Thursday, November 19, 2009

I Don't Know What You Need


Grumpy Old Man
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
I get a lot of questions about gear, and one of the most common is "What macro lens should a beginner get?". Since it's a common question I figured it would make a good post for the blog, and I was all set to tell you my preference too. But while I was thinking of what lens and why it hit me: What I would tell you to buy is based on my experience, the way that I like to shoot, and the subjects that I chase with the camera. It's all personal preference based on a lot of trial and error and a lot of money spent trying to figure it all out.

You're not me, I'm not psychic, so I don't know what you need.

Ask a dozen macro shooters what the best piece of gear is for macro and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. None of them are necessarily wrong, it's just that each person is telling you what they would get if they knew then what they know now. Unfortunately none of it, or some of it, might be right for you.

Good luck figuring out what to choose...

I can tell you some generic things that might help you make up your own mind though, things that I've learned through trial and error and a lot of gear that's just collecting dust.

There's no such thing as a "bug lens".

From the insect's perspective there is no difference between the 3.5" working distance of Canon's EF-S 60mm macro lens and the 180mm L's 8.9" working distance. As far as the critter's concerned you're too stinkin' close. How much you know about the subject's habits and quirks, and the willingness of the subject to stay put, is going to determine if you can get close enough to take a shot and not the working distance of the lens. If you cast a shadow over the subject then odds are it's not going to stick around, and a long focal length lens can help you to keep from spooking the critter. But as long as you know that shadows are bad a short focal length lens will work just fine for shooting anything. Last a long focal length lens will give you better background blur (called "bokeh") and if you plan on shooting a lot of closeup images a shorter lens might not give you the overall image quality that you want.

It's easier to go above life size with a shorter focal length lens.

It's simple math: The magnifying effect of adding extension tubes is greater with a shorter lens than a longer one. On the surface it takes 60mm of extension to take a 60mm macro lens to 2x and 180mm of extension for a 180mm lens. But the formula breaks down in a really cool way -most macro lenses lose focal length at life size. Canon's EF-S 60mm is actually a 37mm lens when the focus ring is set to 1:1 (life size). So all it takes is 37mm of extension tubes to get to 2x -sweet! I'm not sure how much the 180 L loses at 1x, but I'm sure it's not less than 100mm and that's a lot of extension on a lens that's already long and heavy.

The best lens is the one you take with you.

I've got a lot of heavy, expensive L glass sitting in my closet. I've got an 18-55mm IS kit lens in my camera bag...

You can use any flash for macro.

With few exceptions the light source doesn't matter -but the quality of that light does. The important thing to remember is to use a good diffuser, one that actually diffuses the light and doesn't just block it, and get the flash close to what you're shooting. A lot of the macro that I do is really nothing more than a form of flash based stop motion photography. It's not as obvious as freezing the motion of an exploding balloon, but none the less I'm still using the short duration of the flash to freeze motion so that I can get sharp images. Using a good diffuser, and getting the flash close to what I'm shooting, allows me to keep the flash duration as short as possible. Although it sounds like I'm talking about flash photography from my perspective, since I hand hold the camera, I'm really not. A tripod won't stop the subject from moving. One final note on macro flashes: A ring flash, even one that allows for ratio control, is going to produce flat light when compared to a macro twin flash or a standard camera flash on a bracket. Ring flashes are great -for dental and portrait photography...

You don't need a tripod, or any tripod accessories, to shoot macro.

See the flash section above about getting sharp images by freezing motion with the flash. I typically look for ways to brace the camera, or I'll use the Left Hand Brace Technique. You can use a tripod, but the more hardware you add the more limited you'll be. There are a lot of subjects that just won't sit still and wait for you to setup a tripod, adjust a ball head, and focus the scene with a focusing rail. So if all you want to do is take static photos of dew covered critters, or other forms of still life, then get a tripod. I prefer not to be held back by a lot of gear and to go after active subjects, when they let me, so I took the training wheels off of my camera a long time ago :D

I know it's frustrating, and I really do wish there was a "go hear and do this" kind of answer for all of the people out there who want to get into the greatest photographic discipline of them all, macro. But unfortunately you're going to have to figure out a few things on your own, I can't teach you experience, and I'm not you. Sorry...
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