Macro photography is one of those technical subsets of photography that leans heavily on the photographer having the proper gear. While you don’t truly need a macro lens and tripod, they are almost essential to successful macro photography. If you have a macro lens and tripod and you have embarked on the awesome exploration of the tiny world around you, you may have noticed that precision macro focusing is one of the challenges of macro photography. No worries, however! There is some gear that can help you improve your macro focus game.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
The Challenge I
When you are working at extreme macro magnifications like 2:1, 1:1, or even greater, focus becomes an exercise in patience and maybe even a little luck. Even the slightest movement of the camera can move the focal plane completely off of your tiny subject. Unlike non-macro photography, a fraction of an inch of movement can throw your entire image out of focus and your subject into a blurry blob.
The Challenge II
When we invest in a proper macro lens, we usually want to capture images at the maximum magnification that the lens is designed to provide. This maximum magnification only happens at the lens’s minimum focus distance.
If you set up your tripod, camera, and macro lens and find yourself turning the manual focus ring or hearing your autofocus motor moving from the minimum focus distance stop, you are giving up some of the magnification that you spent your hard-earned money trying to achieve.
What tools are available to help us maintain a rock-steady, subject-to-lens distance, precisely on the focus plane, at the lens’s minimum focal distance/maximum reproduction distance?
Macro Focusing Rails
The simplest answer to these challenges is: the macro focusing rail.
The macro focusing rail mounts on a tripod (or alternative support) and usually features a geared sliding track that allows precise movements of the camera by turning a crank.
Most of these focusing rails feature quick release plates for your camera, identical to popular quick release plates for tripods like the Arca-type-compatible dovetail plate. Some rail systems allow four-way adjustments on both the X and Y axes of camera movement, allowing precise movement toward and away from the subject, as well as right and left.
Some of the two-way rails allow the camera to be mounted for either fore and aft adjustments or right and left movements.
And, depending on the design of the slider, you can combine two two-way rails to create your own four-axis adjustment system.
To use these rail systems for precision focus, all you have to do is:
1. Point the camera and lens at your subject.
2. Set your macro lens to its minimum focus distance.
3. Turn the crank on the handle to move your camera forward or away from the subject until the subject is in sharp focus.
Geared Tripod Head
Another challenge for macro photography is getting precise movements of your tripod head when adjusting your rig. It is one thing to aim a camera and wide-angle lens at a scenic vista with your tripod; it is totally another thing to be trying to aim your macro lens at a microscopic subject. The aforementioned macro focusing rails can help with precision aiming (as well as focus), but another tool that some macro photographers employ is the geared tripod head.
These tripod heads feature geared systems and cranks that permit precise positioning of the camera and lens by allowing tiny movements right, left, up, down, and right and left tilting, as well.
You can certainly pair a geared tripod head with macro focusing rails, too, for the ultimate in macro control!
Geared Tripod Center Column
A sometimes overlooked adjustment in macro photography is the vertical positioning of a camera. With a telescoping tripod center column, you can make fairly quick and accurate vertical adjustments to your rig, but if you are working from a lateral arm or do not have a center column, adjusting a trio of tripod legs every time you need to move your camera and lens up or down less than an inch can be beyond cumbersome and frustrating.
One solution to this is to have a tripod with a geared center column. Instead of sliding, a crank allows smooth and precise vertical positioning of the camera. Some tripods come with geared center columns, and other, modular tripods, allow a geared center column to be swapped out in place of a plate or other type of accessory.
Focus Stacking + Rails
Focus stacking with digital macro images is an incredible tool for macro photographers. The macro focusing rails are a boon to the focus stacking macro photographer because you can keep your lens at its maximum magnification and simply use the rail system to move the focus plane through your subject.
Other Tips and Gear
There are a few other tricks and tips at the macro photographer’s disposal when it comes to focusing and precision.
- Even the slightest movement of the camera when the shutter is open can lead to a blurry photo. It is great standard practice to use a remote shutter release for all macro work. In the absence of a remote release, you can employ the camera’s self-timer or, depending on the camera, use a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi release option.
- An L-bracket is the perfect tool for the mission when switching between landscape and portrait orientation for macro work. If you do not have an L-bracket, you will be rolling your camera, focusing rails, and tripod head 90o and that is no fun at all. The L-bracket keeps everything upright while your camera rotates independently. I love them.
- With a DSLR, use Live View for focusing instead of the viewfinder. Some Live View screens will let you “zoom in” to the image to help with precision focusing.
- Focus Peaking on a mirrorless camera (or DSLR Live View) is another helpful focus aid.
Do you have questions about precision macro focusing? Do you have any of your own tips for accurate macro focusing? Let us know in the Comments section, below!