Using Extension Tubes to Shoot Wildflowers
July is wildflower season in the San Juan Mountains of South Western Colorado and I have had the pleasure of enjoying the area this time of year for nearly twenty years. The diversity of photographic options never ceases to amaze me. The world-renowned floral display is particularly beautiful. It’s an awesome place to dive into the world of both macro and landscape photography.
Even though many meadows are easily accessible by four wheel vehicles, I tend to travel light just to be sure that I can climb up to that perfect vantage point on a whim. I carry three lenses: a Nikon 16-35mm, a 50mm 1.4, and a 70-200mm. In addition, I pack a 1.4 tele-converter and a set of extension tubes.
Extension tubes are a great alternative to macro lenses. They are both a little less expensive and offer extra options. I use Kenko’s extension tube set. They electronically couple the lens to the camera allowing you to monitor exposure right through the lens, making handheld meters unnecessary. They are essentially hollow tubes that come in different lengths: 12mm, 20mm, and 36mm. These tubes push your lens further from your camera. The further the lens is from the film/sensor plane, the closer you can focus. The closer you can focus, the higher the magnification. The higher the magnification, the bigger the object looks in your final frame.
My favorite configuration is to use all of the tubes stacked together (68mm) with my Nikon 50mm lens. This creates a slightly greater than 1:1 magnification. What makes this combination different than a typical macro setup is the very wide maximum aperture of the 50mm lens. Depending on your lens, you get as large as a f1.8, f1.4 or even f1.2. The largest maximum aperture on most macro lenses is only f4 or f2.8. The larger apertures of the 50mm provide a very narrow depth of field with beautiful out of focus areas, called bokeh. It also enables faster shutter speeds.
The faster shutter speeds gives you the option of handholding your camera. On a bright day you could be shooting in the neighborhood of 1/8000 of a second at f1.8; If you are shooting with an ISO of 200, even faster. This versatility can really add to your creativity. For stodgy landscape photographers like me, taking the camera off the tripod is likely to cause a fair amount of anxiety. Relax and remember to breath. Lay on your belly in a field of wildflowers on and enjoy the warm and sunny summer afternoon. Forget the big picture and revel in the details; there are an infinite number of colors and variations around you. Hand holding your camera will enable you to explore the small scenes without the extra weight and bulk of the tripod.
Some hints to help you along the way:
The 1:1 magnification means that you need to get quite close to your subject. A movement of a fraction of an inch in any direction can drastically change your focus area. I find setting my Release Mode on my camera to “Continuous” helps me get the shot. Because the depth of field is so shallow, it is quite easy to lean away and lose focus. Setting the camera to “Continuous” will produce many shots of the same scene but you are more likely to get the focus right in at least one of them!
Don’t forget to use manual focus! The auto focus is likely to be far more of a hassle than it is worth.
Remember, shooting in the middle of the day is okay. While we typically like soft light for our macro flower photos, the extremely shallow depth of field allows the background to blend together so that there is a softer transition between bright and dark areas.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can try to “shoot through” a flower to another on the opposite side. This creates a unique wash of color. Try and find thinner flowers that are translucent. Place them near the front of your lens and focus beyond them, allow the foreground color to wash over your scene. You should be very pleased with the results.
Best of luck!