Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Macro Nation... Part one of three

Well, it's been a long time since I posted last and I had some inspiration so I decided to start working on a tutorial or some random tips on Macro photography. I have spent a lot of time working on my macro techniques and have perfected a few areas and hopefully I'm able to explain in enough detail on how I achieve my final result.

First we need to talk about equipment, specifically about the camera and lens used and what settings I tend to be in. You all should know that I shoot Pentax, specifically the Pentax K10D, which is their flagship camera and can handle pretty much anything that confronts you in the realm of photography. The camera is setup very well for this type of shooting as options and settings are easily accessible from the hard buttons on the body as well as being able to take a lot of abuse and the occasional shower won't hurt the camera.

Settings that are great for macro photography have a lot to do with depth of field (DOF), which basically has to do with how much of something is in focus. I always shoot my macro images in Av mode (aperture priority mode) which is wonderful because you plug in the aperture and it makes sure you have the correct shutter speed so you've already made this one step easier by only having to worry about one setting. Also a must for macro photography is a low ISO because detail is very important and something shot at ISO 1600 isn't going to jump off the page as much as something in the 100-400 range. I consider the 100-400iso range perfectly capable to produce stunning results and still allows you a lot of room to crop images without having too much noise. Now we have random personal settings... which are basically all the other settings that I have found really do make a difference out in the field so it's advisable to atleast give a few of them a try.

1. Manual Focus (it's a must and I'll tell you why later)
2. Center AF point only (also a must)
3. Single Shot mode (a personal preference, but weill explain more)
4. Noise reduction off (I find ACR does a better job plus it makes things a little peppier)
5. Center weighted metering (a must on this)
6. Shake Reduction ON (this is why Pentax rules macro people)
7. Set EV to front e-dial (makes things a million times faster)
8. Program Line set to Depth of Field or option 3
9. EV Steps set to 2
10. Sensitivity set to 2
11. Auto EV compensation set to 2
12. Flash in wireless mode set to 2

Those basic setting changes makes for simple easy shooting because you're going to be in places that aren't going to allow you the best opportunity to change them plus these are split second shots people and your speed matters here just as much as your patience and ability.

Manually focusing gives you the highest degree of focus perfection so start practicing folks and yes do use the the beep sound to confirm lock if you're not fully sure of yourself. One thing someone who has no experience with a macro specific lens should know is that they have a huge focus time from infinity to 1:1 so auto focus is going to be slow even with an SDM because it has to jump through hoops to go from one area to another so just don't do it. Yes, you can focus faster than the camera with these lenses so trust yourself and you'll do a better job then letting the camera have its way with you.

Center AF point is set because auto and moving the point around is again too slow period. You're much better off either just focus right in the center and cropping later or focus and compose because you'll have many more successful shots this way and I've got thousands of images as proof.

Single shot mode... I'm only using this setting because if you shoot and hold the shutter I've found that in difficult positions you get WAY too much camera shake so it's better to do it one at a time and go in for another when you're body is stable cause you may be pushing the limits at a shutter speed of about 1/60 or less so relax and fire one instead of machine gun style.

Noise reduction tends to be cleaner in ACR plus I've found that I can fire off 11 shots in continuous mode with it off so it can be helpful.

Center weighted metering is the safest and smartest metering mode because you want your subject to be perfectly exposed and you want less blown highlights. The full meter tends to blow highlights in tough situations while center weighted 99% of the time will underexpose which is awesome because we can always bring that back without loosing detail. My technique goes focus on subject, hit AE-L, compose and if you don't compose then center weighted is so awesome that you don't need to hit AE-L and you cna just focus and shoot and your subject will be awesomely exposed.

Shake reduction is why I purchased a K10D over a Canon 5D folks and trust me I liked what the 5D could do, but it sucks in macro without a flash or tripod or a 1300 lens which takes away from some of the fun and ease of use. With the K10D you can handhold a 1/60 shot two feet in front of you and still come home with a crisp shot and heck even at 1/50 you may be able to pull off the impossible while trying that with a 5D you might as well go home and take pictures for what you're going to sell on ebay for the lens you need to even try this.

The rest of the settings are really personal and have found the results to come out better with them so I keep it that way, but do play around as you may find things that give better results.

The lens is the next big step in macro photography as many of us know shooting with a lens and close up filter doesn't cut it sometimes and the true macro lens is extremely versatile. I prefer the Sigma 105mm 2.8 because of its cost to performance ratio and it's build quality is over the top folks. It's built like a tank and take pictures like a gem with a price $150 less than the Pentax 100mm 2.8 macro which take just as sharp shots, but does beat the Sigma in contrast. Also the fact that it has a focus limiter is awesome and the way it goes from AF to MF is quite excellent. One thing you need to know with this lens... always set your EV +0.3 or 0.7 because it tends to underexpose a great deal and I do not know why.

A flash is also great to help you max out your exposure and I tend to mount my AF360 and lowered to -10 degrees in case I need some extra light on the subject. After playing with different settings I tend to shoot with it in HSS (high speed sync) mode to give an image the extra boost but I also try a diffuser and direct fire it or use it wirelessl at an angle so this is the one area I am lacking the most in so please do experiment with this and find what works for you.

Tripod... I don't use a tripod but with long exposure macro it's a must (anything less than 1/50 but we are really talking like a second or longer) and I myself have never shot anything of that nature, but there could be a day. I tend to shoot in marshes, bogs, swamps, waterways and forests so a tripod would only get in the way so trust your equipment and boost your ISO if you have to and use other tools so you can leave the tripod at home and make your trip that much easier.

Other fun things to carry around:
Bandanna or wristbands... trust me shooting macros is hard work and you will sweat if you work at it for an extended period of time and find myself having to shower after each trip. Having a bandanna or wristband also gives you something to wipe your camera off or just to have in case of emergency so it is a multi purpose tool. I also recommend lots of memory cards, I tend to have 8 gigs on my person at all times and in a handy place because I'm nowhere near a computer nor will I carry one with me because it's just silly so just carry lots of memory it's fairly cheap and is always useful. A long telephoto is also helpful because it may not be a true macro lens but it's ability to get an object to fill the frame can do the job so carry one even the Tamron 70-300mm 4-5.6 DI makes a wonderufl macro lens at times and gives you a wonderful working distance to keep most bugs from running away.

The next installment will contain the actual shooting techniques on how to get close enough to your subject to make it worth while trying this sector of photography and trust me you'll think I'm nuts when you're done reading it, but it does work and WILL work for you if you try it.