Andrew McCarthy Photography

Macro Photography

Thoughts on Extreme Macro Stacking – Starting Out

Confused about where to begin with extreme macro stacking?

I know from personal experience that It can be really hard to know where to begin with ‘extreme macro’ photography (i.e. working at greater magnifications than life size) as the kit can appear very specialised and the process seems to require a whole set of new photographic skills and knowledge. 

Getting to a starting point can be very time consuming and overall the subject is pretty daunting for the beginner. In actual fact, with patience and some basic kit (much of which can be purchased cheaply from eBay or sourced from around the house) some pleasing images can be obtained with only modest time and effort. 

In terms of technical knowledge, there is of course a great deal of information on-line, but much of this is highly detailed and technical; even with dedicated websites it can be difficult for the wannabe extreme macro shooter to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’.  I thought therefore that it might be useful for beginners if I described the process I used when I started out shooting extreme close ups (manually) in order to obtain images such as that below of a worker honeybee loaded with pollen. 

Gear – the Canon MP-E 65 and alternatives

I am a Canon shooter, so some years back I invested in the unique Canon MP-E 65 lens which I now use for most of my ‘studio’ based extreme-macro photography. I use the lens purely for convenience – it say in my bag for quite a while before I decided to invest some time learning how to use it properly!  It is not the best (or the only) lens for this type of work – there are many low-cost alternatives, including bellows, extension tubes (dead simple) or Raynox adaptors, that will give you perfectly acceptable results at greater than life size, and which are readily available.

I personally find the MP-E 65 extremely flexible however, as it is portable, light, simple (great for me!) and optically excellent – providing you understand the limitations involved with working at greater than 1:1 magnification (of which more in later posts) and at small apertures. The lens is is manual, so a twist of its external ‘focusing’ ring extends the magnification from 1:1 life size to x5 life size; a range which I find more than sufficient for shooting great close ups of many UK bugs.

Focusing the MP-E 65 is achieved by moving the lens forwards and backwards; this means you need a focusing rail of some kind for consistent results. If you are instead using a Raynox adaptor for example (which would allow retention of the cameras autofocus function, you would simply set your lens to AF and automate the stacking process using free software such as ‘Helicon Remote’.  This allows you to tether your camera / lens combo to a PC for full off-camera remote control.  Its pretty intuitive to use.

Manual stacking

When I started experimentally stacking at higher magnification, my stacks were completely manual – I started off using an old Novoflex focusing rail which was purchased from eBay for around £20.00.  This served me very well until I could justify purchase of an automated macro rail (of which more in future posts). In the following posts I’ll assume most beginners at this kind of photography will not want to spend a much money upfront, and I’ll describe my simple manual stacking process in the next post.

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Macro Photography: Common Darter Dragonflies

A nice early morning session at my garden pond with some emerging common darters.  There has been a massive emergence of this species during summer 2013 as I have counted well over 40 exuvia this season.  This is unusual; whilst this species of dragonfly have bred in the pond in the past, numbers of emerging insects have been low.  

Usually our main species is southern hawker, but there have been very few of these this year.  I am not sure whether this is because of the rather odd late spring (May was very cold here in Devon) or whether it is the late successional nature of my pond, the open water areas of which are now almost completely dominated by water soldier.  

Odonata seem to love this as a plant species on which to emerge; there have been very few inspects choosing to emerge this year on the flag iris or sedges that are in abundance around the pond margins for example.  

It will be interesting to see if the Odonata fauna changes next year as I plan on having a major clearance of open water vegetation this coming autumn.  Should be an interesting experiment.

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Macro Photography: 6-Spot Burnets

Managed to get out this morning to photograph the common but rather beautiful, newly emerged 6-spot burnet months at a site I have worked for a while now for slow worms and adders, up on the Haldon Ridge and about 10 minutes from my home.

It is a roadside waste site and is botanically quite rich, so has plenty of ragwort, a key species for another iconic species – cinnabar moth; in this case the caterpillars.  A lesson on working in poor light again – although the wind was fairly light – at least in the morning, the light was very patchy and from time to time was pretty horrible; flash needed to be used for most of this shoot.

As I said, I have been working this side for adders for a while now; I first came across this place a few years back when I was working in an Environmental Impact Assessment for a local road realignment and needed to trap and translocate reptiles, in particular adders, to this site from a location nearby.  Since then it’s developed into a really nice grassland and scrub site with a pretty good invertebrate diversity.  

I have noticed though that recently a number of reptile heat ‘refuges’ have appeared in the grass, as well as dormouse tubes in the adjacent scrub.  Clearly a local ecological consultancy is surveying this site, which in turn means the site is likely to be subject to a planning application sometime soon; I guess I had better start looking round for another adder site! 

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Macro photography: Garden Cross Spiders

I spent this morning photographing garden cross spiders Araneus diadematus. My main subject was a plump female spider with a web which stretched right across the garden path.  Rather cooperatively, she kept to the middle of her immaculate web but not unusually with this kind of photography, I was hampered by the slight breeze, which kept blowing the web about at critical moments.  

This kind of photography is not easy and is really, really weather dependent.  Good timing and luck play a big role, as well as good technique!  Of all the images taken this morning, this was the only one I was really happy with.  

Kit:  Sigma 150mm macro, Gitzo tripod, Arca Swiss ball head and 250mm Lastolite reflector to provide fill light.

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