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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Little Things in Life

I just love a good close-up. Seriously, there is nothing better than a full frame still life to me. I have bought a lot of crap that I thought would get me where I wanted to be photographically and have been let down. Shooting small is just the same. The basic rules of buying macro gear applies to pretty much any other kind of gear. 1) Research, 2) Research, 3) Acknowledge that the quality of your gear will only get you so far, 4) toys are toys, and 5) Don't be afraid to spend money where it will do you good. With those as my basic assumptions, here are some thoughts on shooting the small.

Macro (or Micro in Nikon talk) is simply the ability to shoot subjects that are small at a closer distance than your "normal" lens will allow. The amount of magnification is measured as a ratio. 1:1 is considered true macro. Think of it as, what is 1" in real life would take up 1" of film or your digital sensor. The image to the right is a raspberry dropped into some wine. Because the images wasn't cropped, and because we know that a raspberry is approximately the same size as my Nikon D80's sensor, that image is a 1:1 macro. If I was to print the image out as a 4x6 the berry would now be much larger than life size. So goes the sexiness of macro.

Here's your macro choices:
1. Close-up Filters [Sucks] ~$20
2. Extension Tubes[Clunky] ~$165
3. 60mm Nikon [I Own] ~$380 or 150mm Sigma [I'm thinking about] ~$575
4. Reverse Ring [I own a wonderful macro, so never bothered with this step.]

So the first thing I bought was a set of close-up filters. Perhaps the biggest waste of money I have ever spent on camera equipment. The idea behind these filters is you can use your normal lenses and just screw these little guys on to be able to focus closer. Sounds great. They are cheap. They suck. They can world great if all you are shooting are flat objects. You have very limited depth of field. Perhaps what I hate most about them is once they are on, all you can shoot are subjects at close range. Blah. I want useful and versatility. The meter in your camera will still work as well as the auto-focus features - so those are both pluses.

Next up, the extension tubes. These are glassless tubes that all you to attach a normal lens to your camera, but move the optics away from the film or sensor. This allows you to focus much closer than you otherwise would. While the image quality you will get from these are better than what you would expect from a set of close-up filters, the usefulness is still lower than a real macro lens. To use the extension tubes, you still have to remove your lens, and add one or more tubes, replace your lens, and then take your picture. The amount of magnification will increase the more tubes you use. But be warned, so will the amount of light loss you will experience. Nikon makes a nice set of tubes, but I have read over and over, that Kenko's tubes are superior if for only the reason that they allow the auto focus features of your camera to work.

Another alternative is the reverse ring. This is a doodad that allows you to take your perfectly good lenses and turn it around backwards. I do actually have one of these, sort of. I have a holga lens that has been mounted on a Nikon body cap. I can unscrew the lens, turn it around backwards and move it in and out from the camera body to focus. I does surprisingly well for a lens cut off a $20 camera. I consider the reverse ring another solution that is good if you don't do macro all that much.

Here is where things get good in my book. Macro lenses. When I lived in Europe for a year, I took my trusty, now retired, X-GM and two lenses: a Vivitar 100mm 1:2 macro (yes, I said Vivitar) and a Minolta 28mm. I hardly ever took that macro off my camera. It was just a wonderful lens that was very versatile for me. I believe I paid $80 for it in 1996. The wonderful part about macro lenses, is they are pretty hard for camera manufactures to screw up. They have realtively few elements and they should NEVER EVER EVER EVER be a zoom lens. These are simple lenses that will give you a sharp image at a variety of distances. The wonderful part about using a macro lens for a travel lens, is if you are walking around, say Berlin, you can take all the images you want of Berlin Wall art and "zoom" in as close as you want by just moving closer to the subject. At the same time, if you wanted to take a nice portrait of someone, you have the focal length to give you a flatter image. Another bonus of the macro lens, is they usually come in f2.8. As autofocus lenses go, getting a 2.8 is a big deal. Just remember that depth of field is your friend, especially with macro. So don't get all excited that you are going to leave your lens at 2.8.

As you look at macro lenses, you will find that they usually come in flavors usually somewhere around 60mm, 100mm and 150mm. Every brand will be a bit different it seems, but overall, those are the common focal lengths. Shooting digital with a 1.5x crop factor, the 60mm micro I loved on film is now a 90mm. I can't complain one bit for the extra "zoom". If you are shooting flowers and other things that don't move on you too much (wind is your enemy), then 60mm will take you a long ways. If you are shooting things that tend to have no sense of humor for you being close, think bugs, then a longer focal length would be in order. I am seriously looking at adding a 150mm macro to my bag for that reason. Sometimes, things just don't like it when you get right on top of it to photograph it, think angry bees.

As you can see, there are all sorts of choices for you to spend you money on. In the end, you just have to look at the type of photography you do or want to do. If you want to take a lot of close-up images, and you don't mind carrying around another lens, and you have $375 - $600 to spend, then a macro lens is up your alley. If you just want to mess around for a while, you can go the filters or extension tube route. If you do go this route, don't get frustrated if you don't get the clear results you had hoped for. Same is true if you think macro is just a lot of work- it gets easier with a true macro lens.

Happy shooting.

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