Hello everybody! It’s me again (duh!)~ Thank you for all the support towards to website so far, I really appreciate them, and I really hope you learn new stuffs with each visit 🙂
Okay, today we have come to the last article for our series on How To Take Better Macro Shots, which is on Sharpness. If you have not read the previous articles, do check them out: (i) Choice of Subject, (ii) Composition, (iii) Lighting and (iv) Background.
In this context I am referring blurriness to the lack of sharpness for simplicity. It doesn’t matter whether you are a beginner or a pro, whether you use a smartphone or a pro-grade DSLR to take your photos, I am absolutely sure that everyone hates an unintentionally blurred shot.
I have talked to some pro portrait photographers, and most of them would consider their photos unusable the moment the eyes of the model(s) are not sharp (unless if done intentionally). This is completely understandable. After all, the eyes are usually the most attractive part to a portrait shot.
Now, the funny thing is that the same rule is somewhat applicable to the world of Macro Photography as well, though we sometimes do not only focus on the eyes of our subjects. An evidently blurred shot- the blurriness is noticeable even when the photo is downsized, is no good, even if you have aced in your choice of subject, composition, lighting and background.
So, today we are going to see how we can get sharper photos, even if the photo is viewed at 100% crop:
1. If you are shooting using Natural Light (only), increase your shutter speed as much as you can.
As mentioned in the earlier articles of the series, you will need a relatively fast shutter speed in order to minimize effects of moments such as handshakes or wind in your shot. I personally prefer a conservative shutter speed of 1/2000; though a higher value may be required if there is a lot of wind or if the subject is moving.
Of course, unless if you are shooting under very bright sunlight, most of the time you will not be able to achieve such shutter speeds, unless if you increase the ISO sensitivity of your DSLR which will in turn sacrifice the image quality of your resulting photo.
At this point, some might argue that with today’s post processing technology, you can easily reduce the noise of a photo so it doesn’t really matter if you shoot at decently high ISO sensitivity. Well, this may be true to a certain extent (also applicable in other genres of photography), especially so if you are taking a photo with relatively low magnification- the loss in details is too little to notice since the subject is already quite small within the photo. However, for highly magnified shots, you cannot afford to lose out the details of your subject as the flaws will become rather apparent when taken at high ISO values; and of course, the flaws will be further enhanced after you crop.
The lack of light is usually the main reason why most Macro Photographers shoot using artificial light i.e. flash or other forms of light.
2. Use one or several flashguns to provide sufficient, artificial light.
Personally, I think the usage of flashgun(s) at this point in time is pretty much unavoidable if you are serious about taking great macro photographs. Although it might be a bit challenging to learn how a flash operates and affects your final photo, the results you get are definitely worth the effort to learn as well as the money paid.
A flashgun is a device many times more powerful in producing light than the built-in flash of your DSLR, and the light generated is enough to “freeze” virtually all types of movements you encounter in Macro Photography.
Of course, getting a powerful flashgun doesn’t improve your photos overnight; you have to learn a bit more on the Quality of Light (covered in How To Take Better Macro Shots Part 3- Lighting) in order produce stunning images.
3. Bring your tripod.
It doesn’t matter whether you are shooting using Natural or Artificial Light, a tripod is always a welcomed sight in the Macro World. By using a sturdy tripod, you instantaneously and effectively curb movements resulting from handshakes, so you need only worry about wind and subject movements.
If you are taking your macro shots using only Natural Light, using a tripod will enable you to take shots of stationary subjects (assuming no wind) with better image quality, since you can afford to lower your ISO sensitivity and thus shutter speed for the shot. Please do take note that for the case of Natural Light, using a tripod doesn’t really improve shots of moving subjects since you still need to keep the shutter speeds fast.
As for Macro Photographers who shoot using Artificial Light, to be honest, if you are able to steady your shooting posture (see Point 4), you don’t really need a tripod to help you take sharp shots, which is why most of the experienced Macro Gurus seldom bring along their tripod during trips. Can’t blame them, their macro setups are already so elaborated and heavy. However, if you insist on using a tripod, if shot correctly, expect photos to turn out very sharp even when viewed at 100%. In addition, (although seldom needed) using a tripod will enable you to shoot using slower shutter speeds for a “brighter” background, particularly when surrounding light is limited.
4. Apply steady shooting posture.
There is a reason why snipers need to lie down, or rely on a sniper mount in order to shoot accurately: Our body will always be experiencing minor movement e.g. breathing, minute muscle movement etc. which becomes highly intensified when you are looking through a long lens. These bodily movements are quite apparent in the Macro World, especially if you are taking extreme up-close shots while standing. Your hands will surely be shaking as they struggle to hold onto your heavy DSLR, and your constant breathing and unstable footing don’t help either.
So the solution is actually very simple, as you might have already guessed; if you are going to take a relatively up-closed macro shot, always look for supports for your hands or body.
One of the easiest and most efficient methods (assuming you don’t have a tripod) is to do a one-legged kneel, then put your elbow onto your leg for support (see Photo 1), this will effectively decrease hand vibrations. Of course, this method is only applicable if your subject is on lower foliage or shrubs.
For those that are on the ground, try shooting from eye level by lying on the ground, and using the ground as a support for your hands or camera. If your DSLR has a flippable screen, then you might want to just put the camera on the ground, and shoot via the LCD (See Photo 2), neat!
For subjects that occur around waist level or higher, you will definitely have to stand and shoot. Even so, always look for suitable supports for one, or if possible both of your hands (See Photo 3). Tree trunks, walls and fences are often good picks.
There you go~ Shooting postures are often underrated, but are no doubt one of the most important aspects you need to know in order to get great photos.
5. Use Image Stabilization of your lens (If applicable).
Most macro lenses come with Image Stabilization of some sorts, though they might be named differently according to brand (IS, VR, OS etc.). Image Stabilization can usually be turned on or off via a switch on the lens itself. This technology basically cancels out movements made by your hands so that you get a relatively sharper photo than when the technology is off. However, there is a catch to how it works. Based on what I have read, the technology is most apparent when you are shooting at a Shutter Speed less than 5x the focal length of your lens. For example, on a 100mm macro lens, Image Stabilization works well if you are shooting at a Shutter Speed of 1/500 (5 x 100).
Thus, the stabilization technique really comes in handy, especially when you are shooting using Natural Light but the light source is not sufficient.
Image Stabilization is generally not used for those shooting using Artificial Light. This is because a flash is so fast that it is capable of “freezing” all sorts of movements, including those caused by handshake. In fact, I have read about some reports that Image Stabilization actually decreases sharpness when paired with Artificial Light, might run some tests to verify when I have the time.
Alright! There you go, five methods to help improve the sharpness of your macro photos. If you ask me, I believed that as long as you have a good flashgun plus diffuser and you steady your arms and body each time you take a shot, you are going to create some amazingly sharp photographs!
Well, the following does not directly improve the sharpness of your shots, but will help you get overall better shots:
- Photograph large subjects. In Macro Photography, the smaller your subjects, the higher your chances of getting shots that are blurred or not sharp. For a very small subject (say <1cm), you either shoot with increased magnification, or you crop more: Both methods will reveal the flaws in sharpness; even so if the subject is moving. Conversely, when you are photographing a relatively larger subject, there is no need for you to use a higher magnification, thus less susceptibility to hand vibrations and blurs. In addition, shooting large subjects means that you won’t need to crop your photo (assuming using the same magnification as earlier): Even if your photo is not 100% sharp, it will not be visible unless if viewed at 100%. Most photos are downsized when presented on websites, social media etc. so it doesn’t really matter.
- Avoid disturbances or distractions. In the Macro World, there are a number of notorious “vermin” which are always on the hunt, trying to ruin your shots and your day; and believe me, they will REALLY ruin your day. These include mosquitoes, ants, bees, leaches etc. Needless to say, the mosquito ranked first in this blacklist (at least in Southeast Asia). Now it is virtually impossible to avoid mosquitoes if you are into Macro Photography since they are basically everywhere; what you can do is take the necessary preparations and precautions. Apply repellents; wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, a hat, thick socks and if needed, gloves to avoid these nasty insects. By eliminating these distractions, you will be able to focus more on getting that awesome shot you wanted.
Well, I guess this article wraps up our How To Take Better Macro Shots series. I hope you enjoyed reading through the series, and had learnt something useful in improving your shots! A summarized version of these series is made available here: Macro Photography- Taking Photos That People Like. Please feel free to leave some comments if you have some relevant questions or suggestions on topics to write in the future, we look forward to reading them!
Thank you again guys! Happy Macro-ing and have a great day ahead!
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** Posture photos are for illustration purposes only :p