Macro Done Easy


By: Nathan Cool.

How to shoot macro without breaking the bank


I absolutely love macro photography. I especially like shooting macro indoors. While it can be nice to get outside and soak up some natural vitamin D from time to time, macro indoors, like other types of studio work, gives full control of my lighting, and I never have to worry about wind. But unlike portraiture, high speed action or special fantasy photography, macro can be much simpler, with far less room needed for studio gear, and much lower equipment cost as well.


Don't get me wrong, you can spend a bundle on any kind of photo gear, including macro. But, I wanted to share with you my simple setup, which costs a fraction of what others run, as well as some tips and shortcuts, while get stunning shots you'll be proud of.


The Red Wax Begonia above is just one of a few shots I did this past week using a simple setup. Below are some other shots from that series, as well as the gear and setup used, which I'll discuss in more detail:

Pretty, huh? :) That little bagonia is not even an inch across. Its leaves (in the background) are bigger than the flower itself. I absolutely LOVE macro!


Macro photography though does pose some challenges: you need to focus very close so you'll need a lens (or attachments) to get within a foot or so of the subject, which then poses other issues for lighting, exposure, etc. But, working with a still subject, you can take your time with setup, not worry about a schedule, or being on location. There are many advantages to shooting macro, once you can get the right setup to make your pictures pop!


So without further ado, here is the setup I used:

Here's a breakdown of the equipment I used, as well as some inexpensive alternatives and shortcuts:

  1. Camera: Nikon D600. It's a full-frame sensor camera, 24 megapixels. This is discontinued, replaced by the D610, which I also have, but find each to be equally as good. Any decent DSLR camera though will do nicely. But, like with any photography, the better the camera, chances are the better your pictures will be. The D610/600s are at a low enough price point to make having a high res camera affordable, but there are many 3/4 frame, APS-C sized sensor cameras (like the D5100) that can do a very good job as well, so don't be afraid to use what you have on hand.
  2. Lens: Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro. This lens is just half the price of its Nikon equivalent, and the picture quality is just as good. The autofocus on the Tokina is a little slow, but when you're doing a setup like this, who cares? If you're on a tight budget and you can sacrifice a little quality, you can try some inexpensive close-up filters like these from Vivitar. Using those filters, you're in for just $15 versus $400 for a Tokina lens, or $800 for a Nikon or Canon lens. With the filters, you have to get close, and the quality won't be as high as with a macro lens, but it is a great way to get started.
  3. Speedlight: Yongnuo YN-560. For nearly all my studio work I use my trusty Einsteins for power and speed. But no need to bring a bulldozer when a simple garden shovel will do -- the light will be just inches from the subject when shooting macro, so I can get plenty of exposure from just a simple speedlight. The Yongnuo is a fraction of the price of my monolights or TTL speedlights. In this setup I show 2 Yongnuo speedlights, but I mostly used just the one.
  4. Flash triggers: Cactus Wireless Triggers. I love these puppies and own 8 of them to date. They are less than half the price of the more popular flash triggers, and have been extremely reliable. I could have though just used a simple sync cord, like this one for less than $10. But, I also use another trigger to fire the flash when I'm metering, so using wireless remotes gives me a bit more flexibility.
  5. Meter: Polaris SPD. I have this meter for doing other work (studio, product, etc.), so I just used it here. There are less expensive ones out there (like this Sekonic), but considering I'm using cheap, non-TTL speedlights, having the Polaris meter is worth the added cost. As a shortcut, if you're shooting macro at f/22, and you have a speedlight about 1' away from the subject using a diffuser, figure on about 1/2 power on the speedlight, then check your histogram on the picture to see how you're doing. Metering is best, but if you're on a tight budget, you can fiddle with the flash power between 1/2 and 1/4.
  6. Snoot: Rogue Flash Bender. This little puppy is the Swiss Army Knife of modifiers. I use it a lot as a bounce card with speedlights, but it also bends nicely to use as a snoot, giving me a nice spotlight that won't leak light towards the camera. You can make your own snoot though by just rolling up a magazine with a sheet of white paper on the inside and use tape to keep it in place.
  7. Diffuser: Strobo Sock. For less then $10 you get a set of two. These things fit over speedlights, snoots, and small modifiers. You can also use any white material that will diffuse light, like tissue paper, a baby's sock, etc.
  8. Shutter Release: Nikon ML-L3 Wireless Remote. This is a must-have item, and costs less than $20. I like to keep the camera steady, so also make sure to have any vibration reduction settings on your lens shut off.


And of course there are lightstands, tripod, and a black backdrop, but I won't bother wasting your time with that. But, I will recommend looking at this 3-light setup with stands and umbrellas by Cowboy Studio. This is an extremely inexpensive setup which will give you 3 light stands you can use for this and a lot of other setups.


There are also some other advantages to use the Cowboy Studio setup:

  • You use the lights and umbrellas as your light source for macro, cutting cost even further.
  • You won't need to meter the light as you can shoot in aperture priority mode and do time exposures: Set aperture to f/22 and let the shutter stay open as long as it needs to. A wireless remote is crucial though, as you will not want to have any camera movement -- which also means shutting off vibration reduction on the lens (if it has it).
  • You don't need speedlights, you can likely get by without a snoot, and you won't need a diffuser since the umbrellas will be the diffusers. Without a snoot though you may not get a spotlighted effect, but you can correct that with some vignetting in Lightroom.


If you do opt for the Cowboy Studio stands but you also want to use speedlights, you'll need to get a couple of these mounts. These can also hold an umbrella, so you can use the Cowboy Studio stands and umbrellas for a speedlight setup.


No matter what you use for gear, the rest is fairly easy. After setting everything up, I spray the flower with a spritzer bottle (note the handy towel), then move the camera into position, about one foot away from the subject. I meter the speedlight so that I get f/22 at ISO 100. I use autofocus on the camera, then shut it off on the camera -- shutting it off on the Tokina lens is a pain and could move the camera, so I opt for just shutting it off on the camera. I dial in the aperture (f/22) and set shutter speed to 1/200. Even in broad daylight, this is enough to completely block out other ambient light.


Remember though that if you're not using speedlights and using the natural light-type of setup from something like the Cowboy Studio setup mentioned above, you will need to shoot in a dark room so as not to get ambient light during time exposures.


Lastly, I just use the wireless remote to fire away. Move the camera and the subject, recompose, meter, and fire. Experiment with different camera angles and with the light in various heights and positions as well. Just remember to spritz water on the subject only when the camera is far one likes a wet camera :)




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