Macro photography with no macro equipment

Most point and shoot cameras have a macro mode (flower symbol) that let you take extreme close-up pictures of small things, when you move up to interchangeable lens cameras you need special macro lenses to get those pictures – but there is actually one cheap way to take extreme macro pictures without any special equipment.

Take the lens off the camera and hold it backwards – normally your lens take a light from a big area and shrinks it down to the the size of the sensor, if you simply hold the lens backwards in from of the camera you get the opposite effect – the lens take  a picture of something very small and enlarges it on the sensor.

Here is a picture of the setup, flash pointing at the ceiling (we’ll talk about this in a moment) and the my hand is holding my 18-135mm zoom, fully extended at 135mm backwards, I actually shot the pictures for this post hand-held, in this picture the camera is on a tripod because I have one hand holding the lens and the other hand taking the picture with my cellphone.

Now, you need to be careful, the lens is not attached to the camera and you don’t want to drop it, also, you are using it not in the way it’s designed to be used – be very careful and if you damage your equipment don’t blame me.

You may have to enable some setting on the camera so it takes a picture without a lens attached, also, because the lens isn’t attached to the camera there’s no auto focus or aperture control.

The depth of field you get from this setup is extremely shallow and you focus by moving the camera forward and backwards until your subject is in focus, I recommend trying the live view focusing trick wrote about last week.

The aperture control is very brand specific, on Canon when the lens isn’t attached the aperture is wide open – making the already too thin depth of field even thinner – but there’s an easy trick you can use to stop down the lens on Canon cameras (this should also work with other brands where the aperture control is electronic) – attach the lens, set the aperture and press the depth of field preview button (locate right behind the lens on the lower left, right below the lens release button) – now, with the camera on and the DOF preview button still pressed detach the lens – the aperture blades will remain in the same position.

On Nikon when the lens isn’t attached it’s stopped down all the way – good for DOF but making us need a lot of light and can make the picture soft due to diffraction (if you don’t know what  diffraction is that’s ok, but I’m not going to explain it now because it’s not the topic of this post), for Nikon (and other brands where the aperture connection is mechanical) there’s a little lever on the back of the camera you can push to open the aperture (at your own risk, I don’t own a Nikon and never tried it myself).

Marco photography needs lots of light, for those pictures I’ve used my flash on camera pointed at the ceiling – not to soften the light (with the flash head physically larger than the subject I expect the light to be soft anyway) but because at that distance the lens would have cast a shadow on the subject if I used direct flash.

So, let’s see what do we get, first, this is the setup, I’ve put the pencil there to show scale, it’s not there in the macro pictures (also, the picture was edited to remove a barcode that was visible on the corner of the paper, the edits are nowhere near the flowers).

Here’s the yellow flower in the middle with a reversed 50mm F/1.8 lens, stopped down to F/8 using the DOF preview trick (click to enlarge):

And the same flower with the 18-135mm at 135mm wide open at F/5.6:

We can clearly see that longer focal length means more magnification.

We can also see that the depth of field is painfully shallow – so take lot’s of photos, a tiny camera movement will move your focus and the more pictures you take the better chance you have to get one where the focus is just right.

After you take a few reversed lens macro pictures if you discover you like it you can buy a cheap “macro lens reversal ring” that let you mount your lens backwards without having to hold it in your hand, here’s one that fits Canon DSLRs and the Canon 50mm F/1.8 for less than $7 on Amazon (at the time I wrote this) and such rings for other lenses for Canon, Nikon and all brands (also on Amazon), make sure you get one that fit’s your camera and the filter thread size of your lens.

The next step up in macro photography is extension tubes –  if you want me buy a set and write about them click any of the links in the previous paragraph and buy something on Amazon.

When auto focus fails/ Easy manual focus

What do you do when auto-focus fails? well, there are two ways auto focus can fail, either it focuses on the wrong thing or it doesn’t manage to focus on anything at all, we talked about what to do when auto-focus locks on the wrong subject last week, today we will talk about what to do when the camera can’t auto-focus at all.

There are 3 common reasons for auto focus failure:

  1. You are too close – each lens has a “minimum focusing distance” and it’s just can’t focus light from something closer (for interchangeable lenses cameras that distance is usually printed on the bottom of the lens) – if you are using a point and shot camera you can go into “macro” mode (that usually has a flower icon) for camera’s with interchangeable lenses you need to switch to a macro lens, move back or read next week’s post about how to take macro pictures with no extra equipment.
  2. You are pointing you camera at something that is just a flat color – the camera need something to look at, if you point your camera at an evenly lit single color wall (for example) it can’t find focus because the in focus picture looks the same as the out of focus picture – in this case you can hold something next to the surface you are photographing, focus and then remove the object and take the picture.
  3. The third and most common case is not enough light – the camera is not as sensitive as our eyes (at least when auto-focusing) and can’t focus on something it can’t see – in this case a simple flashlight can help (light the subject, focus, turn off the light and take the picture) but sometimes that’s just not possible and you have to focus manually.

Some people can just look trough the viewfinder and set perfect manual focus every time, I’m not one of those people – so what do people like us that don’t have perfect eyesight can do?

Turn on live view, use the live view zoom function to zoom all the way in and turn the focus ring until the zoomed in picture is sharp – it’s that easy.

It’s easier to do this if the camera is on a tripod and the subject is not moving, but if we are in low light condition than you need a tripod and a stationary subject anyway.

That’s it, this was a shorter tip than usual, next week, as I said before we will talk about cheap macro photography.

Controlling the point of focus

I was walking around the countryside when I turned a corner and seen the most amazing site – a farmer fighting a real life dragon! so I took out my camera and quickly snapped a picture before the dragon has a chance to fly off (or set me on fire), I got home with the picture that would make me rich and famous, quickly loaded the picture on the screen and – the farmer and dragon are both completely blurry because the camera focused on this stupid cow at the distance – so much for fame and fortune  and back to blogging about photo techniques.

A more common version of the same problem (for people who don’t get a chance to meet a dragon) is a photo of a couple at a wedding or similar event where the couple is blurry but some aunt in the distance that is visible between the two people you are trying to photograph is crystal clear.

There are actually two easy ways to completely control the camera’s point of focus:

Focus and recompose

“Focus and recompose” is the oldest, quickest and simplest way to control the point of focus.

You start by setting your camera to always focus on the center point of the picture, check your camera manual about how to do that – for simple cameras and cell phones that don’t let you preset the focus point you can skip to the next technique.

Now, to photograph a lion wandering into a quiet farmyard point the camera strait at the lion (the composition is way off and we see stuff that is supposed to be out of the frame – but we don’t care at this point we’re not taking the picture just yet):

Half press the shutter button and hold- this will make the camera focus but not take the picture:

Now, with the shutter button half pressed, move the camera so that you see the picture you want to capture (but don’t move closer, back up or zoom in/out as those will change the focus) and press the shutter all the way:

And we get the exact picture we are looking for – the lion is in sharp focus and the farm animals blurry – who are both closer to the camera and near the center – so if we leave it to the camera they will be the most obvious point of focus (note that resizing pictures to smaller size makes them sharper and so the farm animals don’t look so blurry in the small version, to better see where the focus is note the difference in the level of detail between the face of the lion and the face of the cow).

It’s important to know this technique does fail miserably in one situation – when you have a very shallow depth of field (when the subject is very close the the camera, you set a very wide aperture or you are using a long lens) in this case the area of focus is so small that by moving the camera you are moving the focus enough to blur your subject – for those cases we have the next technique.

Choose the focus point

Here instead of focusing and then moving the camera we just tell the camera exactly where we want it to focus.

For cellphones, point and shoot cameras, DSLRs in live view mode usually focus by using the image captured by the sensor, there will be a frame on the screen that tells you where the camera will focus, just move this frame (usually by using the arrow keys, or tapping the screen for touch screens) so it covers the area of the picture you want to be in focus:

For DSLRs using the viewfinder and other cameras that have the faster and more accurate “phase detect” auto focus method the camera has actual multiple special focusing sensors and you can choose which of those sensors to use – if you look trough the viewfinder you will see black dots on the image, each of those dots represent an auto focus sensors, and when you half press the shutter button a dot that is in focus will glow red, you can tell the camera to use just one specific auto-focus sensor) (or, in more expensive cameras, to use only part of the sensors) – here is the focus point selection screen on my camera with the top left point (that is right on the lion) selected :

This technique is more accurate than “focus and recompose” but is slower because you have to mess with the camera settings.

That’s it for today, next week we will talk about what you can do when auto focus doesn’t work at all.

Soft Light and Hard Light

At first soft and hard light seems like red and purple music – the word just don’t make sense, but soft and hard light are actually very important and simple concepts in photography.

In a nutshell soft light is a light that makes shadows with softs edges and a gentle gradient change from light to shade while hard light makes shadows with hard well defined edges.

To help demonstrate the effect of hard and soft light I’ve taken two pictures of my friendly neighborhood lion (that made its first appearance in the aperture post), for the first picture I’ve put the lion on a tripod near a window and just took a shot on Av mode – we will talk abut why windows give soft light below, you can see the very pleasing change from the brighter right side to the darker left side and that the left is well lit even with just one light source on the right side.

For the second picture, I’ve put the lion on a pillow and used a flash on the far right, we will talk about why a far a away flash is considered hard light in a second, you can see the left side of the head is dark, the fast light transition on the face and the sharp line the shadow makes on the pillow in the bottom right and top left sides of the picture.

If you look at the texture of the lion’s fabric you can see that in the soft light picture it looks, well, softer, everything looks smother and small features (like the seem in the middle of the lion’s body) are visible but look small and insignificant – this is why this is a very good portrait setup, it makes skin look softer and smother and is generally a very flattering light.

The hard light picture on the other hand makes the lion seem rougher, small features are more exaggerated (the seem in the middle of the body is now a very clear dark line) – this is why this light does not generally make people look good, but it does add drama and can work for photographing people if you want that dramatic look and don’t want to make our subject look like a fashion model.

Now, how do we create soft or hard light? simple, the bigger the light is and the closer it is to the subject the softer the light, let me explain:

If we have a light source that is a single point, like the left diagram below, there are areas that are lit and areas that are completely dark – all the light comes from a single source and each ray of light can only hit one thing before it’s reflected back – but if we make the light source bigger, like the right side of the diagram, not all the light comes from a single point, and there are areas where light from one side of the source is blocked but is still lit by the other side – those are the areas of soft shadows.

As we make the light source larger the soft shadow areas grow until, if the light source is very large compared to the subject, the dark area disappears completely, in the diagram below we see a much larger light source at the same distance as the previous diagram.

And finally, in the next and final diagram, we see a light source of the same size closer or farther away and we see that the farther we take the light source the smaller the soft shadow areas become and the light get’s closer to a point light source, that is why the sun, while huge, is a very hard light source.

So, the sun is a hard light source because it’s far away and our flash is a hard light source because it’s small – so where do we find soft light?

We get soft light by reflecting or diffusing light on some surface, for example, light outside on a cloudy day is soft because the light “spreads out” on the clouds and the entire sky becomes one large light source, also, during sunrise and sunset the sun is lower on the horizon and so the light passes trough more of the atmosphere resulting in a softer light.

Window light is also soft because the entire window acts as a light source and so is light reflected from any large surface.

For flashes, aiming the flash at a wall of the ceiling softens the light because the light source is now a big piece of the wall instead of the tiny flash bulb – also, there are a lot “light modifiers” you can put between the flash and subject to soften the light, the most common is without a doubt the umbrella (instead of the flash head the entire umbrella is the light source – making it much bigger).

Hard light is also much more prone to reflections and specular highlights than soft light.

It’s important to mention that when we are talking about small and large lights we mean in relation to the subject, your camera’s flash is tiny when photographing a person from across the room but quite large for a close-up picture of an insect.

So, to summarize, here’s a table of the properties of soft and hard light and two pictures of a red plastic dinosaur, taken with the same camera settings, the right side was lit with a bare flash far away (hard light) and the left side with a small softbox right out of frame (soft light) – click image for larger version:

  Soft light Hard Light
Shadows Soft edges Sharp edges
Texture Smooth Rough
Light transitions Gradual Immediate
Reflections Less reflections More reflections
Light Source Big and close Small or far
Good for Beauty shoots Dramatic pictures

Photographing a dark subject on a dark background

After last week’s post on photographing white subjects on white background it’s only natural to talk about the exact opposite and photograph something black on a black background.

If you remember to photograph a white scene we basically set our exposure to about 2 stops brighter than the camera tells us and everything worked out, so you may expect that for a black scene you just set your exposure to about 2 stops darker and call it a day – but things are not that simple (if they were this would have been a very short post).

The first problem is that black on black will result in a image that is, well, black – we get a picture where it’s actually difficult to see the subject and when we scale the picture down it can become a completely black box with no visible details, in the white on white picture we had shadows that defined the shape of the white objects here the shadow doesn’t help us because it’s also black.

So if we want people to be able to see what we are photographing we really want to keep the subject almost black and make the background gray.

Than we get to the technical problems, when everything the camera sees is black there is very little light getting into the camera – this means this is going to be a long exposure and you need a tripod, it also means auto focus is going to be slow if you can auto focus at all and that you really want a camera with an optical viewfinder (your camera’s screen or an electronic viewfinder are going to be completely black).

Also, if you use a DSLR light coming in trough the view finder can completely mess up the camera’s light meter (because there’s much more light in the room then is reflected into the lens) so make sure to have your eye on the viewfinder or at least cover it with something.

Black surfaces also tend to be reflective, but that’s a different problem we’ll talk about on another post, so I’ve selected non-reflective subject and background for this post – a camera lens on a fabric background.

So, first let’s see how the camera is doing without our help – I’ve put the camera on a tripod with a remote shutter release, switched to Av mode and selected F/11 as the aperture because I want the entire lens to be in focus in focus (I was very close and F/11 gave me just under 9cm, or about 3.5 inches of focus) – this gave me a 13 (!!!) seconds exposure at ISO 400 according to the camera’s light meter and resulted in this image:

You can easily see the picture is both way too bright and way too pink, the brightness we expected but where did all this pink come from? to keep this a low budget production (I expect my readers are not pros with easy access to studio equipment) I’ve use a black T shirt as the background and while that shirt looks completely black it actually reflects much more red light then blue or green – especially with such a long exposure.

Let’s look at the histogram:

You can see the image is very bright with almost the entire image in the right side of the histogram, you can also easily see the picture is not as color neutral as we expect from a mostly black image with a little too much green and way too much red (you can also see by the small bump at the far right we have some over exposure, this is the light reflection on the top of the lens).

So, how do we know what’s the right settings for really nice black? the camera’s LCD screen does not help us here (since. like we said in last week’s post it’s brightness is way too inaccurate) and it’s hard to judge the difference between “nice rich black” and “way too dark” by the histogram – so I took 15 pictures at a third of a stop difference starting at the camera’s exposure and ending when the picture was very obviously under exposed and then checked the results on the computer (this is called “bracketing” taking multiple photos around what you think are the correct settings to make sure you get a good one).

For you enjoyment here is a composite of the center part of all those images:

The best image was the one exactly two stops darker than the camera’s meter (how wonderful – this is what was supposed to happen), and here is that photo:

And it’s histogram:

Now all that’s left to take care of is that horrible pink color, obviously the best solution would have been not to use a fabric with a red color cast to begin with – but I’ve decided to fix it in post processing instead, I’ve loaded the out of camera JPEG in the free and adjusted the color channels in the “Levels” window, I’ve then done another quick levels adjustment on the reflection in the top of the lens and got:

And the histogram:

Obviously I could get a better result if I used the raw file and loaded it into Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom – but I wanted to show you what can be done with two minutes and free software.


That’s all for today, next week we’ll take a break from black and white subjects and look at something else.