Whether insects, or other small critters, the rewards of macro photography are endless. 

So, you want to shoot macro photos, do you?  

It'll take grit. 





Actually, it likely won't take any of those. Maybe sweat, if the weather warrants it. The truth is that despite the incredible imagery produced, macro photography doesn't need to be difficult, or even expensive. It just takes the right gear, the right mindset, and if you want truly exceptional photos, a dash of creativity. 

So here we go, part one of my multi-part "How to" series on macro photography. The purpose of this series, and it being multi-part, is to replicate a classroom environment. You can go out, buy the needed gear, do the recommended readings, and then come back week to week as we move through what it takes to take a great macro image via extension tubes. 


Go shopping

First and foremost, lets break down all of the equipment necessary to shoot macro images, at least in the fashion that I do. 

You will need:  

Nothing fancy here! Just some old-fashioned extension tubes. No electrical components whatsoever. 

  • A camera (in particular, this walkthrough will require a DSLR).
  • A lens, preferably a prime lens around the 50mm to 28mm range, more on why later. For Canon shooters I recommend the Canon 50mm f/1.8. It is cheap, tack sharp, and gets the job done. Nikon shooters are lucky, their version actually comes standard with a manual aperture ring! 
  • A set of extension tubes. These can be cheap, or expensive. Check out my prior blog post to figure out which suits you. 
  • A flash. It doesn't have to be expensive as we'll be using manual mode anyways, so no need to splurge here. As long as it goes "pop" and spits out light, you're good to go. 
  • If possible, a set of cheap wireless transmitters. I have been using these for some time now, for the price they aren't bad. 
  • If possible, a modifier  for your flash. I have used this softbox with great results. Not the best quality, but this tutorial isn't about spending piles of money, it is about getting a quality end-product. Note:  You don't actually need  a modifier like this, but it will help soften the light hitting your subject (from the flash). This is reflected in the overall appearance of the final image. 
  • Some sort of photo editing software. We won't be doing huge amount of post-processing, but some minor global adjustments may be needed. I recommend Adobe Lightroom. Note: It is preferred that you take all images in RAW format, as it lends to a higher quality final photo.  

And that is it! By no means are those seven items an exhaustive list of what you could  use in the course of this walkthrough, but they are certainly the bare-bones of what we will be using. If you don't have some of the gear, go out and get it! The idea here is to keep things cheap. If you want to splurge, go ahead, but this walkthrough will focus on getting the most out of our gear as possible. 




 Put it all together

I trust that you know how to put batteries into a flash, receiver, transmitter or otherwise, so we won't go there. Instead, lets talk through what each piece of gear brings to the table as we put them all together. 

First, it is critical that we are using a lens with as few elements as possible. These elements are essentially pieces of glass through which the light has to pass through before reaching the camera, and in cheaper lenses like the kind we're working with, more elements means a loss of sharpness. Any loss of sharpness is further magnified when we, well, magnify the image the lens is producing via extension tubes. 

A Canon 50mm f/1.8, my personal lens of choice with this macro setup. These lenses are routinely called "Nifty Fifties" due to their wide range of applications.

So on that note, how about those tubes, lets talk about those. Nice how that works out, isn't it? I believe in the fine art of newscasting they call that a "softball."

Anyways, as you've likely read in my previous blog post, extension tubes serve to place the lens further away from the camera's sensor. By doing this, through the magic of optical physics which I won't go into, the tubes serve to widen the beam of light hitting your sensor, resulting in a higher magnification image. So there you go, extension tubes ultimately serve to magnify our image.  If you want to get really fancy, a rough calculation of your magnification (stated as a ratio of image size to life size of subject) can be done by dividing your lens' focal length  (I.E 50mm) by the length of your extension tubes  (I.E 49mm total for the ones I link to). This    would give you a rough magnification ratio of 1.02:1, essentially meaning that a fly of 5mm length will produce an image on your sensor of 5.1mm, so just slightly larger than life size. 

A no-nonsense third-party flash if my go-to unit or all things macro. I've fashioned a wrist-strap to mine, which keeps the speedlight attached should I need to release my left hand in a hurry. 

Next, we've got our flash and the accessories associated with it. All of these are combined to do one thing, provide the light we need to make an image. Remember, most all natural light never makes it to the sensor because of our extension tubes, so we need to make up for this by using a flash. At least that is how I prefer to do it. The wireless transmitters give some flexibility, as we can now freely hold the flash in our left hand, the camera in our right, and yet the flash will still fire precisely when intended. Now this does bring up an interesting point of flash sync speed , which is explained well by Digital Photography School here. Essentially, know your camera body's flash sync speed, and remember to not let your shutter speed surpass it. This is critical. Last on our flash agenda, the softbox will diffuse the light our flash emits, producing softer shadows on our subjects. 

Below I've included a photo of what you're gear should look like all set up.  

Pardon the low-quality cellphone photo. My camera body was, well, occupied! 

Pardon the low-quality cellphone photo. My camera body was, well, occupied! 


So there we go, you've got the gear, and now you're ready to go out and capture some fantastic images of insects, spiders and the like in action! 

Next up, we'll go even further down the rabbit hole and discuss a few key points about how the photographic process itself changes when shooting on extension tubes. From how you focus, to how you properly light your images, it is a whole new ballgame.