Attaining Macro Magnifications
Macro photography has intrigued me because it reveals a world of something you have never noticed before, and it blows it up to a striking life-size image. Macro photography has yielded numerous amazing discoveries in otherwise seemingly mundane subjects. Let's take a look at how to achieve macro magnifications.
P&S macro setting
Probably the most familiar method to all of us is the macro option on our P&S cameras, indicated by a flower icon. While this is a decent place to start, I have a couple problems with it. Most P&S cameras achieve macro magnifications by allowing super close focusing. This means that if you are photographing a bee, for example, you will have to get within a couple inches of it for a close photo. What are the chances in that?! Also, when you are required to move close to the subject, there is a dramatically larger chance that you will shadow the subject. So while point-and-shoot cameras work fine for flower photography, etc., insect photography is not easily possible using this route.
If you have a digital SLR, macro lenses are an excellent option. Unlike P&S cameras, they do not require being within inches of the subject (most lenses, anyway). But they still achieve the same magnification, or even better than compact cameras.
Extension tubes lengthen the distance between the lens and the sensor, resulting in closer focus distances. These can turn a normal lens into a macro lens, and turn a macro lens into a super macro lens. Even though they can help to attain incredible magnifications, the cons are that you will lose light, therefore possibly losing AF. Also, they may add chromatic abberation to the photos. In spite of these disadvantages, I have seen many incredible photos taken with all three tubes stacked!
Macro from a kit lens?
I was debating whether to include this in the options. I guess I will include it, but I won't recommend it to others. By physically manipulating my lens (i.e., removing the front lens element group), I was able to force my lens to focus at extremely close distances. The magnification is incredible, but it only works as a macro lens when disassembled. I need to reassemble the lens to make it work normally. All of my super-macro photos were taken with this setup. To tell you the truth, I could NOT find any photos of hoarfrost that were as highly magnified as mine. Most were like this:
What happens when you get closer?
For scale, the crystal the second shot in clinging to a very thin willow branch.
On my shots, the lighting is either natural or artificial. I didn't use anything fancy to artificially light the subject. I just used a bright spotlight. More sophisticated photographers use a couple kinds of flashes. Some use a speedlite mounted on the hot-shoe with a diffuser mounted over the head. This works, but it limits you to how close you can get to the subject. Others use something called a macro ringlite. It is a light-emitting ring that circles around the very front of the lens. This works better for close distances. Another popular setup is using dual external speedlites mounted on brackets. This allows balanced sidelighting of the subject.