Introduction: Macro Photography and Photomicroscopy

This tutorial will cover Micro Photography, and Photomicroscopy. Before we get started, there are a few things you need to know.
  • Macro photography is the same thing as Micro photography. Same thing, different name. See why here if you must know. I will refer to it as Macro from here on out for the sake of consistency.
  • Macro filters can be used to achieve a macro effect, but true macro photography uses true macro lenses.
  • A true macro lens has a reproduction ratio of at least 1:1. Traditionally, this means that the size of the object on the (35mm) negative, is the same size or greater than the object is in real life.
  • Photomicroscopy refers to photography that achieves reproduction ratios much greater than 1:1. This is often produced with a microscope; however, this tutorial will discuss an alternate method.
  • A lens that is not classified as a macro lens can still be used for macro photography with the use of macro filters or other mechanisms such as extension tubes, bellows, or even a second lens mounted backward to the first (which I will discuss later).
Note: There are a lot of different techniques for macro photography. Entire books can be written on each method. This is just a basic tutorial that explains the method I often use.
With that being said, there are several techniques that will not be covered in this tutorial. If you feel that I'm missing something important, feel free to post any additional techniques in the comments section, but be aware that I know this is by no-means an exhaustive tutorial.

Step 1: What to Use

As I mentioned before, there are several methods used for macro photography and photomicroscopy. I will be demonstrating my method, but I will offer some basic advice later on for simple macro photography. The following is a list of items which I used to take the photos you see in this tutorial.

What To Use: (see photo for exact item names)
  • SLR Camera (preferably digital)
  • Bellows and/or extension tubes
  • Macro lens
  • Ringlight Flash
  • Shutter Release Remote
  • Tripod
  • Flashlight (not shown)
  • Color Gels (not shown)

Step 2: Bellows/ Extension Tubes

Why use Bellows/ extension tubes?
Extending the distance between the lens and the image sensor, is one technique used in macro photography and photomicroscopy.
  • The further the lens is from the image sensor, the closer the focusing distance, the greater the magnification, and the darker the image given the same aperture.
  • By using both, I can extend my lens as far from the image sensor as possible, for the greatest possible magnification.
  • Tubes of various lengths can be stacked, decreasing lens-to-subject distance and increasing magnification.
  • Bellows can be used for fine-focusing and controlled magnification.
  • Bellows or tubes eliminate infinity focus.
  • Bellows alone generally will advance your magnification from macro to photomicroscopy, because reproduction ratios of as much as 11:1 can be achieved.
  • Bellows with extension tubes can potentially achieve reproduction ratios of 20:1 or higher.
How to Adjust bellows:
Adjusting knobs 1 and 2 will change the amount of extension of the bellows. More extension means more magnification.
Adjusting knob 3 will move the unit along the rail.
  1. Adjust knobs 1 and 2 to your approximate desired magnification.
  2. Adjust knob 3 to bring your lens into position over the subject.
  3. Focus your lens to approximate focus.
  4. Fine focus the image by using either knob 2 or 3.
  • The farther the lens is from the image sensor, the darker the image will be, and the closer the focusing distance will be. The focusing distance is the depth of field, or amount of the subject that will be in focus.
  • The farther the lens is from the image sensor, the closer the lens will need to be to the subject for proper focus.
  • By using bellows and extension tubes, the focusing distance can be less than a fraction of a millimeter, making focusing difficult.
  • By using bellows and extension tubes, the image may not be visible in normal lighting.
These two problems can make focusing difficult or impossible, depending on your subject.
  • Using a flashlight will lend enough light for focusing, but may not provide enough light to take a photo.
  • Because of the limited light, you must either:
    A.) use a flash
    B.) use a wide aperture
    C.) use a slow shutter speed
  • When focusing on such a small area, even the slightest camera movements (undetectable to the naked eye) are magnified, and therefore, using too slow of a shutter speed can cause motion blur in the photos.
  • Using a wide aperture further reduces the focusing distance, making focusing more difficult, and can prevent you from getting the object you wish to photograph entirely in focus.
  • Since increasing your aperture and decreasing your shutter speed are often not enough to achieve a quality photo, it leaves only one solution: Decrease your aperture (make it smaller), Increase your shutter speed, and use a flash.

Step 3: Ringlight Flash

As I discussed in the previous step, using a bellows/ extension tubes will darken the image significantly. A light-source must be used to achieve a decent exposure without blurring.

There are 2 methods I have used in doing so:
  1. Ringlight Flash
  2. Flashlight/ lamp
Ringlight Flash
A ringlight flash is the best way to illuminate your subject for macro photography.
  • A ringlight evenly illuminates the subject from every angle.
  • It provides intense, pure white light
  • Allows for smaller aperture (f1:16, f1:22, etc) to be used for increased depth of field.
  • A normal external or internal flash typically will not work, because the lens will interfere with the path from the bulb to the subject.
  • Allows the lens to get much closer to the subject while still providing adequate lighting than an external light would, and therefore allows for maximum magnification.
Flashlight/ lamp- A flashlight and or lamp can be used to provide extra illumination

  • Will remain on, allowing you to see the object you are trying to focus on.
  • Can provide back-lighting, or directional lighting for different effects, and to highlight contours.
  • Colored gels can be used to cast color on the object for dramatic effects.
  • Can get very hot (may affect your subject- for example: if you're trying to photograph snowflakes, it may partially or completely melt the snow before you can photograph it.
  • Will not be as bright/ clean as the light a flash will provide.
  • Will not provide as consistent of lighting as a ringlight will.
  • Lens cannot be as close, therefore limiting the magnification potential.
Try using both!
  • Unless I'm photographing an object that will be effected by the lamp (ice, snow, jelly, etc), I use the lamp to help focus, then use my flash to take the picture.
  • Focusing without a lamp/flashlight is very difficult and requires a lot of trial and error.

Step 4: Difference in Magnification

This is to demonstrate how you can use different combinations of equipment to achieve different levels of magnification, here are some photos to demonstrate.
  1. Taken with 55mm Micro-Nikkor f1:2.8 without extension tubes, bellows, or ringlight, (not a reproduction ratio of 1:1)
  2. Taken with 55mm Micro-Nikkor f1:2.8 with 2 Nikon PK-13 extension tubes and Sunpak ringlight flash
  3. Taken with 55mm Micro-Nikkor f1:2.8 with Nikon PK-13 extension tube, Nikon PB-6 bellows (full extension) and Sunpak ringlight flash.
As you can see, the farther the lens is from the image sensor (camera), the higher the magnification.
The fuchsia you see is where the inks have bled together. The dots in the red are air bubbles in the ink during printing.

Step 5: Snowflakes

As I mentioned earlier. Taking pictures of snowflakes can be challenging, because using a lamp or flashlight to aid in focusing will often deform or melt the delicate flakes before a photo can be taken.
Most my success with snowflakes comes with trial-and-error, but there are some tips for those willing to try.

  • Find fluffy snow- fluffy, dry, snow will have the most loose, individual snow flakes. If the snow is overly wet, the flakes will clump and you will not find the classic "snowflake" shapes like you see here.
  • Photograph at Night- nighttime provides a stark black background to accentuate the highlights in the snowflakes. If you try during the day, the lack of contrast will make it difficult to see the flakes.
  • Photograph the edge- Find a small pile of untouched loose snow, and photograph the very edge (topmost part) of it. I took these from snow that had landed on my balcony railing. If you photograph straight down at the snow, or directly into the snow (to where the snow takes up the whole frame) you will not see any flakes, but probably just flat white with little texture. Again, you need the stark black background for the flakes to stand out.
  • Keep Clicking- I haven't found a way to pre-focus on the snow without melting it (I suppose you could use cool LED lights), so the best way I've found is trial and error. Use a tripod, take a photo, make minor adjustments until you find a nice solitary flake.

Step 6: Soap Suds (with Ringlight)

Taking photos of Soap Suds is much easier than snow, for several reasons.
  • You can use an external light to aid in focusing.
  • Most suds will look interesting, versus searching forever to find an individual snowflake.
  • You can manipulate things like the background, sud size, etc.
    Try using different colored bowls and pans, and different amounts of soap. Using more soap will give off psychedelic oil patterns like you can see in the photos here.
  • Using the Ringlight allows you to get a much greater magnification than you could without it.
The photos here are all taken with the ringlight flash.
The benefit of using the flash is your increased depth of field, and reduction of motion blur that you might have if just using a lamp or flashlight.

CAUTION: If using your flash close to liquid, be sure not to submerge it, as electric shock, and damage to your equipment can occur.

Step 7: Soap Suds (with Backlighting)

Taking photos of soap suds without a flash has it's pros and cons.

  • Using a lamp allows for the use of colored gels (I used different shades of blue in most of the photos shown) which can produce great looking unique images.
  • The gels also help accentuate the contours of the bubbles as well.
  • Using a lamp allows for easy focusing
  • Short depth of field- Because the light is less intense than a flash, a wider aperture must be used to achieve the correct exposure (without reducing your shutter speed so much that images become blurred).
  • The short depth of field eliminates some of the crisp, hard edges you see in the ringlight photos; however, it does create an abstract look that I like for certain artistic qualities.

Step 8: Other Objects

Taking photos of non-translucent objects is different than bubbles and snowflakes, because you do not have to worry so much about lighting and positioning. Simply placing the object on something with a solid background (black seems to be best), or propping the object up (and using blank space which will appear black in the photos), will make the objects stand out well.

Don't limit yourself to just things that you believe will look interesting close-up. Take photos of things you wouldn't have first thought, because you will be surprised at how beautiful some things can look up-close, that look bland or boring to the naked eye.

Also, don't limit yourself to still-life shots either. Some things look entirely different in motion, than they do still. Take the water-drop shown here for example.

Step 9: Simple Macro Photography

NOTE: Unless noted, all photos in this group were taken with the Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f1:28 lens, with no flash, extension tube, or bellows.

By using more simple methods, almost any lens can be used for macro photography.

A telephoto lens can even be used for macro photography, but minimum focusing distances may make it difficult (if you are too close, you will not be able to focus on the object), and a tripod will probably be necessary for focusing. Telephoto lenses can come in handy for objects that are difficult to get close to for photos, such as wildlife (see frog picture).

A cheap way to make any lens a macro lens is by using macro filters, also known as "close-up lenses" or "diopters." They usually come in sets, and can be used in combination with each other to achieve different levels of magnification. Essentially, they work like little magnifying glasses.

An extension tube is another cheap way to get some added magnification out of any lens, although macro lenses work best with extension tubes or bellows. There are different types of extension tubes, and they can also be bought in sets and used in combination to allow for variable magnification. Some are even available that have built in electrical contacts so lenses with auto-focus and/or electric aperture capabilities can still be used. These can be used with almost any lens. Your focal range will be limited, but the magnification will be multiplied.

A macro lens can be used without bellows or extension tubes, and because of its design, it will create macro shots with a reproduction ratio of 1:1. The great thing about using macro lenses, is that they have incredibly fine focus and clarity (especially at close focal-ranges) that a normal lens will not have.

Another method (albeit not really that simple) is totake two lenses and mount them together with a coupling ring.
This is an old method that is still in use today.
  • The longer focal-length lens mounts to the camera (we'll say 100mm for example)
  • The shorter focal-lenth lens (we'll say 35mm) is mounted BACKWARDS to the front of the longer lens with a coupling ring.
  • This turns the second lens into a magnifying glass. Most lenses take a large object/ scene and shrink it down to fit the frame of the image sensor/film, so naturally, if it is turned around backwards, it will do the opposite- it will magnify the objects.
  • The shorter focal-length lens is best if it's a wide angle lens. The wider the focal-length, the more magnification it will produce.
  • Here is a tutorial on this method