One of the most popular books that I read during my childhood was Eric in the Land of the Insects, written by the Dutch author Godfried Bomans. In this humorous fantasy, nine-year-old Eric enters the landscape painting that hangs on his wall and he discovers a world of man-sized wasps, bees, butterflies and other insects that is stunningly similar to the world of humans.
The book made such an impression on me that I have always wanted to explore such a world full of wondrous creatures myself. Once photography became a part of my life, I purchased the Canon MP-E 65 mm f/2.8 extreme macro lens and my world was populated with grasshoppers, spiders, snails, flies, dragonflies and butterflies—Eric’s world.
What is Microphotography?
Microphotography (sometimes spelled as two words, micro photography) is an extreme form of macro photography. It is magical because it takes us into a smaller universe of vibrant colors, exquisite details and extraordinary patterns that can literally take your breath away. I photograph invertebrates so close-up that they are transformed into large subjects. Through my images I aim to highlight the different characteristics of a variety of species – and their individual charm.
Microphotography can be challenging because it involves moving in close and magnifying what is there beyond our normal perception of it. As a consequence, we need to pay a lot of attention to every detail we see in the view finder because it will have a huge impact on the overall look and feel of the image. Where we place the subject in the frame (i.e. composition) is critical; even the smallest movement left-right, up-down, can substantially change its impact.
Magnification describes the relationship between the actual size of the subject and the size of its image on the sensor of the camera. At 1:1 life-size, the size of the subject on the sensor is as big as it is in real life. At 1:3 magnification, a 3 cm long blue-tailed damselfly is 1 cm on the sensor. Dividing the size of the subject’s image on the sensor by the actual size determines the magnification.
Macrophotography is restricted to magnifications from 1:10 to 1:1 life-size. Microphotography goes from 1:1 life-size to magnifications of up to 20x. Even greater enlargements are possible with a microscope: from about 20x with a standard microscope to over 1500x with a research microscope. A camera may take the place of the eyepiece of a microscope in a basic outfit.
Most macro lenses are able to capture a 1:1 life-size image of a subject on the camera’s sensor. Strictly speaking, a lens is categorized as a macro lens only if it can achieve this 1:1 magnification. A lens’ minimum focusing distance is the closest distance your macro lens will allow you to get to your subject while still maintaining sharp focus. Microphotography can be achieved by normal macro lenses equipped with modestly priced equipment.
Extension Tubes & Accordion Bellows
A low-budget method to decrease the minimum focusing distance is to extend the distance between the lens and the sensor by inserting extension tubes or a continuously adjustable bellows. Both the extension tubes and the bellows do not contain optical elements. The further the lens is from the sensor, the closer the minimum focusing distance, the greater the magnification, and the darker the image given the same aperture.
Extension tubes of various lengths can be stacked, decreasing lens-to-subject distance and increasing magnification. Extension tubes and bellows can be used for different lenses. A small disadvantage is that the use of extension tubes and bellows may not preserve autofocusing, auto exposure and auto aperture operation [Editor’s Note: There is a new crop of autofocus extension tubes available for Canon and Nikon mounts.]
The maximally obtainable magnification can be calculated with the following simple equation:
(D (length of the set of extension tubes or the bellows) + F (focal length of the macro lens)) ÷ F = magnification.
For Example: Adding a set of extension tubes with a total length of 60 mm to a 60 mm macro lens will give maximally a magnification of (60+60) ÷ 60 = 2.
By adding a teleconverter, an even greater magnification can be achieved. Application of a 2x teleconverter produces a maximum magnification of 4 and 2 stops loss in light intensity. Adding more glass means a drop in quality and quantity of light transmission, the extent of which depends on the quality of the particular teleconverter you’re using.
Placing an auxiliary close-up lenses (or close-up “filters”) in front of a macro lens is another option. Inexpensive screw-in or slip-on attachments provide close-focusing at a very low cost. Some two-element versions are qualitatively very good while many inexpensive single element lenses exhibit chromatic aberration and reduced sharpness of the resulting image. When you use macro lenses with different diameters, for each macro lens a close-up lens has to be purchased separately.
Most close-up lenses are marked with a +d number in diopter unit, the power of the lens. The diopter (or power) of a lens is defined as 1000 ÷ Fd, where Fd is the focal length of the lens measured in mm. Thus, a lens with a focal length of 50mm has a diopter of +20 = 1000 ÷ 50, and a +4 diopter close-up lens has a focal length of 250mm = 1000 ÷ 4.
The maximally obtainable magnification (when using a close-up filter) can be calculated with the equation
(2F + Fd) ÷ Fd.
For Example: coupling a +20 diopter lens with a 60 mm macro lens produces maximally a magnification of (2*60+ 50) ÷ 50 = 3.4.
The Reverse Lens Technique
An interesting alternative is the reverse lens technique which can be accomplished by mounting a lens with focal length Fr in reverse, in front of a normally mounted lens of greater focal length F, using a macro coupler which screws into the front filter threads of both lenses. The maximally obtainable magnification can be calculated with the equation F ÷ Fr. Depending on the quality of the reversed mounted lens, a drop in quality and quantity of light transmission may negatively influence the image quality. All discussed techniques can be used in conjunction to obtain even larger magnifications.
In Part 2, we will discuss the various techniques of approaching various insects and other tiny creatures. Stay tuned.
Dr. Huub de Waard has a PhD from the University of Amsterdam and is a Dutch wildlife photographer who specializes in insect macro photography. He photographs very small invertebrates so close-up that they are transformed into large subjects. Through his images he aims to highlight the different characteristics of a variety of species – and their individual charms.
He does not apply focus stacking and all of his pictures are single images made in his own garden. His work can be found at http://www.huubdewaardmacros.com/
All images reprinted with permission.