Discover a hidden world: supermacro and micro photography - part two
07 February 2014 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer
In the second part of our blog exploring the magic of supermacro and micro photography, Wildlife Photographer of the Year category winner and specialist macro photographer, David Maitland shares his tips on getting to grips with the technical aspects of these photography methods.
The rules of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition have changed this year to allow multiple images, which will make it easier to enter if you're interested in micro and supermacro photography (see the information about stacking, below). Here are some practical tips to get you started:
Essentially, the higher the magnification, the greater the technical challenges. Three things cause major problems (there are more, but the following are the critical ones). Luckily, with some simple tricks and a bit of practice, it is possible to overcome many of the technical challenges.
The length of the tube (think extension tubes) between lens and camera: the longer the tube, the higher the magnification. In my set-ups, I regularly have extensions of 45cm or more. This long extension greatly exaggerates vibration and camera shake, both of which can ruin a good shot.
I would recommend starting in a studio, so you can get your set-up and technique perfected in a controlled environment. Use a camera that has live view and allows you to trip the shutter in 'silent mode', as this greatly reduces any vibrations which might be introduced through the firing of the camera’s shutter. Clamps and braces, or a sturdy tripod help, but these can be restrictive.
David took this image of a St Mark's fly in a controlled studio, in order to minimise vibration
The amount of light reaching the camera decreases dramatically with magnification. And, on top of this, the higher the magnification, the closer you are to the subject - this can be just a few millimetres from the front of your lens to the subject!
Lighting your subject with flash can work well because the flash duration can be reduced to such a short time as to freeze any vibration or camera shake. Flash can also solve the problem of getting enough light to your subject.
It can, though, be difficult to get flashes close enough to your subject at high magnifications. A tip here is to look for lenses that have long working distances, as this means that the distance from the front of the lens to the subject is kept to a maximum. The Canon MP-E 65mm 1x-5x macro lens is good in this regard, but at high magnification I prefer to use the old Olympus, Canon or Minolta 12.5mm, 20mm and 35mm macro/micro bellows lenses. With these, you can get lighting closer to your subject because the lens tips are only a few centimetres wide and in some cases are even tapered into a handy cone. Continuous LED lighting or similar is useful in a studio setting for modelling purposes and long exposures on inanimate objects.
3. Focus depth
The amount of subject in focus (depth of field) at high magnifications is extremely slim. You will quickly notice that at high magnifications it is almost impossible to see your subject through the viewfinder - the image is just too dark. This is where live view comes into its own, because the screen auto-adjusts brightness for easy viewing. Also, do not try to focus your subject by using any lens-based focus rings or the like. It's best to move the entire rig back and forth to find the focus point.
The depth of field at high magnifications appears almost non-existent. This fine slice of focus can sometimes be very effective from a creative point of view (like the single-frame shot of a crane fly head below), but it is usually a problem because not enough of the subject is in focus to make a meaningful picture.
'A fine slice of focus can sometimes be very effective from a creative point of view', says David, like this single-frame shot of a crane fly head
Focus stacking comes into its own here - this technique allows you to build up a single picture which is in focus throughout the entire depth of a highly magnified subject (like the stacked image of crane fly head below). The picture is composed of 135 single frames, each frame is focussed at different overlapping points on the subject in a sequence from front to back. The individual frames are then digitally combined so that only the focused points from each frame are retained and a sharp image is built up slice-by-slice into the final focussed shot (many image processing programmes have a facility to do this). This single piece of image processing alone has revolutionised the field of supermacro and micro photography.
Focus stacking allows you to build up a single picture which is in focus throughout the entire depth of a highly magnified subject
After many years trying out different equipment, here's what I suggest you should consider:
In addition to the highly specialized Canon MP-E 65mm 1x-5x macro lens and the old Olympus, Canon or Minolta 12.5mm, 20mm and 35mm macro/micro bellows lenses, you should have a good set of bellows such as Nikon PB6, Olympus, Minolta Auto Bellows, or other. To get the best quality high magnification, try using old microscope lenses - They should be marked Plan on the lens (which means flat field) and also marked 160 on the lens barrel (this means that if you set your bellows extension to 160mm you will get, approximately, the magnification marked on the lens barrel - eg Nikon Plan 10x 0.30 160/.
Other lenses that are very popular are Zeiss Luminar 16mm, 25mm, 40mm and 63mm (these are also Plan lenses and they are very good - I use them myself). Another set of lenses are infinity type, but which also require a lens of about 200mm (people use a telephoto lens for this) to be screwed behind the objective and then set the lens pair on the front of bellows, which can be tricky to do. Lenses from Mitutoyo are very popular for this - the 10x Plan Apo is excellent.
The only other thing you will need if you are to do stacking is a linear stage, or old stripped down microscope focus block. This is needed to advance, by a micrometer screw, the camera/bellows/lens set-up precisely a few micrometres at a time in order to build up your stack of image slices.
Supermacro and micro photography does demand lots of patience, as well as trial and error. It is not something you can do spontaneously. I often try many, many things without getting any good images at all. It's all good practise, though, and today we have the technology to see in glorious natural colour and incredible detail things that previously could only be viewed in artificial colour or black and white down a scanning electron microscope. If you're interested, I urge you to persevere, because I can assure you that the rewards will be worth it and you will discover a hidden world of exquisite beauty.
ABOUT DAVID MAITLAND
Dr David Maitland (UK) bought his first camera (a Kodak Box Brownie) at a jumble sale when he was 12. Even then, he wanted to get close to his subjects, and one of his earliest memories of wildlife photography is trying to photograph a blackbird through the cat-flap.
His past academic career as a zoologist now helps in much of David's micro and super-macro photography, and with his work, which is published widely, he aims to share the details of nature with a wider audience.
David was the specialist and macro photographer on the Wonders of Life BBC tv series with Brian Cox, broadcast in 2013. Recent successes in the Nikon Small World and Olympus Bioscapes photomicrography competitions follow many international awards, including the Wildlife Photographer of the Year ('Sands of Time' was runner-up in 2012 Creative Visions category), POYi, IPA etc. He was the title winner of the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2008, and is now one of the photographic team members for the pan-European Wild Wonders of Europe initiative.