When it comes to photo gear there is always something faster, brighter, longer, bigger… and more expensive. While macro photography is no exception, there are many accessories priced at or below one hundred dollars that can immediately improve the macro photography experience.
We have to start by acknowledging that there are fewer accessories for compact camera shooters compared to DSLR shooters. Along the way we will point out the components that will work for both types of cameras.
When it comes to macro photography we tend to have two main concerns: getting the camera close enough for magnification and then getting enough light on the subject for exposure. Let’s start with a simple lighting aide.
If getting enough light onto the macro subject is our goal one simple way achieve it is by bouncing light onto the subject. By holding a device with a reflective surface in a way that bounces more of the available light onto the subject we can provide better illumination. This bounce device can be as simple as a piece of white card stock and any bounce device will work for compact or DSLR cameras.
A more versatile option to a white card stock reflector is a 5-In-1 Reflector. With three reflective surfaces – white, silver and gold – it is possible to not only add more light where it is needed but we can make that light warmer or cooler too. Below is an example photo showing a tabletop setup where a silver reflector is used to reflect more light back onto the subject.
Another nice feature of the 5-In-1 Reflector is the diffuser screen. When shooting outside on a bright day the light may be too contrasty. By holding the diffuser over the subject the harshness is reduced and the subjects colors and detail are improved. (Cost $39.99 to $59.99)
Moving up the ladder from a bouncer / reflector we have a ring light. A ring light can use either a flash or constant LED illumination. A ring light like the RL60 LED Macro Ring Light is much less expensive than a flash version. A ring light mounts directly to the camera's lens and provides illumination directly to the subject.
Unfortunately we can't rely on the camera's built-in flash for macro photography. The closer a camera moves toward the subject the more likely the built-in flash will cast a shadow from the lens. By adding a ring light to the camera we are also able to increase the amount of light on the subject. More light means smaller lens apertures which in turn increase the depth of field in the image.
In the image below we have a pocketknife shot three ways. First on the left is an exposure made using only the available room light. In the middle is the knife picture taken with the built-in camera flash – notice the moon shaped shadow of the lens across the bottom of the image. Finally on the right is the same knife shot with an LED ring light. Initially the right and left images don't appear to be that different but if we look closer we see that the picture taken with the ring light permitted a smaller aperture and the ruler scale on the knife handle becomes legible.
The LED ring light image has more detail than the other examples and the focus depth is greater too. While an LED ring light sells for about $100, a flash version will fetch $250 or more. However a flash ring light will pump out even more light than an LED light permitting even smaller apertures and greater depth of focus.
Having looked at two affordable accessories to get more light on our macro subject the next tool to examine is the Close-Up Filter Set. For the DSLR shooter getting closer, more magnified images is as simple as changing lenses or adding a close-up filter to an existing lens. While macro lenses start at $300 and quickly go up in price, close-up filter sets range from $55 to $85 depending on filter size.
Close-up filters thread onto the fron of a DSLR lens just like any other filter. Depending on the strength of the filter the camera can move in closer to the subject. As seen in the image above, the middle shot was taken with the camera lens at it's best close focus distance. By adding close-up filters of various strengths the camera could focus closer and closer to the subject. It should be noted that adding a close-up filter prevents the camera from focusing on distant subjects until the filter is removed.
Close-up filters can be stacked to achieve varying degrees of close focus. The lower right corner in the example has all three filters stacked to yield a +7 strength. However please notice that the lens is now so close to the subject that the ring light no longer illuminates the middle of the image! Depending on the subject and the lighting stacked filters may or may not produce useable images.
In conclusion: While there is expensive equipment available for macro photography there are also much more affordable accessories as well. By adding more light to the subject with a Reflector or a Ring Light the macro photographer benefits from increased depth of field and better details. Using Close-Up Filters on DSLR lenses allows the camera to move in closer to the subject which increases magnification. Each of these options sell for $100 or less and will increase macro image quality.
Macro photography is both fun and interesting. The opportunities for unique macro images can be found just about anywhere. With the added benefit of low cost of entry, macro photography can become an enjoyable hobby of its own.