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After touring the possibilities of macro photography, the course details essential gear at several price levels, including lenses, flashes, and other accessories. Next, Ben explores the special challenges of macro photography: dealing with moving subjects, working with extremely shallow depth of field, focusing, lighting, and more.
The course also explores advanced close-up tools and post-processing techniques, such as using Adobe Photoshop to "stack" multiple shots to yield wider depth of field than a single shot can convey.
- What is a macro photograph?
- What is a macro lens?
- Finding good subject matter
- Evaluating macro gear like extension tubes and tilt-shift lenses
- Composing and framing shots
- Exploring depth of field
- Lighting macro shots
- Working with light tables
- Editing macro shots
Skill Level Intermediate
It's time to take all of these little parts we've been talking about, and put them together into some actual macro shooting. So, I've got an exercise for you. You need, obviously, some kind of macro-capable camera, and that could be a point-and-shoot camera. I'm going to reverse my 50 millimeter lens, and work with that. I've got a reversal ring to do that, to make it easier. Now, what I want you to do is just go work your kitchen from a macro perspective. There's nothing more to it than that. Just go into your kitchen. Find cool stuff in your kitchen that you think would make good macro shots.
We are not after great masterpieces here; this as an exercise to help you practice focus, composition, help you understand depth of field. There is one thing you need though, and that's a very particular lighting situation. Let me show you what I've got. So, for this to work, you need to find a situation like I'm in right here. I have a window, open to the outside world, with some soft light coming through it. And by soft light, I mean it's not a direct shaft of really bright light. The light is bouncing off some things outside, it's being further diffused by this curtain, and it's creating a really soft pool of light right here.
You don't actually have to have the curtain. Depending on the situation on your window, you may get soft light coming through, even without anything extra diffusing it. And, what I'm seeing, as I just hold up my hand here, is that there are no hard shadows on it anywhere. Everything is just illuminated by a very even, very uniform lighting that kind of wraps around my whole hand. The reason that we're starting with this is it's a very easy light to work in. We don't have to worry about harsh shadows obscuring details, or bright highlights blowing out to complete white.
Lighting at the macro level can be tricky, so to start with, it's nice to give yourself the advantage of a lighting situation that just inherently makes things easier. Now, this is not just a practice realm that we are in. You will continue to very often use this type of lighting in your macro work, or even close-up work. It's also a great light for portraits. So, it's nice to identify the areas in your house where you might have lighting like this, and it may change throughout the year. In fact, an area that you find now that works great might be lousy in the winter, or somewhere, so on.
So, as I mentioned before, I've got my lens reversed. I am going to be doing this shooting hand-held. Later, we are going to talk about tripods and other stabilizers. We've gathered up some kitchen things that you might find in your kitchen, and a few things you may not find in your kitchen. We are not really sure where this came from, but it's kind of cool-looking, as ominous as it may be. So, we've got these, and I need to just start thinking about getting them into a position where I can shoot them. I pulled out this white. It's like a flowerpot or something. I just need something to raise things up higher.
I can also shoot on my tabletop. I've got a nice butcher block table here. I've also got a piece of paper that I might use. I am going to start with this honey-dipping thing. And, I think what I'll do first is actually set it on the table, and see what that looks like. I'm not really sure what my background looks like through the camera, so I want to get a couple of shots. Now, notice I don't need a lot of room here. I am not having to clear off the rest of the table. I am going to be focused on such a tiny area that I don't need a big stage to work on. I am getting some slightly hard shadows.
As I move the thing around, those shadows change a little bit, because I am getting shadows, brighter and darker areas coming through my window. So, I am just going to find one that looks fairly benign, and then I am going to go in here, and take some shots. Now, I've got my camera set to Manual Mode, because with my lens reversed, I have no aperture control. So, I need to use the meter inside the camera to determine when I have exposure correct. And, I have only shutter speed to work with, my shutter speed and ISO to work with to control my exposure.
I am starting at ISO 400, because indoors and light like this, that's typically what I am going to want to work with. And, I think I'll just frame up a simple shot here. Check my meter. And, it looks like, in here, I am going to be at about a 500th of a second. That's good, because since I'm hand-holding, I want a fairly fast shutter speed to freeze motion. So, let me just grab one of these. Depth of field is going to be very shallow. And, here we go. Now, one thing I want you to understand about what we're doing here is we are not necessarily after great pictures.
This is not going to be a prize-winning photo of a honey-dipping smeary thing. Whatever they're called. This is an exercise. This is your first chance to really understand what's going on at macro level. And, right off the bat, you can see, "Wow, depth of field is really shallow in that image that I just took." So, I have to think very carefully about my compositions. I need to figure out really what is the subject that I want to have in focus, and likely that's all that I am going to get.
That means that I might want to think about framing for more drama. Since the viewer is not going to be able to see a lot of details on things, I want to pick one detail out, and frame it in a way that's going to really bring attention to it. I think maybe the background -- it's nice that it's smearing out to just that brown color, -- but I'm wondering if that's competing a little bit with the thing here. So, I am going to move it up on top of this thing. And, the reason I am going up here is just with it up higher, I won't have to bend over as far to get my shot. So, I am coming in here.
Notice there's a sticker right in the middle of this flower pot, and it just doesn't matter. I could peel it off, but I'm lazy. It just doesn't matter, because it's entirely getting lost in the shallow depth of field. Now, later in this course, you are going to see how you can actually manage depth of field with your lens reversed. But for right now, I am going to just keep shooting this way. Okay, I like this, but my background has some black in it.
I am able to see what's behind me here. So, I am going to quickly create a little seamless background. I've got just a piece of paper. I have a piece of 11×17 inch paper. You can do the same thing with a piece of letter-sized paper, because you just don't need a lot of space, as I said. So, I am going to just prop it up here, and weight it down. And, I'm hoping that the weight of my subject here is going to hold this. So, I am going to set this up like this. So, the curve of the paper is going to hopefully create a completely seamless background, and then I can get right down in here.
Now, I've got white all the way in the back. Oh, and I am getting a big reflection of me in the front of this thing. My exposure has actually gone up because of the whites. And now, I am at 1250, which is good, because that will give me an even better chance of not having motion blur. So, I am just going to work my way through here, and shoot some of these things in different kinds of light. I am working the shot just as I would work a shot in a real-world situation. I shouldn't say real-world. But I mean, in a normal-scale-world situation. Just seeing what I can find, because a lot of times, you don't really know what your subject is going to look like until you get in close and shoot it.
Sometimes, you don't really even know what your subject is, as in this case. I think I'll skip that thing, and move on to the knife with holes in it, because I think that's just an interesting shape. I am going to go ahead and just keep working with the white, because it's easy. Knife edges can be very interesting at macro distances. They've got a lot more detail in them than you might expect. This one isn't serrated, so I'm not getting lots of cool textures. My depth of field being so shallow, I am not getting a tremendous amount of detail, so this one may not work.
And, that's the case with a lot of your macro stuff. Something that looks that you think is going to be really interesting out at normal scale, when you get in tight, maybe there is not so much there. And that's okay. So, again, this is just an exercise. It's your chance to practice focus. And, of course, I'm focusing just by moving in and out. It's your chance to practice composition, and the big thing with composition is to be trying to find the angles that are nice, trying to find the depth of field that works for you, and paying attention to the background, being aware of what's back there, and understanding if you need to block it out somehow.
Take a look at some of these shots that I took at home. Now, first of all, don't forget that when you are in your kitchen, and I am limiting you to your kitchen, just because a lot of times, particularly for an exercise, it's nice to limit your choice. And, there's no reason you couldn't spend the rest of your life shooting macro in your kitchen. But don't forget that you can still work with close-ups. Now, this one here is not a macro shot. But, as I was doing the dishes one morning, I was just struck by those shadows on the wall, so I grabbed a camera. This is around a 50 millimeter focal length. So, don't just focus on macro. Think the type of close-up stuff we were doing before.
This is the top of a tiny, little salt shaker, and I thought the holes might be interesting. But, I am not real sure if I like these better close in or further out. But as you can see, I worked the shot a bunch trying to find the shot that I thought, and the composition that I thought might be best. The real lesson to be learned from this is that when you're working with something shiny, especially something round and shiny, you need to pay attention to all of the highlights and reflections on the surface. And here, you can see me trying to block some shadows by moving my hands around that dark area. In the middle is actually me. And so, I was doing this as I was shooting, trying to control those highlights that are showing up there on the surface.
Here's another shiny surface. This is an extreme close-up of the edge of a knife. And, note how just tiny movements of the knife -- that's all I was doing between these shots, -- make for changes in the brightness of the various faces on the serrated edge there. So, when you're working with the shiny objects, move them around, because you will find very dramatic changes in lighting, so you can really explore what kind you might like. Coming up next is a fork, obviously. Now, I wasn't sure what might be interesting when I started. So, I just had to work the shot.
I thought it might be the repetition of the tines. But, as I got in closer, I found that I was most interested in the reflection, in the curve of the fork. Then, I added a fork to see what would happen with the geometry of the tines if I started knitting them together. As you can see, I worked a few different angles, and then flipped the forks over, and kept going, just doing basic composition work here. Here is a close-up of a placemat. Now, there is not much to do here composition-wise. It was just interesting to see the texture up close. And, it's a good example, and a good way to practice trying to recognize textures that might be interesting at the macro level, because when you're out in the real world, you're walking by texture all the time.
You may not . . . it may take a while before you start going, "That's a texture that I had to go explore up close." You might recognize this guy. He was sitting on the table. So, I thought I'd check it out up real close. If you want to do macro shots of flat objects like this, you might consider working with a flatbed scanner, instead of your camera. It's much easier to get even focus, a sharp image, and a completely flat subject when you're shoving it into a scanner, rather than when you're working it with your camera. Now, of course, there's food in your kitchen, and food can be a really fun macro subject, and one you can explore for a long time.
Here is a raspberry. But, as with most shooting, the raspberry gets much more interesting if you go closer. I tried a few more shots before I settled on this one. Here is a strawberry. Same thing. Just was more interesting going in close. This is a slice of kiwi sitting on a light table, so those big black things are actually the seeds. We'll talk more about light tables in detail. For translucent subjects, they create really interesting back-lighting. This is a caper covered with rock salt. I like the texture on the caper itself.
It was a big surprise. I couldn't actually see that texture with the naked eye. So, this is a fun discovery when I got down to macro scale. It's cool that you can see the cube shape of the salt crystals. Here is closer in. I thought orange peel might be interesting, but it turns out not to be. That's the case with a lot of macro subjects. You really just don't know what some things will look like until you get in close. Now, you may have noticed that in all of these pictures, depth of field is pretty deep. I was using some more sophisticated depth of field techniques that we'll look at later.
You can still do fascinating work just with your reversed lens working with shallow depth of field. It's going to take you awhile to learn where the shallow depth of field helps you, and where it hinders you. And, as with all kinds of shooting, the way you figure those things out, and get better at them is with practice. So, find yourself a nice, soft window, either in your kitchen or somewhere else, but please, for this exercise, just limit yourself to stuff you find in your kitchen. I think that limitation will make things easier, and it's also going to give a very different take on what your kitchen looks like.