Shooting Macro Pt. 2 — BACK 2 BEARSICS!
Anyway, this essay on photography technique just got one section longer, and this is the second part of three! (The previous post is here).
Continuing along on our macro/selective focus tutorial I wanted to back up before we go forward to make sure the basics are solid before the I talk about the tricky stuff. Here are a couple of rudimentary suggestions for all photographers shooting small dioramas/objects. Even if you know all of this (I assume most people do, but I was just going over my own process for shooting those hentai origami shots from the first post) this will be a good refresher.
-1) It is vital to use the lowest possible ISO when working with out-of-focus areas - usually around 100 ISO on modern digital cameras - because with the lowest ISO your camera will render those subtle soft areas in a more beautiful manner. Also, soft fields of tone (as well as shadows) are some of the image-areas most susceptible to ugly and distracting digital noise, so using higher ISOs will disproportionally affect macro images. [Also, you are shooting in RAW, in Adobe 1998 color space, at the maximum image size right? If you're not, go change that right now and come back!]
Here are some examples. Make sure to click the images to full size to really take a look at how the soft, out of focus areas are annihilated by noise in the ISO 3200 images even though the "focused" areas still look okay (these two examples are shot on a tripod btw).
Full Size f/4 @ ISO 100
Detail of f/4 @ ISO 100
Full Size f/4 @ ISO 3200
Detail of f/4 @ ISO 3200
-2) Shooting on a solid tripod is essential when shooting small objects up close. Camera shake and minor changes in focus can much more easily ruin a shot of a tiny object in a studio than a shot of a mountain in the distance at noon. The relationship of the slightest motion of the camera to the subject is exponentially worse working in macro. So get a good tripod, a good tripod head and lock the camera down tight! I usually find the angle I want with the camera off of the tripod, compose my shot, then set my camera on the tripod and replicate the shot I found. Spend around $200 to get a nice tripod and head combination (I recommend the 055 Manfrotto legs. For macro photography, I don't really know about a head, but I use a basic ball head and love it.) It sounds like a lot of money, but you will thank yourself! Even under heavy use, they last at least a decade, make your images look better and reduce your stress!
-3) Even with your camera on a stable tripod you still have to use a cable release or if you don't have one, use the auto timer! Even if you are as nimble as a ninja, and your tripod is so burly that it would get mistaken for a construction crane, pushing on the camera to release the shutter will cause shake (even the motion of the mirror and shutter can cause shake!). This is doubly important with selective focus because you are trying to exaggerate the disparity of the small part in focus with the larger area out of focus, and if that in focus part isn't sharp because of camera-shake caused by you pushing the button, it reduces the impact of the selective focus! I use the built-in 2-second auto timer all the time for working with product photography. You set the shot up, push the button, remove your hand from the camera and tripod, and voila, no more accidentally blurry images!
Here are a couple of examples of points -2 and -3. Again, click them to make them larger and really look at how the hand-held image never gets anywhere near as sharp as the one that is locked on the tripod (and additionally using the auto timer).
Hand Held, f/4, 1/8 shutter, ISO 100
Hand Held Detail, f/4 1/8 shutter, ISO 100
Tripod + Timer, f/4 1/8 shutter, ISO 100
Tripod + Timer Detail, f/4, 1/8 shutter, ISO 100
-4) Okay, I realized as I was writing that some folks might be like "But ERRRRrrooonnnnn, I don't use a full-sized tripod because otherwise how could I get low enough to shoot such tiny things blah blah blah." Here's a couple photos of my
ghetto standard set-up for shooting small objects that will expand the angles you can shoot from. You want your set/objects at the very front of a normal table or desk. Your tripod/camera just in front of that on the floor. The table should be away from a wall so you can get all around it. The reason you shoot like this is that you can actually shoot a much more diverse set of angeles - even from below, which no matter how small your flexi-tripod is, you can get! (image) Also, this gives you the most ability to position lights. You can set them above, behind, and all around on the table and from any position from the front very easily.
Normal Setup (Not ictured, the death metal bugging my neighbors).
Note the lights now above and below, as well as how the tripod/camera is actually below the table looking up!
-5) If you are working on shots like Shing's Marlowe, which are small objects staged in a studio, it is usually worth your time to download the images to you computer and preview them as large as possible durring the shooting session. Because of how minute changes can affect such small objects and how tiny shifts in focus can change a shot, if you have your camera locked down on a tripod, you can pop the card out, download it, look at it on your large monitor in Aperture or what-not, go "Oh! That area is too dark, and the focus is like .1 inches behind the object, and I need a little more depth of field…" Pop the card back in, make the changes and shoot another frame or two. Repeat until perfect all without squinting at a tiny LCD screen. You're not doing any "Decisive Moment" work, so use that control and time to your advantage!