Hints, Tips and Recommendations:

Close-up, Macro and Focus Stacking

 

Use the Correct Gear

The cheapest and quickest way to start close-up photography is to try using your existing lenses, compact camera or phone.  Long focal length zoom lens can be used to photograph butterflies for example. The widest focus setting of an optical zoom will allow the closest approach. However for very small things that is probably not going to work unless you have some of the equipment described below.

A small fly landed on my wife’s back when I had a high quality 10-100mm Pro zoom lens on my Olympus EM1 ii.
As you can see, it was the wrong lens for the job of recording fine details of the insect, although the jumper pattern and fibres of the wool are well captured.

Do Not Go Too Close to the Subject: Phone Camera Example

Regardless of what equipment you use, do not go closer than you need to the subject in order to capture the desired image. This will give you maximum depth of focus. It might be better to zoom optically from further away using longer focal length rather than coming close to the subject.

 

Not going in too close with a phone camera often produces better results. The colour balance is a bit blue in this image.
Phone camera image taken far too close to the subject.
The depth of field is too shallow and there is distortion and horrible peripheral blurring of the lens.

 


Phone Macro 

For closeup photography with a phone (such as the Samsung S10 lite, examples above and shown below) it can sometimes be best to ignore any built in macro camera and use the main camera sensor. 

Phone with a supplementary macro lens. This arrangement is a hard to use has a very shallow depth of field and should be seen as just for fun rather than producing serious pictures. Using the main sensor with this lens gives better results than using the phone’s macro camera. Image captured with the Sony RX100 VA.

A close-up of a butterfly’s wing taken with the phone and supplementary lens shown above. The scale pattern is barely visible.
Phone selfie.

If the main lens and camera or your phone produces distortion and peripheral blur and artefacts when closely focused, set the focus to infinity in pro or advanced mode and use a clip-on lens. That way even although the magnification might be less the image quality will be better. 

 


Choosing a Compact Camera for Macro

Check the macro performance of a compact camera or camera lens before buying.  The distance of closest focus, field size or an explicitly stated magnification are useful when reading specifications in advance of purchase. (See  the example of a Sony compact  camera with a close focus point of 8cm at wide angle.) If you are buying  a compact camera in a shop check how close can you  bring the front of the lens  to the text on the price tag? Try zooming in and zooming out. Wide angle allows you to get closer but can introduce distortion, which is sometimes not noticed but can be more problematic on text or small man-made objects.

 

Sony DSC-RX100M7 compact Camera lens spec When fully zoomed out the closest approach is 1 metre but only 8cm when the lens is used at maximum wide angle.

Macro with Extension Rings

If you want to increase magnification with your existing interchangeable lenses, use a set of automatic extension rings (sometimes called tubes) that maintain the electrical connections of the camera body to the lens.

Do not waste your money on cheap rings that do not have metal contact plates and spring loaded connector pins.  Rings (or tubes) have no lenses and produce their effect by moving the lens further from the sensor.  Tey are also very light and compact to carry. Sometimes one ring is enough. Remove the rings when you need to return to conventional photography. Store the rings with their caps on to minimise dust in your camera.

 

A set of extension tubes with a pen illustrating the lack of internal lenses
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ExtensionTube5733.jpg


Even if you later buy a macro lens the extension rings will still come in very useful. 

Olympus 60mm macro lens and one 16mm extension ring being used to photograph a 7 mm wide microprocessor on a computer hard disk read/write head. Picture taken with a phone.
A Texas Instruments microprocessor taken with the equipment shown above.
Detail of the ‘Texas Instruments’ icon on the processor above taken in normal resolution mode using the Olympus 60mm lens, 42mm extension and a Raynox 250 Supplementary lens.

Using a  Supplementary Magnifying  Lens

An alternative (or addition) to extension tubes is a good quality magnifying lens which is attached to the front of an existing lens or compact camera.   One that is widely used by macro enthusiasts is the Japanese-made Raynox 250.  The macro expert, Johan Ingles-Le Nobel, has stacked the Raynox 150 and 250 lenses together.

 

Raynox lens with the supplied clip-on adaptor

I do not use the  the plastic lens holder shown above. Instead I use 43mm adapter rings of various sizes depending onto which lens I am adding the Raynox. eBay is often the best place to buy step-up or step-down adaptor rings.


 

Combining a Macro and Supplementary Lens and  Extension Tubes in High Resolution Mode

A microscope stage micrometer marked with 1/100 mm (or 10 micrometres) divisions was photographed with 42mm of extension rings and a Raynox 250 supplementary lens added to an 60 mm macro at F4. The camera body was set to high resolution mode (sensor shifting) to produce 80MB Raw files. Shown at full resolution.

Adding a Supplementary Lens (or Filter) to a Compact Camera

You can attach a magnifying lens (and filters) to a compact camera even although it might be made of plastic and not have any screw thread. The Magfilter adaptor is a magnetic device that comes with a stick-on metal ring (which can be removed with dental floss).

Sony RX100 mark V pocket camera with a Magfilter adaptor attached. A stepdown adaptor ring is attached to the Magfilter and that has Raynox 250 lens screwed on to it. The whole set up is very light enough to be supported a very small tripod with flexible legs. Please Note that the adaptor ring and lens is almost too heavy for the Magfilter so care should be exercised if using this configuration hand held.
The equipment above was able to detect individual butterfly wing scales as tiny patches of colour

 


Understanding (Macro) Lens Characteristics: Choosing the ‘Sweet Spot’ for Aperture

In order to create really high resolution and contrast macro images with a prime macro lens you should  find the aperture that provides the highest central and edge-of-field resolution and ideally the lowest chromatic aberration.  For the Olympus 60mm macro the optimal aperture is about  F5.6. That information was obtained by reading a lab test review at Opticallimits.com.

The Olympus 60mm macro lens is optimally sharp at F5.6 from the centre to the extreme edge of the field. Tested at 16MP. Above F16 the quality is poor. For more data read the review. Used with permission from Optical Limits.com

Understanding the Effect of Aperture  and Depth of Focus for a Lens

 You should also try to find a depth of focus table for your (macro) lens in order to understand how varying the aperture size will affect the Depth of Focus. Notice that for the Olympus 60mm lens with the subject at 19 cm from the sensor, in the first column on the left, closing the aperture alters the depth of field by less than a millimetre, although it  has a very large effect when the lens is focused on infinity (last column on the right).

This Olympus 60mm macro image is very sharp in places but lacks Depth of Field.

Focus Peaking Display

Use magnified focus assistance, and/or the focus peaking display setting in your camera or phone to know the point of focus and the limits of  focus depth.  You might need to set focus peaking options to maximally obvious as shown in the video below.


 Using a light source

When using macro with living creatures sometimes an artificial source of light is required. Cheap brands of on-camera macro light  are available. Flashes can also be used off camera with radio controllers.  Battery powered LED Torches and lights  can be useful in the filed  and mains powered LED bulbs work well with  difdusers

Taken with an old Sigma 105 mm macro lens and a macro flash at F18. Note how shallow the depth of field is even at the very small aperture used. Flash was both required to produce enough light and freeze the frenetic activity of this fruit fly as it ate the pollen. Note also that the resolution is limited by the very small aperture which was used.

Focus Stacking  (even with Canon or Nikon Cameras)

In order to overcome the resolution limitations imposed by a small aperture use focus bracketing or in-camera focus stacking. Those techniques are most effective if the camera is attached to a tripod. If using the camera hand-held, shoot short bursts with a fast shutter speed and focus bracket rather than focus stack. If buying a new camera, consider its ability to do that automatically. If you own a camera that has neither of these  automatic capabilities change the focus in a series from near to far or vice versa, whenever that is easy to determine. If you own a Canon or Nikon camera you can purchase the Helicon FB tube to capture in automated focus bracketed bursts.

 

The Helicon FB Tube can add focus stacking to Canon or Nikon Cameras

Focus Stacking the Easy Way

Olympus in-camera stacking might be a hundred times faster to use, when it works. Occasionally the  method is inadequate.  High resolution sensor shifting mode cannot be used with in-camera stacking.

An in-camera stack of 15 images of a Waxcap fungus taken at F7, 1/20 second at ISO 200.
In Camera Stack at F8, 1/40 second
In-camera focus staking is extremely quick and very convenient, however a better result can often be obtained by focus bracketing and then editing in good focus stacking software

Focus Bracketing Automatically In-Camera

Focus bracketing vs. Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking Software

It is best  to use specialist Focus Stacking software rather than a general purpose product like Photoshop. Although Photoshop can be used to automatically align and stack a series of images, it does not give the best focus stacking results. Photoshop does however make a very good job of stack alignment.

The two leading focus stacking programs are Helicon Focus and Xerene Stacker. Helicon Focus Pro is much faster, can cope with RAW files and has good focus retouching capability, so I use that. Nevertheless, the auto-alignment of hand-held images is in my experience inferior to Photoshop.  A free 30 day trial is available for Helicon Focus and Xerene Stacker.

33 randomly ordered and manually focussed RAW images during rendering in Helicon Focus Pro.
Junk food chocolate waver showing the lattice of sugar and tiny sugar particles. High resolution mode focus stack of 17 images with manually selected focus points. 60mm Olympus Macro Lens. Lit from the right.
Focus Stack Portrait of a Dead Spider with the Olympus 60mm macro lens
33 images in a 5cm deep subject of oak leaves, an acorn and twig taken in high resolution mode and stacked in Helicon Pro.
Stacked with Helicon Focus Pro
Manually focused 6-image stack captured at F6.3 and combined in Helicon Focus Pro using pyramid rendering.
A hand-held focus stack of 5 images captured at F5 at 1/20 sec, stacked in Helicon Focus Pro. The image was created by rendering, followed by a complete focus retouch of the entire image using the same software.
1 image at F5 taken at the front of the stack and shot hand held.
The rendered focus stack before completion of focus retouching in Helicon Focus Pro. The left window is one single image from the stack. The image on the right is the stack in the course of focus retouching. Notice in the upper part of the right hand image, there is ghosting that was subsequently removed as part of the retouching process using a variety of brush sizes. Misalignment was the result of hand holding the camera rather than using a tripod.
A misaligned 4-image stack taken using a phone camera. The stack was then pyramid rendered and completely focus retouched in Helicon Focus Pro .


 

Great common sense advice advice from Neil Fisher in his 21 minute ‘Introduction to Macro’.

Photomacrography.net is probably the world’s most useful public macro forum for amateur photographers.

extreme-macro.co.uk is probably the best website on the planet to learn about extreme macro techniques.

The Alan Walls Photography YouTube channel can probably teach you at least 90% of everything that  you need to know about macro photography. That is why I follow his channel.


Tips and images by: Steve Campbell