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In this post I will not discuss the camera bodies since most people thinking about close up photography already have a Mirrorless or DSLR camera. While a good camera plays an important role in Macro photography I feel the lens and technique are more important.
So if you are looking for a good Macro starter lens or other macro accessories most manufactures offer a many choices when it comes to Macro, not to mention 3rd party lens manufactures such as Sigma or Tamron. Even if you are on a tight budget it is not too difficult to find a variety of top quality Macro lens for any Camera body on the used market. So, we will not start a debate on which camera system is best as long as it supports a reasonable set of digital camera features, a decent ISO range, manual and automatic modes, a sensor with at least 8mb of pixels, and flash support.
I find macro photography both challenging and rewarding those tiny details most photographers walk past are a treasure trove for Macro Photographers.
The Macro Lens. This is one of the most important aspects of your set up. Get the best you can afford but don't go broke doing so. The lens choices depend mainly on how much you can afford and your camera brand. I hate sounding like all the others but I admit a macro between 100 through 150mm is a very good first choice, my very first macro lens was a 105mm which I still have today and still in use. If you already have a standard lens like a 50mm a 105 is a good starter choice. If you are starting out and don't have the budget for two lens but want to do macro I would consider a 60mm macro as it can stand in for your standard walk around lens and do double duty as a good macro. Sometimes I desire a wider macro such as a 60 over the longer ones; situations where I need more of the flower head in the frame, or for those larger flowering plants. Using a 60mm to take a fully blossoming Azalea is a wonderful sight, or a flowering tree or shrubs, longer macros sometime make that a bit more challenging. When choosing a Macro lens look for a lens that will produce 1:1 life size, some macro lens are not true macro.
Second Cheap Option: If you already have a good standard lens and It has the older style aperture ring, which allows you to manually set the aperture. Your in luck! A cheap reverse ring for your lens to camera body only cost about $15.00. Lots of people use this method to do their Macro on the cheap. The down side is most of your settings will need to be dialed in manually plus focusing may be a bit tricky due to the closer working distance with this set up. I have tried this method with a few good shots, but the effort is tedious and I am a bit lazy, so I prefer a standard Macro lens. Another cheap option is buy a set of extension rings some even have the electrical pass through allowing the camera body to read the lens settings.
Working Distance between you and your subject: In flower shooting situations you have some control over how close you can get to the flower, the flower is not going to run away! When shooting with shorter focal lengths macros your lens will be very close to the subject when at 1:1, and at times your head or body actually blocks the light, e.g., your equipment cast shadows on the flower/subject. Having a longer lens such as a 105 you can add about 8 inches between the end of your lens and the subject, and still get 1:1 aspect ratio, and it may be enough distance to allow the light to fall onto your subject naturally, the more light - Higher Shutter = Sharper Subject. It all depends on time of day and your composition. I almost always carry a portable flash with me that I use off camera for poor lighting situations.
I would suggest you invest in a small flash,one that you can fire remotely, wired or wireless. For situations when natural lighting is inadequate or you want to fill flash. There are many DIY setups for mounting the flash for Macro work. Having a small portable flash can make the difference between a dark blurry shot and a bright well light sharp image. Just remember to dial in the flash, you normally just need some fill, not to overpower things making the shot look un-natural. One concern when using flash is specular highlights and is especially true of insects with an exoskeleton. A good diffuser is necessary at times.
Steady She Goes; This is where frustration sets in for most of us. imagine holding a three pound camera and lens hunched over a moving insect while trying to keep it in focus and properly exposed. After awhile your going to get tired. Many don't realize how much effort is required to make a single good exposure. It could take dozens of shots over the course of an hour, and that is if you have a willing subject. Personally, I'm not to steady hand holding my set up so, I often bring along a tripod that facilitates a steady platform and is suitable for macro work. Basically the tripod head needs to articulate into any position, I use a Gitzo. For stationary or slow moving subjects the tripod frees me to focus on the photo rather than struggling with holding a 3 pound camera in an awkward position for 2 minutes. I would not carry a tripod to a crowded botanical garden, but I do keep one handy for the open trails. Sometimes you have to get in very awkward positions and having a tripod to hold your camera and lens is a god send, and keeps you in the fight longer since your not hand holding every shot. My tripod features a ball head I can rotate into any angle as well as the tripod can be as low as 2 inches off the ground. When I am out with the tripod set up and run across a wandering butterfly, I hit the Arca quick release and toss the three legged beast to the side for a few minutes while I go in hand holding mode. Also, you may want to consider knee pads. Nothing worse than going doing on one knee and having a sharp rock under it. Ouch!
The Right Lens: No right answer her. Longer Macros' such as 180mm or 200mm are great for the creepy crawly bugs and spiders, whereas the lens puts even more distance between you and your subject, so the fight or flight instinct is kept to a minimum. Keep in mind the longer the lens the more difficult it is to take sharp hand held photos, but you can do it - you just need to think more. Some longer macro lens now have optical stabilization or VR - great for hand held shots of static things. The longer macro lens will give you the chance to "fill" the frame at a comfortable distance. I like having a longer macro lens for small spring flowers that grow wild along trails and roads. I am talking about the flowers that a very tiny, a longer macro makes capturing the detail easier and this is why for larger flowering plants i prefer the shorter focal length macros such as the 60 or 105.
Time to Process: Processing all those great photos will take a better part of the afternoon. My workflow starts by off loading then immediately deleting the ones that are not useable, I use to keep all the shots - but with storage concerns I now delete the ones that don't make the cut. I start a keep folder and drop in my better shots into that. Then time to fire up the editing software - this is where one software package may not be for everyone. I use a combination, of Photoshop, and Light Room. Lightroom is a great choice for tagging and cataloging your work, and it is easy to search your collection later if properly tagged. If your one a tight budget, you can use one of the many retouch packages available from the internet. At a minimum, make a sensible folder setup to store your images.
Lighting: Whether its natural or flash you need good light for macro work. Like I said earlier I carry at least one flash with me. Consider a off camera diffused setup to soften your edges and make the subject stand out from the background. I sometime try placing the flash off to the side to create a dramatic look. If your camera supports High Speed Sync it is possible to drop the background to black and make the flower stand out.
Macro is more about a passion for close up photography and once you start taking those photos you will want to go further and may even try the 3:1 ratio or closer work for extreme macro shooters. So, Get out and take photos, learn your equipment, and experiment with flash and exposure. Soon, macro it will be as easy as landscape and become second nature.