DIY macro lens

Ever wondered what to do with that old worthless kit lens that’s been sitting in the cupboard for ages because you couldn’t bear to throw it out? Why not give it a new lease on life by converting it into a macro lens!

What is macro?
Macro photography is fun – they’re the super close up shots of flower hearts or ball point pen points or insect eyes or… you get the idea. Anything that results in an image the same size or larger than the original subject is a macro.

You can buy dedicated macro lenses for your DSLR but before you spend the money, you might want to try it out and see whether or not macro photography takes your interest. At the end of this post I’ll talk about some of the other ways you can take macro photos.

How I made it
Any lens can be used – but I’d go with a swap-meet cheapie or an old kit lens that probably came with your camera – or maybe two cameras ago. The key is to remove the front element of the lens, leaving the rest intact. That way it will mount to your camera like a bought one. It takes courage because the chances are you will be making an irreversible conversion. I must admit, I had my qualms when I picked up the hammer…

I had no real idea this would work at all, so it was a bit of an experiment. And I had a lens that had almost zero monetary value and was just gathering dust in the cupboard. So it was a zero cost experiment. I figured that it would at least partially work – the surprise was just how well it worked!

And I wasn’t kidding about the hammer – the  whole lot appeared to be securely glued in place, so I placed a cloth over the front element and gave it a couple of sharp blows, then removed the glass bits. The rear element was some way behind the front so I figured it would be okay. And it was – these lens elements are glass, not plastic so there was little chance of scratching it.

And it works a treat – it does try to auto-focus, but really with such a shallow depth of field you are better off switching to manual focus and moving the camera closer to or further from the subject until it is in focus. The result is stunning, as you can see in these shots of a small robot-shaped tea infuser.

Tea infuser with cup shown for scale

Tea infuser with cup shown for scale

robot face (macro)

robot face (macro)

tea infuser robot arm

tea infuser robot arm

And a little closer

Rivet on tea infuser arm

Rivet on tea infuser arm

As you can see we can get pretty close – and with excellent sharpness!

There are two other ways to take macro photos without modifying a lens:

Macro Tubes
These are tube elements that have no glass in them, they are essentially a spacer to go between the lens and the camera. I recommend getting the ones with live electrical connections and that way you will retain the auto focus function on your existing lens. These will work with any lens that fits your camera – they are made in all popular fittings – canon, nikon, sony, pentax and so on. They are quite inexpensive and usually come in sets of three sizes which you can use individually or in combination.

Reverse lens mount
These are a ring-like fitting that has a camera fitting on one side and a screw thread on the other. You buy the ring fit the filter size of the lens you want to use and it enables you to mount your lens backward onto the camera – that makes it an instant macro! Again there is no auto focus, but as a quick and easy way to take macro shots they work pretty well.

So there are several ways to take macro photos without it costing a heap of your hard earned money – Have fun and let me know how you went – in the comments section below 🙂

Supermoon – what lies behind the shot

There is a strange fascination with celestial events, and I love to try to capture them with the camera. But the moon is a real challenge isn’t it? Especially the full moon. Have you ever seen those movie shots of the moon looking enormous – perhaps with a boy and an alien on a bicycle? This shot unexpectedly went a bit viral, being featured on a range of news and astronomy websites around the world. Let me take you behind the scenes to show you how I captured this shot without any fancy photoshop wizardry or collaging of multiple shots.


Supermoon – 10 Aug 2014

Before moonrise I set up on some open grassland near my home in Canberra and pointed the camera at the top of a hill about 2km away. I used an iphone app called Sun Surveyor to work out roughly where the moon would rise, and positioned myself to try to catch the moon behind the lonely tree on the hill.

The Camera
The camera is a Canon EOS 60D – a good mid-range DSLR camera with a cropped sensor. The new version of this camera is the Canon EOS 70D.

I used the Canon EF 100-400mm L-series lens to achieve the large moon. While it was a ‘supermoon’ – a full moon on its closest approach to the Earth – it is of course not that size to the casual observer. One characteristic of zoom lenses is that they compress the space between distant objects and ourselves. The lens was already focussed at infinity with the tree in focus, so the moon was also in focus, but looming large against the tree. It is a useful effect of the physics of light as it travels through the lens.

Keeping it steady
A tripod is pretty essential for anything with a long zoom in order to keep it steady. The tripod should be as sturdy as you can make it. But you don’t have to spend a fortune. One trick is that the tripod can be cheap and cheerful, but it is worth spending money to get a good tripod head so that the camera can be set up without it sagging. And don’t forget to turn off the image stabilising when mounted on a tripod – if you don’t it will try to counter a vibration that isn’t there – and will actually introduce movement that you really don’t want.

Use mirror lockup and if possible a remote trigger – or use the camera’s timer on a 2 second delay.

One useful trick is to use the rear screen at 10x magnification – you will soon see when it is in focus – it works great for those times when there is just not quite enough light to use auto focus.

The moon will appear to move quite quickly due to the Earth’s rotation, so don’t be afraid to use a higher ISO to get a shorter exposure – you can deal with noise in post processing, but not movement blur.

A special piece of kit
I used a device I just acquire recently – a Vixen Polarie Star Tracker. This is a device about the size of a camera body that fits on the tripod and to which you attach another tripod head to mount the camera. It’s purpose is to keep the camera aligned with the sky – in this case the moon – so you can focus on focussing, and not worry about the moon racing out of the view finder. More on this later when I write a proper review. It is great for any type of astrophotography.

The settings
A lot of people – myself included – find it difficult to get the right exposure setting for the moon. The thing to keep in mind is that the moon is quite a good reflector of the sun – so you are dealing with reflected sunlight. So start with a good shade setting – say around ISO400 with an exposure of around 1/250 sec at f/5.6. For the image above, I used ISO100 exposed for 1/90th sec at f/5.6 because it was still somewhat light being just after sunset.

Prepare for the unexpected
I nearly missed this shot. The sun surveyor will only give an approximation, so at the last moment I had to grab the whole rig and move it about 6 metres to get into the right position. Also just after this shot, I noticed a flicker of movement which I though might be a bird. I took the shot anyhow… and caught a small plane against the moon! So keep your eyes on the prize and prepare for the unexpected – you never quite know what you’ll get on the day – even with good preparation!

Dealing with the red-shirted tourist – travel photography tips

You have that medieval street lined up and composed, there is a break in the crowds and others are waiting behind you to take the shot. As you press the shutter, out steps the tourist in the red shirt – guaranteed to lead the eye away from the ‘real’ subject of the shot. I’m not criticising someone’s clothing choice – they can wear whatever they like. But it can present challenges for the travel photographer.

red shirt tourist

red shirt tourist

I’m going to show you three ways to deal with this situation. There are other ways, such as cloning out in photoshop – but that can be a pretty laborious task. You could also take a series of shots and stack them hoping that the machine will recognise and keep only the stuff that doesn’t change. Tricky in a narrow crowded street. But all is not lost.

The first solution is to just crop out that part of the scene – if he’s on the edge of the photo, you might get away with it, although it’s not the composition you were aiming for.

red shirt tourist

Red shirt tourist

And they won’t always be at the edge of the frame.

The next thing you can do is take the image into Lightroom or Photoshop Elements or equivalent where you can edit by specific colour. In this case I am using Lightroom, and have taken the red channel and zeroed the saturation – just for that channel. All the other colours remain unchanged, but you have neutralised that red beacon.

red shirt tourist

red shirt tourist

So you still have the flesh colour in the face and the ambient warmth of the light, while retaining your composition – and gone are the red shirt and shoes.

Finally, if all else fails, get the tonal values right and convert to black and white (B&W). There are two ways to do this – you could just save as greyscale – but often that kills the drama of the image. The other and my preferred way is to play with the colour channels until you have the right degree of detail in the shadows, and the right level of contrast, then desaturate the whole thing.

red shirt tourist

red shirt tourist

So whenever you see a travel photographer produce in B&W – he or she may not be being ‘arty’ – perhaps there was a puce pink umbrella, or a red shirted tourist leading the eye astray 🙂