Most people know that the term macro photography refers to the study of things close up, but the definition of true macro states that subjects should fill the frame at a ratio of 1:1 (i.e life-size). Extreme macro is where objects are photographed bigger than life-size, typically at a ratio of from 2:1 up to 4:1. It sounds simple but, with each increase in magnification, the difficulties in achieving that image are also multiplied.
The biggest challenge is depth of field or DOF, meaning the amount of the object which is in focus at one time. In standard macro photography DOF is an issue but, when working with extreme macro, this is significantly reduced and it is not uncommon to be managing a depth of field of about 1mm. Therefore, focus stacking (taking multiple images at different focus points and digitally merging them together) becomes the only way of achieving crispness right the way across the image. I’ve learnt this the hard way – the image of fuchsia leaf with dew drops is a blend of a whopping 18 images! It goes without saying that a tripod is essential for macro photography and a focussing rail can make things an awful lot easier.
Light and movement are also a key factors. The closer you are to your subject, the more light is blocked out by your camera and lens. Macro photographers are often seen with antennae-like flash lights attached to their camera, to try and increase illumination without creating shadows. Without light, your shutter speed is also affected. Even the lightest breath of wind or a small twitch from an insect can result in big movements when viewed through a macro lens, which makes achieving the multiple images required for focus stacking even more tricky!
Then there is the cost. As with all specialist equipment, macro photography can come with a hefty price tag. Dedicated lenses for extreme macro photography come at eye watering prices and are definitely reserved for those making a living out of their images – or very enthusiastic amateurs! Extension tubes provide an affordable bridge from macro to extreme macro. My set of 3 extension tubes cost approx. £30 from eBay and seem to be very good. Attached to my Sigma 105mm lens, they extend my focal length up to 65mm, so that I am typically about 50-70mm away from my subject – more than close enough to get creative and have some fun!
I’ve been experimenting with extreme macro for a few months now and it has been a very steep learning curve. I’m pretty pleased with some of the results though, a few of which are shown here. I can’t wait to do some more!