Through the Gadling Lens: enhancing vacation shots with macro photography

This week, I received an email from Gadling reader, Brenda:

I read your post on choosing lenses and I was curious as to how big exactly a macro lens is because all the other lenses were identified by their length in mm and I couldn’t find a precise range for the size of a macro lens by searching on google so im not sure what it is. I would appreciate it if you could clear this up for me.

This is an excellent question, and because I love to do it, I thought this week we’d spend some time on macro photography — what it is, why you need a special lens, and how it might enhance your travel shots.

And so, without further ado:
According to Wikipedia, “macro photography” is when “the image projected on the “film plane” (i.e., film or a digital sensor) is close to the same size as the subject.” Which, for me, is a bit technical. For those of us laypeople, macro photography is basically very-very-very-very-very close up photography. The beauty of this type of photography is that it can bring out the details of the subject of your photograph that you might not normally notice with the naked eye during the everyday.

In order to do macro photography well, if you have an SLR camera, you will likely have to purchase or borrow a special “macro” lens (or, if you use Nikon products, a “micro” lens — for some inexplicable reason, Nikon likes to call their macro lenses “micro,” but trust me, they’re the same). If instead, however, you’re in the market for a point-and-shoot camera and you’re interested in macro photography, be sure that you buy one with a “macro” setting — not all point-and shoots have them, and without it, you won’t be able to get a nice sharp macro image.

Here’s why the lens is important:

The following image was taken about 2 feet away from a bouquet of daisies I bought earlier this week, shot with a 50mm “normal” lens:

Now, if I went to get a bit closer to that yellow daisy, the closest I can get my camera with that 50mm lens is about 1 foot away, and still maintain some sharpness and focus:

But watch what happens when I get any closer — say, about 6 inches away:

See how I completely lose all focus? All you notice is a bunch of muddled (albeit pretty) colours.

Okay, so now I’m switching lenses — this time, I’m using my 60mm macro lens.

First, I’ll take the shot about 2 feet away, like I did with my 50mm lens:

You’ll notice that from this far away, the 60mm lens behaves like any other 60mm lens — petals are sharp, not just on the yellow daisy, but on the surrounding daisies, as well.

But! Because this is a macro lens, check out how close I can actually continue to maintain focus:

In the above image, I was actually holding the camera a mere 3-ish inches away from the daisy. This time, you can clearly see all the details in the centre of the flower. Without my macro lens, this sort of sharpness would be impossible to capture.

A few tips when it comes to macro photography:

  • You’ll remember that we talked about lens focal length; however, as Brenda noticed, there really isn’t a specific “focal length” when it comes to a macro lens — it’s possible to get 50mm macro lenses, 85mm macro lenses, 100mm macro lenses, whatever. For my purposes, I like macro lenses that are in the “normal” range — 50 to 60mm — so that I don’t have to worry about any wide angle or telephoto distortion in the resulting images.
  • When it comes to ISO, aperture and the like, the rules remain the same — just remember that if you’re focusing on a very small part of your subject, you’re concerned with light, etc., in a tiny region, so you’ll need to adjust accordingly. For example, the subject might be in bright light, but what you’re actually focusing on might be in shadow — so adjust your ISO for low light, rather than high.
  • The cool thing about macro lenses is that they can also be used as regular lenses — so, for example, when I pack my 60mm macro lens with me, I don’t worry about bringing another “normal” lens — the 60 mm macro will do the trick — I just have to stand farther away from the subject than I would when taking a macro shot. Make sense?

Okay, so now that you know what macro photography can do, here are some reasons why you might want to take a macro lens on your trip:

You’re going to a location with amazing flora.

As you can probably guess, macro photography is a great way to show the details of really exotic flowers — you can see the smallest details of petals and other characteristics of a flower that your naked eye wouldn’t necessarily notice. I always take my macro lens when I travel to tropical places, because the flowers are so unusual; similarly, if I’m going to England or, say, the United States Pacific Northwest in the summertime — places where the locals are truly passionate about their gardens — I make sure to take the macro along.

Some images which prove my point:

In the shot of the ginger lily, above, the macro lens allows you to really notice how the light falls on each individual petal, rather than just taking in the blossom as a whole. The resulting image shows a palette of cool pinks, reds and burgandies.

In the above image of the iris, notice how you can see the tiny little yellow hairs along the inside of the white petals.

And finally:

In the above image of this lilly, you can almost see each independent grain of pollen on the stamens — an aspect of the flower you might not notice (until you get all that pollen on your hands and clothes, I mean, or start seriously sneezing).

You’re going to a place with big bugs.

One of the most popular uses of macro photography is taking photographs of creepy-crawlies and other other-worldly insects. With a macro lens, you can see their little buggy faces, the hairs on their legs, and other details that a regular lens would miss.

A couple of a very accommodating dragonfly that I took recently, using my macro lens:

Notice the detail of his wings in the first shot, and his turquoise eyes (who knew dragonflies had turquoise eyes?). And in the second shot, is it me, or is that bug smiling?

You want to take really detailed shots of your travel companions.

Say you’re planning a beautiful, sunny beach vacation, or a strenuous hike in the mountains or desert. Carrying along your macro lens will help you take really focused shots of your travel companions’ Coppertone tans, or the sweat as it rolls off their brows after the hike:

Notice how you can see every little wrinkle in the skin at the base of my thumb. It occurs to me my hands don’t look that young anymore.

My husband, on a hot Texas day, after dousing himself with the hose.

You’re just in the mood to take some artsy-fartsy shots.

The very cool thing about macro photography is that sometimes you can get so close to your subject, it’s almost hard to tell what your subject is anymore. I love playing with my macro to get in close to subjects which have very vibrant colours or patterns — the results are often unrecognizable, but artistic enough that they find a framed place in my home:

You plan on eating.

Finally, an admission: I love to eat on vacation. And one of my favourite uses for my macro lens is to shoot images of food. Sometimes you just gotta get close to see how luscious everything is:

So get out there and grab your macro, and see what you can capture – sometimes, the very best way to remember your vacation is up close and personal. And as always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.