In this tutorial we’ll show you how to master the art of macro focusing and get to grips with depth of field to improve your spring pictures.
Macro photography can be technically demanding, often requiring specialist equipment and forensic attention to focusing, aperture and shutter speed.
Although it may be tempting to let the camera take care of everything in its point-and-shoot Close-up mode (indicated by the flower icon on the Mode dial), the results are unlikely to do justice to the subject of your picture.
Your DSLR sets a fairly wide aperture in order to blur the background, and chances are parts of the subject that are further away from the camera will also be blurred. The shutter speed is also set automatically in order to avoid camera shake.
If light levels are low and a fast shutter speed isn’t possible, then the camera may increase the ISO or activate the pop-up flash. Neither of which will give you a particularly high-quality image.
In order to capture consistently good close-ups of flowers and other macro subjects it’s far better to select Aperture Priority or Manual instead, for full control over the choice of aperture – which has a significant impact on the look and feel of a close-up shot – as well as enabling you to choose the optimum ISO and kill the flash.
Your choice of focusing and depth of field are also crucial if you intend to get the most from a macro lens and capture bags of fine detail.
Accurate focusing is obviously key, although it will be difficult for the camera’s autofocus system to find focus when working at distances of just a few centimetres. Even when it does lock on to the flower, it may choose the part that’s nearest the camera.
The trouble is that, when shooting macro photography, every millimetre of missed focus counts. There are a number of techniques that can help to solve this problem, such as switching the lens to manual focus and moving the flower towards or away from the lens.
Depth of field – how much of the image appears crisp from the foreground to the background – is another factor that makes a huge difference to the success of a flower photograph.
SEE MORE: A layman’s guide to depth of field
The size of the aperture, the distance the lens is focused at and even the size of the sensor inside the camera have an influence on the depth of field, but aperture is usually the aspect that we have most control over in macro photography. To maximise depth of field you’ll need to use a narrowish aperture.
We say ‘ish’ because ideally you shouldn’t select the narrowest aperture available on your lens, otherwise the picture will actually have less bite – stay somewhere between f/11 and f/22.
At narrow apertures, the shutter speed can become too slow for handheld photography, so use a tripod for sharp, shake-free results.
Incidentally, don’t feel you need to routinely use narrow apertures when shooting flowers. Wider apertures such as f/2.8 and f/4 can produce softer, more atmospheric images, although you’ll need to take extra care when focusing.
Even with the camera firmly fixed to a tripod, don’t ignore the shutter speed, particularly if shooting outdoors. Tall-stemmed flowers and plants are particularly susceptible to the effects of the wind, and it only takes a breath of air for them to dance around.
Playback the image and zoom in to check the details; if there are signs of motion blur you’ll need to increase the shutter speed, and in order to do this you may have to sacrifice some depth of field by choosing a wider aperture.
Alternatively, choose a higher ISO setting – you should still be able to get excellent results at ISO1600. Also, try making the stem more stable by wiring it to a cane or fixing it in place with a metal coat hanger that’s been straightened out and forced into the ground. A remote release will enable you to time shots between breezes.
Macro photography can be a leisurely business, and there’s usually plenty of time to get the exposure correct in camera, rather than tinkering with it later in software. Use the histogram to help with this; take a test shot, play back the image and press the INFO button until the brightness histogram appears on screen.
You can also view a real-time histogram when shooting with Live View. Aim to ‘expose to the right’, so that the histogram is positioned towards the right of the graph without being ‘clipped’ at the edge.
To do this, you may need to use exposure compensation. For cameras with a rear Quick Control Dial, simply dab the shutter release to activate the metering and then rotate the dial left or right.
If your camera doesn’t have a rear dial, press the button marked ‘Av+/-’ and turn the Main dial. Take another test shot and review the results, making further adjustments if necessary.