Macro images of an orchid taken in the studio on 17 March 2012.

Spent part of the weekend playing around with this whole macro thing some more and have finally started to straighten out some of the workflow and technique. It’s nice to be making progress; it feels good. On the other hand, other things seem more convoluted than ever.

My Takumar 55mm f/2 lens arrived from eBay and has made a huge difference in shooting, over the 135mm I’d initially tried with. The 55mm requires that I shoot from a much, much closer distance. It’s a mixed blessing, as it’s both easier an harder to work that close to the subject. For example, the it’s hard to get the tripod that close, but the shorter focal length translates into friendlier shutter speeds. Like everything else in photography, it’s a toss-up.

Daffodil photographed with Takumar 55mm f/2 macro lens setup on the evening of 18 March 2012.

In terms of technique, there seems to be two methods: tripod-mounted and hand-held. “Duh,” you say – how else would you shoot? But hear me out. Shooting from a tripod, you’re working slow on a static subject. You’re stopping the lens way, way down – often as far down as it will go, to maximize your razor-thin DOF. Even with the ISO bumped up to 200 (or 400), your shutter speeds are approaching a second, or more. The only way this works is if your environment is absolutely still. The slightest breeze throws it all off.

Hand-held lets you avoid some of this. You’re shooting at a wider aperture out of necessity, just to keep the shutter speed in a manageable range. Free of the tripod, you’re forgetting about the focus ring and simply rocking back and forth to move the plane of focus across your subject, until you get it where you want it. Letting the shutter rip through a few frames in high-speed continuous is a good idea, to combat any latent motion or focus shifts.

Daffodil photographed with Takumar 55mm f/2 macro lens setup on the evening of 18 March 2012.

Both methods are equally valid and which you use will depend on your preferences as a photographer. Personally, as much as I may try, I’m not a tripod photographer. I find it too restricting and, despite a genuine desire to slow down, it frustrates me. Which means that I’ll be hand-holding whenever the situation allows.

So from a technique perspective, I’ve gotten the feel for things both ways. It’s picky, precise work. But the resulting images make it worthwhile. I’m starting to get close to some shots that I’ve long admired. And I’m digging the look.

Here’s where things get foggy again: the math doesn’t add up. (It rarely does, for me.) Last post, I mentioned the extension tube / focal length = magnification equation, which I’d found online. It made sense. I was willing to run with it. Except the little chart that came in the box with the extension tubes gives different figures. The original equation says that a 55mm lens with 68mm of extension will give 1.23x; the chart says the same pairing gives 1.75x. Clearly they can’t both be right, which means I’ve messed up somewhere. So until I sort that out (yeah, right), I’m sticking with the chart.

What I have found is that, regardless of what the final numbers are, using all 68mm of extension tube is even more difficult. The magnification level is so high, and the working distance so shallow, that it’s almost impossible to nail a shot. I’ve backed off to 36mm of tubes, which leaves me about 1.25x (if we believe the chart) while providing a more realistic working environment.

Macro images of an orchid taken in the studio on 17 March 2012.

To this point, my macro experiments have all taken place at home. This week, I’m headed into the field with it. Spring is exploding all around here, making it the perfect time to get some super close-ups.

More to come…

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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