Close-up: Building on a Solid Foundation
If one of the things you love about photography is getting to play with all the gear, you're going to love macro. But before we venture into that topic, there are a few fundamentals we need to cover. As with building a house, you need a solid foundation for all that gear, and in photography that foundation consists mainly of your tripod and your camera body itself.
At high magnification, even the slightest vibration might record on your image. To minimize this problem, you should have a good, solid tripod. This means not just the legs, but the head as well. There's no such thing as a light-weight but sturdy tripod. Nor is there such a thing as a cheap but sturdy tripod. Invest in the best tripod you can reasonably justify purchasing. A few of the Bogen/Manfrotto models such as the 3021 are not bad, but in my opinion Gitzo makes the best tripod legs out there. For general shooting, the G1325 is an excellent choice. If you never plan to own any large lenses, you might also be satisfied with the G1227. Resist the temptation to get smaller diameter legs as they simply aren't rigid enough to reliably be a stable platform for your gear.
Although the two Gitzo models I've listed are carbon fiber, this is not strictly necessary even though there are some advantages. Weight is the obvious one. Carbon fiber will shave up to a third off your tripod and this can make a difference by the end of a long day. The biggest difference for me though is that carbon fiber does not conduct cold to anywhere near the degree that aluminum does. The first time you use a carbon fiber tripod in winter you will be hooked.
Be sure your tripod is tall enough for you so you don't have to stoop over to use it. While a lot of macro work will be low to the ground, you want your tripod to work well for all your shooting, not just macro. You want a tripod with independently adjustable legs since you may be working at times on uneven ground. A tripod such as the Gitzo G1325 that has no center column makes low level shooting much more doable than other systems that require you to invert the center column. If you do have a long center column, you may be able to replace it with a shorter one.
If you shoot a lot of macro, you may want to consider getting a dedicated low or ground tripod. If you do, keep in mind you will need a good tripod head for it in addition to your regular tripod. Switching heads back and forth can be a real pain.
Speaking of tripod heads, the best you can get for general shooting is a good ballhead such as one from Markins, Arca-Swiss or Kirk Enterprises. The worst head you could get would be a cheap ballhead. Most people try to save money on their head and end up with one that is frustrating to use since the gear supported by it all too easily flops over when you loosen the ball. Buy your tripod head for the long haul and resist the temptation to go too cheap. A good head can last you many, many years.
If you want a dedicated macro tripod head, some people find that a three way pan/tilt head works well (I don't) so if you have an aversion to ball heads you can do reasonably well by going this route. No three-way head supports the industry standard Arca-Swiss quick-release clamp system though so you would need to accept some compromises if you do.
An "L" bracket is highly recommended as it can make it much easier to position your camera where you want it. Without, you are forced to flop over the head which not only makes it much less stable, it will also alter your composition completely since your lens will no longer be looking at the same thing. When shooting macro, moving your camera position by this small amoung can have huge consequences.
Remember, the only purpose of your tripod is to provide a stable support system for holding your camera and lens in the right place in a stable manner so you can maximize your chances of getting sharp images.
You can use most any camera for macro shooting, but there are a few features worth seeking out if you are in the market for a new camera body. First and foremost among these is depth-of-field preview. By its very nature, depth of field for macro is limited and you need every tool possible to help maximize what you do with it.
To help minimize camera shake, a good cable release is a necessity. Many people will recommend mirror lockup, but truthfully this is less important these days than it once was. The mirror on modern cameras is well dampened and should not be a problem except at extreme magnification. My D100 does not have mirror lockup but does have a mirror vibration reduction (anti-mirror-shock) custom function that is raises the mirror a fraction of a second before the shutter fires which works nearly as well.
Some macro configurations involve mounting lenses in ways that no longer provide electronic coupling to the body, it can be helpful if your camera can meter with non-CPU (manual focus) lenses. There is an alternative if you shoot digital though. By using the histogram on the camera display you can iteratively hone in on correct exposure even if you completely lack metering ability.
Digital also gives macro shooters a bonus in the form of the inherent cropping factor. Although not technically true, it can be considered "magnification" in a some sense since you do end up with more tightly cropped images.
As I said at the outset, shooting macro can involve using some specialized gear. If you love this sort of thing, macro does give you the chance to play with lots of fun toys in the form of new lenses, extension tubes, bellows, diopters, reversing rings and so on. We'll talk about these beginning next week. Of course, this does give you more stuff to spend money on too. Some of it is surprisingly affordable though and we'll talk about this in the coming weeks as well. Remember, you really don't need to buy every possible macro toy.
At least not at first ....