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Extension Tubes Photographing Odonata

Did you know that the average animal is the size of an ant?  With statistics like this, it is no wonder why a major tool in the arsenal of a biological photographer is the macro lens.  This section will tell you how to use a macro lens to its best effect.  

Macro photography is usually defined as the realm where images are at least 1/3 life size or larger.  Many telephoto, telephoto zooms, and "normal" telephoto lenses  may be marked "macro" and will get you to the edge of this range.  True macro, however, is usually done with a specialized macro lens and accessories. For more about macro lenses, jump to the lens page.

Macro requires some different techniques as opposed to wide-angle or telephoto photography.  In particular, you need to concentrate on focus, camera stability, lighting, subject movement, and depth of field. Finally, we will touch on ways to use wide-angle and telephoto lenses with extension tubes to get macro shots.


Focus is critical in macro work.  All too often, unfortunately, autofocus will not work with macro subjects, so you need to be prepared to focus manually.  Whether focusing manually or automatically, keep these things in mind:

  1. With depth of field minimal, selecting the most important part of the subject to focus on is vital.
  2. If autofocus fails, it may be easier to set the camera to the magnification level you want and focus by moving the whole camera assembly towards or away from the subject.
  3. A focusing rail is very useful when the camera is mounted on a tripod.  It allows you to focus by moving the camera in a very controlled way.
  4. If the subject, its perch, or you are moving at all, you might want to use a dynamic autofocusing mode. In these modes, the camera continually adjusts the focus right up to the point where the picture is taken (as opposed to a "one-shot" autofocus that focuses and locks in at that point before the shutter is released).

Camera Stability

In macro photography, camera stability is more important the closer you get (the higher the magnification).   More to the point, while camera stability is important, it is also harder to achieve unless your subject is motionless on a large, unmoving object like the ground or a solid tree trunk.  If your subject is immobile, set up a tripod and do it right.  If your subject is moving around, camera stability is the least of your worries - go handheld.


The best pictures are those lit by natural light.  However, in macro work it is not always possible to get  enough natural light on a subject.  This is often further complicated by the fact that working distances are small, and either you or your camera may cast a shadow on the subject.  When using natural light, simply be careful about where your shadow is falling.  

Flash is one obvious solution to the problem.  The good news is that the short working distance means your flash will be able to put a lot of light on the subject.  The bad news is that many on-camera or shoe-mounted flash units either can't put light right in front of the lens, or the lens itself will shade the flash.  Also, bright flash at close range can overpower a subject, particularly subjects that are highly reflective.  The solutions lie in the equipment:

1.  Specially designed ring flashes put the flash in the right position.



2.  A cord that allows you to move the flash off the hot shoe will allow you to position it for macro use (assuming you have a third arm).
3.  Covering the flash with a softbox (or even a layer of tissue) can soften the flash.
4. Some flashes can be controlled; if the flash is overpowering, turn it down.

For more on flash, click here.

Subject Movement

This is difficult to deal with.  Whether it is insects moving on a flower or a flower blowing in the breeze, or an insect moving on a flower blowing in the breeze, subject movement is a nightmare for the macro photographer.  Forget the tripod, go handheld.  Some tips will help:

For plants moving in the wind:

  1. Use your body to block the breeze.
  2. Look for sunny areas at a forest edge or near a building or the base of a hill where the wind is blocked.
  3. Early mornings are often calm, and the light is good.
  4. Shoot during lulls in the breeze.
  5. Listen for breezes rustling nearby trees and be sure to get your shot before the wind gets to you.
  6. Find the sturdiest plants.
  7. Get down low to the ground.
  8. Brace the plant stem against the tripod leg or another plant.
  9. Hold the stem with a free hand.
  10. Use a continual, predictive, or dynamic autofocus instead of "1-shot" autofocus.

For moving animals (insects):

  1. Try to anticipate where they are moving to and focus there.
  2. Catch the insect and chill it in a cooler.
  3. Photograph on cool sunny mornings before the insects are warmed up.
  4. Stake out a location that attracts insects - if you miss one, another will be by.
  5. Use a continual, predictive, or dynamic autofocus instead of "1-shot" autofocus.

In either case, if there isn't enough light, use flash.  If you are using flash, set the shutter speed as fast as it will sync with the camera (check the manuals) and set the f-stop at 16 or higher to get enough depth of field. Let the flash do the work.  Now and then check the exposure to be sure that the natural light isn't overexposing the image, if it is, go to a smaller f-stop (larger number). 

Depth of Field

With the  magnifications common to macro work, depth of field is a constant problem.  It is very difficult, for instance, to get all of an insect in focus.  There are several tricks you can use to minimize this problem:

  1. Align yourself so that the majority of the subject is parallel to the film plane (i.e. don't look face on at a long, skinny insect like a dragonfly, look at it from the side or the top).  Be careful to be exactly parallel; the head and the tail should both then be in focus.
  2. Use a f-stop of 16 or greater (22. 32, 64, etc.)
  3. Use less magnification.
  4. Use the depth of field preview feature, if available on your camera.  This closes the lens down to the selected aperture before the shot is taken so that you can check the depth of field visually.  The viewfinder may get very dark when you do this, however.
  5. Some cameras have a depth of field mode. In this mode you focus on the closest and furthest thing you want to be in focus and the camera tries to pull it off.  Good luck, but who knows?
  6. Use flash if you need more light to keep the f-stop and the shutter speed where you need them.


Wide-angle Macro

This an interesting and powerful technique.  Simply add a thin (12mm) extension tube to a wide angle lens and go macro.  You get great perspective and you can focus almost to the lens itself.  It can get a little tricky to light the shot since the lens will be very close to the subject, and it is tough to do with skittish creatures - but the results are often very rewarding.

Telephoto Macro

Once again, adding extension tubes to a lens can allow it to focus close and in the case of telephotos, move them into the macro range.  You can use as many extenders as you need; remember though that each extension costs you a little light and makes the whole setup more vulnerable to shake.  These rigs do, however, allow you to stand back some considerable (6-10 feet) distance and still fill the frame with larger insects such as dragonflies.  For more on the effect of adding extension tubes to a wide variety of (Canon) lenses, go to this page.

Extension Tubes Photographing Odonata

My Secret Macro System

OK - here it is.  I actually find macro easy to do.  At least, it is easy to do once you have the right setup, which is:

  1. A good 100mm macro lens.
  2. A ringflash
  3. A camera with predictive autofocus.


Slap this rig together, get some 100 ISO film, and get out into an old field full of wildflowers.  Set the camera to manual, 1/125 of a second, f-16 or higher.  Set the autofocus to (in this case) AI Servo, and the flash exposure compensation to -1/3 stop. Point the camera at a bug and press the shutter.

My Secret Macro System vII:

The basic setup above works even better with a digital camera.  Pictured is the Canon EOS 10D with the MR-14EX ringflash.  Also pictured is the Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens, which zooms from 1x to 5x magnification.  Dim in the viewfinder at the highest magnification, and not able to focus on objects more than a few inches away, this lens is great when 1:1 (1x) magnification just won't do.  Actually, with the magnification factor of the digital SLR, the magnification range is more like 1.6x to 8x.   At the higher magnifications the modeling light on the flash unit is a necessity.

Of course, it's not quite that simple, but this is one case where the right equipment does make a big difference.

Final Tips:

  1. If you are using flash, watch out for vegetation in the foreground which will flare white in the final image (and possibly cause the image to be underexposed)
  2. If vegetation is obscuring your shot, gently tuck it out of the way.  In some cases, you are justified in doing a little "gardening" or "weeding" as long as you are not pulling up endangered species.
  3. Sometimes it is possible, safe and ethical to move the subject to a better lit or more accessible area.
  4. A focusing rail or macro slider is a useful accessory when working on a tripod.
  5. If you can't get enough magnification with a single macro lens, you can add extension tubes to get closer.  To get more magnification without sacrificing working distance, you can add a multiplier; however many multipliers won't fir onto macro lenses.  To get around this, use my secret macro trick (as opposed to my secret macro system).