You will have seen macrophotography before – the art of getting images of tiny subjects onto a camera sensor. Naturally, you’ll want to go out and get your first image. This blog is really a follow up to this one. I’ve been asked about getting started in macrophotography, and specifically the least expensive way of getting your first image with the WeMacro Rail. In in this article I’m going to get down to basics.
We react viscerally to out-of-scale images – the huge reduced to nothing and the infinitesimal staring down at us. As astrophotographers, we’re used to seeing a galaxy on a postage stamp. However, to me, seeing tiny things magnified is just weird. Insects in particular, being so alien, are the stuff of nightmares. Check out this cricket!
Getting these images can be quite a technical exercise, especially as you progress more into the hobby. But just a few critical components – some of which you might already have – can get you started so you can get your first image.
The best camera to start out with is the one you already have. Ideally, it’ll be a DSLR with a removable lens, so you can change things around. It should also have a manual setting so you can play with exposures.
One important thing your camera should have is provision for a shutter release cable. The WeMacro is an automated setup, meaning the brains in the system will fire your camera without you having to touch anything. In this hobby you’ll quickly learn that keeping everything still is – as they say – “mission critical”.
I’m sure you know that lenses are expensive. More specific lenses are more expensive again. Macro lenses are very similar to normal lenses, but with an extending section that draws them further from the camera body. This extension allows them to focus closer to the front of the lens, which gives you more magnification.
So, like the camera, the best lens is the one you’ve got already. In most cases, that means the kit lens – the one you got when you bought the camera.
Typically, a kit lens will focus down to 30cm from the camera. If you’ve got a macro lens, it’ll probably be able to focus much closer, maybe down to 5cm before things get fuzzy.
A reversed lens
The good news is that there’s a nifty little secret (am I allowed to call it a hack?) that you can take advantage of. If you remove the kit lens from your camera and hold it backwards in front of the camera body, you might find that you’re able to focus way, way, closer. Closer even than a macro lens. Seriously.
Here’s a photo of our camera, complete with two identical lenses. The one on the right has the reversing ring. If you look closely you’ll see that there’s a bayonet pattern on both ends of the lens.
The first time Diego told me about the reversed lens trick, I thought he was having a lend. Even now it’s a little hard to believe, mainly because I’ve never found an optical diagram of what’s going on here. But it’s true, you can focus much closer to the camera, meaning the images are going to be much larger.
All you need is what’s called a lens reversing ring. This is a cheap little adapter that screws into the filter thread at the front of your lens (you’ll need to know the diameter of that thread when you’re buying the reversing ring). The ring presents a bayonet pattern that connects to your camera body. Of course, with this arrangement, there’s not going to be any communication between your camera body and the lens. That’s OK, because we’ll be shooting in fully manual mode anyway.
But there’s always a downside – no depth of focus
Reversing your cheap kit lens to get super close to your subject is excellent, but there’s a price to pay. Have a look at these two photos. Believe it or not, these two images were both taken with the same lens – the kit lens that came with our Canon camera.
With the lens in the normal position, I was able to get the first image, showing a good amount of my ruler. But when I reversed the lens I was able to focus way closer, so I was able to sneak up much more to the ruler. And just look at the difference in magnification!
But here’s the disadvantage, and it’s one of the biggest problems in macrophotography. In general, the more magnification you get, the shallower the depth of focus becomes. You can see that most of the reversed lens image is out of focus, with only a swathe of useful pixels in the middle.
But there’s also a solution – the WeMacro Rail
And that’s where the WeMacro rail comes in. With the rail, you take a series of photos at different distances and then process those images. This means you can ignore the fuzzy areas, and just take the sharp parts from each image and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. This is what you’re going to do to get your first image with the WeMacro Rail.
The one WeMacro component you need to get your first image
The WeMacro system has many accessories and options, but for now we’re only interested in what you need to get your first image. At its heart, the WeMacro Rail is a platform that supports your camera and lens. This platform moves backwards and forwards using a stepper motor, and it’s this ability to move and return to precisely the same place that gives you the images. You can see the basic rail in this photo here.
The basic rail also comes with a control box, which connects to the rail via a thick cable. The controller also connects to either a computer or your phone via Bluetooth (and this is the way I do it). Of course, you get a power supply as well.
The only other bit of hardware you will need is a shutter release cable. This will enable the WeMacro’s control box to fire your camera when it needs to. There are lots available, and we’ve got a separate blog about these.
What you have to do
The image at the top of this article shows the basic rail set up with a small sprig of flowers as a subject. (You’ll notice that in this case I was using a standard lens rather than a reversed one.)
Set yourself up with sufficient light. Natural light is good, but I found that artificial light varies less. You will, of course, need consistent lighting through the whole process or the jigsaw puzzle won’t go together properly. (I had all sorts of trouble on a partly cloudy day!)
For this example, I decided to use a small plant that Eva has in our showroom. My glasses in the background give you an idea of its size.
Using the WeMacro app, position the camera around the mid-point of the rail’s travel. Now, place the subject in front of the camera where part of it is in focus. Take test images (using the “Shutter” button in the app) and adjust your camera’s exposure get the image you want.
Here’s an example of an image somewhere near the start of the sequence. Just the parts of the plant nearest the camera are in focus.
Start and End points
The WeMacro likes to start at the furthest point from your subject and then work its way forward. Move the camera back until the subject is entirely out of focus, and press “Set Start”. Press “Forward” and wait until the subject is entirely out of focus again. Press “Set End”. The WeMacro will move back to the start point.
If you have set the step length (the distance the rail moves between each image) correctly, you will now see how far the Rail will move during the sequence. You’ll also see the number of steps (and hence images) it will take.
Now, press the “Run” button in the app, and stand back. It’s important not to move anything or cast shadows while the rail is working. The WeMacro will move slowly forwards, taking shots as it goes. You will end up with a series of images ready for processing.
Processing your first image with the WeMacro Rail
Once you have your images, you will need some software to process your first image with the WeMacro Rail. This is the program that builds your image like a jigsaw. I use Helicon Focus, but there are others available.
For this exercise, all you need to do is load your sequences, choose a rendering method (I normally use the depth map, but the differences are slight) and click “render”. The software takes a few minutes to do its work. When it’s done, you will end up with a composite image with beautiful depth of focus. Here it is.
This is just the most basic tutorial. After you get your first image with the WeMacro Rail, you might want to play with options. You’re given choices in the camera, the WeMacro app or the focus stacking software. You can change exposure time, lighting, step sizes, rendering methods, or any of the dozens of other options available.
Macrophotography is an art that is more like astrophotography than you might realise.
For me, getting my first image using the WeMacro Rail was a bit of a revelation. I spend my time getting images of huge subjects onto my camera sensor. Suddenly seeing tiny subjects on the same sensor was surprising.
Less of a new concept was focus stacking. In astrophotography, we take hundreds of images and process them together to minimise noise. In macrophotography we take hundreds of images and process them to deepen focus.
If you want to start getting images of your own, you’ll see the WeMacro range on our website. If you have any questions, just contact us!