I have long been an advocate of the idea that the prosaic parts of life hold just as much value as the flashier ones, both philosophically and photographically. While it is true that some locations make it easier to get eye-catching photos, it is always possible to make “right where you are” exactly the right place to be. An eye for the available is a great skill to have, keeping creativity flowing with a generous side portion of mental health benefits.
In that spirit, consider a macro-hunting expedition into your very own backyard for your next shoot. (If you haven’t got one, substitute a green belt or nearby park.) You could even make a habit of it—it only gets better when you grow the plants you’d like to photograph, add a fountain to attract critters, and so on. Unlike “destination photography,” the odds that you can be nearby when the lighting is absolutely perfect are very good. And the accessibility of your subjects makes it easy to experiment. Look how different this one poppy bulb can look, just by changing angles!
Great macro photography, no matter the location, comes down to this: you need to get close, and the results need to be sharp. That means that the bare minimum kit includes a close-focusing lens (more on what that means in a moment) and a way to stabilize your camera.
A lot of folks wouldn’t go so far as to list a tripod as required, but if you want to enjoy the experience, I would say that it absolutely is. Do you need the ultra-sturdy carbon fiber tripod with a horizontal arm? If this is the excuse you are looking for to buy one, then yes, but realistically you can get by with anything that keeps you from hand-holding it. Trust me, I’ve tried to do macro hand-held, and even on an overwhelmingly bright day you end up choosing between a shutter speed too slow to keep shake out or an aperture too wide to get anything in focus.
A great option at a reasonable price is the ProMaster XC-M 525K. The individually-adjustable legs and ball head mean you can nail whatever weird angle is necessary, and it’s compact enough to fit into even the most casual photographer’s kit. Best of all, the 525K is compatible with these attachments, which not only allow you to reach higher but can hold the tripod independently for those ground-level shots.
As far as the proper glass goes, there are a few options. Of course a true macro lens is the “right” way to do things, but if you aren’t interested in adding a new lens to your bag, there are cheaper and more compact alternatives. Using extension tubes is a time-tested way to bring any lens much closer, but you do lose some light in the process. An even better way to upgrade your favorite lenses’ focusing capabilities is an achromatic lens which attaches to your filter thread. Check out the results using the +3 and +5 lenses:
No light is lost on the way to the lens, and the scene stays tack sharp! If you don’t see the thread size you need, let us know and we may be able to special order the right one.
Bonus gear that will make your life better
Just because you don’t need more than a tripod and the right lens doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from additional accoutrements. It’s not like they’ll be a burden to carry when you’re only going out back!
The easiest upgrade to your macro game is a reflector kit. When you’re shooting at ground level or at weird angles, lighting can get tricky. Bend the sun to your will! You can see the difference yourself:
Adding that golden light makes a huge difference, and since it’s still natural light, it’s easy to blend seamlessly into your scene. A light stand and arm for holding reflectors can make life even easier (the whole kit is available here), as anyone who has ever tried to contort themselves to hold a reflector in ju-u-ust the right place and trigger the camera with their toes can attest.
If natural light is not enough, don’t let yourself be limited by the placement of your camera’s hot shoe. You can put a speedlight like the 170SL right where you want it with a simple TTL cord. This can be used to great creative effect, too: consider the on-demand silhouette possibilities! Alternatively, you can use a dedicated macro ring light and get your light as close as possible to the subject. If you’re interested in photographing jewelry as well, this would be the way to go.
Once you’re sufficiently lit, the next battle is getting the right focus. While the focus ring on any given lens is usually sufficient control, when you’re working with the extremely narrow depth of field common in macro photography that rubber ring can seem oafish. It can often help to set an approximate focus, then move your camera to make the micro-adjustments. Of course, since you’re on a tripod, that an be tedious and tiresome as well. A focus rail will bridge the gap to give you both the precision and stability that you crave.
Even with all that, some subjects just won’t cooperate where they are. In these cases, you must take the subject somewhere more conducive to your vision! There’s no backyard macro ethics committee—if you find an acorn or leaf or bone or what-have-you that captivates your imagination, there’s nothing wrong with taking it inside to get absolutely perfect shots in a shooting tent. The even white light is great for exploring fine details and makes it super easy to swap out backgrounds if you want to have a little fun. A flatbed scanner can also produce extremely interesting results with miscellaneous yard items.
If that’s not enough to get you going, check out The Complete Guide to Macro and Close-Up Photography by Cyrill Harnischmacher. Full of gorgeous examples and expert tips, Rocky Nook guides are fun to read and very educational. Otherwise, go forth and enjoy the tiny world hiding in plain sight!