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Choosing the Right Lens for Macro Photography
“Macro photography” is the process of taking close-up pictures of very small things. You’d think it would be called “microphotography” – but it’s not. Whether you want to take a very detailed picture of a tiny flower or snap a ladybug making its way across a soda can, macro photography is an art form that delights with every small, often overlooked, bit of life that it highlights by making it large.
For most macro photography, you’ll want to use a standard 35mm single-lens reflex camera. Digital photography is possible, but only if your digital is single-lens reflex camera that takes interchangeable lens – Canon, Fuji, Nikon and Kodak make digital models that take different lenses.
Using a 50mm lens
Not so long ago, when you purchased a 35mm single-lens reflex camera it came packaged with a 50mm "normal" lens. These lenses were light, rugged, and of high quality – but the popularity of lower-quality, flimsy zoom lenses, these became less common. Keep in mind that a zoom lens is not a macro lens – you want a 50mm lens, and then set your focus depending on your subject. Say you’re shooting a photo of the moon – it’s very far away, so you can set your focus to “infinity”, with the nodal point of the optics now be 50 millimeters from the plane of the film. If, however, you want to take picture of a subject like a cougar standing 10 feet away, simply setting the focus to “10 feet” the optics will now be racked out further from the plane of the film – in other words, the lens is casting an image circle somewhat larger than the 24x36mm frame.
Now, if you want to take a highly detailed picture of a subject like a butterfly resting on a daisy, you’ll be setting your lens to 1.5 feet, the closest you can get. The nodal point is now pretty far from the lens. If your image – the butterfly – fills the 36mm dimension (which is about 1.5 inches) you’re now shooting at a ratio of 1:12 – your subject is 12 times the size of the subject's image on film.
Do you wear glasses? Then you know the value of a magnifying lens – rather than try and move the distance between your cornea and your retina to achieve better focus, you slap a magnifying glass – your glasses – in front of your eye. You can do the same thing for your 50mm lens when doing macro photography.
There are pros and cons to "supplementary” or "close-up lenses" that you can buy for about $50 at your photo store. The good things about them are that they don't require any exposure corrections and they’re inexpensive enough that you can toss two or three in your camera bag for whenever you want them. They do have drawbacks, though – they aren't very high quality, so the level of detail in your macro photography may not be as good as you’d like, and you have to take them on and off constantly if you are taking pictures of things at different distances.
If you already enjoy photography, macro photography can offer an entirely new perspective, bringing even the tiniest subject to the foreground and giving you a brand new window on the world around you.