Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hand-Held Macro Photography

There are times carrying a tripod can be a pain.  I don't carry a tripod when I'm walking city sidewalks. And I don't carry a tripod when I'm trying to photograph my cat.

Inevitably, those become times when I want to take a few extreme close-up shots.

There are other occasions I want to take close-ups without mounting my camera on a tripod. Either I'm too lazy to take a camera mounted on a tripod for a walk around my garden, or I fail to preplan my shoot sufficiently to bring my tripod with me to a destination.  Shame on me.  There are photographers who ALWAYS shoot with a tripod. I'm not one of them.

I've found myself in these situations enough times to have some experience now with hand-held close-up photography.

It's a commonly held assumption that close-up photography needs a tripod mounted camera.  The closer you get, the more problems with shake. Indeed, with shutter speeds less than 3x the focal length of the lens, camera shake can blur an otherwise perfect shot.  A tripod minimizes this hazard. 

With longer focal length macro lenses, above 60mm, camera shake can also be down right distracting when trying to compose and focus for the close-up shots..  A tripod mounted camera addresses this problem as well.

Many shorter focal length lenses possess impressively short focusing distances, often under 12 inches.  That's measured from the focal plane, not the front of the lens, so the subject might be just 5 or 6 inches away from the front element.   

I personally often find myself using wide angle lenses for close-up shots. The wide angle lens is particularly well suited for hand-held shooting, especially when wide open. A shorter focal length can tolerate a slower shutter speed than the longer lenses without blurr ruining the shot. Also, with the lens wide open to minimize depth of field (if that's the desired effect) shutter speeds are usually fast enough to overcome camera shake.

What's changed the game for me is the presence of "live view" on the LCD of my Canon SLR cameras. It's on my Canon 40D and my Canon 5D Mark II.  I believe the 40D was the earliest model on which the live view function appeared. It makes shooting these close-ups and macros so much easier than trying to compose and focus through the view finder.

I love bokeh, and a razor-thin depth of field requires precise focusing. My Photo of the Week for this week is a good example of what I'm talking about.

I made this hand-held shot with my full-frame Canon 5D Mark II set at ISO 100, through a 35mm prime lens at f/1.4 and 1/1600 sec.  The dried flower pod is only a few inches in front of the lens.  The depth of field is nearly as thin as a dime. With a breeze in the air, and the inevitable sway of my body, I took multiple shots to be safe. The picture above is the best of the bunch.

This is how I did it:
  1. Camera controls set to MANUAL, with shutter speed set to at least 3x the focal length
  2. Camera on live-view
  3. Image composed on LCD screen
  4. Focusing rectangle moved over the key element in the image ... in this case, the dried flower pod
  5. Focusing magnification increased to 5x
  6. Focus by moving the camera in and out, not by using the focusing ring on the lens
  7. Shoot a lot of frames once the image seems to be in focus
The best tips I can give are: Use live-view; focus at 5x; don't use the focus ring to focus; keep the shutter speed as fast as possible.

This workflow works with any lens that lets me get close to the subject.  I've used it with a 24mm wide angle lens, a 90mm macro, and even a 300mm telephoto with an extension tube. (Parenthetically, the 300mm gets heavy real fast when trying to do hand-held close-up shots.)

Wide angle lenses are more forgiving than telephoto lenses, but hand-held macro shots are possible even with the longer lenses as long as the shutter is fast enough.

1 comment:

James H. Dricker said...

Coincidentally, I came across an interesting article on the Zeiss blog about lenses for close-ups. Link to it at