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Close Up Techniques

Michael Erlewine

I get asked how I do close-up photography, so I decided to write some of this down, rather than answer the same question many times, since it is kind of long. So, this article is for those that are interested.


I thought it might be helpful to outline some the various approaches to close-up and macro photography that I regularly use. In particular, since I use a variety of different lenses (most of them are not real macro), I push them toward the kind of close-up work I enjoy.


Bellows Work


I do a lot of work with bellows and have all kinds of them around my studio. However, in recent years I mostly use the Cambo Mini-Actus, with some minor modifications. As for cameras, I am using the Nikon D810 on the rear standard, but I also sometimes use the Sony A7RII. The D810 has better low ISO performance and generally produces better results than the Sony A7RII... in my opinion.


As for lenses on the Actus rig, I’m all over the board. There is no doubt that my most-used bellows lens (and most-used lens overall) is the El Nikkor APO 105mm f/5.6 lens. Note the “APO,” because the standard El Nikkor 105mm lens is quite ordinary compared to the incredible El Nikkor APO 105mm.


I also have used the larger version, the El Nikkor 210mm APO lens, which also looks good, but is very heavy and unwieldy IMO, so much so that I just sold my copy of this rare lens.


Another lens that I use on the Cambo Mini-Actus is the Nikkor AM-ED Macro 120mm f/5.6 lens and that too is a very fine lens, but just shy of the quality of the El Nikkor APO 105mm. I also have the 210mm version of the Nikkor AM-ED, which is great, but again, large and unwieldy.


Still other lenses I use with the Mini-Actus are the three Printing Nikkor lenses that I own, the 95mm, 105mm, and the incredible 150mm Printing Nikkor, and some LF Schneider lenses. These Printing Nikkors are very highly corrected APO lenses, but their coatings are not particularly modern, IMO. Great for the studio, but less useful in bright light and outdoors, but they are very, very sharp.


And there are many other lenses that I have tried on the Mini-Actus, too many to bother listing here, but they include a variety of large-format lenses, the Multiphot Macro Nikkors, and many others.


The main value to me of the Cambo Mini-Actus is its ability to tilt the front standard and compress an image front-to-back somewhat. This is particularly useful for stacking, where artifacts tend to multiply the greater the difference between the front and rear of the subject you are photographing. Using Tilt, I can telescope that down to something much more manageable in terms of generating artifacts through stacking.


When using the Cambo Mini-Actus, I tend to stack rather than take single shots. And by stacking I mean stacks from 50 to 150 layers. I have modified my Cambo Mini-Actus by purchasing a considerably longer rail and accompanying bellows. In addition I have replaced the rear standard on the Min-Actus (which has a fixed camera mount) with their new rear standard that allows me to switch camera mounts in seconds. This is very helpful.


I have also added a two-way level to the rear standard, and a focus-whip that easily attaches to the fine focus knob on the Mini-Actus. You can plug it in or take it out in second.


The Mini-Actus also allows both the front and rear standards to shift right and left, plus the rear standard can be moved up-and-down vertically. I don’t shift much, but the sideways shift is good for panoramas or adjusting, etc.


Most of my Cambo Mini-Actus work is done in my small studio, but I have taken it out on many occasions and it is not clumsy or difficult to haul around. It really is small and light.


Prime Lenses for Close-Up Work


Another approach I use a lot is using prime lenses, including non-macro lenses for close-up work. I do not have many macro lenses that I feel are good enough for what I am looking for, although I have owned (and still own) many macro lenses. The list of parameters that make for a really great lens are enough that most lenses fail in one way or another. I still use them, of course, but I just don’t consider them “all around” lenses.


The exception would be the Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar macro lens from Cosina. IMO, this is the best all-around macro lens that I know of. The CV-125 is a very fast lens (f/2.5), a very sharp lens, highly corrected (APO), has nine 9 aperture blades, a close focus of 14.96 inches (38 centimeters), a 1:1 reproduction ratio, plus a long focus throw (630 degrees)


Now, prime lenses can also be used to create a long stack of many layers, just as I do on the bellows, but there is another approach, that if used carefully, also does a great job, and that is what I call “short stacks.. These are stacks of 2-6 layers, where each shot is carefully focused to capture one or another part of the main image. They are then combined as a stack. I use Zerene Stacker, and have tried (I believe) most if not all stacking software. Zerene is easily the best of the bunch.


Short stacks can save time and are very useful in the field, where wind may pick up or the sun go behind a cloud, and so on. We simply examine the frame and the subject beforehand, deciding which points of the subject we want in focus. Also, with some of the larger prime lenses, stacking does not always work so well, so very short stacks, even of one or two layers, or, of course, sometimes no stack at all. Many times a single layer is best, using as high an f/stop as we can get away with.


Or, we can pick exactly what we want to have in focus and kind of paint in focus. For example, we may to devote a layer to each of the three flowers in a photo, and be using a fairly high f/stop like f/11 or so. And, in addition, we may want to do a refined stack of 20 or so layers just on one particular flower.


This idea of painting focus becomes the technique of choice if you are shooting a very fast lens, one with a razor-edge of focus that is sharp wide-open. In that case we literally (but slowly) paint focus exactly where we want to have it, and let the rest be the natural bokeh of a fast lens.


And quite often I use the wider well-corrected prime lenses, like the Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4, taking only a couple shots. I may want one shot close and a second a little farther back to get more sharpness in the background. Focus stacking does not always have to be used (or overused), but can assist in focusing just the parts where we want attention, and by using only a few layers. This is especially useful for landscape shots.


Focus Rails


I must have a dozen focus rails, but I use them very little, since they are not ideal for stacking. I use the Novoflex Castel-L Focusing Rack, with the Arca quick release. To this I add the Novoflex Fine Adjustment Handle. I use racks for lenses that have no helicoid, like the CRT-Nikkor, which is one of my favorite lenses. I also mount the camera and certain other lenses, whose focus throw is too small to get fine focusing. I used to have to put the Coastal Optics 60mm f/4 APO Macro on a rail because its focus throw was too small to do much with.




As far as using extensions, my rule of thumb is don’t. They always mess up the IQ of the lens. However, with high-quality prime lenses like the Zeiss Otus series, I regularly use Nikon’s smallest extension, which is the K-1 Ring, which is 5.8 mm. This does not seriously destroy the quality of the lens it is on, but does allow me to get closer. I have, of course, all kinds and sizes of extensions, but they sit in a drawer, aside from the K-1.


Close-up Lenses


I have a lot of close-up lenses, but literally never use them. I have tried many times, but they mess up the IQ of the lens, to my eyes. I don’t use them. The same with tele-adapters. A lens is a lens is a lens, and anything other or extra takes away from why we buy it. Turning a great lens into an ordinary lens makes no sense to me.


Combining F/stops


Another technique, one that has to be used sparingly and carefully, is to combine or “stack” shots at different ISOs. Let’s say you want the soft mood and bokeh of f/1.4, but may not have time to paint focus, due to outside conditions. It is not difficult to take a background shot at f/1.4 and another dead-center (but at a higher f/stop, with more depth of field) on a flower.


In the final photo you don’t want the background in focus, because you lose some of the mood. In post you can stack or otherwise combine different ISO layers, but they can be very different, so feathering and touch-up is usually required.


For example, you can take a soft background of some flowers and place in the center of the flowers part of an image done at a much higher ISO. In that way, you can combine the effect of bokeh with sharp focus. You can do using this method, instead of painting in focus. As for myself, I prefer to paint in focus, but in the field there sometimes is no time to do a long stack, particularly  with wind, light, etc. A couple shots at different ISOs can look pretty good. This technique, however, IMO, is moving away from my preferred methods. But, it can work and to a significant degree.




So, there are some of the main approaches I use to take close-up photos. I seldom use the macro range 1:1 (or above) anymore, because more and more I like the context I get with a wider frame. Focusing on the eye of a dragonfly or honeybee, after a short while, is just not particularly interesting to me. I want to see at least the whole head of the insect in a setting that is natural. And microphotography interests me not at all, but I can appreciate other’s work in these areas, if it is superb. Those are some of the main techniques I use for close-up photography.



Close-up photo with the Sony A7RII and the new Voigtlander 65mm Macro



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