What we want in a macro shot - Detail

In the first article of this series, 'The What and Why of Macro', I talked about what macro photography is and explained why I shoot macro in the wild. My next goal, which I will tackle in this article and the next one, is to introduce you to the elements I consider paramount in a macro image. I'm not necessarily referring here to the criteria for judging an image, but rather to the fundamental things a macro photographer should try to bear in mind when producing it.

So what is the number one, most important element in a macro photograph? The easy answer is that there aren't any. There are several qualities a macro image should have, all of which are important. To make things more complicated, photographers don't always agree on which ones those are. However, when I think about macro photography, the first aspect that comes to my mind is detail. Detail is almost what makes macro what it is, in the sense that shooting up close is the very means to obtain what the macro photographer wants to show the viewer: the unseen-yet-everywhere-present elements of the miniature world. What got me first interested in macro photography was my fascination with insects and my desire to unravel their mysteries and see them as they truly are.

Caption: An example of a detailed shot. Too small to really examine closely
with the naked eye, this robber fly is rendered in extraordinary detail with a
macro lens.

You might rightfully claim that I haven't done much by simply asking for detail. The meaning of the word is quite clear, but how do we obtain it? More precisely, what determines the level of detail desirable in a macro shot? In this article I will list the top factors.

First and foremost, focus is paramount in a macro photograph. This may seem obvious, but focusing is more problematic in macro than it is in any other field. The reason is that one of the consequences of shooting at a close distance is shallow depth of field (DOF), so shallow in fact that it is often quite hard to get accurate focus.

Here, although focus is off by only
1-2mm, the fly in this image is soft,
and theimage unusable.
Limited DOF caused this robber fly
portrait to lack important detail in the
proboscis and antennae areas. Even
the eye is only partly in focus.

In most cases, as with all other kinds of animal photography, we want good focus and sharpness on the eyeof the insect that we're shooting. But with depth of field of less than a millimeter, getting any part of the animal in focus can often be quite a challenge.

Accurate focusing and sufficient depth of field are thus especially significant in macro photography. Depth of field is so fundamental that I'll dedicate an entire section to it in a later article. As for focus, for now I'll just say that when shooting macro, we have to focus very carefully and accurately, because even the slightest movement, either that of the camera or that of the subject, can throw the image out of focus. I use manual focus exclusively, since AF simply isn't reliable or accurate enough for my needs, or is not available, at least with some of my favorite lenses. When focusing is technically difficult, trusting your eyes is always better than trusting the AF sensor, especially when one can use magnified live-view to focus perfectly.

Live view shooting can free us from having to bend over to look through
the viewfinder, and help us achieve better focus by enlarging the viewed area.

In addition to focus and DOF, light is key in a macro image. Naturally, overexposing an image or underexposing it completely will result in blown-out highlights or blocked-up shadows, both of which harm detail, but there's more than that. Hard directional light can produce excessive contrast, or cause a part of the object to cast a shadow on other parts of it and harm detail, even if the overall exposure is 'correct'. This is especially noticeable when the subject is very hairy, has protruding body parts or both (which is very common when your subjects are invertebrates!). Thus one must also consider the quality and direction of light in order to capture sufficient detail.

Very harsh sunlight caused this (otherwise technically acceptable) image to severely lack detail in many places due to excessive contrast. In this shot, soft light allowed this praying mantis larva to be shown in all its beauty and detail.

While the aspects of correct focus and quality of light play a similar role in macro as they do in most other kinds of photography, the next two aspects are quite different in that sense. As I've mentioned before, in order to achieve a good level of detail when shooting a tiny subject (in other words - if we want the subject to be big enough in the frame), one must shoot from a very close distance, even when working with relatively long focal length lenses. Thus proximity is another important aspect. Since your subject is likely to be very small, shooting from too far away would result in the subject filling only a very small portion of the frame.

Shooting from a very close distance is challenging, but can produce amazing results.

Getting close to an invertebrate can often pose a challenge. If you've ever tried to approach an insect with a camera in your hand you'll know that often, your nervous pray will run or fly away the second you get close enough. Yet we must get close enough if we want to get the shot. This is a problem, but one that can be solved using a little knowledge of animal habits, behavior and activity levels during different times of the day, in combination with a level of care and delicacy when approaching them. I'll talk about this in more detail in future articles.

The final important condition is that of stability. In other fields of photography, like landscapes, for example, the sharpness or level of detail isn't compromised if part of the scene (a tree branch, or blade of grass) moves by one millimeter. This is because one millimeter, compared to a huge subject such as a lake or a mountain, is a meaninglessly small amount of movement. But if the entire width of the subject is only five millimeters a movement of one millimeter during exposure would result in severe motion blur, destroying the image altogether.

Although very slight, subject movement has badly compromised critical image quality in this photograph of a spider only a handful of millimeters in size.

Note that stability is only required in relation to other image parameters. By this I mean that if you shoot a relatively long exposure, you have to use a tripod (not to mention your subject, which must be perfectly still). But if flash is your main light source, the very short duration of the actual light burst can freeze even moderate subject movement.


Erez Marom is a nature photographer based in Israel and a regular contributor to Composition magazine. You can see more of his work at www.erezmarom.com and follow him on his Facebook page.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 56
Timmbits
By Timmbits (Oct 21, 2012)

I visited this series just now, a year later, but I must say, as a beginner in this field, I appreciate it very much. You have cleared up some of my misconceptions. And, thanks to your inspiration, I have just purchased my first true macro lens - a used but nice 50mm Minolta capable of macro 1:1 ...now all I have to do is wait for spring! ;-)

Comment edited 32 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
Oliphantus
By Oliphantus (Nov 17, 2011)

Erez Shalom

Great stuff!

Will you be writing also on the macro lenses? Or is there another way to cosult in this.

Thanks

Michael

2 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Nov 17, 2011)

Hi Oliphantus,
Of course I will :)
Erez

0 upvotes
Dan Tong
By Dan Tong (Sep 22, 2011)

Wonderful and amazing photos!

1 upvote
Toby NYC
By Toby NYC (Sep 20, 2011)

For years I used a triad of Nikkor Zooms. Lately I've been collecting MF Nikkors. I find the manual lenses have made my process slow down. I pay more attention to composition and exposure as I did when I only had 36 per roll and each shot counted. I have 11 AI-s chipped primes. I have supplemented those lenses with 4 achromat close up lenses. There's an amazing world that has been exposed to me with the Nikon 5T, 6T, Marumi 77mm 330, and an older Minolta #2 52. The 6T allows me to shoot a 200mm f4 AI-s at just less than one foot! This is an all shooting mode, camera controllable, exif recording, tele macro for not a lot of money. (compared to a new 200 f4AF-d Micro). Erez, your articles and work have inspired me to go take photographs... how cool is that? Thanks for your great series, in which each installment gives me enough to ponder until I'm ready to digest the next one! Bravo. Thank you, thank you... Thank you. Toby_NYC

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 20, 2011)

Wow Toby,
that was one of the most heartwarming replies I've ever gotten.
Thank you, never stop shooting!

0 upvotes
Puglover2
By Puglover2 (Sep 12, 2011)

I enjoyed the article and your amazing robber-fly photo. Thank you.

1 upvote
SM7
By SM7 (Sep 12, 2011)

I feel like this is only an introduction to the article, and the actual article is missing. I understand that the author intends to publish more articles, but I simply don't have the time resources to be constantly checking back to see if another instalment has been published.

Write the whole thing, THEN publish it. Otherwise the whole front page is cluttered, you lose readers, etc.

I appreciate the effort, pls improve by providing actual useful tips (there are plenty of 1p "articles" by pros and amateurs on DPR's own forums that do give very useful tips and suggestions).

5 upvotes
Timmbits
By Timmbits (Oct 21, 2012)

Aren't YOU glad that Erez took HIS time to write this series?
The world doesn't revolve around our schedules... when someone gives a lot of themselves, their time, their experience, be thankful, and MAKE time.

4 upvotes
preturnatul
By preturnatul (Apr 17, 2013)

I agree, and the same was done on the other articles, just when something was about to get very useful and interesting beyond an introductory level, he says he will get into that in a future article. . . . but it just means that this article is missing important information. I see that written so much in these articles, "will get to that in a future article" dissapointing

0 upvotes
Josh Hays
By Josh Hays (Apr 17, 2013)

preturnatul, this article was posted over a year ago. Take a look at the 8 macro articles Erez has written since this one: http://www.dpreview.com/members/1117130265/articles

0 upvotes
Andrew Wiggin
By Andrew Wiggin (Sep 10, 2011)

What a great read.
Thanks for the article.

3 upvotes
ricardo artale
By ricardo artale (Sep 9, 2011)

Parabéns pelo curso de macro.
www.flickr.com/photos/ricardoartale

0 upvotes
Montaigne
By Montaigne (Sep 9, 2011)

Thank you Erez for what promises to be an informative series.

I suspect you will not get into any depth into the subject of tilt-shift lenses in macro-photography. If I am right, could you suggest any descriptive/tutorial material on the subject? Do you use them yourself?

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 10, 2011)

Hi Montaigne, thank you for your reply.
I'm afraid I'll only briefly metion tilt-shift lenses. I pesonally don't use them although I do appreciate their benefits. Also, article lengh is limited and I have to discuss many other subjects.
I don't really know a good source for info about TS in macro, but I wouldn't say the theory is very complicated. Like every technicality, it's best dealt with in the field.
Best of luck,
Erez

0 upvotes
zahidpix
By zahidpix (Sep 9, 2011)

Good effort by dpreview to publish articles like this so experts and experienced can share their learnings to the new comers. This is a good contribution from the author.

1 upvote
Lea5
By Lea5 (Sep 9, 2011)

Thank you very much for this article. I'm very new to macro and this was very useful for me!

1 upvote
bdery
By bdery (Sep 9, 2011)

The "what" of macro photography anyone can guess on their own (the image needs to be sharp, really?). The "How" would make these articles useful. So far dpreview articles are essentially useless, as they teach nothing. Sad.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

Well, If your patience is as big as your disappointment, it's possible that the following articles will change your mind.
BTW, detail isn't all about sharpness- not at all. I believe that taking the time to explain these things in depth will prove useful in the long run, and allow me to create a far better article series.
DPReview have allowed me to write a very comprehensive series which is planned to go on for a long time. I plan to make good use of this stage, and I hope the future texts will change your opinion about dpreview articles.

2 upvotes
ben ob
By ben ob (Sep 10, 2011)

sorry to be a grouch, but i have to say i totally agree with bdery. two days into this so-called tutorial series, you have still said very little substantial or interesting or educational at all. is dpreview really going to let this "go on for a long time"..? the internet is not the best forum to be testing to see if people's patience is as big as their disappointment.

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 10, 2011)

The series is not built to give instant satisfaction, nor can it (or anything ealse for that matter) teach you how to shoot macro from A to Z.
My intention is to be thorough and build the theoretical basis, then go on to practice. Moreover, once someone really understands the true worth of theory, it can really change one's attitude and result in significantly better results in the field. My images are a result of both theory and practice, and one clearly comes before the other. No one can do the hard work for the student, but building the series the right way, the logical way, without shortcuts, is the best I can offer. For instant satisfaction (which will get you nowhere, of course), please refer to countless forums and 'experts' over the web. Otherwise, if you believe I have something to say, read on. If you don't, just read something else. I won't be mad.

3 upvotes
PKMousie
By PKMousie (Sep 10, 2011)

Not to pile on, but these guys have a point. If you peppered the article with more small, useful tips while explaining the high level theory, people may be more satisfied. I can give a few examples. When explaining that the working distance of macro leads to a narrow focal plane, making it hard to capture a lot of detail, you overlook a number of things that could mitigate the shallowness. You could mention increasing the depth by using a larger F# at the expense of speed (basic, but it bears repeating) which is fine for slow insects. Suggest thinking carefully about the shape of the insect and approaching it at an angle that places multiple parts of it's body in the focal plane. Mention that flash not only stops motion, but allows a larger F#, but often at the expense of *background* detail.

You do this to a point, but more would be fine!

You're doing this to a point... you mention how protruding body parts can cause shadows. That's specific practical advice to apply, not theory.

0 upvotes
PKMousie
By PKMousie (Sep 10, 2011)

It's fine to say "learn the behavior of animals" but IMO it's better to provide a specific example, like how morning is a good time to shoot because many insects are sluggish as they wake up, and you might catch one covered in dew for extra pop in your image. Give people a launching point to start applying the theory. "Learn" is vague, "go see what they do in the morning" is actionable and possibly inspiring.

I think this is the sort of 'how' people are asking for.

4 upvotes
Kjoseph
By Kjoseph (Sep 9, 2011)

Thank you for this succinct and comprehensive article!

2 upvotes
Rosember
By Rosember (Sep 9, 2011)

Very nice and illustrative articles, Erez, thanks a lot for the effort!
Your photos are simply gorgeous, outstanding, breathtaking...
I am very much looking forward to the next parts of this series.

Jan

2 upvotes
crisarg
By crisarg (Sep 9, 2011)

Very nice article and pictures, I enjoyed reading it.

The robberlfy stack is great.

Looking forward to the next articles.

I'm wondering why you don't post some of you work on Flickr or something like it.

2 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

Hi,
Thank you for your words.
I do have a deviantArt gallery. You're welcome to give it a look: http://erezmarom.deviantart.com/
Best,
Erez

0 upvotes
Heath McDonald
By Heath McDonald (Sep 9, 2011)

Hi Erez

I continue to enjoy reading your articles. For me, as a dedicated wildlife macro photographer, the composition, background and light source are the most important elements, will you be going into more detail in these areas on future articles, particularly backgrounds, this seems to me to be quite an overlooked area and yet and transform an image, not just by getting it clean, but using the bg to create a mood or feeling in the image. I would be interested to hear your views.

2 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

Hi Heath,
Thank you for the kudos.
Have no worry, I'm definately planning on writing extensively about these subjects! :)
In this article I only wanted to talk about the most dominant technical aspect, but like you say, there's a lot more, and it will soon follow.

0 upvotes
Bob from Plymouth
By Bob from Plymouth (Sep 9, 2011)

A word or two about the effect of sensor size on depth of field and something on focus stacking would be appropriate.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

Hey Bob,
I don't think focus stacking should be mentioned at this (very early) point in the series. It's not directly related to the article's main subject. Also, why a word or two when I plan to write entire articles about both subjects you've metioned? :)

0 upvotes
Bob from Plymouth
By Bob from Plymouth (Sep 9, 2011)

Well those articles should be worth reading too Erez, thanks for the reply.

0 upvotes
Adrian Harris
By Adrian Harris (Sep 9, 2011)

Nicely written, but I think you should have clarified 'Auto focus doesn't work well with most dslr's', because most other types of cameras auto focus uses the CDAF principal and work stuningly well for macro work. Thats why I bought a Panasonic G1 M4/3 camera, which never mis-focus on macro work. And of course another bonus is that smaller sensors do not suffer from the same DOF limitations as a full size dslr.

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

Thanks for your words Adrian.
I use manual focus because It's pretty much always more accurate, no matter the camera type. If you can magnify the live-view image to 100% and focus perfectly, you just can't beat that level fo accuracy with AF, so the extra work is worth it to me.
Much of my work is extreme magnifications done with focus stacking and long exposures. This simply can't be done with AF.
I'm quite the traditionalist in the technique aspect, because you can't beat meticulous work, especially in extreme magnifications.
I agree that in less extreme conditions and with the right eqipment, AF can be used for great results. But why go great if you can go perfect? :)
That said, everyone should do what works for them. I write solely about my personal views and experience.

0 upvotes
lester11
By lester11 (Sep 9, 2011)

I'm no expert photographer, macro or otherwise, but found the AF on my Panasonic G2/GH2 usually gave me better results than MF even with the terrific 10x magnification.

0 upvotes
Tapani Tarvainen
By Tapani Tarvainen (Sep 9, 2011)

Sometimes you have to settle on great. :-)
For example, flying insects won't wait for long exposures and then autofocus can be useful.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

I highy doubt AF would be effective with flying subjects. Insects tend to fly very erratically, and move around way too quickly for the AF to be of any use.
BUT, and it's a big but, if it works for someone, they should definately use it. Whatever works for you to give the result you intend. There are many means to the same end.

0 upvotes
sh10453
By sh10453 (Sep 9, 2011)

Shooting flying objects is not macro photography.

Macro photography is only millimeters from a subject, with the camera on a tripod usually, as it was mentioned in the article. Sometimes it is not just the lens, but other equipment involved, such as bellows, white umbrella to diffuse sunlight, etc.

How is that setup related to shooting flying objects, where you would want fast shutter speed (which means a wider open lens, which means narrower DOF)!!! That might be related to sports photography!

Macro photography of LIVE objects is not easy, and requires a lot of patience, as well as the right equipment and various other conditions (lighting, wind, etc.).

This is a favorites subject of mine, and I hope there will be a section, early on, for some recommended equipment, especially lenses.

Also, if possible, it would be appreciated to include details of the pictures, such as camera, lens, shutter and aperture, number of shots (if stacked), etc.

Thanks for starting a useful series!

0 upvotes
op1318
By op1318 (Sep 9, 2011)

The first image definitely looks like it has been made with several pictures stitched together, not a single photograph. In-focus and out-of-focus areas in different parts of the image look very strange to me. Am I right?

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

Sure, it's a stack. Sadly I uploaded that one before fixing the problematc areas.

0 upvotes
CMcGlothlen
By CMcGlothlen (Sep 12, 2011)

Stack? Do you 'stack' a series like you would 'stich' for a wide angle series? Are there 'stack' pp programs that are better than others? I have several dynamic range series that it could prove useful for. Thanks in advance!
Oh, and thanks for starting a series on a favorite topic of mine!

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 12, 2011)

Stacking is a bit different to stitching, in the sense that you use the same composition but with different focus distances. I'll write a whole article about this when it's the right time for it in the series.

0 upvotes
jj74e
By jj74e (Sep 9, 2011)

i actually like the second picture where the focus was off 1-2mm. i rather liked how it made the bug look mysterious and stalking; it felt a little suspenseful

1 upvote
Karl Gnter Wnsch
By Karl Gnter Wnsch (Sep 9, 2011)

I'm there with you, IMHO it's the one picture which makes you rethink the "the head has to be in focus" paradigma.

2 upvotes
digitalphotogr
By digitalphotogr (Sep 9, 2011)

This is really a GOOD image. It has the focus an the 'grip' of the insect. Its like the images you see in magazines, where a scientist is holding something 'mysterious' into the camera, and he is OOF. Very nice image indeed!

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

I'm glad you guys liked it.
I personally like the complete stack better. You can watch it here: http://erezmarom.deviantart.com/art/Lucifer-165005806?q=gallery%3Aerezmarom%2F26780839&qo=13
In a future article I'll post my favorite paradigm-contradicting image :)

0 upvotes
Aidan Jaros Grilli
By Aidan Jaros Grilli (Sep 9, 2011)

Great article. Very helpful. :)

1 upvote
Martin Moreno
By Martin Moreno (Sep 9, 2011)

Hi, I am a new photographer and i decided for macrophotography, mainly butterflies, your articles will be of utmost importance for me. I just read the two you published. You may see my work in flickr.com "martinelli19502011". Thanks.

1 upvote
Dr. Bob
By Dr. Bob (Sep 9, 2011)

The "failures" are the most useful. good reveiw.

1 upvote
Chaitanya S
By Chaitanya S (Sep 9, 2011)

thanks a lot and great article.

1 upvote
frosti7
By frosti7 (Sep 8, 2011)

Excellent post, thanx!

1 upvote
tupelo
By tupelo (Sep 7, 2011)

כל הכבוד ארז, עלה והצלח !

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 9, 2011)

תודה תודה :)

0 upvotes
igaleian
By igaleian (Sep 12, 2011)

can you advise re tripods, rails etc
i like your article more pls

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 12, 2011)

I'll write extensively about equipment in future articles, please stay tuned for that.

0 upvotes
Jacqu3s
By Jacqu3s (May 4, 2012)

A great series of articles, really like your approach (personal enough with good focus). Really got me into exploring the "mini-macro" world even more!

0 upvotes
Total comments: 56