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Some not particularly brilliant thoughts on macro-photography for the SLR photographer (aimed at live subjects for the most part).

Q1: What is the best macro lens to buy?

This is kind of the wrong question. Having the best macro lens is only part of a system and body of experience that lets you take good photos. It’s in my view, over-rated. For the record, all main manufacturers (Sony, Canon, Nikon, Pentax etc) make macro lenses that have the ‘best’ overall performance (that’s build quality, colours, bokeh, sharpness as a package). But both Tamron and Sigma make macro-lenses that are often ‘better value for money’. The difference in the sharpness of the images between different lenses is often imperceptible. There will be more variation from shooting conditions- light, camera shake- than between macro-lenses.

In short, getting experience is the best thing you can do to advance your macro-photography.

Q2: Can I do macro without a macro lens?

Yes, but it is harder work. There are a number of tricks- like reversing a lens onto a camera, reversing a lens onto another lens, using diopters (magnifying filters) or extension tubes. Most macro photographers end up with a macro lens however. It makes macro photography much easier. Also, a macro photograph is only as good as the weakest link. Putting a poor piece of glass onto a sharp lens, just means you’ll lose detail.

Q3: I’m shooting at ISO 800 and my photos are dire- why?

Macro photography is done at very low ISOs. When you shot at high ISOs, the amplification of the electrical signal received by your sensor, combined with intrinsic noise reduction algorithims, removes detail from your photo.

Q4: But if I shoot at low ISOs my shutter speed is too low?

Get a flash. I’d suggest shooting at f13-f16 at a shutter speed of 1/125 to 1/200, and at an ISO of 100-200 to begin with. A good external flash is almost always used in macro photography of (live) subjects.

Q5: I’m shooting using the auto-setting ‘macro’ on my camera. Why are my photos dire?

The macro setting doesn’t make any of your lenses into a proper macro lens. It’s just a way of making the camera decide what exposure setting to use. Often that’s too timid, as the f-stop won’t be high enough (aperture too wide) to get a good depth-of-field. Use either the Aperture priority or Manual priority settings.

Q5: Why can’t I use my on-board camera flash?

You can, it’s just not quite high enough or powerful enough and you risk only part of the scene being lit (the lens barrel may cast a shadow on the lower edge of the picture).

Q6: How do I get rid of dark shadows and blown highlights?

Use a diffuser on your flash, or even better, a macro-ringlight or twin-light system.

Q7: I’ve taken some photos and they still look dire. Why is macro photography hard?

Get used to it, there is actually a high failure rate with macro-photographs. Most photos won’t be usable. The good thing is that with practice the keeper rate improves. When I started, I planned on needing 20 shots to get something I liked (often several, the 20 was insurance). Now I’m pretty confident I can get shots right about 1 in 5.

So, live-view must be very important to macro-photography

No

What- all the reviews say that macro-photographers are gagging for live view on their cameras!!

LV is a useful tool, but not essential. Mostly it just means not having to get your knees dirty in low-angle shots. It’s not that useful in nocturnal shots (I turn the screen off to avoid night-blindness) and in bright sunlight, you have reflection off the screen.

What is more useful (in my mind) is a bright, large optical viewfinder, camera-stabilisation (like the alpha SSS) and an exceptionally good low ISO performance. Also, a very good flash system.

How many macro gadgets do you have?

A macro-rail for tripod shots, plus a macro-tripod (goes very low), shutter cable-releases, a ringlight flash, ordinary flash, cables to connect all the flashes together, a macro bracket, diopters, reversing rings, coupling rings, an eye-piece magnifier and lots of batteries.