Text And Photography By Dave Welling
A larger-than-life paper wasp engages a water bug at the local watering hole.
A flowery detail shot of the Texas prickly pear. There’s a wonderful miniature world out there you can capture with your camera. There are flowers and lichens at your feet, insects buzzing everywhere, tiny frogs and lizards hiding in the ground cover and miniature scenics in every grand landscape. To capture the essence of this world, know your subject, pay strict attention to your composition and know the working details of your equipment. Every lens you have has the potential to be a great lens for close-up or macro work when you know their benefits and limits. Decide what you want to photograph and how you want to present your subject, and you can select your lens accordingly. Telephotos can give you a comfortable working distance, while extreme close-up situations with depth of field are suited to your arsenal of wide-angle lenses. Optional equipment like diopters, extension tubes and teleconverters broaden your photo opportunities and the subjects you can effectively photograph.
First, I’ll go over some math. Don’t panic! It’s simple, and understanding the math defines reproduction ratios so it’s pretty important. The reproduction ratio of the image size on the film plane or digital sensor, X, to the actual size of the subject you’re photographing, Y, is expressed as a ratio, X:Y. An image that’s reproduced at “life-size” (image size equals subject size) on a film plane/sensor would have a reproduction ratio of X = 1 to Y = 1, or 1:1). Typically, “close-up” photography involves reproduction ratios from about 1:10 (the subject size is 10 times the image size on the film plane/sensor) to about 1:1 (life-size). Ratios where the film plane/sensor size is equal to or greater than the subject size, such as 2:1 (the image size on the film plane/sensor is twice the size of the subject) is usually referred to as “macro” or “super-macro” photography. There’s wiggle room in the definitions, and the terms are often interchanged.
To capture truly great macro images, it’s a good idea to research your subject. For example, to photograph mating gray petaltail dragonflies or robber flies, you need to know where to find them, when they’re present and active, and how wary they are of your approach. For wildflowers, you need to know what species you want to photograph, where you can find them and when they bloom. You also need to decide whether you want basic record images or artistic impressions. Do you want your subject and its environment, or are you trying to isolate a singular feature? These are key composition considerations for any macro photograph.
A Western diamondback rattlesnake captured from a safe distance in the Rio Grande. There are a number of other considerations that play important roles in your lens and accessory selection. Depth of field, subject concerns like working distance, and the choice between a cleaner background that will isolate a subject versus backgrounds that include the habitat and surroundings all figure into your gear choices. Most nature photographers carry macro lenses, optimized for close-up work, but they’re not the only arrows you should have in your quiver. All your lenses, from wide-angle to supertelephoto, and accessories like extension tubes and high-quality achromatic lenses can be part of your macro equipment.
Early in my career, I didn’t even own a macro lens. I used a Nikon medium telephoto zoom and two-element Nikon diopters. The zoom telephoto provided a good working distance for wary insects, but the minimum focusing distance was too far for small subjects. The diopters let me focus closer, emphasizing the subject. I recommend high-quality, two-element diopters. They’re very sharp and you don’t suffer the light loss of extension tubes. I captured great photos with this initial setup, but I wanted to improve my images and started researching macro lenses. A lens designed for true macro work is optimized for edge-to-edge sharpness and close-focusing capability without the need of additional elements like diopters or extension tubes.
Eventually, I purchased an extremely sharp Micro-Nikkor 200mm