the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Macro

ALL MY LOVE’S IN VEIN

Phytomorphology 33

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOONER OR LATER, EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, sifting through subject matter that is largely invisible to passersby, will elicit the question, “what are you looking at?” I seldom have a good answer for such queries, which usually come when I’m crawling on the ground, squinting at the sky, or otherwise peering at, well, you name it. The reason I tend to reply “oh, nothing” is that the answer won’t make sense to anyone else anyway. I mean, why am I staring at random pile of roadside rocks? Why do I find a rusty gate hinge fascinating at the moment? It’s actually easier to be assumed by people in the area to be the town idiot, because, the faster people write me off as mad, the sooner I can get back to what I’m doing, which is trying to make a picture. The process is seldom logical and always appears odd from the outside.

Hell, it appears odd from the inside. Like, of my head.

In one such instance, people see me staring at leaves. Dead or dying leaves. Wet ones. Half rotted ones. Leaves that are placed first on this side, then on that one, then directly in light, then cloaked in shadow. My interest in them isn’t botanical, since I often know next to nothing of the objects I’m photographing (not scientifically, anyway), and so I can’t even invent some great story about why I have chosen one over the other. They are just abstract texture to me, texture that almost always varies wildly from leaf to leaf. If I see anything symbolic at all in them, I probably see the human hand, specifically the aging human hand. In recent years I’ve taken a number of images of my ninety-year-old father’s hands, which are, at this point in his life, almost as telling about his history as the lines on his face. In turn, I began to study my own hands, which are twenty-three years behind his, but well on the path toward “wizened” status. It was at some point that leaves, which sport their own age spots, wrinkles, scars and discolorations, starting to talk a bit louder to me.

Over the past several years, my Phytomorphology series (which merely takes its name from the term for the study of plants’ external structures) has sported no other captions instead of randomly assigned numbers, a signal that, even though the collected pictures might look like part of a larger study, they are no such thing. And while I could have called them “big leaf”, “green leaf” or “dead leaf”, the arcane fakery of pretending I’m on some kind of academic mission amuses me, so….Phytomorphology 23, Phytomorphology 67, and so forth. So now we return to the sight of me randomly scanning the ground (with no particular purpose in mind), an activity that makes outsiders ask what I’m looking at. Now, I could improvise a great little comment about the veinous textures or the play of light on irregular surfaces or any other number of statements that would make me sound more like a “real” photographer, but, in truth, the leaves are merely a whim, perhaps more so than any other subject I’ve ever shot. I keep coming back to a quote from comedian Lenny Bruce, who was asked by a reporter why he chose this phrase or that structure for a given monologue. His answer: I just do it, that’s all.

In photography, as in any other form of personal expression, sometimes a thing just is, and there’s no point in being fussy about the why of it. I’m not clever enough to have a formalized reason for everything I shoot. Sometimes you just know, and you go. One more anecdote to close out: a farmer is working with his herd of cattle near the edge of a country road. Some city slicker who’s fascinated by this slows his car, asking, “excuse me, are those Guernseys or Herefords?”. “Heck”, says the farmer, “I just call ’em moo-cows.”

Maybe that’s my answer, the next time someone catches me in a meadow looking at leaves. “Gee, I guess I got some wrong information. They told me there were moo-cows around here…”


WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE SPIRITUALIST POET WILLIAM BLAKE FAMOUSLY EXPRESSED HIS DESIRE to explore life in its smallest detail, to, as he put it in his poem Auguries of Innocence,  “see the world in a grand of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour”.  It’s the kind of sentiment that makes me believe he might have made a great photographer.

It’s unlikely that Blake, who was also a wonderfully gifted graphic artist and who died in 1827, ever held a camera in his hand, but from the first generation of photographers there was a decidedly Blakeian urge to explore the world at the most intimate levels, engineering lenses that allowed maximum magnification and resolution of the vast stories lingering right under our noses. Today, as never before, macro photography is finally within the technical and financial reach of the many, allowing spaces that barely comprise inches to reveal the complexities that we stroll past without regard on a daily basis. And just as all of photography is about extracting pieces of reality from the larger flow of time, so macro is about drawing things out of their original settings, to dramatize the elegance of design and pattern, to create a separate stillness. That certainly is what appeals to me about shooting in the small world….the ability to take things so far out of their regular context that we are forced to consider them as if we were encountering them for the first time.

To be sure, close-up work comes with its own set of unique technical challenges, but what makes it worthwhile is its ability to deliver the shock of the new, to depict the eternities residing within Blake’s grain of sand. For many of us, this process of discovery reaches its fullest expression in floral or botanical subjects, since magnifying their contours is almost like a crash course in geometry or architecture. Petals, seeds, pistils, stamens, leaves…..all are rotating in their own incredible orbits as if they were bit players in Fantasia, fantastic ballets in which size (or rather the transformation of scales and sizes) really does matter. In terms of technique, even a practiced photographer can be frustrated by the special demands raised by magnification. Certainly light and focal relationships work differently, as well as stabilization of the image. Predictably, every error of movement or lens flaw is utterly exposed once everything is increased in size, resulting in a higher percentage of failed shots and near misses. Still, one’s first plunge into macro is like Alice’s initial entry into a realm where everyday objects magically shrink and expand without warning.

Blake, like all artists, understood that art transforms and re-translates all experience, re-defines how we view everything, allows us to show all ranges of life from dark to light, remarking in Auguries that “man was made for Joy & Woe / and when this we rightly know / thro the World we safely go”  Photography gets the big things right…. by paying attention to the worlds within worlds. It really is a game of inches, sometimes atoms.

 

 


LIP SERVICE

The Elder Speaks His Truth, 2016

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PRIOR TO AROUND 1920, photographs of objects were generally naturalistic recordings of objects as they were popularly perceived in the actual world. Apples were shot to resemble apples, trees to emulate trees, and so forth. Techniques that had served photography in the nineteenth century, which favored the same objective rendering of things in the same way that painters did, persisted until generally after the First World War, after which both camps began to question whether reality was, indeed, the only way to portray the world. Some shooters began to veer away from any painterly softness or interpretation, declaring focal sharpness and documentary truth over the dreamy qualities of the canvas. Others, however, took another page from paint’s playbook, opting to see compositions as arrangements of light or shapes, and nothing more. Everyday objects were filtered through a new way of seeing, and the ordinary was drastically reconsidered beyond the act of mere recording. Photographers began to also be interpreters.

A Weston Pepper.

One of the most stunning examples of this new freedom were Edward Weston’s “pepper” images of the 1920’s, a series that re-envisioned vegetables as new somethings that were reminiscent of abstract nudes. Weston’s  monochromes were, first and foremost, compositions of line, absent the context that the normal world typically afforded. Suddenly, shapes were absolute: the photograph didn’t have to be about anything: it merely was, in much the same way that modernist paintings re-framed the way people saw faces, bodies, architecture. Some were shocked, even frightened by the newfound freedom Weston and others were championing, while others felt liberated. As ever, the best photographs sparked the best arguments.

I was reminded recently what a simple revolution can be created by such a minor warping of the visual sense when I unpacked a pepper that I felt could have escaped from Weston’s own garden. The gnarly thing seemed, even before my memory had made a connection back to his work, like a ripe, red set of lips, something between the cartoon kiss of a Jessica Rabbit and the Rolling Stones’ lascivious logo. The curviness of the pepper proved too seductive for me to just start immediately carving it up for salad, so I attached a macro lens and started to take a tour around the thing. At one angle, the vegetable almost looked like a mouth in profile, but with perhaps the faintest suggestion of an overall crimson face as well. The entire exercise took about three minutes, after which the pepper dutifully kept its prior appointment with my homemade balsamic dressing. The one fun takeaway was reminding myself that, no offense to reality, but it’s fancy that makes photographs.

Just think what kind of portrait I could make from a rutabaga with attitude.


EXQUISITE CORPSES

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Phytomorphology 2 (2017). Macrophotography helps alter the memory context of familiar objects. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AS A BOY, THEODORE ROOSEVELT TAUGHT HIMSELF THE ANATOMY OF BIRDS that same way James Audubon did, by studying birds he himself had killed. Although this coldly clinical approach may strike us as cruel today, it was accepted practice for a young naturalist in the late 1800’s, a time when even eminent surgeons, faced with a shortfall of cadavers for academic study, occasionally hired freelancers to raid graves in search of, er, manpower. And so it goes.

At decidedly less risk, photographers have also made still-life studies of dead things, from game kills to seed pods, trying to appreciate structure, design, and function in a controlled environment. But there is more to their pokings than the grand advancement of science, given that death changes things in a way that transforms their aspect, altering their usefulness as visual subjects. Objects that have gone from living to non-living reflect light differently; textures and patterns are re-shaped; in short, the thing becomes an abstraction of itself.

Add magnification to the mix, and a thing becomes completely untethered from our usual conception of it, since, among other things, we are used to viewing it from a distance of feet or inches rather than millimeters. Just as where you stand affects the impact of a landscape, the place where you park a macro lens on an object dictates a completely different story with just the smallest variation.

There is a renewed fascination in the photographic world with minimalist abstraction, in which an object is changed so much in magnification and composition as to become a completely new thing, or…if the photographer so desires, a whole new nothing, a subject with which the viewer has no prior associations, functioning as pure pattern or design. For me, that’s the appeal of macro work…..to take the familiar and render it neutral in meaning, allowing me to re-assign it visually, to ask the viewer to, in effect, regard it as a foreign object, one that can take on whatever significance he sees fit.

Photography is primarily about what to see but it often provides cues as to how to see as well. Viewpoint is verification, and things impart  different truths to our eyes, depending on how we approach them.


LOOKS LIKE IT WORKS

Ghost Writer In Disguise, 2016

Ghost Writer In Disguise, 2016

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY OFTEN RE-DEFINES OUR PERCEPTION OF THE FAMILIAR, re-contextualizing everyday objects in ways that force us to see them differently. Nowhere is this more effective than in close-up and macro photography, where we deliberately isolate or magnify details of things so that they lose their typical associations. Indeed, using the camera to cast subjects in unfamiliar ways is one of the most delightful challenges of the art.

Product developers are comfortable with the idea that “form follows function”, that how we use a thing will usually dictate how it must be designed. The shapes and contours of the objects in our world are arrived at only as we tailor the look of a thing to what it does. That’s why we don’t have square wheels. The problem with familiar objects is that, as long as they do what they were designed to do, we think less and less about the elegance of their physical design. Photographers can take things out of this chain of the mundane, and, in showcasing them, force us to see them in purely visual terms. They stop playing the piano, and instead look under the lid at the elegant machine within. They strip off the service panel of the printer and show us the ballet of circuitry underneath.

It’s even easier to do this, and yields more dramatic results, as we begin to re-investigate those things that have almost completely passed from daily use. To our 21st-century eyes, a 1910 stock ticker might as well be an alien spaceship, so far removed is it from typical experience. I recently viewed a permanent wave machine from a beauty parlor of the 1930’s, sitting on a forgotten table at a flea market. It took me two full minutes to figure out what I was even looking at. Did I snap it? You betcha.

The study of bygone function is also a magical mystery tour of design innovation. You start to suss out why the Edisons of the world needed this shape, these materials, arranged in precisely this way, to make these things work. Zooming in for a tighter look, as in the case of the typewriter in the above image, forces a certain viewpoint, creating compositions of absolute shapes, free to be whatever we need them to be. Form becomes our function.

The same transformation can happen when you have seemingly exhausted a familiar subject, or shot away at it until your brain freezes and no new truth seems to be coming forth. Walking away from the project for a while, even a few hours, often reboots your attitude towards it, and the image begins to emerge. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching.


LOW-TECH LOW LIGHT

Passion Flower, 2015.

Passion Flower, 2015. Budget macro with magnifying diopters ahead of a 35mm lens. 1/50 sec., f/7.1, ISO 100.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LIGHT IS THE PRINCIPAL FUEL OF PHOTOGRAPHY, but it needs refinement, just as crude oil needs to be industrially altered before it’s ready for consumer use. It isn’t just enough to record light in its natural form; it has to be corralled, directed, harnessed so that it enhances a photograph in such a way that, ironically, makes it look like you did nothing at all but press the shutter. So, right at the start, making images is a bit of a con job. Good thing is, it’s only dishonorable when you get caught.

Doing macro on the cheap with the use of screw-on magnifying diopters ahead of your regular lens is one of the situations that can create special lighting challenges. There is an incredibly shallow depth of field in these lenses, but if you compensate for it in the camera, by, say, f/8 or higher, you lose light like crazy. Slow down your shutter to compensate, and you’re on a tripod, since the slightest tremor in a hand-held shot looks like  7.8 on the Richter scale. Keep the shorter shutter speed, though, and you’re jacking ISO up, inviting excessive noise. Flood the shot with constant light, and you might alter the color relationships in a naturally lit object, effecting, well, everything that might appeal in a macro shot.

Best thing is, since you’re shooting such a small object, you don’t need all that much of a fix. In the above shot, for example, the garlic bulb was on a counter about two feet from a window which is pretty softened to start with. That gave me the illumination I needed on the top and back of the bulb, but the side facing me was in nearly complete shadow. I just needed the smallest bit of slight light to retrieve some detail and make the light seem to “wrap” around the bulb.

Cheap fix; half a sheet of blank typing paper from my printer’s feed tray, which was right next door.  Camera in right hand, paper in left hand, catching just enough window light to bounce back onto the front of the garlic. A few tries to get the light where I wanted it without any flares. The paper’s flat finish gave me even more softening of the already quiet window light, so the result looked reasonably natural.

Again, in photography, we’re shoving light around all the time, acting as if we just walked into perfect conditions by dumb luck. Yeah, it’s fakery, but, as I say, just don’t get caught.

 


SYMBOLS (For Father’s Day, 2014)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS, ALTERNATIVELY, AN ART OF BOTH DOCUMENTATION AND SUGGESTION. It is, of course, one of its essential tasks to record, to mark events, comings, goings, arrivals, and passings. That’s basically a reporter’s function, and one which photographers have served since we first learned to trap light in a box. The other, and arguably more artistic task, is to symbolize, to show all without showing everything. And on this Father’s Day (as on every one), we honor our parents by taking photographs which address both approaches.

For many years, I have taken the obvious path by capturing the latest version of Dad’s face. It’s an ever-changing mosaic of effects, which no photographer/storyteller worth his salt can resist. But in recent years, I also am trying to symbolize my father, to make him stand not only for his own life, but for the miles traveled by all parents. For this task, a face is too specific, since it is so firmly anchored to its own specific myths and legends. To make Dad emblematic, not just as a man but rather as “Man”, I’ve found that abstracting parts of him can work a little better than a simple portrait.

Survivors, 2014. 1/80 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 35mm.

Survivors, 2014. 1/80 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 35mm.

 

These days, Dad’s hands are speaking to me with particular eloquence. They bear the marks of every struggle and triumph of human endeavor, and their increasing fragility, the etchings on the frail envelope of mortality, are especially poignant to me as I enter my own autumn. I have long since passed the point where I seem to have his hands grafted onto the ends of my own arms, so that, as I make images of him, I am doing a bit of a trending chart on myself as well. In a way, it’s like taking a selfie without actually being in front of the camera.

Hands are the human instruments of deeds, change, endeavor, strength, striving. Surviving. They are the archaeological road map of all one’s choices, all our grand crusades, all our heartbreaking failures and miscalculations. Hands tell the truth.

Dad has a great face, a marvelous mix of strength and compassion, but his hands…..they are human history writ large.

Happy Father’s Day, Boss.


FAR AWAY, AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE

Fake macro done with a zoom at 300mm. Actual object is about six feet away. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

“Fake” macro done with a zoom at 300mm. Actual object is about six feet away. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER YOUR LIFETIME AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT DOESN’T TAKE A LOT OF EFFORT TO ACCUMULATE A SMALL WAREHOUSE OF SPECIALIZED GLASS. Lens acquisition just may be the crack cocaine of photography, since we all know that the best picture of your life will be taken with the lens you don’t yet own.

We slobber with envy over magazine spreads which lovingly detail the bursting kit bags of the pros, which far too many of them pose for in magazines, at least once. I think it is a kind of passive-agressive attempt to scare most of us other shrimps into abandoning the craft altogether and finding honest work, like breaking into ATMs. I swear, there must be proof that a significant percentage of the second mortgages in the world are traceable to “daddy needs a new fisheye”.

One of the most expensive hunks of glass for many of us will be a dedicated macro lens. Assuming that you don’t buy a third-party bauble made from a child’s kaleidoscope in an emerging nation, the investment can be daunting, especially if macro shots are a small subset of your total output. Forced to choose between a dedicated macro and a decent quality zoom, however, I have sided with the zoom every time, since, in a pinch, it can serve as a decent sub for a macro. Detail is your big factor. You have to decide if you want to count the feathers on a robin’s back, or if you want to be able to see the mites that live in the feathers. If you’re a mite man, then apply for that second mortgage now.

Shot from about five feet out, zoomed to 220mm: 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

Shot from about five feet out, zoomed to 220mm: 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

Standing just a few feet from your macro subject and zooming out to, say, 300mm allows you enough magnification to fill your frame. Of course, you should be absent any bloodstream caffeine, since camera shake will become a large part of your life. You could default to a tripod, but since you’re improvising a macro shot, you are probably too close to the object to want to impede foot traffic (or simply waste opportunities) getting set up, so it’s better to experiment with various ways of bracing the camera against your body. And again, cut the caffeine.

Your depth of field will be shallow, which will actually help out, since the bokeh will eliminate distractions around or behind your subject. You will also be far enough from what you’re shooting to keep you from casting a shadow over it with your body. If you want a sharper image, you can go to a smaller aperture, but as you’re completely zoomed out already, you are already down to f/5.6 and its attendant light loss. A smaller aperture means you’ll have to slow your exposure, and that could give your handheld shot the dreaded shakes again. Everything’s a trade-off.

Bottom line: it’s cost-effective to make the lenses you have do everything of which they are each capable than to build a mountain of specialized glass in your closet.

Remember when golf was the expensive hobby? Ah, them wuz the days.


HOLDING BACK

Rainy day dream away: 1/160 sec., f/4.5, ISO 100, 35mm.

Rainy day dream away: 1/160 sec., f/4.5, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE MIND WANTS TO PAINT ITS OWN PICTURES, and often responds better to art that veils at least part of its message in mystery. The old vaudeville adage, “always leave them wanting something” is especially applicable in the visual arts, where, often as not, the less you show, the better it connects with the viewing public. It’s precisely because you didn’t show everything that your work may reach deeper into people’s imaginations, which are then invited to “partner” in providing what you merely suggested.

This is why radio created more personal “pictures” than television, why an abstract suggestion of on-screen romance is more erotic than full-on depiction of every physical mechanic of an encounter, and why, occasionally, deciding to hold back, to withhold “full disclosure” can create an image that is more compelling because its audience must help build it.

Given the choice between direct depiction of an object and referential representation of it in a reflection or pool of water, I am tempted to go with the latter, since (as is the stated goal of this blog) it allows me to move from taking a picture to making one. Rendering a picture of a tree is basically a recording function. Framing a small part of it is abstraction, thus an interpretive choice. And, as you see above, showing fragments of the tree in a mosaic of scattered puddles gives the viewer a chance to supply the remainder of the image, or accept the pattern completely on its own merits. Everyone can wade in at a level they find comfortable.

I don’t always get what I’m going for with these kind of images, but I find that making the attempt is one of the only ways I can flex my muscles, and ask more of the viewer.

It’s the kind of partnership that makes everything worthwhile.

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)

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THE GRADUAL REVEAL

A cosmic disaster on a tabletop far, far away. 1/40 sec., f/5.6, ISO 400, 35mm.

A cosmic disaster on a tabletop far, far away. 1/40 sec., f/5.6, ISO 400, 35mm.

by MICHAEL PERKINS

CREATING FANTASY IMAGES ON A TABLETOP IS A LITTLE LIKE WATCHING YOUR GRANDMA IN THE KITCHEN, if your grandma (like mine) was the “I-don’t need-no-recipe”,a dash here, a pinch there kind of cook. Sometimes I think she just kept chucking ingredients into the pot until it was either the right color or the correct thickness. All I know is, when she was done, it “ate pretty good”.

I use the same approach when I am building compositions from scratch. You’re not sure what the proportions are, but you kind of know when you’re done.

One of the photo sharing sites that I recommend most enthusiastically is called UTATA, a site which promotes itself as “tribal photography” since it require a certain level of communal kick-in from all its members, posing workshop assignments and themes that take you beyond merely posting your faves. Operating in tandem with its self-named Flickr group, UTATA is about taking chances and forcing yourself, often on a deadline, to see in new ways. If it sounds like homework, it’s not, and even if you have no time to work the various challenges, you’ll still reap a vast wealth of knowledge just riffing through other people’s work. Give it a look at http://www.utata.org.

One of the site’s recent so-called “weekend projects” was to photograph anything that in any way depicted broken glass. No special terms beyond that. Cheap glass, wine glass, churchy stained glass, pick your texture, pick your context. I decided to so something with a shattered light bulb, but with a few twists. Instead of just breaking the bulb and shooting a frame, I opted to place the bulb in a food storage bag, then hammer it until it burst. Due to the sudden release of pressure when light bulbs are breached, they don’t just crack, they sort of explode, and, given the chemical treatment of the glass, there is a lot of pure white dust that accompanies the very fine glass particles. Breaking the bulb inside the bag allowed me to retain all that sediment, then make it more visible by pouring the bits out onto a black, non-reflective surface…in this case, a granite tile that I use to model product shots on.

I already liked the look of all the atomized white dust across that dull blackness, rather like a “star field”, or a cluster of debris, scattered across a vast void in space. The effect was taking shape, but the “garbage cook” inside my head was still looking for one more ingredient. The great thing about building a fantasy visual is that it doesn’t have to make “sense”….it just needs visual impact sufficient to register with the gut. If the micro-fine bits of the bulb represented some kind of space catastrophe, where was the cause? Inner stresses, like volcanoes, rupturing the Mother Bulb asunder like the planet Krypton? No, wait, what if something collided with it, some asteroid-like something that spelled doom for Planet G.E.? A quick trip out to the back yard gave me my cosmic cataclysm….I mean chunk of quartz, and the rest was just arrangement and experiment.

What does it all mean? Heck, what does beef stew mean? Making a picture can be like gradually adding random veggies and spices until something tells you it’s “soup”. And with tabletop fantasies, you get to play God with all the little worlds you’ve created.

Hey, over a lifetime, plenty of other people will take turns blowing up your work.

Why not you?

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.


A LOT OF LITTLE, FOR NOT A LOT

Exif data.

About three inches away with stacked diopters equivalent to 7x magnification. Manual focus, 1/200 sec., f/4.5, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVER SINCE I FIRST READ STORIES ABOUT THE ARCH-VILLAIN BRAINIAC shrinking and stealing cities from the across the galaxy (studying them like miniature trophies) in Superman comicsI knew that I would someday embrace macro photography.

Well, given the insane costs of dedicated macro lenses, maybe embrace isn’t the right word. Maybe one arm around its shoulder. Or a friendly handshake. Or a gentle chat in which I say I really like you, macro, but I think we should see other people.

Let’s face it. You shouldn’t have to mortgage your..mortgage to determine how often you’re going to want to use your camera to, say, count the crumbs on an Oreo. Yes, once you can crank in close enough to see the flea on the back of the buffalo on the nickel, you may become hopelessly infatuated with the world of tiny. But to make that decision, you needn’t assume the financial humility of a monk. Dedicated macro lenses are a monster investment (a minimum of $300, all the way to over $1,000), to be weighed against how many other shooting situations you’re likely to find yourself in, and the economics of whatever special hunks of glass you’ll need to accomplish all those other tasks. If macro is truly “all” for you, then that sort of justifies the complex construction and sharp autofocusing of a separate lens. Brutal honesty disclaimer: there is no substitute for the performance of a high-end piece of precision optics.

BUT, not all of us make a lifelong study of the number of dimples on a bee’s knees, and that can make a huge investment in macro an iffy indulgence. I’m a big one for not buying major toys until they justify their use in my work. Thus, the only photographic commandment I unflinchingly live by is: don’t buy even one more extra feature than you will actually use. 

Two main alternative options have emerged to serve the needs of “occasional” macro shooters. One of these are extension tubes, the hollow cylinders that attach between your lens and your camera body, creating an artificially enhanced range of maximum magnification. Being the same size as actual lenses (albeit with no glass inside), they do add additional bulk and weight to your setup, and may result in a loss of light, as well as a shallower depth of field. Investment-wise, you are still in for over $100 for a decent pair of these, as the cheap ones aren’t worth winding toilet paper around. Given the tubes’ limitations, you may be looking at sticking the camera on a tripod to lengthen your exposures, or jacking up the ISO. Different strokes.

The other, far cheaper option, and one which gives you a taste of macro without surgically removing your wallet, involves magnifying diopters. They screw on like filters, come in sets of three for well under forty bucks, and can get you in on the ground floor of macro (or the little tiny things crawling on said floor).

Diopters come in magnifying strengths of +1, +3 , +4, and above, so you can use a single diopter, attach several in series, or assemble a bunch into a custom mix and affix that to the front of your lens. Even with a cluster of them attached, you’re adding little more than an inch of extra depth to your lens body, and they’re easy to detach and stash in a spare pocket, something that cannot be done as easily with extension tubes. If you’re an on-the-go, travel-light kind of guy/gal, this is worth a mention.

Not good enough for recording sub-atomic particles, but, hey...

  

Now, let’s not delude ourselves. You can’t use your lens’ autofocus with diopters, which means you’re on manual. This is a serious consideration if you prefer to shoot hand-held, since you will louse up more frames, what with your every quiver being magnified and playing hell with sharpness. As with extension tubes, you may want to whip out the tripod.

If you are a techie as well as an artiste, do a Sherlock Holmes on the interwebs for the exact science of which option will give you the most control and best results. I am far from the best source for this kind of exact wisdom, since, as stated above, I acquired a good deal of my scientific knowledge from Superman comics. That said, if you need a peer review on the properties of Kryptonite, I’m your boy.

My point here is that I can only vouch for what has worked for me……and that’s the entry-level diopters option. Why jump immediately to the big-boy toys when you can master the baby steps with a smaller outlay of green, then move up as your needs dictate? Seems logical that training wheels should precede entry in the Tour de France.

Doesn’t take a Brainiac.

(reach Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)