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Most photographers have a favorite lens or lens plus accessory combination for close-up and macro photography. But do you know how to get the best out of it? I’ve used a lot over the years and as a result, I know that it takes time to get to know how to get the best from your chosen lens or lens plus accessory. These tips will help you work your way through that process.
But first, let’s recap the five main ways there are of getting up close in photography.
1. You can use a regular macro lens giving 0.5x or 1x magnification
2. You can use a specialized macro lens designed to give you high levels of magnification (2x to 5x)
3. You can put an extension tube between your lens and camera
4. You can attach a close-up lens to a telephoto lens
5. You can reverse a lens onto your camera or another lens
6. You can use a bellows unit to get lots of extension and magnification
These tips work no matter which method you use. They also help you compare results and performance between the different methods.
1. Use the lens / accessory exclusively for a month
My first tip for getting to know your lens / accessory well is to use it exclusively for close-up or macro photography for a month. That way you can concentrate on getting the best from it, and learning what its strengths and weaknesses are for the type of close-up photography you like to do.
If you keep switching between different lenses and accessories, it’s harder to appreciate the qualities of each one.
Plus, if you try a new and slightly unusual combination, like using a Lensbaby optic with a close-up lens, it takes a while to work out how to get the best from it aesthetically. You make things harder for yourself if you’re using other gear at the same time.
For example, I made both photos below with a Lensbaby Sol 45 lens and a 16mm extension tube. But I didn’t make my best photos right away with this combination. It took me time to get used to it and figure how to get the best results.
2. Test your lenses at all apertures
Using a lens or accessory for a month teaches you how to use it, especially if you use it to shoot a variety of subjects. But you should also be more deliberate in your approach and do some rigorous testing at different aperture settings.
The reason this is important is because there are more optical aberrations at the widest aperture of any lens than at smaller apertures. Add an extension tube or close-up lens to the mix and those optical aberrations can get even worse.
When you go the other way and stop the lens down the image can get softer at aperture settings like f11, f16, f22 or f32, thanks to an optical effect called diffraction. You get more depth of field at these settings, but less sharpness. Diffraction starts to kick in at larger apertures on Micro Four-thirds and APS-C cameras than it does with full-frame cameras.
Another reason testing is important is because of depth of field. The closer to the subject you get the less depth of field there is at any given aperture.
Let me give you an example. Here’s a photo I made with an 85mm lens fitted with a Canon 500D close-up lens. I set the aperture to f1.8, which gives very little depth of field. But it works for this image because I focused on the lizard’s eye and it threw the background out of focus.
I used the same lens / close-up lens combination for the photo below, but set the aperture to f6.7 for more depth of field.
Let’s say you have a prime lens with a maximum aperture of f1.4, and that you’re using the lens with an extension tube. The questions you need to ask are:
1. Are there any visible optical aberrations at f1.4? How about f2, f2.8 and f4? How far do I have to stop down to make those aberrations disappear?
2. Is there enough depth of field for the type of photography I want to do at f1.4? Or am I better off shooting at f2 or f4, or even f8 or f11?
3. At what aperture setting does the image start to get softer because of diffraction?
3. Test your lenses and accessories against each other
If you’re using more than one lens / accessory combination then it’s helpful to compare them against each other. There’s two things you’re looking for with this comparison.
1. How close your particular lens or lens plus accessory gets you to the subject.
2. What the image quality is like, especially at wider apertures.
For example, if you own a macro lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8, and you use a prime lens with an extension tube, which of the two gives you better image quality at f2.8? This is good to know if you plan to use wide apertures to make close-up photos with lots of bokeh. It’s likely the image quality from the macro lens is going to be better, but you don’t know for sure until you test.
It’s also good to know how close you can get. Let me give you another example. One of the combinations I use for close-up photography is a close-up lens with a 35mm prime lens (on an APS-C camera).
I can get close to the subject with it, but not nearly as close as I can with my 100mm macro lens. So that tells me that the prime lens / extension tube combo is good for making close-up photos of subjects like flowers, where I don’t need to get as close. And the macro lens is what I need to use when I want to explore true macro photography at 1x magnification.
To see the difference, here’s a flower of a photo made with the 35mm plus extension tube. This is as close as I can get with this combination.
And here are a couple of photos that I made with my macro lens. The subjects are peppercorns (left) and dried juniper berries (right). There’s no way I could get close enough to make photos like these with my 35mm lens plus extension tube.
4. Can you hand-hold the camera?
As magnification increases it gets harder to hand-hold the camera. That’s because the lens magnifies camera shake as well as the subject. At 1x magnification, for example, I find it difficult to hand-hold my camera. The slightest movement of the camera affects the framing and the focusing.
The solution is to use a tripod. This makes it much easier to frame the scene and focus precisely. But it’s only possible with a geared tripod head (a focusing rail helps as well). In other words, there’s a lot of stuff to think about, and extra accessories you might need, when you work at high magnifications. These are all things you need to be aware of.
5. How does focal length affect composition?
If you use more than one lens or accessory, then it’s likely that you have a choice of focal lengths.
Choice of focal length has two implications. The first is aesthetic. A telephoto lens, for example, helps you compress perspective, and focus on the subject and throw the background out of focus. Here’s an example, made with my 100mm macro lens. The background is completely out of focus.
A wide-angle lens (perhaps a wide-angle macro, or a wide-angle lens with an extension tube) gets more of the background in the frame and keeps more of the background in focus. The question is does this work for you, or is the background too messy?
For example, I made the photo below with a 23mm lens set to its closest focusing distance (no accessories required) and the aperture set to f2. You can see much more detail in the background.
The second thing to think about is working distance, which is the distance between the front of the lens and the subject. There’s more working distance with telephoto lenses, which is helpful when photographing skittish subjects like insects.
6. How portable is it?
The last consideration is how portable is your equipment? My 100mm macro lens is my biggest and heaviest lens. Plus I need to use it with a tripod and geared tripod head at 1x magnification. So it’s not something I can take on a casual trip out.
On the other hand, my 35mm plus extension tube combination is much lighter. I can put the extension tube in my camera bag just in case it comes in useful, without having to worry about all the extra gear.
Buying lenses and accessories
These ideas are also useful if you’re thinking about buying a particular lens or accessory. You won’t be able to answer all the questions properly without using the equipment. But it helps you ask intelligent questions when you’re reading or watching reviews.
Hopefully, these tips help you get to know your equipment better, and help you figure out which lenses and accessories are suited to which subject. Another benefit is that they also help you learn how to make the most out of the stuff you already own. This could save you money by encouraging you to use the equipment you have already rather than buy something new that you don’t need.
Up Close ebook
You can learn more about these ideas in my new ebook Up Close: A Guide To Macro & Close-Up Photography.