Dragonfly taken with a telephoto lens – a very different kind of macro.

Dragonfly taken with a telephoto lens – a very different kind of macro. (click to view full-size)

Every year I take on a long-term project to improve a certain skill.  This year, my developmental goal is to improve my macro photography skills.  I have all of the gear I need, and I have been able to shoot macro for a few years, but it has mostly been casual shots, hand-held without any special technique.  While I have had some decent results, they were nowhere near approaching the potential of the system or the extreme ends of the genre.

There are several gradients of macro, and the actual definition can be a little fuzzy.  One of my best macro shots was in 2014 of a dragonfly that alighted on a piece of grass about 3 meters from where I was standing.  I was tracking it with my 75-300mm zoom.  Although using a telephoto lens at much closer ranges than normal may seem unwieldy, it is the ideal tool against such a small and skittish target.  I later recall sharing the shot on 500PX and being a little confused when a poster congratulated me on a “great macro,” as at the time I didn’t even associate what I was doing with macro photography.  In other forms of the genre, I’ve many times borrowed the close-focusing capabilities of the 12-40mm Pro to take flower shots hand-held.  Moving closer to “true macro,” I have more than once set my 60mm macro lens on a tripod and photographed spiders on their webs, and was amazed at the colors and detail I was able to see on the pictures that I couldn’t catch with my naked eye.  I’ve also used the macro lens hand-held on bugs, both using autofocus as well manual and the rocking back-and-forth technique.

All of these are considered macro of sorts, as the word in its general terms means taking pictures of small subjects.  But “true macro” has a more specific definition.  True macro refers to 1:1 magnification ratios or greater – meaning that the subject’s actual size is recorded on the sensor at the exact same size, or even bigger.  2:1, for example, would mean that the recorded image is twice the size on the sensor than the subject is in real life.

A leaf taken with the 40-150 Pro with Kenko extension tubes.

A leaf taken with the 40-150 Pro with Kenko extension tubes. (click to view full-size)

Its in true macro that I will be focusing, as the greater the magnification the more technically challenging the genre becomes.  Just like in telephoto, camera movement is exaggerated and it becomes harder to get sharp pictures without fast shutter speeds.  To make matters worse, depth of field also becomes insanely thin, so that only slivers of even the tiniest subjects are in focus.  Stopping down and increasing ISO is one way to resolves this (to a point), but at the eventual sacrifice of image quality.  Tripods and artificial lighting can help, but those take time to set up.  It’s okay for a flower, but not a frightened, winged insect getting its space invaded.  Indeed, macro is considered one of the most technically challenging photography disciplines to master.

But I have a three-fold purpose.  As I mentioned, one is to get better at the craft in general.  While there may be some new tips I learn for shooting at lower magnifications, the main areas I know I need to work on for my main pursuit of true macro are (in order):

  • Mastering my flash technique (which is poor)
  • Using extension tube(s) on the 60mm to get even more magnification
  • Try this extreme macro while tethering (although I don’t think that will be practical in many situations)
  • Give focus stacking a try
A bee resting on a thistle. My wife took this with the Olympus 60mm macro, hand-held.

A bee resting on a thistle. My wife took this with the Olympus 60mm macro, hand-held. (click to view full size)

The second purpose is to test a theory I have that µ4/3 makes for an excellent macro option, even competitive for professional use.  The x2 crop factor means macro’s depth of field issue is only half as bad – meaning less need to stop down and raise ISO as high.  The portability, image stabilization, and tilt touchscreen offer much improved handling even at awkward angles, if hand-shooting is necessary.  Lastly, µ4/3 has all of the gear needed to check off all the right boxes.  The 60mm is an extremely sharp, bright, weather sealed, true macro lens, right in the middle of the prime macro focal lengths (100-150mm equivalent).  It’s focus limiter makes autofocus possible, when it usually isn’t recommended at very close distances. There are a number of lighting options available.  Lastly, the E-M1 can be tethered (controlled by a laptop), a useful feature for macro as the bigger screen makes focus much more visible.

The gear I will be using are the OM-D E-M1, the weather sealed 60mm f/2.8 macro prime lens, and my Really Right Stuff tripod, BH-40 ball head, and macro focusing rail.  At times, I will try using the two Pro lenses for shooting less magnified scales and greater focusing distances.  Also, I will occasionally use Kenko extension tubes (10mm and 16mm, with electrical contacts for autofocus), and a couple lighting options; including on- and off-camera flash, the macro arm light, and reflectors.  These accessories will be applied in different configurations and scenarios to see what works best.

I started out, as one always should, by reading.  I have acquired two resources so far:  One is an in-depth e-book, Extreme Close-Up Photography and Focus Stacking by Julian Cremona.  The second was an excellent blog from Mark Berkery, an associate on a photography forum and very skilled in macro with µ4/33.  You can check out Mark’s work and insight on www.beingmark.com.  Both really know their stuff and have nailed down their techniques (both proven from the excellent photos they show), but in practice they couldn’t be more different from one another.  The first advocates a tripod, macro rail, manual focus, tethering and focus stacking, not stopped down at all.  The second is hand-held, autofocus, stopped down, with off-camera-flash as the primary light source.

One of my first 1:1 magnification macro shots: a spider taken with the 60mm macro, from a tripod. To illustrate the extremely thin depth of field when shooting at true macro magnifications, notice how portions of the body and legs are out of focus, even though the tiny body itself is only millimeters long. This shot was taken at f/4.5, so I could have achieved more depth of field had I stopped down the aperture. (click to view full-size)

Both techniques seem challenging and are clearly able to produce results, but both also seem to me to have their strengths and weaknesses.  This brings me to my third and final goal for this project:  I intend to try them both – as well as the other forms of macro described earlier in this post – to see how they go, which styles speak more to me, and what the practical pros and cons are in the field with respect to µ4/3 gear.  As I put this gear through its paces, I will try different combinations to see what works best and how they alter technique.  I’ll examine the differences in magnification and IQ, and see what lighting solutions work best in what situations.

While my ultimate goal by the end is to capture amazing insects, my preference is to practice the technical skills needed to take the shot before I go out into the field and start hunting bugs.  Like any wildlife photography, nature may or may not cooperate, and I don’t want the very real possibility that I don’t find any bugs to slow down my technical progression.  Furthermore, when I do get a golden opportunity to shoot an amazing bug, I want to know what I am doing beforehand.  So, I will likely start with flowers and other, easy-to-find-and-work-with subjects.  Only after I have achieved a certain level of confidence with the techniques will I turn my attention to the equally important field craft.  Lastly, respect for nature is something I heartily advocate.  I have no intention of harming or killing insects to get a shot.

I hope you follow along to see what I learn, and I hope the pictures I provide are testimony to both my improvement (or lack thereof) and the overall efficacy of the techniques I will put through the test.

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