Extreme macro photography is not for me

Jumping Spider by Thomas Shahan

Jumping Spider by Thomas Shahan

I want to be able to take photos like the spectacular example above by Thomas Shahan. Well, not exactly like it; as photogenic as those little critters are, spiders and I don’t mix, especially when jumping is involved, but I’ve always been impressed by extreme close-up macro photography, so when I read about the Yasuhara Nanoha Lens 4x-5x Super Macro Lens I decided to take a punt and buy one, even though I already had the 1:1 Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. There’s something so compelling about the idea of getting really, really close. I expected working with this lens to be difficult, but it turned out to be way harder than I had imagined. So hard in fact, that I’m giving up.Nanoha Lens

I’ve previously tried doing 2:1 magnification using the Olympus 35mm f/3.5 Macro in combination with the EX-25 extension tube. It didn’t work very well. The lens was virtually touching the subject, which meant lighting was almost impossible. The odd looking Nanoha lens seemed to offer a way around both problems; it is designed to work at a focal distance of 11-19mm, small, but by no means unworkable, and it offered a clever solution to the lighting problem by integrating USB-powered LED lighting right into the lens body. This had to be worth a try; if it worked, I’d be able to fill the frame with a grain of rice.

The first thing I tried to shoot with this lens was a bowl of sugar. I shook the bowl until the sugar was completely flat and carefully positioned my camera facing straight down at it. I had the tripod on the floor and the sugar bowl on a chest of drawers next to it. Just focusing turned out to be really hard. To my amazement, shifting my weight from one foot to the other anywhere near the tripod caused the floor to shift the tripod imperceptibly and alter the composition. I tried remote shutter releases and a Gorilla Pod, but ultimately found the only reliable way to ensure the subject doesn’t move at all in relation to the camera is to physically attach the subject to the camera or at least place both the camera and the subject on the same support.

Stabilising the camera turned out to be the least of my problems. After several attempts I realised I was never going to get the shot I was attempting because even at f/32, the depth of field on this lens is thinner (by far) than a single sugar crystal. I expected shallow DoF but I was astonished at just how shallow it actually is. As far as I can tell it is simply impossible to photograph anything thicker than a bank note with this lens in a single shot. It can be done with multiple shots using a technique called focus stacking.

With focus stacking, you take many (potentially hundreds) of exposures each with a slightly different focus and use specialised software such as Zerene Stacker to merge the results into a single image. Focus stacking can be done either by adjusting the focus on the camera, or physically moving the camera on a focus rail. There is no way to control the manual focus on the Nanoha lens with a computer and manually adjusting the focus by fractions of a millimetre dozens of times would obviously be impossible, so that leaves focus rails. Decent quality manual focus rails run to about £200, but if I had to take say 250 shots and manually adjust the position of the camera between each shot it would take literally hours to compose a single photo. No way I’m doing that. That leaves motorised solutions like the StackShot, which starts at around £400 for the cheapest model, but would at least fully automate the movement of the camera and remote shutter release. Add in a licence for Zerene Stacker and the cost is starting to get out of control.

Even if I spent all that money on software equipment I’d be far from guaranteed rewarding results. Extreme macro photography is hard, way harder than any other type of photography I’ve attempted, and when I impulsively bought the Nanoha lens I didn’t stop to think what 3mm wide subjects I wanted to photograph. I’m starting to realise there’s a reason all the sample photos for these lenses are of flies, ants and bank notes; it’s because there are actually very few things that are both interesting and identifiable at that scale.

The Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro shoots at 1:1 magnification with a far more practical working distance of 19cm, and can double as a handy portrait lens. 1:1 magnification on a four thirds body fills the frame with a subject 18mm across the diagonal, which is still pretty intense magnification. Cropping from the 16MP E-M1 further increases magnification, and with the new high resolution mode on the E-M5 MkII significantly tighter crops are possible whilst maintaining acceptable resolution.

Going beyond 1:1 magnification is a really specialised pursuit that evidently requires a significant investment in time, money and patience. If like me you are easily seduced by the idea of extreme macro photography, I would advise you to consider what you actually want to use it for and whether you’re prepared for the learning curve and expense before jumping in. Otherwise like me you’ll end up with a lens you lack the skill or the motivation to use and like me you’ll end up hawking it on eBay for a loss.

UPDATE:

I decided to have another go at this today, if for no other reason than to grab a few exposures to keep as souvenirs of this experiment. Using every trick in my toolbox to stabilise the shot, including a plastic “stage” attached the front of the lens with the subject stuck to it with blu-tack, I managed to get some semi-passable results. None of them are pin sharp or particularly interesting, but I thought I may as well post them here to provide a bit of context.

The matchstick head in particular really sums up my experience with this lens. I couldn’t even fit the whole matchstick head in the frame – that’s how much magnification this thing has. The magnification that seemed like such a great idea before I bought it now seems impossibly limiting. I’m really struggling to imagine what I’d like to photograph at this scale – very few insects would even fit in this tiny field of view. An ant maybe, or some part of an insect’s head. It took me all afternoon to get these three shots, and I don’t even like them. This kind of photography is definitely not for me.

Five pence

 

Five pence crop

Matchstick head

Matchstick head crop

Eyebrow hair

Eyebrow hair crop