Macro photography has come a long way with an abundance of great lenses and equipment built primarily as aids in close up photography work. Having good equipment alone does not always result in a fantastic photo - check some of mine:). I have had many and I do mean many shots that simply get deleted due to out of focus or bad composition of the subject.
Getting Started: At the very basic set up you need camera and macro lens. I recommend you skip trying filter stacking, although you can acquire a set for under $15.00, I think you will soon outgrow them and the 15 bucks could have been used to buy a proper close-up lens. So, take a look around for a dedicated macro lens, my recommendation is something around 80-105mm as this range offers you working distance between you and your subject. If you are strapped for cash - look around on ebay.
What's important is the lens "image quality" above all else so, check reviews on the lens you intend to purchase.If you can spare a few hundred consider a lens which offers VR / image stabilization if your choice of lens longer than 80mm.
In a more sophisticated set up: You will probably at some point add flash to your close up mix but this is simply not a absolute necessity.
Tripod: This is where you will find different opinions, When I use my smaller macro (60mm) in good sunlight, I generally leave the tripod in the car. When using the larger close up lens it goes with me. Close up work can be back-breaking and having the tripod keeps you working longer and your back happy - trying to hold a 3 pound camera / lens while bent over is not exactly easy.
Knee Pads: Depends on what your after, If your just walking at the Botanical Gardens you can leave them at home, but having a pair can spare your knees the bite of rocks + they are usually cheap so yeah, I carry a pair along when I am out in the wild.
What are the challenging you will face: Wind - windy days are not your friend, when your working only inches from the subject with mm of focus latitude, the least bit of wind can wreck the shot as the subject sways just as you hit the shutter button.
· Exposure Control and critical focusing are required to make the photo pop, keep in mind the closer you focus the higher the f/stops get. On my Nikkor 200mm it shows f 22 but at 1:1 the Camera reads f/40 allowing very little light through (hence why I carry a fill flash). You need depth of field but that can also mean exposures that are simply too long making the image fuzzy if it moves the slightest during the shutter release.
Weather: I love going out on nice sunny cool days, In summer temp and humidity can be overwhelming - I certainly appreciate a lighter load in the hot summer months with plenty of water in my bag.
· Placing yourself down at ground level and working less than a foot from your subject makes for a challenge when trying to focus through the viewfinder that is now eight inches off the ground. Having to do this again and again - standing to ground posture, I finally broke down and purchased a DR-5 Screw-in Right Angle Viewfinder. The viewfinder did in most cases assist me in getting better focus, since you do not need to lay on the ground to look through the viewfinder. Having a 90 degree viewfinder allows you to drop on one knee and look down through it or at an side angle since it can rotate + as an added benefit the DR5 has 2x magnification switch. One may ask how does it work in other situations? Fact is you get use to it, as awkward as it is for normal work, being a screw on and 90 degrees it is not as convenient when shooting landscapes. But, like I said you get use to it, just rotate and look through it from the side. For Macro work the DR5 is handy and saves your back, overall it is a hand tool. Absolutely necessary? No. If you are starting out spend your money on a good lens.
· Subjects that don't sit still: Insects are always a challenge. Luck and patience are key, I have literally spent an hour trying to get one good shot. Spend a few minutes just watching the habits of the insects and with some patience you might be able to predict where it will land, or at least get into position as it passes by. Dragonfly's are a good example, what I found is with dragonfly will often return to a favorite landing perch following their in flight meal run (did you know dragon flies catch other insects in flight?, areas with high many dragon flies have fewer mosquitoes).I set up my camera in hopes of it's return. (did you know dragon flies can not walk?)
Having a decent lens or two in your bag also pays dividends for macro work. As mentioned earlier, it does not need to be the latest made lens, I had been using my 10 year old 105mm for a number of years and find it offers good balance for close up work and distance from subject + is super sharp and being light and sharp and relatively fast is all on the plus side. I later acquired a 180mm Macro from Sigma, some of the photos taken here are with that lens. One may ask why need a longer macro lens, the quick answer is working distance. Some subjects don't appreciate you that close in their face and will fly or crawl off as you approach. Thus having a longer lens helps in those situation. Let me point out - Longer Focal Length also complicates sharpness due to camera movement, if you work above 150mm you may find you need to ramp up the ISO and or use a flash with tripod to acquire excellent sharpness.
Lighting is often overlooked and I carry a flash and use it as fill flash even in daylight for many macro situations. One reason - have you heard the statement - your equipment / you are blocking the sun? With today's cameras you can incorporate flash with minimal investment. Off camera flash is a god send, allowing you to position the flash off camera thatt best suits the lighting need. Sunlight being a primary source of lighting for macro work but it is often necessary for better photos using fill flash.. Finally consider a fold-up reflector that can be used to re-direct some light.. Below is my macro rig I sometime carry out with good results:
|The Close Up Rig
|This rig is built around a Nikon R1C1 close-up system and Really Right Stuff Flash Brackets riding on an ArcaTech Nodal Plate. This is a very robust setup - a bit on the weighty side, but very robust and dependable.
Awareness; Did I just say that? yes, Awareness. What I mean by that word is letting yourself explore with your eyes and ears as you slowly move through the environment. Having your mind focused for attention to details sometime helps discover something you may otherwise overlook. Remember, many of the best shooting subjects are very tiny and walking past without seeing them is a missed opportunity. Awareness also comes into play when you have a particular insect or flower in mind, so you guide yourself to areas that are best suited for the photos you wish to take.
Patience; Insects are not stupid! They are normally prey items for other larger animals and therefore fly or crawl off upon your approach. In the summer I find an area where I see activity then slowly approach with my camera on the ready. Once I am in the mix, I sit still and wait, eventually the insects, butterflies, or bees will return and hopefully when they do land, it will be close to where you are.
Luck; Luck does play an important part in outdoor macro work - purest may dismiss it. I have actually taken a few good shots by being in the right spot at the right time and being lucky. What do they say: if you stay out long enough and go out often enough you will get that one great shot eventually, even if it takes all summer!
What do I carry?At a minimum I carry what I consider are the basics, a decent DSLR camera, a mid range macro lens something in the 100 - 200mm range, a flash, batteries, and a light weight carbon fiber tripod for flower/plant work. My most recent addition is a 200mm Nikon macro to my bag. You don't need to start out with a fleet of equipment, just a camera and good lens.
So, load up your camera and pack your day bag and next time you have a day off, go try your hand at macro photography - It may just open your eyes and surprise you.
Just remember you are the only thing holding yourself back, and with a minimal investment you can have a basic close-up system to explore the smaller things in life.