My Journey into Macro Photography… First in a Series

Macro Photography of a bee

Bee on a Cone Flower

I’ve been exploring macro photography as an alternative to following the crowd and photographing landscapes, beautiful sunsets, sunrises and iconic locations.

Macro Photography

My personal preference is to create my own images rather than photograph iconic National Park scenes or an obviously beautiful sunrise.  I’m exploring all facets of macro photography as an alternative.  This post will present some technical data and a few of my first macro images.  This is a blog of some macro photography documentation for me and other beginning macro photographers to use as a reference.  Non-photographers might skim sections since photographs of a blue metric ruler have little artistic value… 😉

What Exactly is Macro Photography?

Definitions of macro photography told to me over the years have been quite confusing.  I’ve been told “It is a photo which represents a life size object, a quarter will be the size of a quarter.”  Others have said the photo must be taken with a lens offering 1:1 ratio capabilities.  Neither of these simple explanations left me knowing if I was looking at a real macro photograph or not.  So how can the casual observer or even a skilled photography judge tell if a photo is technically a macro photograph or not?  The correct answer is that they cannot…

A macro photograph is all about the way the photograph was originally taken, not cropped in post processing.  Enlarging a photograph in the print process does not make it a macro photograph.  Zooming with your lens to make some object appear larger also does not make a macro photograph.  While the casual observer likely does not care about these technical aspects, photographers need to understand these distinctions.  Knowing these details of macro photography will not make my macro photos any prettier. However, as a beginning macro photographer, documenting what I’m learning is an important step in my journey.

The Standard 35mm Camera

Old film cameras and many of the new digital cameras with changeable lenses are often referred to as 35mm cameras, since this is the width of the film negative or the electronic sensor in a digital camera.  A 35mm camera is also called a full-frame camera to distinguish it from cameras with smaller sensor sizes, referred to as ASP-C or crop cameras.  The crop camera sensor is simply smaller, it does not zoom in nor make an object larger, it just records a smaller part of the scene as shown below. (1)

35mm vs. Crop Sensor

A full frame camera sensor compared to a ‘crop’ sensor. A crop sensor does not enlarge, it only records a smaller section of the scene.  (My photo, taken in Australia)


The Definition of a Macro Photograph

The definition of a macro photograph is an image that is at least the same size on the camera sensor as the object is in real life.  The macro ratio is said to be 1:1 or the object size was recorded on the camera sensor at least life size.  A macro photograph cannot be created by enlarging a photograph.  This is why the casual observer or even an experienced photography judge cannot absolutely determine if a photo is a true macro photograph, recorded at a 1:1 ratio.  

Since we already know that our camera sensor frame is 35mm wide, to capture a macro photograph, we would need to take a photo of an object which is 35mm and have it completely fill the camera’s 35mm sensor. (2) This is sometimes called a life size photo.  Now for the exciting part.  Hold on to your boot straps and do not spill your morning coffee.   I’ve taken photos of a metric ruler and compared the image results to my 35mm sensor of camera.  I’m retired…. I can do these things…


Determining Magnification Ratios

What better way to determine the size of the image on the sensor than to take a photo of a ruler?  If the resulting photo records exactly 35mm of the ruler on a 35mm camera sensor I will have a 1:1 magnification ratio, the minimum for a macro photograph.  Taking photos of a ruler with millimeter markings and using lenses advertised as 1:1 macro lenses will allow me to accurately and easily verify  the image size to the 35mm camera sensor.  First let’s test the Sony 90mm FE 2.8 macro lens.   Focused at the closest distance possible for this lens, or 11 inches, the ruler image captured indeed covers exactly 35mm of the ruler.  Each tall line is a centimeter then divided into 10 millimeters.  This shows my 90mm Sony lens recorded a 35mm scene on a 35mm sensor.  Technically this is life size or 1:1. (3)  If you wish to buy copies of this photo please e-mail me.

The Sony 90mm macro lens captures a life size scene by completely filling the space on a 35mm camera sensor with a 35mm of the ruler.  Exciting stuff!

When calculating ratios other than 1:1 ratios, it is important to know the magnification ratio is sensor size to subject or image size.  So a 1:2 photo is not a macro photo.  An example of a 1:2 photo would be a 35mm sensor capturing 70mm of the ruler.

A 2:1 is doubling the size of a butterfly, for example, when compared to your sensor.  An example of a 2 to 1 macro ratio is photographing 17.5mm of the ruler on a 35mm sensor.  The 2:1 ratio is telling us the 35mm sensor is twice as big as the 17.5mm object and clearly a macro image.

The above photo could also have been achieved by enlarging or cropping.  But such actions would not have created a macro photograph.  The term macro has to do with the way the photo is created, or recorded on the sensor, not enlarging or cropping prints.(4)  This is the reason the casual observer or even an experienced photography judge cannot really discern a true macro photograph from a cropped photograph.


A 90mm Macro Lens vs. a 180mm Macro Lens

Now, what if we double the size of our macro lens from the 90mm Sony lens to the 180mm Sigma macro lens?  Comparing the Sony image above with the Sigma image below we can see both images appear to be the same. 

A photo taken with a 180mm macro lens at the closest focal distance of 18.5 inches.  36mm sensor ÷ 36mm ruler = 1:1 ratio.

Both the 90mm and the 180mm lenses recorded 35mm of the ruler when at their closest focal distance.  The difference is that the 180mm lens can record the image from a distance of 18.5 inches and the 90mm macro lens needs to be 11 inches away.  The distance from the end of the lens to the subject is referred to as the working distance, WD, of a lens.  This distance is important when trying to not scare your bug or have your breathing wiggle a delicate subject like a spider web in the cool dew covered morning.  In macro photography it is often best to go for the larger working distance because you will have more room to properly light your subject.

By the way, I cleaned up the photos of the blue ruler to get rid of all the scratches and dust and cropped the images to include only the ruler.  But the images are those captured by the various lenses.


What’s up with Macro Anyway?  Why is it not Micro?

We all know that micro refers to small subjects and macro applies to larger, more broad subjects.  For example, macro economics can apply to the economy of the world or a country, while micro economics can apply to individuals or businesses, smaller economies.  However, with macro photography the general thought is that the act of photographing a bug’s eyeball is making the small world appear very large or a macro view, hence macro photography.  Whether you wish to refer to this as micro or macro, we are looking at an amazing world most people do not often see.

Water drops on poppy

Poppy with morning dew drops. Or maybe I spritzed it with a water bottle, who knows…


June Bug

A June bug from a neighbor’s organic salad. A fun learning experience, no prize winner.  The bug’s head was cut off due an improper shutter speed while using a flash. 


Closer is Better

Just like most things in life, photographers are not satisfied with that which comes easily, like using a 1:1 ratio macro lens.  Closer and bigger is better, but more difficult.  To get greater magnification we can use a bellows, which places the camera lens further away from the camera sensor.  Extension tubes can also be used to get the lens further from the sensor.  Both these techniques will be explored in a later blog.  Macro photographers will even mount camera lenses backwards for a different effect.  More magnification causes several problems for the photographer, but can make the resulting image  five times larger than life, a 5:1 ratio.  Remember that the 90mm and 180mm lenses above had a working distance of 11 inches and 18.5 inches respectively.  With the bellows and a 55mm lens we might have only 1/2 inch working distance as shown below.  In such instances, the photographic challenge is to properly light the subject without making a glare on the lens.  Here is one such set up with a 55mm lens mounted on extended bellows 1/2 inch from the ruler..


small working distance

There is no more than 1/2 inch working distance between the lens and the blue ruler.


compressed bellows

Example of Nikon PB-6 bellows compressed with a Nikon 55mm lens attached.


extended bellows

Example of the Nikon bellows extended. The further the lens is from the camera, the greater the magnification and the smaller the working distance.


The Camera and Bellows Set-up

Here is another view of the bellows with a 55mm lens photographing the blue metric ruler.  Bellows are like an accordion material that allows you to physically crank the lens further away from the camera.  Doing so increases the magnification.  In the photo below, the moveable LCD on the back of the Sony camera is angled up so you can better see what the camera is focused on.  By counting the ruler’s mm lines on the camera LCD we can see the camera is capturing only 8mm.  So dividing the 35mm sensor by 8mm image width, we get a magnification ratio of 4.4:1 with the bellows fully extended.

What the camera sees

With the bellows,  a 55mm lens mounted normally, only 8mm are recorded on the camera’s 35mm sensor. 35mm sensor ÷ 8mm visible = a 4.4 magnification ratio.


Lens Magnification Chart

I created the cart below to be used when determining the best lens set-up for the magnification needed and working distance desired.  As more lenses and macro set-ups are experimented with, I’ll add them to this chart.  My goal is to work my way up to a 10:1 magnification ratio.

The chart below highlights the advantage of the normal 1:1 macro lenses.  They provide the greatest working distance which makes lighting your subject easier, but with less magnification.  Working distance is measured from the photo subject to the front of the lens.


Yellow Salsify

The baseball size puffs of dandelion type weeds commonly growing in fields are called yellow salisfy.  Looking for interesting designs in objects we normally ignore and walk past, I picked several and studied their shapes.  I call photographs such as these found photos.  Their beauty is not immediately apparent to those walking by, unlike a colorful sunrise or the Grand Canyon.  One has to study them and look for their beauty.  This sums up the current direction of my photography.  Here are three photos of the yellow salsify weed.

While these photo were taken with 1:1 macro lenses they are not macro images, since I did not set the camera specifically at the closest focal distance of 11 inches as would be required for this particular lens.  I was experimenting with flashes vs. constant lighting and creating black vs. white backgrounds.

Yellow Salsify

The outer part of the bloom is in focus while the inner part is intentionally blurry, helping to better define the design.


Wilted Yellow Salsify

I enjoyed how the dried leaves were going in all directions, so I this photo Limbs Akimbo.


Close-up of Yellow Salsify

In photography this pure black against pure white is referred to as a high key photo.


What is Next?

In the coming weeks I’ll be busy as a busy bee exploring macro photography.  I hope to post more photos of my progress and photos showing greater and greater magnification. I’ll explore using the bellows, extension tubes, extreme close-up macro lenses and even microscope lenses.  I’ve built a special macro table for all of this work which will likely have a blog of its own.

Thank you for looking.

Clearly a Macro photo

Honey bee on a cone flower.

(1), (2) Digital Photography Review DP Review – “Macro Photography: Understanding Magnification”

(3), (4) Cambridge in Colour.  “Macro Camera Lenses”

12 thoughts on “My Journey into Macro Photography… First in a Series

  1. As is your norm, this is extremely well researched, beautifully written, and with just a touch of HH wit. I look forward to more of your writings on this subject.

  2. That’s so interesting. There are so many details that make perfection. I’m learning that with my new hobby of cake decorating.
    I can’t decide what my favorite pic is the June Bug or the *morning dew* rose. Is there a botanical garden you could go to to catch more bee pics? Those are cool to see the individual hairs.

  3. A view of the world within… amazing.
    Your determination to be exacting exhibits to me that retirement does not deter the Harold I’ve known for some time.
    Amazing work, as usual although delightfully unusual.
    Macro on !!!

  4. This is really interesting — and, I’m not a photographer at all!

    Thanks for your diligence in enlightening the masses. I’m looking forward to more macro photos!

  5. I am not a photographer, but found your organization and explanation of the subject easy to understand and follow. I look forward to next weeks class!!

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