It took nearly a couple of years of walking the streets and parks of Delhi before I even got a hang of what the term Macro meant. It was another few years before I got to know the true meaning. During all this time I had been clicking extreme closeups of insects and flowers without knowing the particular term. I enjoyed it but never generated spectacular shots. It was another few years before I fully appreciated how technical this branch of photography is. The one new technical term this introduced was ‘depth of field’ or DOF. In simple terms, it is the zone in front of your lens that is in focus.
Before we get to DOF, a quick note on why this is called Macro photography and not Micro as mostly you are clicking small things. The one characteristic of a Macro lens that matters is that it can produce an image on the sensor that is at least the same size as the original object – the ratio is one or higher. Most lenses can’t do that and have a much smaller ratio. The one lens that is affordable and can do this is the canon 100mm F2.8. There is also an L version of the lens at a higher price and several others. You can use several other zoom lenses to get blown up shots of small objects, but you will need to be standing away from the object as they cannot produce a ratio of >1. A macro lens allows you to get close to the object while clicking, and hence can capture a lot of detail that others will miss.
DOF is only controlled by the aperture and the distance between the object and the lens. When the aperture is narrow (high F-number), a lot of areas are in focus and you will get inherently flat-looking pictures as the background is also in focus. At the smallest aperture (small F-number) a very narrow area is in focus, around the point where you have focused. Besides, the closer the object to your lens, the narrower the depth of field. That is why when you click the sea, a lot of it is in focus. Now if you are clicking something close by you may end up in a situation where the front or the back of the object is not in focus. In the ideal situation, you want the complete object in focus but the background is blurred. That is what takes a while to get used to.
I started with getting it all wrong technically, but getting some okay pictures. I focused a lot on flowers, buds, and occasional butterflies. I put it on a very wide aperture to create a narrow depth of field and also make up for the low early morning light. My idea was to blur out the background well while keeping the object in good focus. The reality was that only a thin slice of the object was sharp. This worked well for flowers and buds but not as much for insects and wildlife. This was because flowers were more continuous with similar structure while the living creatures had a head, a body, and a tail – all needed to be in focus. I mostly stuck to a shutter speed of 1/100, F2.8 – 4.0, and ISO around 800 so it wouldn’t get too grainy.
The first level of upgrade was when I started to understand the motion of my subject and increased the shutter speed. This allowed me to get in some faster-moving insects and butterflies into the portfolio. The shutter speed reached around 1/400 and that meant more pressure on ISO and even the aperture as I was still mostly clicking early morning. I was also getting more experimental with subjects and playing with some light effects. I hadn’t yet perfected the processing of macros, but I was getting better.
The next big jump in output quality came in when I started to focus more on sharper images. In a flower, there is less to keep in focus. However, if you are clicking a dragonfly, there is a cool pattern on the wings in addition to the body and the eyes. You need to narrow the aperture to get that. I started pushing the limit of ISO and trying to get the F-numbers down. A lot of my clicks were now at an ISO of 1600 but with F4.0. Sometimes this meant taking the shutter speed to as slow as 1/100 if the object was stationary, though I preferred to keep it faster than 1/200.
Sometimes just walking in a garden I can spot spiders and other insects in the bushes and every time I see a butterfly, I miss my camera. Such is the fun of macro photography. I often spend a morning in a park or urban forest just to locate good macro subjects. This interest drove the next set of upgrades – equipment. I invested in macro rings. These allow you to even go closer to the subject, but they reduce the DOF. Very good for stationary and small subjects. The two other upgrades I am yet to try are the use of flash and focus stacking. The first refers to artificial illumination of the subject and the second clicking multiple shots with different parts of the subject in focus and combining them in photoshop.
The final trick I learned was to move more extensively to manual focus and wait for the in-focus beeps to time my clicks. This needs a bit of practice but enables me to work with different angles. If you are clicking in an open place, there is a lot of movement and the focus achieved using the AF doesn’t last very long. Manual focus gives you a new lever to manage this – timing. This is especially helpful in case there is a breeze that is moving the subject or if it is moving fast.
Macro photography opens a whole new world to your eyes. A world that we often miss or ignore. It is definitely fascinating and fun. It also goes a step beyond what most phones can do well today and focuses a little more on technical aspects of photography. The fundamental principle still remains the willingness to try and get it wrong till you get it right.