I had about an hour on a Sunday morning and decided to take my camera to the local Japanese garden. There wasn’t really any spectacular scenes (especially since this is winter), and the garden is not large. So when you enter an area, look around and recognize that there really isn’t any great “big pictures”, you have to start thinking in terms of “small pictures”.
I think I took that a bit overboard, though, when I screwed a +10 close-up filter on the end of my 50mm f/1.8 lens. Normally, I use a +2 and +4 for my close-up filters, because I haven’t been able to afford a real, dedicated macro lens. But this is like strapping a magnifying glass to the end of your lens! There are some pros and cons involved with using a filter with such strong magnification:
Pro: It allows you to get your standard, non-macro lens much closer to small subjects and fill the viewfinder.
Con: Your depth of field shrinks so drastically, and the area in sharp focus is so narrow, that you have to stop down your aperture to compensate.
I ran into some challenges, as you can see from the photo above. Even with the aperture closed down to f/9, the depth of field is extremely short. I found it too hard to use auto focus to choose which parts of the image I wanted in focus, so I turned it off, set the focus manually, then carefully maneuvered that camera forward until I got what I wanted into focus. The problem with this approach is a slight movement of your hand, or a slight breeze, takes the focal point out of focus, as in the photo above.
Another challenge was the light, with heavy clouds and rainy weather. I have a phobia of high ISO settings from my film photography and early digital photography days that I am trying to overcome. Newer cameras and software do a great job of correcting high ISO noise. In this photo I raised the ISO speed to 640 so I could get a shutter speed high enough to avoid motion blur. Softness in photos comes from more than one cause. I’ve kept my ISO at 100 or 200 in the past, thinking I’ll get the best image quality, but at the cost of slight motion blurring the photo just enough that it looks ok on the camera screen but not on a computer monitor. But we gotta learn from our mistakes, right?
This photo turned out a little better, but it still illustrates how incredibly shallow the area in sharp focus is with a +10 close-up filter. These are mere blades of grass, mind you. I began to focus the lens at infinity (the farthest it can focus) and move the camera until I got details in focus. This, in combination with a narrower aperture setting, allowed me to get a slightly greater depth of field.
But as I experimented, I found that shooting at right angles with the surface of the subject got me better results than shooting along the length of the subject. You can see that in these next photos. But look carefully and you’ll notice that the light in the water drops changes with the angle. Bright and silvery at a parallel angel, darker and less sparkly at a right angle.
I took the above shots before I switched to Aperture Priority mode and began stopping down the lens opening, and before I started adjusting the ISO to compensate for lost light. The shutter speed on that last shot was really too slow, but I was lucky to get some detail anyway. The aperture setting of f/5.6 (on a f/1.8 lens) was still not enough to get the depth of field that would have made these better photos.
This is what they’re talking about when they say “start using manual modes on your camera and take more control of how your photos look”. I am still learning and I still shoot in Program auto mode too often and don’t pay attention to what’s going on. I probably could have made these photos better if I had started my shoot carefully controlling shutter speed, aperture, and ISO speed. So in closing, here’s a list of things I learned from my experiment with the extreme close-up filter:
- Stop down your aperture enough to get the right amount of details in focus.
- Check your photo on the back of the camera and take the time to zoom in on relative details to make sure you accomplished #1 above. If you didn’t, adjust and re-shoot.
- Raise your ISO speed to compensate for a smaller aperture setting in order to keep your shutter speed high enough to avoid motion blur from hand shake or breezes. The rule that seems to work is: shutter speed should be equal to or greater than focal length. In other words, a 200mm lens needs at least 1/250 to avoid motion blur on still subjects. Moving subjects need higher shutter speeds to freeze motion. I used 1/60 with my 50mm lens.
- When you have an extremely shallow depth of field, shooting at a right angle, rather than a parallel angle, with the subject helps more details to be in focus. Conversely, when you want an out of focus background and foreground to zero attention on the focal point of your shot, adjusting your angle to parallel helps create the effect.
- In macro photos, using manual focus and setting the lens at its farthest focusing position, then moving the camera to get the proper focus can increase a depth of field that is too shallow.