On this page you will find some brief notes about macro photography which I hope will be of some use.
For a more in depth discussion, I recommend Close Ups in Nature by John Shaw, as well as the other books listed in the bibliography section of this web site. Do not be afraid to experiment, and to sometimes fail, as that is the only way to learn.
For more than a decade I have been using 35mm equipment from Nikon and for the most part I am very pleased with the quality. From what I have seen the Canon system is as large, if not larger, and by all accounts the quality is just as high. Whichever brand you choose, make sure the system includes a good range of bodies, lenses and accessories.
There are a number of features I look for in a camera body. First of these is a good viewfinder which allows precise focus. If you have ever tried to photograph a fungus in the dim light of a Beech wood, you will know how important this is. Just as useful is mirror lock up which allows the mirror to be raised several seconds before the exposure. Once the vibrations from the mirror have died down, the shutter is tripped. Many years ago I bought a Nikon 200mm F4 AIS micro lens, and try as I might I could not get a sharp image. After much experimentation I discovered that vibrations from the shutter made the lens ring like a bell, making sharp images near impossible. Lastly, a remote release, or a self timer, avoids having to touch the camera during an exposure.
The most useful exposure modes are without question manual and aperture priority. Select the desired aperture, and hence the depth of field, and then select (or allow the camera to select) the appropriate shutter speed. Canned exposure modes such as 'macro' and 'landscape' should be avoided as only the photographer knows what is required.
In general it is best to focus the lens manually as for macro shots the depth of field is so shallow that the autofocus will usually focus on the wrong spot. There are of course exceptions to this rule, such as insects in flight, where manual focus is impracticable. If the insect is not moving too fast, I preset the focus, and trigger the shutter when the insect, such as a bee foraging for nectar, is in focus.
I own numerous macro lenses which as the name suggests are specially designed for macrophotography. These lenses are optimised to perform well at close range, and they include sufficient built-in extension (or movement of internal elements) to allow focussing to lifesize or, more rarely, to half lifesize, without recourse to extension tubes, or other accessories. Macro lenses can be expensive, but repay the investment through convenience and image quality.
Macro lenses are available in a wide range of focal lengths. Short focal lengths, ~60mm, are ideal for fungi and plants, where short working distance is acceptable, and the small size and low cost are welcome benefits. Long focal lengths, ~200mm, are more suitable for nervous subjects, such as insects, which do not allow a close approach. The long focal length has the added benefit of isolating the subject against the background, which can be aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately 200mm macro lenses are usually rather large and expensive. Intermediate focal length macro lenses, ~100mm, are an ideal compromise. Wide angle lenses, whilst not able to focus to 1:1, can also be used for close up photography, the unusual perspective creating visual impact.
A macro lens is not essential, especially if finances are limited, or if your interest in close-up photography is casual. Excellent results can often be obtained by using a normal lens with extension tubes, a diopter lens, a teleconverter, or even a combination of all three. Prime lenses usually give the best results, though it is worth experimenting with whatever lenses you already own.
Some lenses have a macro mode, whereby they can focus to 1:3 or 1:2 when set to the longest or shortest focal length. Some can perform extremely well, though none is a substitute for a true macro lens.
I recommend using a tripod for close ups in natural light, as shutter speeds can be quite low, and the depth of field can be very shallow requiring very careful focussing. Most tripods are not really flexible enough for macro photography, as they do not go low enough, and are hard to position in cramped spaces such as a hollow in a tree. Tripods from the Uniloc and Benbo companies are exceptions. These so-called bent bolt designs are extremely flexible, as the legs can be adjusted individually to any angle, allowing use in otherwise impossible situations. They are also inexpensive. The only tripod I do not recommend from these manufacturers is the Benbo Trekker which in my opinion is flimsy. The Explorer range of tripods from Gitzo is almost as flexible as the bent-bolt designs, and they are very well made. The top end models use carbon fibre, and magnesium castings, and hence they are extremely light and rigid. Unfortunately, Gitzo tripods are rather expensive. Whichever tripod you choose, you will also need a good head, either a ball head, or a pan and tilt, each type having its own fans. I recommend buying one with the Arca Swiss quick release system, which is the de facto standard supported by most big name manufacturers. Many lenses and accessories such as macro focusing rails even have built in Arca Swiss plates. I use a Markins M10 ball head, which is extremely well made, and able to carry a large load without vibrations or slip. It is also very smooth in use.
Unfortunately a tripod is rather impractical for photographing active insects which are continually moving about. The solution is to use a hand held camera with one or more flash units to freeze the action. Most camera manufacturers provide high quality dedicated macro flash units, which make flash photography easy, or at least straightforward. In my experience a 100mm macro lens is ideal for use with hand held flash. With the improvements in camera technology, handheld macrophotography in natural light is now a reality, even at apertures of F11 and F16, though this does require a bright day. There is no doubt that this can provide a more natural and less harsh rendition of subjects.
Regardless of what some ill informed people will tell you, equipment does matter. The purchase of a new lens or accessory can open up new photographic opportunities. But don't buy gear just because it is popular, or your favourite photographer uses it. Find out what equipment you need to achieve the images that you want to take. And then work hard to learn how to use it.
I currently use a Nikon D600 camera.
I generally use a Nikon 60mm micro lens for photographing fungi and a Nikon 200mm F4 micro lens for insects.