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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
In the last movie, you saw me create a focus stack using my computer, and having Helicon remote control the autofocus on my lens to cycle through a bunch of different slices of focus. I am taking a very different approach this time. I'm using a special piece of hardware that is going to build a focus stack by moving the camera, rather than refocusing the lens. There are two advantages to this. [00:00:2.07] First of all, I'm set up with my 65 mm 1- 5X Macro, and I am dialed in at about 2 1/2X. That's a much greater level of magnification than the 100mm lens that I was using earlier, the 100 millimeter macro.
However, this lens has no autofocus feature, so I can't remote control it. So, that's one reason that I've gone to this other solution here. But even if I was using the 100mm macro or another macro lens that has autofocus, I would still probably use the stack shot for what I'm about to do, or for all of my focus stacking actually, because there is a difference between moving the camera, and refocusing the camera. When I refocus the camera, I actually change the focal length of the lens a tiny bit. This is not just something that happens with macro lenses; it happens with any kind of lens.
But at macro scale, you can really see that slight change in focal length, and it's possible that that slight change in focal length will change some of the spatial relationships in the scene, the scale relationships between one object and another. When I'm pushing in and out with the camera, I don't have that problem. If I push far enough, then yeah, I get some massive differences between frames. But in general, I find this to be a more reliable way when doing really deep focus to get images that I know will merge together. That said, I don't want to discourage you from the remote control process we were using before, because it's a very affordable, very effective way of getting deep depth of field.
This bit right here, this rail, is something called a stack shot. This is a motorized rail that can be controlled by this little device right here. This is a little control box that comes with the stack shot. [00:01:5.07] So, what you're actually seeing here is several pieces of hardware. I've got my Kirk Enterprises table top tripod thing here, although it's not really a tripod, but you know what I mean; it's a stabilizer. I have right here my Manfrotto geared head. Here, I have the Velbon slider that you saw me use before. And, mounted on top of that, I have the stack shot.
I put the Velbon slider in here, because the stack shot can only go forward and backward. The Velbon lets me go side to side. So, with this rig, I've got full control of every rotational axis. I can move left to right, and I can move forward and backward in a couple of different ways. When working extremely close-up, it's nice having this level of very fine control. You don't actually have to have the slider in here to get all this to work. I like having it for the extra movement. Now, as far as moving the camera for focus stacking, I could try to do this manually, using just my regular slider. I could take a picture, rotate the position forward a little bit, shoot another.
But I'm shooting here at f/11, as I said, at about 2 1/2X. Now, according to my depth of field chart for this lens, which I have stored in my phone, which is a really convenient thing, because I've always got it around f/11 at 2X. I am sorry, at 3X is a depth of field of about .35 mm. So, the odds that I could very precisely manually move the camera forward 0.3 mm every time are pretty much non-existent. So, that's why we need the very fine control of this focusing rail.
Another advantage of the focusing rail over autofocus is it can make smaller steps, and it can make them very regularly. The autofocus in your lens may not be able to do that. So, here is how this works. I have got our dead bee back here, and he is perched on top of this thorny seed pod ball thing. You don't actually have to have a turquoise vase; it's just the only thing we have that got it to the height that I wanted. I have done a couple of tests to really get it positioned right, and I am going to turn on live view here. Actually, before I do that, I am going to roll video, so that you can see what I'm getting.
So, what's happening now is you're seeing video captured by the SLR. It's a little bit cropped, so you are not seeing the full view that I am. So, you can see my bee here, and right away, you can see how shallow depth of field is. I am at 1600 ISO. I don't want to take my aperture down much smaller than this, because then my depth of field will go so shallow, I'll have to do a tremendous number of shots. So, I am right in here. You can see I've tried to position the bee, so I can see his face a little bit. We've been struggling a little bit with getting the light right off of his wings.
You can also see that I can't actually see very much about my composition, because depth of field is so shallow. It looks like those highlights on the wings, particularly this wing on the right side, it looks like those highlights are too bright, but I don't know if they really are. It may just be that the defocusing is smearing them out to be much bigger than they really are. Very often, when you're focus stacking with depth of field this shallow, you're simply going to have to put a stack together, see what it looks like, refine your shot, refine your lighting, put another stack together, see what it looks like. So, this can take a long time to get a good shot out of this process, because you can't get a final visualization of your scene until you do the whole thing. And, it can take an hour to put one of these things together.
So, the next step is to configure this box. Now, the stack shot controller lets you work in a lot of different modes for specifying how you want to define the steps to happen. I'm in auto distance mode, and what that lets me do is tell it how wide I want each step. I gave it a start and stop point, and it just figures out how many pictures it needs to take. What you'll see here is I have got a cable going from the stack shot box to the stack shot rail. I have another cable going from the stack shot box into the remote control port on the camera, so it's going to take the pictures for me as well.
Now, to get this configured, what I need to do is first dial in the distance per step that I want. I've looked up the depth of field on my depth of field chart, and I'm dialing in a little bit less than what it said, and now I've forgotten what it did say. f/11 at . . . I said 3X, so that's 0.35. So, I currently have a Dist/step (distance per step) set to 0.16. I can actually increase that a little bit. I usually go less than what the depth of field chart says, because I want to ensure that there is overlap.
So, we'll go in here in about 290. I just pull that number out of nowhere. It's less than what I think I need, and it is giving me a little bit of padding. So now, what I need to do is set my start and stop point. Right now, it's saying start again. That's because I have done one of these already. So, I am going to tell it, "Yes I want to start again." Oops! Wait. No, I don't want to start again. I want to change my settings. That's what I am doing. It asks me to select the start position. So, I am going to roll video here again, so you can what I'm seeing on my camera.
What I want to do is find my forward-most position. I am going to use the forward and back controls to move the camera forward and backward. That's actually moving the rail, and you can see the slice of focus move from front to back through the bee as I move forward and backward. So, I need to find the front-most point, which is going to be one of those antennae, I think. And, that looks pretty good, right there. That looks like the first point of focus, so I am going to select that, and now I need to select the end position.
And, I am going to try and go all the way through the wings, all the way to that fur on back there, or hair on the back. I don't know if bees have fur or hair. For that matter, I really don't know what the difference is between fur and hair, but that's probably a question for another time. So, that looks good. We are going to stop there, and select end position, and now we are ready to go. I have to take this out of Video Mode to get this to work. And, let's think about exposure. As I said, I am at ISO 1600. I'm at f/11. I am going to half-press the shutter button to see what the exposure is, and it's about a 1/3 of a second.
So, between shots, the stack shot will take a pause. It also takes a pause after it moves. This is all to try and control vibration, and all of those pauses are programmable. So, the stack shot moves, there is a pause, it takes a shot, there is a pause, it moves, it pauses, and so on, and so forth. I have programmed the post-shot pause to be a little bit longer than default, so that I can use longer shutter speeds. I don't want it to trigger the step shutter, and then start moving in the middle of the exposure. I also don't want my exposure to be too long.
So, I have dialed in some under-exposure, just using Exposure Compensation. I am locked down at f/11, but to try to get my exposure a little bit longer, I am going to go to one stop under -- I am sorry, to get my exposure a little bit shorter, -- just because I've got a better chance of reducing vibration. So, I think I am ready go. I do this in Live View Mode, because that will further reduce camera vibration, so I'm going to tell it to start. Now, you are going to hear a lot of whirring when I do this, because the first thing it's going to do is pull the camera back to the start position.
So, it's coming back to the start. It's pausing, pausing for a long time there. It just took a picture. Now it's moving forward, pausing again. It's going to go through this for 27 frames; I can see that on the display here. It has calculated that, for the distance that I want, it needs to this 27 times. I am shooting in RAW plus JPEG mode, because, as I said, I can't tell a lot of things about my composition until I get this whole thing assembled. Assembling the full 20 plus megapixel RAW files will take a long time, and it's a drag to go through all of that, and then find out, "Yeah, my lighting is a little off. I should go do this again." So, I set for RAW plus the lowest resolution JPEG image with the best quality compressions.
So, then I've got some nice, small files that I can merge really quickly. See what the outcome is like. If I like the result, then I can just go merge the RAW files, which is a more complicated procedure, or I can come back, reset, and try again. Some other things to remember. We are going to lose some area around the edge of the frame; we encountered this in our last stacking exercise. As we're pushing in, we are inherently getting more of a crop on our image. So, the only parts of the image that can be completely stacked are parts where there is image on all 27 frames, or similar image on all 27 frames, so we are going to lose the edges. So, I framed this little wide.
There might be times when it's better to set the end point first, because on the end point, you're going to want to be pushed in, or the end point is where you're pushed in all the way. So, sometimes it's better to set that point first to find out what your final framing is, and then back up from there. So, if you're really concerned about having certain details in your frame, push in all way, and then zoom out a little bit to give yourself that padding that you need, because you're going to have to crop, then come back, and set your first frame. I'm working again with completely controlled lighting, because some stacking software doesn't like there to be an exposure differential between frames.
When this is done, I am going to first merge these together using Photoshop, so you can see how that method works, then we will use Helicon Focus, so you can see how that works. Helicon Focus has the advantage of some really nice retouching controls for post-production. Photoshop has the advantage of 1) being something you've probably already have, but 2) it's not as picky about brightness differential. I will actually do focus stacking just in natural, uncontrolled light, and still get good merges out of Photoshop. So, a lot of times I defer to Photoshop, because I'm working during the day, and I don't have a completely dark room with completely controlled lighting.
It's finished. It has now pulled the camera back to its original start position. So, now we're ready to take these out of here, and see how they merge together.