Macro Bug Photography on a Budget
Enter the world of high magnification bug photography without breaking the bank. Learn how to turn kit you probably already have into a close-up winner and take macro masterpieces at home in no time.
If you’ve wanted to explore macro photography but could never justify the high price tag that comes with a specialized macro lens, then you’ve come to the right place. You don’t need expensive kit to dabble in macro or close-up work. In fact, you probably have almost everything you need at home already.
In this tutorial I’ll show you how combining a reversed wide-angle lens and some off-camera flash can give you decent-looking macro shots that can rival anything you could take with a macro lens. I’ll be walking you through the steps to assemble your own macro photography rig that you can take anywhere, and I’ll be throwing in a couple of tips to make things much easier for you when photographing your bug subjects. But this technique works for any tiny subject, so if bugs aren’t your thing then take aim at some flowers or other intricately small subject. But for now, let’s take a look at how I put my camera into macro mode and captured this gorgeous female zebra jumping spider from the comfort of my own home.
Reverse the Lens
The first step is to take a wide-angle lens and reverse-mount it on your camera body. You can do this by simply holding the lens back-to-front onto your camera, but it’s better to buy a reversing ring. Reversing rings are only a few dollars and screw into the filter thread on the front of your lens and then affix to the camera body, thereby keeping the lens on the camera body without you needing to hold it there. I use step-up and step-down rings so I can use one reversing ring with many different lenses. I chose to use my Nikon 24mm f/2.8D reverse mounted on my Nikon D750.
Wire in the Flash
Next, dust off that old flashgun and let’s get using it. When using a reversed lens for macro photography the scene will be much darker than normal so it’s important to add some light in order for us to maintain the correct camera settings for a sharp, well-balanced exposure. I used my Yongnuo YN685 flashgun and hooked it up to the Yongnuo SC-28A hot shoe connector which attached to the hot shoe of my Nikon D750. I prefer using a wired connection to trigger off-camera flash for macro because it’s a more reliable connection that triggers every time and doesn’t require batteries. Plus, I rarely reposition the flash once it’s set up so I don’t need the flexibility of a wireless trigger.
Use a Flash Bracket
You can use this rig without a flash bracket, but when your arms get tired and sore you’re going to come back to this step and realize how essential it is. A flash bracket holds the flashgun in place so you can use your hands to change settings on the camera and hold everything still. I prefer this flash bracket that has a flexible gooseneck which gives me much more flexibility with positioning the flashgun. Don’t let the end of the flashgun sit in front of the lens or you’ll risk getting flare in your shots. Instead, sit it just behind the lens to maximize power output without flaring your photos.
Diffuse the Light
Bare flash produces quite harsh light with sharp shadows and bright specular highlights. This isn’t particularly flattering for any subject (think of the harsh shadows in midday, overhead sun) so you may want to consider diffusing the light. You can either make your own softbox out of some paper and an old cereal box, or for just a few bucks you can pick up an inflatable softbox that packs away small in your camera bag. I prefer this option because it’s robust and lightweight.
Light With a Lamp
One thing you’ll find when shooting on a reversed lens rig like this is that although your flashgun has enough power to light the subject beautifully, it’ll be when you’re composing the shot that you might struggle to see. To get around that I recommend using a small, portable continuous light, such as this Manfrotto Lumimuse 8, to light the subject while you’re still composing.
Set It up Right
The camera settings you choose will depend on the available light and how powerful you have the flashgun set. The shutter speed should be set to the sync speed of the flashgun, which is usually 1/200 or 1/250 sec. The aperture value won’t display properly on your camera because the electrical pins on the lens won’t be making a connection with the camera body, so ignore that for now. If you need to brighten your exposure but don’t want to up the flash power (because of the added recycle times) then increase the ISO sensitivity.
Capture Shots Continuously
Taking photos at such high magnifications means a drastically reduced depth of field. Without a tripod or macro rail, it’s hard to nail the focus perfectly every time, so it’s a good idea to turn on continuous drive when shooting. As long as the shutter release button is depressed the camera will take photos continuously until either the card or the camera’s buffer fills up and slows things down. Aim to shoot bursts of 4-5 images at a time combined with the next step to get at least one shot that’s in focus.
Rock to Focus
With the lens reversed on the camera, there will be no option for autofocus. The focus ring does still work for manual focusing while the lens is reversed but there’s little difference between the closest and furthest focusing limits. So the best technique to use for focus is to physically rock back-and-forth with the camera. Use continuous drive to take multiple images in quick succession and press the shutter button as you move towards the subject, then some while moving away. In the middle of the burst, there should be one or two images that nail focus spot-on. Aim to capture the bug’s eyes (or nearest eye) in focus for a perfect portrait.
The Final Result
Using this rig, the settings and techniques discussed above you’ll be able to capture some good macro results at home on a minimal budget. It takes a little patience and consistency to get it right, but once everything marries up taking macro photos in this way can be extremely rewarding. Try finding spiders around the house, or venture out into the garden and even the local park to spot bugs for photos. This macro rig also works well for any tiny subject such as flowers, just in case bugs aren’t your favorite thing.