Taking close-up pictures of small things is called "macro photography." I have no idea why. Perhaps because the small things in macro photography are generally larger than the things you are taking pictures of when doing "micro photography". If you really want to be pedantic then you should say you are doing "photomacrography".
What Kind of Camera
Point and shoot digital cameras can have remarkable macro capabilities, but for best results you want a single-lens reflex camera. These allow you to attach special-purpose macro lenses and show you in a bright optical viewfinder what you will get on the sensor.
A typical setup might be a Canon Digital Rebel XTi (Black) (review) with a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM(review). This lens is designed for the small-sensor Canon cameras and gives a working distance equivalent to 100mm on a full-frame camera. The lens is specified to focus down to "1:1" or "life size". This means that the smallest object you can photograph that will extend to the corners of the final digital photo will be the same size as the sensor inside the Canon Rebel camera, 15x22mm. A professional photographer might use Canon EOS 5D(review) and a lens designed for full Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM (review). Confusingly, this lens is also specified to focus down to "1:1", but this time the sensor is 24x36mm in size, the old 35mm film standard. So you can't take a photo of something quite as small as with the cheaper equipment.
In the film world, the 35mm camera systems had comprehensive range of macro lenses and accessories and some medium format systems, such as the Rollei 6008 would have at least a few lenses and extension tubes. Only the extremely patient ever did macro photography with a 4x5 inch view camera.
Doing it all with a Normal Lens
In the good old days a 35mm single-lens reflex camera came with a 50mm "normal" lens. These lenses were extremely light, rugged, and high quality, so naturally the consuming public abandoned them for heavy, fragile, low quality zooms. But that's another story... Anyway, suppose that you are out in the woods with your Canon EOS 5D, a full-frame camera and a 50mm normal lens, and you want to take a picture of the tip of a pine needle. [Everything in this section applies equally to using a 30mm prime lens, e.g., Sigma 30/1.4, on a small-sensor camera such as a Canon Rebel or Nikon D-series.]
First, though, you want to take a picture of the moon. That's pretty far away, so you feel comfortable setting the lens focusing helical to "infinity". The "nodal point" of the optics will now be 50 millimeters from the plane of the sensor. [Note: exposure for the moon should be roughly f/11 and 1/ISO-setting.]
The effort of setting up your tripod is so great that you become tired and fall asleep. When you wake up in the morning, there is a bear standing 10 feet away. You refocus your 50mm lens to get a picture of the grizzly. As you turn the helical from "infinity" to "10 feet", notice that the optics are racked out away from the sensor. The nodal point is a bit farther than 50 millimeters from the sensor plane. The lens is casting an image circle somewhat larger than the 24x36mm sensor. Some of the light gathered by the lens is therefore being lost but it isn't significant.
After snapping that photo of the bear, you notice that his fangs are glistening. These aren't going to appear very large in your last shot, so you move up until you are about 1.5 feet from the bear. That's about as close as the lens helical will let you focus. The nodal point is now pretty far from the lens. Extra light is spilling off to the edges of the frame , but still not far enough to require an exposure correction. The bear's face is 1.5 feet high. You've oriented the camera vertically so that the face fills the 36mm dimension. 36mm is about 1.5 inches. So that means you are working at "1:12". The subject is 12 times the size of the subject's image on the sensor.
You're losing some light, but also you notice that you don't have too much depth of field. A 50mm lens focussed down to a foot from the subject only has a depth of field of 1/16th of an inch at f/4. No problem. You haul out a big electronic flash and stop down to f/11. Now your depth of field is a whopping ... 1/2 inch.
Looking down, you become fascinated by some pattern's in the bear's claws. Each one is about 1.5 inches long. You'd like to fill the sensor's long dimension (36mm) with a claw, which means that the subject and its image will be the same size. You want to work at "1:1". But the folks at the lens factory skimped on the helical. You can't rack your optics out far enough to focus at 1:1. It looks like that pine needle tip photo is completely out of the question.
Why did Canon limit your ability to focus close? For starters, at 1:1 the lens would be so far away from the sensor that it would cast a huge image circle. The standard 24x36mm frame would only be a tiny fraction. So only about 1/4 of the light gathered by the lens would reach the film, i.e., you'd have a two f-stop underexposure if you used the same exposure setting that you'd used for the picture of the bear when he was 10' away. A scene that required a lens setting of f/16 at infinity would require a lens setting of about f/8 at 1:1. All this other light would be bouncing around inside your camera and lens, reducing contrast. Finally, a fixed stack of optical elements can't be designed to form sharp images at so many different focussed distances.
Your eyes don't focus so great on really small things either. Do you try to pull your cornea a foot away from your retina? No. You stick a magnifying glass in front of your cornea. You can do the same thing for your normal lens. Unlike your cornea, it even has convenient threads for attaching a magnifying glass. The magnifying glass screws into the same place where a filter would go.
A camera store could never sell you a "magnifying glass" for $50 so they call these things "supplementary lenses" or "close-up lenses". Good things about close-up lenses:
they don't require any exposure corrections
you can throw a couple in your pocket in case you need them
Bad things about close-up lenses:
they aren't very high quality though they might be good enough if you stop down to f/16 and if you can find two-element close-up lenses (e.g., Nikon-brand) instead of the cheapo one-element ones.
you have to take them on and off constantly if you are taking pictures of things at different distances.
At right: a model of Sacre Coeur, captured with a Minolta 50mm lens and single-element Minolta-brand close-up lens. Perhaps not the world's best image, but keep in mind that the photographer was 11 years old at the time of exposure.
Macro Zoom Lenses
Macro zoom lenses are not macro lenses. They don't allow significantly greater magnification than a 30mm or 50mm normal lens and they deliver low quality.
What you want is a macro lens. Fortunately, it is difficult to buy a bad macro lens. This is kind of odd in a world where 90 percent of the lenses sold are bad. Perhaps it is because anyone in the market for a macro lens is already fairly sophisticated and quality-conscious. Partly it is because it is easier to make a single focal-length lens than a zoom.
The best macro lenses are the latest autofocus mount models made by Canon and Nikon, typically in focal lengths ranging from 50 to 200mm. Each lens will focus continuously from infinity to 1:1. You can shoot the moon and capture the bear claw without stopping to change lenses or screw in filters. How do these lenses work? Do they just have a much longer helical than the 50mm normal lens? Yes and no.
Yes a macro lens helical has much more travel than a normal lens helical. You can watch the front element move an inch or two. However, these helicals aren't just pushing a stack of glass back and forth like the 50mm's helical. Inside one of the elements is moving ("floating") so that the optical design changes to a more appropriate one for close-up photography. Thus you get sharp images at all focussed distances.
How do you choose a focal length? The same way you do with a non-macro lens. If you can't get very close to your subject at a soccer game, you don't pull out a normal lens; you bring out a 300mm telephoto lens. If you can't get close to an insect without it getting scared and flying away, then you want the 200mm lens and not the 50. If you want to compress features in a woman's face, you use a 105mm lens rather than a short wide angle lens. It is the same with macro work; longer lenses give you a flatter perspective.
At right is an image (from my Christina page) taken with an older design Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, (compare prices). This lens incorporates a floating element for high image quality, but only goes to 1:2 without a "life size converter" (sort of like a telextender) that you stick between the lens and the camera. The 50 is also annoying because it has the ancient non-USM Canon motor. So it can't do simultaneous AF and MF like the ring-USM lenses.
Check the Canon and Nikon system pages for a current list of all the macro lenses made by those companies for their bodies.
Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina make excellent single focal length (prime) macro lenses. If you're using a system other than Canon or Nikon, these may be better quality than your own manufacturer's lens. If you're using Canon or Nikon, you might be able to save a few dollars, at the expense, perhaps, of slightly less rugged mechanical construction. Among the three companies, Tamron historically has produced the best macro lenses.
If you feel like spending a lot of money then what you want is a 6x6 cm Rollei 6008 and digital back. The Schneider 150 is probably the best macro lens available for the Rollei (only $3425), though if you're using a digital back with less than a 60mm sensor size, the Schneider 90mm macro ($3900) might work nicely.
Rollei probably has the most intelligently designed macro system in the world.
At left, orchids in Hawaii with the older 120 Zeiss macro lens, Kodak Gold 100 film (120 size naturally), tripod, f/16 and 1/15th of a second.
Unless you are using close-up lenses, when doing any kind of macro work, you always have to consider the effective f-stop. Even if you are using the SLR body's built-in meter, which will correct automatically for light loss, you can't turn off your brain. Why not? Because the effective aperture affects picture quality.
Taking pictures through a pinhole results in tremendous depth of field but very low sharpness due to diffraction. This is why lenses for a 35mm film camera stop at f/22 and don't go to f/45 or f/64. Large format camera lenses provide these smaller apertures for two reasons: (1) the lenses are longer (f/64 on a 210mm lens is not all that small a hole); (2) the negative won't be enlarged very much.
If you're at 1:1 and have selected f/22 on the macro lens barrel, you need to look at the lens markings and/or the close-up exposure dial in the Kodak Professional Photoguide to learn that your effective aperture is f/45.
If you're using a handheld meter, you absolutely must use these corrections (e.g., meter says f/22 but you're focussed down to 1:1 so you set f/11 on the lens barrel).
[Note: Nikon bodies show you the effective aperture in the viewfinder, a really great feature for macro use; Canon EOS cameras do not.]
A good quick and dirty lighting technique is to use a through-the-lens (TTL) metered flash with a dedicated extension cord (Nikon SC 29 off-camera flash cord or Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2). A modern handheld flash is extremely powerful when used a few inches from a macro subject. That lets you stop down to f/16 and smaller for good depth of field. You can hold the flash to one side of the subject and have an assistant hold a white piece of paper on the other side to serve as a reflector. If you want a softer light, you will have enough power in the flash to use almost any kind of diffusion material. The TTL meter in the camera will turn the flash off when enough light has reached the sensor.
The Samoyed nose at right belongs to Alex, captured with a Canon EOS-5, 180/2.8 macro lens, and TTL-metered Canon flash. Below: a foot recently pulled out of one of those weird sandals with all the bumps. Nikon 8008, 60/2.8 lens, SB-24 lens with SC-17 cord
Let's combine what we've learned until now: the aquarium
Combining everything we've learned up to this point, let's look at a case study: the aquarium. The items inside are pretty close, so you need a macro lens. If you put a rubber lens hood on the front of the lens, then you can mush it up against the glass and avoid reflections. Now you need light. Well, you can just get a flash on an extension cord and point it into the aquarium from just about anywhere.
Here are some examples from the public aquarium in Monterey, taken with a Nikon 8008, 60mm AF macro lens (set for manual focus), SB-24 flash, SC-17 extension cord. I wiped the glass with a handkerchief, asked my friend to hold the flash, and pushed the lens hood up against the glass:
People often write in wondering "How did you manage to get a lawyer in that last frame..."
With a depth of field of around one millimeter for precise macro work, camera positioning and focus become critical. If you have a good tripod and head, you'll find that you have at least 10 controls to adjust. Each of them will move the camera. None of them will move the camera along the axis that you care about.
That's why people buy macro focusing rails, e.g., Adorama Macro Focusing Rail, (compare prices). These are little rack and pinions capable of moving the entire camera/lens assembly forward and back. You use the tripod to roughly position the camera/lens and then the macro rail to do fine positioning.
The photos below are snapshots from the garden of the Getty Center. They were taken with a fancy Canon EF 180mm f3.5L Macro USM (review), but without a tripod. It was thus impossible to focus precisely or stop down enough to get sufficient depth of field. The results are rather disappointing...
If you don't have a Canon EOS system and the special 1-5X lens, going beyond 1:1 requires more than buying a lens and turning the focus ring.
First, you can get a bellows (flexible accordion) and/or some extension tubes. These will let you push the lens farther away from the camera body. Extension tubes are rigid and tough; they only let you separate your body and lens in fixed increments. Bellows are delicate but they let you continuously control the lens distance from the body. How much magnification this extra extension will get you depends on the focal length of the lens. If you have a 1000mm lens that already needs its nodal point 1000mm from the sensor plane to focus at infinity, then a 50mm extension tube isn't going to be worth much. However, if you have a 50mm lens, then that same 50mm extension will take you all the way to 1:1.
Second, you probably want a "reversing ring" for your lenses so that you can turn the back element of the lens toward your subject. Why? Think about the normal way you use a lens. You are taking a picture of the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty is larger than 24x36mm. So you point the front element of the lens at the statue and the back element at the (smaller) sensor. Your lens is designed to work like this, taking the large and compressing it into the small. However, if you are working at 10:1, where the tip of a pine needle is going to take up a big portion of the frame, you want the lens to take the small and expand it into the large. So you want to just flip the lens around.
Third, once you've reversed the lens, you probably want some way to retain the automatic diaphragm. You want the aperture to remain fully open until just before your exposure and then close down to the selected shooting aperture. Rollei medium-format cameras have an all-electric interface between camera and lens, so this is done with clean and reliable electric contacts. Canon EOS would work the same way except that, after more than 15 years, Canon hasn't bothered to manufacture a bellows for the EOS system. An independent company, Novoflex, does make a bellows for Canon EOS, but for most people the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro (review) is a better choice. Nikon has mechanically stopped-down diaphragms for backward compatibility so they give you a strange dual cable release contraption.
For the D5200, Nikon took the body of the D5100 but significantly updated the inside. That includes a new, higher-resolution CMOS sensor, and the same new autofocus and metering systems that debuted in the D600. Though it's been announced in Europe and is slated to ship there in December, the official word from Nikon US is, "Nikon Corporation announced a new product in select markets worldwide but not in the U.S. at this time." However, the D5100 is over a year old, so I can't imagine that the U.S. announcement for the camera is very far behind. Note that the D7000, an all-around excellent camera, remains widely available for less than $1,000, which may affect the company's pricing and release decisions.
The only notable problem with the D5100 in my view is the performance; the D5200 incorporates a newer version of the Expeed processing engine plus updated autofocus, so I'm hoping that the speed gets a needed boost from that. It also has improved video specs -- not so much in its the ability to do a meh 1080/60i as the desirable 720/60p -- plus a built-in stereo mic. While it adds Nikon's full-time AF for video, it's not as fast or quiet as Canon's STM contrast-AF implementation; on the other hand, it doesn't require a whole new set of expensive lenses.
Here's how it compares to some of its competitors, assuming that it's priced about the same as the D5100:
While it sounds like a potentially nice camera, the D5200 doesn't really stand out from the specialized competition: Canon has its video-optimized AF system, Pentax has its weather-resistant bodies, and Sony has its speedy models with built-in geotagging. The D5200 supports wireless, but only through the Wireless Mobile Adapter WU-1a USB dongle. Still, based on the popularity of the D5100, I suspect if Nikon decides to ship the D5200 here it would sell enough to justify its existence.
Ever since Nikon put a 24-million effective pixel sensor in theD3200 we've been expecting this pixel count to reach a little further up the manufacturer's Buying Guide
However, some may raise an eyebrow when they learn that the D5200 doesn't have exactly the same sensor as the D3200. The D5200 uses a new 24.1-million effective pixel sensor that has not been seen elsewhere and according to Nikon we can expect the new device to have a more extensive dynamic range.
Nikon has paired this sensor with its EXPEED 3 processing engine and in the D5200 this enables a native sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400, which is expandable up to the equivalent of ISO 25,600.
In addition, the D5200 can shoot at a maximum continuous rate of 5fps, up 1fps on the D5100, which could make it just that little bit better for sports photography.
The D5200's sport and action photography credentials are further enhanced by the presence of the same 39-point AF system (with 9-cross type points) as in the D7000. This improved frame coverage should make the autofocus system more precise and better at tracking moving subjects.
Another feature borrowed from the D7000 and which improves upon the D5100 is the 2,016-pixel RGB sensor for light metering and white balance assessment. This feeds information into the improved Automatic Scene Recognition system which attempts to match the exposure settings, autofocus and white balance to the scene.
According to Nikon UK's Simon Iddon, Product Manager for DX Products, the size of the minimum recognisable target for the Automatic Scene Recognition system has been reduced, making it more precise. It's tracking performance has also been improved so that the camera is better able to exposes faces across the frame.
Naturally the D5200 is capable of recording Full HD video footage, like the D5100, but the frame rate range has been expanded to include 60i and 50i as well as 30p, 25p and 24p.
Build and Handling
Most people would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the Nikon D5200 and the D5100 as they look almost identical. Nevertheless, we are told that the D5200 is a little bit smaller and lighter than the older camera.
Any weight or size reduction hasn't been made at the cost of build quality, because the D5200 still feels nicely put together. As we'd expect, it's not a tough feeling as the likes of the Nikon D800 or Nikon D4 in the professional section of the company's SLR line-up, but it feels reasonably solid and built to withstand regular use.
Although D5200 has a nice deep grip with a textured coating that gives it good purchase in the hand, as is often the case with smaller SLRs, most users will find that there is only space for three of their fingers and the little finger must tuck underneath the camera body. It is still comfortable to hold and use one-handed though.
Nikon has stuck with the same 3-inch 921,000-dot variangle LCD as the D5100 has for the D5200. While this is useful for composing images from a wide variety of angles, it's a little disappointing that the company hasn't made it touch-sensitive.
We're also a little surprised to see that Nikon hasn't made any changes to the Special Effects modes available on the D5200 via the mode dial, it's the same seven that are available on the D5100: Night Vision, Color Sketch, Miniature, Selective Colour, Miniature, Silhouette and High and Low Key. These are still JPEG only options for stills photography unfortunately.
We'll have to experiment a little more when we get a full-production sample of the D5200 in for testing, but our first impression is that the new processing engine makes the Live View feed a little smoother than before when these modes are selected.
While the control layout of the D5200 is the same as the D5100, the graphic user interface (GUI) has been updated. This looks more modern and cleaner as well as a little more advanced as befits the enthusiast target audience of the camera.
There are relatively few buttons on the D5200 as most settings adjustments are made via on-screen controls. All that is required is to press the 'I' button to bring up the information screen and then navigate to the feature that you want to adjust, press OK to select it and then make the changes. It's simple and effective.
So far we have only seen a pre-production sample of the D5200 and we weren't able to examine the images that we took with it. However, we can be fairly certain that the image quality from the D5200 is going to be at least as good as from the D3200 as, even though they have different sensors, the two cameras have (near enough) the same pixel count and the EXPEED 3 processing engine.
This bodes well for the D5200's ability to resolve detail as the D3200 knocks most of the competition out of the park in this respect at the lower sensitivity settings. It also achieves a respectable signal to noise ratio and its dynamic range is impressively high.
Nikon has had a few issues with white balance and colour, with the D800 sometimes making images a little on the green-side and the LCD screen appearing to over-emphasise this colour. We also found that the D3200's screen has a tendency to make images look a little cooler than they are. We are hoping that these problems won't trouble the D5200 as we haven't encountered them with the recently arrived Nikon D600.
WIth 39-AF points instead of just 11, the image frame is well-covered and we found the D5200's AF system very responsive. Naturally, we want to use the camera in a variety of conditions before committing, but the Multi-CAM 4800DX module has proved itself very capable in the D7000 and we see no reason for it to be any different with the D5200.
It's a similar story with the 3D color matrix metering II that uses the dedicated 2,016-pixel RGB sensor. We've seen it before and know that it performs well in most conditions, although the D7000 is sometimes prone to overexposing mid-tones.
Provided you are happy not to have an array of buttons and dials allowing quick access to key features, the D5200 looks like a great option for enthusiast photographers looking for a small, versatile camera.
Obviously we have to add the caveat that we haven't actually seen any images from the D5200 yet, but its pedigree and the fact that we have seen the majority of its constituent parts in action elsewhere, leads us to be fairly certain that this camera will be capable of delivering high-quality results.
The fact that the D5200 doesn't introduce anything new apart from the sensor is a bit disappointing. It is a fairly predictable upgrade to the D5100 that borrows features from the D7000 above it in the line-up. It would have been nice if Nikon had added a few new Special Effects, perhaps a high-contrast black and white mode, and made these effects available when shooting raw and JPEG files, rather than just JPEGs.
We'd also have liked Nikon to take the next step with the screen and made it touch-sensitive, allowing the AF point etc to be selected with a touch of a finger.
All things considered, the D5200 seems like a solid proposal, even if it doesn't have anything very new or exciting to offer.