attention.

The reason why focusing can be so difficult is that so little could be in focus when shooting macro. Technically, any lens can only ever be in focus as a single distance. But objects and features close enough to that distance will still appear sharp in practice. The range of distances from near to far that appear acceptably sharp is known as the depth of field. And the greater the magnification, the shallower the depth of field.

There are two basic strategies for dealing with the limited depth of field. The traditional solution involves carefully aligning the camera back LCD plane with the primary plane of the subject. In other words, if you don't have very much depth of field to work with, make sure what you do have is used to best advantage. This is still your best strategy to the extent that you have the time and the opportunity to do so. But for situations where it's just not possible, it's possible these days to shoot multiple otherwise identical frames at progressively increasing focus distances, and then stack and merge them in software. Many programs can do this now, and if you haven't given it a try yet, I'd wholeheartedly recommending devoting some of your lockdown time to doing so.

Macro shooting demands the use of a good, stable tripod. If you're considering my focus stacking suggestion, this should already be apparent, but even with traditional single-shot macro, you'll need to consider your tripod. At increased magnification, even a small change in tripod position or angle can have a huge impact on your results. Further still, stopping the lens aperture down to increase depth of field can force the use of longer shutter speeds. And if you'd better have a good tripod, if you want to keep your camera from moving during the exposure.

If all this is starting to sound a tad too complicated, I have good news. Once you get beyond some of these technical details, macro photography can be a lot of fun, and the possible subject matter is everywhere. Objects anywhere from about the size of your fist on down can be worth investigating. Keep in mind that the difficulty of macro increases as the subject size decreases and set your sights accordingly.

You can at least get started in the world of macro with the gear you already have. If you have or can afford a dedicated "macro lens" (Nikon calls theirs "micro"), choose one with a longer focal length. They provide greater working distance and better background control than their shorter focal length cousins. Budget options include the use of extension tubes that go between your lens and camera, to special diopter magnifying filters that screw on the front. Go over the gear you currently own and see what works. If your so inclined and in the market, you can always buy more gear mail-order so you can maintain your social distancing.

It's possible and all too easy to get so involved in focus, depth of field, and the like that composition and any sense of esthetic consideration go out the window with macro. There are times when you will find yourself so happy that you got the shot at all that you won't even notice that your subject is simply bulls-eyed in the frame. Spend enough time carefully aiming your gear, and you shouldn't be surprised if you get what you were aiming for. But all the usual guidelines and "rules" of composition still apply, and you will get better shots by keeping them in mind. Composition deals with how you portray your subject, not how big or small it may be.

Often, we find ourselves stuck in the mode of whatever type of photography we usually shoot. If you don't normally shoot macro photography, perhaps now would be the perfect opportunity to give it a try.

Date posted: April 12, 2020


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Related articles:
Close-up: Welcome to the World of Macro
Close-up: Macro on the Cheap
Why Auto-Focus Has a Hard Time with Macro

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