Macro Photography: How to Make Mundane Pictures Awesome

Science

Macro photography in its truest form deals with photographing minute things to make them appear larger than life, characteristics that the naked eye would often miss. That by itself can make things magical — making the mundane appear awesome! That flower you see from far as pretty can be pretty captivating up-close, with the anthers, pollen, petals making you rethink if that botany class in school was really boring.

The epidemic had most of the country locked down, bringing human movement to a minimum. This made us explore our backyards/gardens a little better. We wanted to take pictures for sharing with friends/family. More often than not, the image that would be shared bared little resemblance to the actual being, needing an elaborate explanation on how that red blob was actually a beautiful ladybird.

If you’re reading this, chances are you have either sent or received one such image. Let us take a sneak peek at what are the options available to nature enthusiasts/budding photographers to showcase the amazing world of macro photography.

Watching my daughter grow up has taught me to go about understanding things with basic building blocks – What, how, and why?

The WHAT

Nature photographers constantly endeavour to show the world our unique perspectives. This genre brings endless possibilities with texture, hidden color all around us that can be unraveled.

frog hayath ncf d

Photo Credit: Hayath Mohammed

Insects, spiders, flowers, spices in the kitchen, a pot scrubber, soap bubbles, etc – you get the hint, all potential subjects. A soap bubble close-up even made it to the list of wallpapers on Apple devices.

The HOW

A) Magnification: Ratio of the subject that can be resolved on the sensor. This is directly dependent on the kind of lens. A dedicated macro lens can go up to 1:1, a subject the size of the sensor (varies based on the format of the camera system) can fill the frame.

For a DSLR system, there are several options to get close-focus/macro capabilities. The obvious one would be a dedicated macro lens, represented by a 1:1 reproduction ratio. These are corrected for close focusing and provide great edge-to-edge sharpness. Specialist lenses like the Canon MPE-65mm 1-5x and Laowa 2.5-5x blur the lines of a lens and a microscope, the prices often remind us of the specialist tag.

Other lenses in the camera bag can be used with some additional gear to achieve close focusing:

  1. Extension tubes — These hollow tubes fit between the lens mount and the actual lens, reducing the working distance thereby increasing the magnification of the final image. Pros: Great to see if macro photography piques your interest without investing in a dedicated macro lens. Cons: Can give some optical issues and results in loss of light. Loss of infinity focus. Limited focus range.
  2. Achromats — These are short-focal lenses with high-quality glass that fit the lens’ filter thread. These work best on mid-telephoto lenses in the range of 55-300mm. Longer the focal length, larger the magnification. Pros: Can be easily taken on/off to bring back infinity focus on the base lens. Cons: Will need narrow aperture >f16 to get reasonable detail.
  3. Lens reversal — A lens reversal ring fits the lens’ filter thread allowing it to be mounted in reverse on the camera. Works best with short focal lenses between 18-70mm. Lesser the focal length, greater the magnification. Pros: Good option to use on subjects indoors. Most lenses in the camera bag will work with this. That often ignored kit lens can be put to great use! Cons: Extremely close working distances. Lens rear element and contacts left open.

For those interested to go down this rabbit hole, have some more detail in an old blog post.

Something that most of us carry in our pockets – the smartphone. Modern smartphones come with pretty decent close-focusing capabilities. Spend time on understanding the Pro mode to control focus and exposure. If you find this limiting, there are achromat-like snap-on macro lenses that fit on top of the camera lens. These reduce focusing distance and provide greater magnification. There are commercially available options as well as indigenously built macro lenses made from lenses salvaged from Point-and-shoot cameras.

B) Exposure — How bright/dark the overall image is. This is determined by the camera if the mode is set to Auto, else any of the programmable modes on a DSLR or Pro mode on the smartphone is used to set the exposure. Subjects need to be appropriately lit to show any detail or special color. Natural lighting or artificial lighting with a host of light-diffusion options can be used based on the type of image being made.

The WHY

Nature lovers often take to nature to unravel many mysteries, imagine having a powerful medium to:

  1. Observe how small an actual ecosystem can be.
  2. Understand how structural makeup defines what an organism is capable of, how specialist interdependencies work.
  3. Spawn thoughts that lead us to questions with interesting and amazing answers.
  4. Have a real shot at discovering something really cool, possibly even new to science! Social (Facebook, Instagram) and specialist platforms (Inaturalist, Indiabiodiversity) provide never-before opportunities for citizen science.

Hayath Mohammed is an IT professional who takes to nature to keep the sanity levels in check. Born and brought up in Bangalore, open areas during the developing era fuelled the interest towards insects and butterflies.

He now uses macro photography as a means of exploration and as a mode of showcasing the many wonders of the arthropod world to the human world.


This series is an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), under their programme ‘Nature Communications’ to encourage nature content in all Indian languages. To know more about birds and nature, Join The Flock


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