Great shots of cities at night? You need to learn to let go!

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been on holiday to some amazing places, but come back disappointed that you didn’t get enough (or any) good photos.  This might be because you were too busy having a good time, in which case great, but it might also be because you didn’t feel you had the right kit, you didn’t want to carry around a tripod or you didn’t feel you had time to make the effort.  But it needn’t be so!

For today, I’m going to focus on night time shots, because I think this is often when cities look best.  The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti. All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.  In general, though, I think that a little bit of thought can help with your photographs at any time of day.

Again – let’s break it down to some simple “rules”.  The camera you use is pretty irrelevant here – an expensive DSLR, a bridge camera or compact can all take pretty nice shots.  For a couple of reasons that will become clear, though, mobile phones can struggle in this area.

“The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti.  All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.”

Rule 1: Learn to let go!

Shooting shots at night means slow shutter speeds if you’re going to get a reasonable looking shot.  Shooting handheld is a lost cause (you are never as still as you think you are).  Find something to put your camera on and let go of it completely.  This will normally mean not even pressing the shutter button yourself – try using your cameras self timer (just a 2 or 3 second delay is fine) so that you don’t nudge the camera when taking the shot.  You don’t need to walk away from your camera and leave it unattended in a strange city, just make sure you’re not touching it!  (One of the problems with trying this with mobile phones is that they’re now so thin, they tend to fall over!)

Bordeaux by night - sometimes, if you just find a place to rest your camera, you get some odd angles.  Often you can correct this using software, but sometimes it can create an interesting effect!
Bordeaux by night – sometimes, if you just find a place to rest your camera, you get some odd angles. Often you can correct this using software, but sometimes it can create an interesting effect! (Shot with a Fuji s8000fd bridge camera) 

Rule 2: Turn your ISO down and turn your flash off!

Okay, so rule 2 will only work if you’re already following Rule 1 (or if you’re using a tripod).  Otherwise you’ll end up with some really blurry photos! But as a general rule, flash will not be helpful when shooting night time urban landscapes, where everything is too far away to be usefully lit.  Instead, manually set your ISO low (if your camera allows you to do so) to keep image noise to a minimum and let the exposure be nice and long.  Some simple point-and-shoot cameras don’t allow these to be manually adjusted, but generally if you select flash off and night mode, it will do the rest for you quite successfully.

Budapest from above - shot with a Fuji A800 point and shoot camera (back in 2007).  Modern cameras will give better definition, but the image was nicely exposed.  A flash would have simply picked up the plant growth in the foreground.
Budapest from above – shot with a Fuji A800 point and shoot compact camera (back in 2007). Modern cameras would give better definition, but the image was nicely exposed. A flash would have simply picked up the plant growth in the foreground.

Rule 3 – Head for the high ground!

This isn’t really a rule, but I think a good piece of advice (particularly for high rise cities).  I would summarise it like this – Everything looks better from above (except for the stuff that doesn’t).  In New York, head to the top of the Rockefeller or Empire State buildings, (actually do both – Empire State at night, and Rockefeller in the day).  In Tokyo, there are lots of choices, but the Tokyo Tower seems an obvious choice.  In London, head to the top of the shard…

New York from the top of the empire state building. (Shot with a Canon 1000D)
New York from the top of the empire state building. (Shot with a Canon 1000D)
Tokyo
Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Tower (shot with a Fuji Finepix s8000fd)
London
London – from the top of the shard (shot with a Canon EOS 1000D)

All of these were shot without a tripod, but a few words of warning regarding the Shard.  Firstly, it is really expensive to go up.  Secondly, they won’t allow you to take a tripod, even if you want to!  Which leads to the third point, there are no flat surfaces in the Shard. My earlier advice was to find something to rest your camera on, that simply won’t work at the top of this building.  Therefore, you either need to get very good at bracing yourself against the wall, or take a bean bag and balance your camera carefully, or sneak in some kind of miniature clamp-on or flexible tripod.  Lastly, the shard is in glass all the way around and it’s very difficult to deal with the reflections.  Get as close to the glass as possible and be prepared to remove reflections by selectively adjusting the levels using software later.

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Bee brilliant (or bees on a budget)

I love bees, and I love taking photos of them.  True, I am interested in all wildlife I really enjoy the challenges of macro, but bees are incredible, industrious, collectively intelligent, and indispensable little creatures and a real pleasure to observe and photograph.

For anyone who is interested in bees in general (and for some lovely video footage), I recommend checking out the excellent swiss movie, A Taste of Honey, (narrated in English by John Hurt).  For anyone who wants to check out some photos of bees (taken with varying degrees of success) there is an enormous Flickr group, Bees, bees bees! which is a great place to start getting some ideas.

“…bees are incredible, industrious, collectively intelligent, and indispensable little creatures and a real pleasure to observe and photograph.”

So how should you approach shooting bees?  What gear do you need?  And how much will it cost?

Well – clearly, I’m not going to tell you to go out and spend lots of money!  There are loads of different setups you can use for macro, and the most important thing is that you familiarise yourself and get comfortable with the one that you have chosen.  One of my preferred setups is pairing a +2 diopter supplementary lens with a telephoto lens (such as a 70 – 300mm zoom), but you can also use supplementary lenses with bridge cameras, you can try using reversing rings, extension tubes or there are various macro lenses that you can pick up second hand.  What I would like to talk about today though, is free.  And that’s technique.

Many incredible macro shots are taken in studios with artificial environments and complex lighting arrangements – all of that costs money and to my mind means that you lose some of the natural simplicity and beauty of a shot.  I’m therefore going look at natural environments in natural light (since specialist macro flashes are also very expensive).  I thought it would be useful to reduce it all down to a few simple rules.

Rule 1: Shoot on cool bright days (or in the early morning)

This first rule goes directly against the advice that you will read in lots of books and magazines – which often say that it is preferable to shoot macro on overcast days because you get fewer burnt out reflections and you better contrast… Well, that maybe true if you’re shooting things which don’t move – but for insects which can be fast moving it’s complete nonsense.  You need to be able to shoot handheld and at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.  Bright days are definitely best. However, insects (which are cold blooded) have a faster metabolism and are faster moving in warm conditions, so cool days (spring and autumn) and early mornings are absolutely ideal.

The bee in buttercup
The bee in buttercup – shoot on bright days so that you can shoot handheld using fast shutter speeds without a flash

Rule 2: If the bee is on a flower, get really close and try to shoot sideways on.

To really get fine detail with budget equipment, you want to get up close and personal with the bee with a focal distance of just an inch or two.  Reversed lenses, macro extension tubes or powerful diopters on shorter lenses are a good way of achieving this. The important thing, when shooting bees like this, is not to get nervous. Bees are very placid animals and are very, very unlikely to sting you unless they feel threatened.  Often, when getting very close to them, people get scared and react unpredictably.  If you feel this is likely to happen to you, it is important to master your instincts.

Getting really close means you will have a reduced depth of field which is great for throwing your background out of focus – however it also means that if you shoot with the subject facing directly towards you with the eyes in focus, the abdomen will be out of focus.  Therefore try to get the bee side on (or nearly side on) so that you make the best use of the plane of focus.

A honey bee shot from close-up with a Canon EOS 35-80mm lens, with the front element removed.  This lens requires you to be very close to the subject though, so not practical for bees in flight.
A honey bee shot from close-up with a Canon EOS 35-80mm lens, with the front element removed. This lens requires you to be very close to the subject though, so not practical for bees in flight.

Rule 3: If shooting bees in flight, stand back!

Getting really close to a bee is all well and good when they’re almost stationary, but when they’re flying it’s totally hopeless.  For starters, they will actively try to avoid you, but in any case, your focal distance will be so short that you will never be able to keep track of their movements – therefore you need be able to stand back a few feet.  In this case, you probably want a smaller diopter on a longer lens or a shorter extension tube on a longer lens.  This setup should allow you to still get a big enough enlargement of the bee to be the subject of the shot while still being stood far enough away to track its movements.  Another advantage is that bees in flight tend to look much better if shown in relation to their environment, such as the flowers they are flying around – so you can be sufficiently “zoomed out” to include the environment:

Bee in flight
Coming in to land… A honey bee on (what I believe to be) Loosestrife flowers, in Kent.

Rule 4: To get sharp focus, pre-focus, try to be nearly side-on and “pull back”

A really big problem when shooting flying bees is that they tend to fly too fast for most autofocuses (particularly on cheaper lenses) and too fast for you to rapidly re-focus the lens manually.  You therefore need to get a bit clever about predicting the movement of bees.  Try to remember that they tend to hover on approach and take off from a flower so they will be nearly stationary in flight for a fraction of a second – and that they “back out” from flowers having collected the nectar.  This last point is critical, since it is easiest to “choose” a bee to photograph, while it is in a flower already.

Like my advice above, about shooting stationary bees side on to make the best use of the plane of focus, the same is true for flying bees.  If you can get the trumpet of a flower in perfect profile, when the bee flies out  backwards, it should remain in the plane of focus.  If you want to compose the shot so that it is not perfectly sideways on, then remember, still that the bee will come out backwards.  What you need to do, then, is focus on the part of the flower closest to the camera lens, and as the bee backs out tilt backwards (roll back on your heels) trying to keep the bee in focus by moving the camera with it.  It sounds simple, but can be really quite tricky!  As with all things, practice doesn’t exactly make perfect, but statistically at least, the more times you try, the more likely you are to get it right!!

Bumblebee backs out backwards...
A bumblebee backs out backwards… Pre-focus on the nearest section of the flower and roll back on your heels as the bee backs out to keep it in focus.

At the time of writing (late September) there are still some bee species active, and conditions are good, as the days are now a little cooler.  Try and get out this weekend and give it a go!

Do big numbers mean big cash? Shooting super-telephoto images

Today, I thought I would turn away from macro and taking photos from really close-up, to taking photos of things from really far away…

Like macro, taking shots with “super-telephoto” lenses can very easily be written off as a rich man’s game – and there are definitely plenty of rich boys’ toys out there if you have bottomless pockets.  For example, a story recently surfaced of a £99,000 telephoto lens going on sale!

If you’re anything like me, though, you’re probably looking for a solution for under £100.  Okay, so that’s hardly free, but this is a specialist area.

But what are your choices? Well, actually – there are quite a few.

In the case of the (slightly daft) £99,000 lens, the focal length on offer was an enormous 1,200mm – and the lens (as a result) was totally impractical for most purposes.  However, there are times when you’re shooting wildlife, sporting events or some specific scenery when you may want something which is pretty far reaching.  In these cases, it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens, relative to a 35mm SLR or full frame DSLR.  This basically means that you get more magnification in your final shot from the same lens.  In the case of most Canon EOS cameras, you get a magnification (known as a “crop factor”) of 1.6X.  For a Nikon you get 1.5X.  For some bridge cameras, the crop factor may be as high as 5X to 6X!!

“it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens…”

But what does it really mean?  Well – I’m going to look at focal lengths of between 500 and 800mm (equivalent for a 35mm camera).  This is because there are lots of ways of getting lenses of around 500mm of an APS-C DSLR which, because of the crop factor, will give the same level of overall magnification in your final shot as an 800mm lens on an old film SLR.

I’ll mention five options, and test four:

  1. Supplementary telephoto lenses
  2. Teleconverters
  3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount)
  4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount)
  5. Superzoom bridge cameras

1. Supplementary telephoto lenses – from as little as £10 on ebay 

I said I’d mention but not test one option – and this is it.  Supplementary telephoto lenses screw in front of the lens of your camera (like the diopters I tested for macro), or many wide angle or fisheye adapters.  I have already tested diopters on this website, and I will return to supplementary fisheyes in the future – but I’m not going to test the telephoto version because they are simply too rubbish.  My three pieces of advice would be avoid, avoid, avoid.  The real issue is that, unless you have a tiny aperture (and therefore have to push up the ISO and exposure time up beyond a practical level), you get terrible focus problems anywhere outside dead-centre of the frame.  If you would like to see some tests demonstrating this – I would point you to Keith Cooper’s article here.  (Seriously, though, even for £10, don’t bother.)

2. Teleconverters – Prices vary a lot, though if you shop around you can start from around £25 second hand.

In terms of intended outcome, teleconverters do the same thing as supplementary lenses – in so far as they work with an existing lens and increase its effective focal length.  The mechanism by which they do this is far more effective, though.  Rather than acting as a “magnifying glass” at the front of the lens, they work as an additional lens element stage between the sensor and the lens.  While it is obviously not as good as an expensive, dedicated telephoto lens, it is still pretty effective and a lot cheaper!

Now – one clear challenge here, is that in order to use a teleconverter to reach super-telephoto length, you will already need to have a telephoto lens with a focal length of around 250mm to start with.  These can also be expensive, but there are some cheap second hand options out there.  A few examples are:

  • Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6, Nikon / Canon and other fits available.  Second hand for £50 – £100.
  • Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6, Canon fit only. New from around £70 (this is the lens tested below).
  • Nikon AF-S 55-200mm f/4-5.6, Nikon fit only. New from around £70
  • Nikon AF 70-300 mm f/4.0-5.6, Nikon fit only. Second hand from around £80

In my test case, I have coupled a second hand Jessops (Kenko) teleconverter (bought for £25) with a Canon EF 75-300mm lens, bought second hand for £50, so £75 in total.  I also have the Tamron lens, which works equally well (perhaps a little better).  The photos used in this test aren’t terribly exciting, but they were all taken at the same time, in the same light so give a fair representation of capabilities:

x Teleconverter with 75-300mm Canon telezoom
Test – 2x Teleconverter with 75-300mm Canon telezoom.
Shot at around 500mm on an APS-C camera (800mm equivalent on a full frame camera). At this focal length the auto-focus stops working.

The focus achieved, given the long focal length is acceptably sharp, and chromatic aberration is not too noticeable (though from experience, this gets a log worse as contrast in your image increases).

Pros:

  • Pairing a tele-converter with a zoom means you can have an enormous range of zoom available to you by simply adding / removing the converter.  In this case, all the way from 75mm – 600mm.
  • Very space efficient, and can be paired with several different lenses.  It can simply be kept in your kit bag alongside your main lenses.
  • Reasonable quality results, retaining aperture control for depth of field control.

Cons:

  • While auto-focus works at shorter focal length, once you have gone up to super-telephoto lengths it gives up, so manual focus only.  Focus confirm should still work, though.
  • Adding a teleconverter reduces the light which reaches the sensor, so you will need to up the ISO, or lengthen exposure time unless it’s very bright.  At long focal lengths, this can be tricky.  You will probably want a tripod! (Though I would recommend it for all of these solutions really…)

3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount) – cheap 500mm lenses from around £70

Until recently, I had never tried a mirror lens, and I had always been fascinated by the idea of them.  If you look at a mirror lens from the “front” they really mess with your mind.  How can you get a full image from a lens which looks like it still has a small lens cap stuck in the middle of it?  (I’ll let you ponder that on your own).

Mirror lenses used to be very popular as a cheap way of getting up to super-telephoto focal lengths, without enormous costs.  Their relatively simple construction, basically consisting of two carefully aligned mirrors, means that there is far less complicated and heavy glasswork to create the image.  The lenses are also much, much shorter than multi-element telephoto zooms.  High grade mirror lenses remain very popular with astro-photographers, because they are virtually free from chromatic aberration and some of their weirder properties (donut shaped bokeh and “double vision” either side of the optimum depth of field) disappear at infinity focus.

But can they be used for day-to-day use? – On this occasion, I can’t exactly say that I’m convinced.  I should say that I have only ever used one (so not a statistically brilliant sample), but it is a very common one – the Opteka 500m f/8, t-mount (don’t forget to buy the right adapter!) I bought mine new and I believe it to be in “perfect” working order – but there are some serious limitations to optics of this type.

The major problem is low contrast (caused by the shadow of the front mirror), but this in turn makes it very difficult to find focus and, to be honest, I am not convinced that the sharpness of this sort of lens is ever really up-to-scratch.  That said, I have managed to get a few nice shots, and the low contrast can be corrected in post-processing.  For a fair comparison, below is an unprocessed shot, straight from the camera:

Opteka 500mm f/8 lens test
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror lens. The shot shows the low contrast caused by the mirror’s shadow, which can be corrected in post-processing, and the “double vision” background, which cannot.

Pros:

  • Virtually no chromatic aberration (so good for astro-photography).
  • Very small for a dedicated super-telephoto lens.
  • Cheaper than buying a standard tele-photo lens plus a converter

Cons:

  • Donut bokeh and double-vision backdrops
  • Low contrast and can be hard to focus
  • Can seem a bit soft generally (though that could just be me!)
  • Normally fixed f/8 aperture, so no control over depth of field.

Before moving on, though, it would be wrong of me not to show an image of something I believe that they are good at!

The moon with a mirror lens.
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame). The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.

4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount) – new from around £80

I should start this section by saying I think I got an absolute bargain, having picked up an Optomax Telephoto 500mm f/8-f/32 lens for just £25.  In my case the rear element (closest to the camera) has gone a little bit milky, but even with this problem it seems optically very good (so I would love to try a mint one!) Keep your eyes peeled for a second-hand bargain.

The costs of this sort of lens (often M42 to t-mount, so again, don’t forget the right adapter) vary quite a lot – but these generic lenses are much, much cheaper than branded auto-focus lenses.  Rokinon are the modern makers of a basically identical lens, and you can buy them new from around £80 if you shop around.  They are manual focus, and have manual aperture control (but this is important, as they aren’t fixed at f/8).  They also make a super-tele zoom (Rokinon 650-1300mm, normally sold with a 2x tele-converter), which you can pick up from around £150 new. You will need to shop around for this.

The construction is pretty simple, and they can be taken apart almost completely, simply by twisting and unscrewing (which can be handy if you want to pack them away somewhere not at full length).   They are pretty long and unwieldy and normally come with their own tripod mount.

The image quality from these is pretty good if you are patient enough and good at manual focus.  Shooting handheld can be very tough though because of their length – so if you are trying to catch fast-flying birds, it may be a bit difficult.

Optomax 500mm f/8-32 test
Optomax 500mm f/8-32 tele-photo, showing acceptably sharp results and bright colours.

Pros:

  • Good optical quality at a very reasonable price
  • (Manual) aperture control
  • Can be paired with a 2x teleconverter to make enormous focal lengths

Cons:

  • Big and unwieldy – difficult to use handheld
  • Fixed focal length
  • Manual focus only

5. Superzoom bridge cameras – used from around £50

All of the other options I have looked at today assume that you already have a camera to attach a lens to.  This is a one-stop-shop solution and is therefore very convenient for travelling light.  I am a big fan of bridge cameras as “good all rounders” and the modern superzooms are truly impressive in their equivalent focal-length range.

You will see in the photo below, that the equivalent focal length is not quite as large as I was able to achieve in the tests above, but I was using my old fuji Bridge camera (with an 18x optical zoom) and some newer bridge cameras can come with up to 50X optical zoom.  In this case, my Fuji S8000fd has a focal length of 4.7 – 84.2mm which doesn’t sound much, but with a 5.6X crop factor, it gives a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-486mm, which is pretty impressive.  You can buy newer version for under £100 with 30X zooms which is equivalent to 24-720mm so the numbers are getting pretty big!

Of course, the downside is that the sensor is small and therefore the ultimate clarity and light sensitivity of the camera will suffer, and if autofocus doesn’t lock on, manual focus can be a dead-loss, but in good conditions, things are pretty good.

Fuji FinePix S8000fd test
Fuji FinePix S8000fd at full zoom (84.2mm, equivalent to 486mm full frame). Newer bridge cameras can zoom in even closer.

Recommendation?

As ever, your final choice is up to you – there are advantages and disadvantages to each solution. Here are my thoughts in summary though:

  • Never buy a supplementary lens for your filter ring.  You may as well burn a £10 note.
  • Personally, I would never build a DSLR camera bag and not include a 2x teleconverter.  Sure, they may not be as good as a massive, expensive lens, but they’re cheap and portable, so you can take them with you everywhere.
  • Unless you’re into astro photography – don’t bother with a mirror lens. They’ll only frustrate and annoy you.
  • If you don’t mind the length, the fixed focal length M42 mount lenses from Rokinon and Optomax etc. are really good for the price.
  • Bridge cameras remain great all-rounders provided you aren’t too fussed about retaining total control (or taking portraits with lovely narrow depth of field at shorter focal lengths).  Plus, the lens and the camera come together, so if you don’t mind an old 8 megapixel one they’re an absolute bargain.

As ever – happy shooting!

The lenses tested:

Lenses tested here
Tested… Top to bottom: A 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens

Mobile Macro Madness (Part 2)

I thought it might be worth returning to macro again immediately, having started touching on the subject yesterday.

When writing yesterday, I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras such as SLRs / DSLRs / CSCs or bridge cameras.  I thought, since this is a budget blog, I should return to the more accessible end of the market, using a mobile phone or cheap compact.  In both cases, many have macro modes which allow you to get surprisingly close to small subjects.

“I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras”

Here comes the science bit…  I have included this under the title “Macro” because it is generally used to refer to close-up photography. Strictly speaking, though, the term macro isn’t right for most mobile phones or compact cameras, but it is the technical difference which gives these cameras some interesting properties.

Macro: A technical definition. – The ratio of the subject’s size on the film or sensor plane to its actual size is known as the reproduction ratio – macro normally describes reproduction ratios greater than 1:1.

So – now we’ve got this out of the way, why are mobile phones not macro? And what difference does it make?

Well, if you’re old enough to really remember 35mm film, you’ll know it was called this because each shot was taken on a 35mm wide piece of film. This is the same size as the sensor in expensive DSLRs.  So, for a photo of a 20mm long insect to fill roughly two thirds of a photo, you would have needed a 1:1 (macro) reproduction.

Your mobile phone, though, will have a sensor which is considerably smaller, typically 1/3 inch, which is just 8.5mm across.  This changes the reproduction ration from roughly 1:1 to 4:1.  Don’t worry too much about the numbers themselves, but the point is that the insect you’re trying to shoot is now larger than the sensor you’re shooting it with, rather than the other way around.

Now, this reproduction ratio doesn’t mean you will actually be able to focus on something at very close distances (so you may struggle to shoot an insect which fills your whole frame, without some sort of adapter), but it will drastically increase the depth of field which can be achieved at the shortest distances your phone can focus at.

Here is an example, shot using my mobile phone, where you can see that nearly all of the flowers in the photo are in fairly sharp focus:

Honey Bee
A honey bee, shot with a Nokia Lumia 800.

This increased depth of field is, in my opinion, generally a bad thing in macro photography, where you often want to remove distracting backgrounds with a tasteful blur.  However, it does have some interesting applications, and you can have a lot of fun with them.

One of the great things about using a mobile phone is that you can often achieve greater depth of field from close-up of objects that otherwise would be impossible to keep in sharp focus when shooting at a short distance.  This might be useful when shooting models, dolls houses, chess boards, or other miniature environments or landscapes.  This can create some great fun opportunities to create some fun composite images.  (See my articles on software such as PhotoScape or GIMP for some free applications to do this).

Fungi under a tree
Fungi under a tree, shot from a few inches away using a mobile phone but providing a wide depth of field.

And the same shot after playing around with it in some software:

...and a fun guy under the fungi
…and a fun guy under the fungi

Maddening Macro (Part 1)

If you’re anything like me, you will doubtless have found yourself drawn in amazement to some of the photos out there of the very tiny, from very close up.

An ant in a wildflower
Wildlife can be found on your front doorstep, and shot with the simplest of gear.

One of the great things about photography, is that it allows you to see things which are very difficult to perceive with the human eye, either because you simply can’t get close enough to focus well, or because you can’t “freeze” something whilst moving, and your eyes can’t keep up with it.

This is where the wonderful world of macro photography comes in – and there are some true masters of it.  If you want to explore a vast array of images and techniques, the Flickr macros group is one of the largest on the site and is well worth a browse amongst its 300,000 or so photos (at the time of writing).

However, as with all things in photography, there is a catch.  If you start getting serious about taking macro images and read all of the magazines, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that you can spend a LOT of money on gear.  So is there any way to avoid this?

The short answer is yes – so long as you know and understand your equipment and its limitations.  I am therefore intending, over a series of articles in the next few weeks, to cover off some of the ways you can achieve great results without splashing too much cash.

Supplementary Lenses (also known as diopters, close-up or macro filters, or simply close-up lenses)

Being a stickler for technical accuracy, I’m not keen on referring to these little beauties as macro filters, as technically they don’t filter out any light – they simply act as magnifying glasses.  They are referred to as filters, though, as they tend to screw into the filter ring of your camera. (This is one of the reasons I recommend buying a bridge camera with a filter ring, or an appropriate adaptor).

As a general rule, you cannot use these sorts of lenses with more basic point and shoot cameras or mobile phones, which I will return to at another time.

There are a few reasons why I love these handy little tools, though, and why they formed part of every camera bag and setup I have ever owned:

  1. They are really cheap (under £10; definitely the cheapest way of getting into macro photography to start with).
  2. They can generally be fitted to any lens in a kitbag (either by choosing lenses with the same thread size, or a step-up ring, which can be bought for next to nothing).
  3. They hardly take up any space, so you can have them with you all of the time.

The third reason, although not technically a cost saving piece of advice, is definitely one about getting value for money.  One of the things I love about wildlife (particularly macro) photography, is that you can find things to take pictures of everywhere.  Ants, spiders, wasps, bees, even common houseflies become a hundred times more interesting seen from close up.  What you will find happens, is that you’ll go out with your camera and just stumble across things which you think are beautiful and interesting, and would love to take a photo of, but can’t because you don’t have the right lens, because it was too big or bulky.  With these little screw-on lenses, that needn’t happen, because they’re tiny to start with.

But seriously – are they any good?

In all honesty, yes they are – so long as you know their weaknesses.  Here are my “top tips” for getting the best out of your diopter lenses (with a few examples along the way):

Tip #1: Don’t just buy one diopter – by a set of three.

Or even a set of four!  You will normally find that these are sold in sets of +1, +2 and +4 (sometimes +3 or +5), and some sets come with +10.  I have a set of four, including a +10, but, to be honest, it’s a pretty crumby bit of glass, so stick to the lower numbers.  You will also read that you can “stack” these lenses (with the largest diopter closest to the lens) but don’t bother doing that either, as it will rapidly degrade your image quality.

Tip #2: Keep your subject centre-frame.

Unless you can afford to buy a two-element diopter lens (also known as an achromatic lens), which are quite a bit more expensive, then these lenses suffer from chromatic aberration especially closer to the edges.  This basically means that areas of high contrast end up with fringes of colour which should not be there.  With an out-of-focus and even background, this won’t matter, but if it’s a key element of the photo, you will begin to notice.  Therefore, when shooting (particularly in bright, high contrast conditions) try and keep your subject fairly central.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Bombus terrestris in flight.
Shot with a +2 diopter from a £10 set of 4, on a basic canon 75-300mm lens (available new for about £70 and second hand, potentially a lot cheaper).

In this shot, you can see the chromatic aberration occuring on the right hand edge of the flower, though in the context of the shot, it detracts little from the action.

If you compare this with the following shot of a cricket, however, you can see how the image quality degrades as you reach closer to the edge of the frame:

A cricket
Shot, again, with a +2 diopter on a 75-300mm lens, but with a closer working distance (and a larger insect) filling the frame. You can see how image quality degrades further out (particularly around the legs).

However, if you shoot your subject dead centre, and against a low contrast (or single colour background) then you can hide the effect almost entirely:

Ladybird
A common English ladybird in a bush in my back garden. The same set up (75-300mm with a +2 diopter) but more even, green background without bright highlights.

Tip #3: Shoot on bright days!

There are a lot of comments out there about needing overcast light to shoot nice macro images, which is fine if you are able to shoot with an expensive ringflash or build complex artificial environments, but as a general rule, bright days are best if you’re on a budget.  This is because they allow you to shoot your subject at a high enough shutter speed to freeze your action, and to give you more flexibility on the aperture you use.

Tip #4: Try using a longer focal-length lens, with a lower diopter number.

Especially if your subject is moving! This approach should allow you to shoot your subject from a sufficiently distant position, without scaring the subject off – it also means you won’t block out too much light by casting your own, huge shadow over the subject thereby extending shutter speeds.  Also, the closer you get to your subject, the worse DoF problems can become making it hard to get what you want in focus.

Tip #5: Buy a mini-clamp tripod

These really are, cheap, low end bits of kit for about £5 – and would be rubbish for shooting birds, but for the small things they’re brilliant.  They’re also really good for quick snaps on a self timer and attach to pretty much anything (and have tripod feet if needed).  Again – they can be carried anywhere and used with any camera – so there’s not really any downside.

Mini clamp tripod
A mini clamp tripod you can just hang off your camera bag – available from amazon or ebay for around £5

Until next time – happy shooting!

Software for the more advanced user

“a more serious contender as a competitor to Adobe’s more expensive options – the unfortunately named GIMP”

Yesterday, in my post “The hard truth about software“, I highlighted PhotoScape as a good piece of free software which will meet the needs of most budding photographers.  It is intuitive and simple to use, but it has its limitations.  Today, I want to highlight another good free option, which is a more serious contender as a competitor to Adobe’s more expensive options – the unfortunately named GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program).

GIMP is a much more complex program than PhotoScape, and as such it can be a little bit harder to find your way around.  It has a number of features which are comparable to Adobe’s Photoshop suite, such as the ability to use layers, to manipulate sections of the image selectively using lasso tools and to carry out levels and importantly curves adjustments.  It is therefore a far more complete overall image editor.  Unfortunately, in my eyes, it’s similarity to PhotoShop leads to one of its downfalls, because the way that you access all of these options is quite different, and therefore those who are used to using Adobe software can find it quite difficult switching between the two programs.  This won’t be a problem at all, though, if you don’t have access to Photoshop to begin with!

GIMP - GNU Image Manipulation Program
A serious contender as a free competitor to Adobe’s photoshop

The problem can also be avoided by using a related free program – Gimpshop – an amended version of GIMP specifically set up to look, act and feel a lot more like Photoshop.  Gimpshop has taken advantage of the open source nature of GIMP and has used its architecture to build out this rather astonishing piece of (presumably legal) plagiarism.  I can’t claim to be an expert on using it – but if you’re looking for a free Photoshop alternative, it would be totally remiss of me not to highlight this particular piece of software.

I will probably return to the subject of software in later blogs – but for now, I think that’s a good place to start.  I would love to see some of your “before and afters”, to hear your experience using these programs and any other alternatives.  Please feel free to share!