Macros and Spice and Everything Nice

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Going eye-to-eye with a praying mantis can be a trip and a half, but understandably, not everybody shares my enthusiasm for creepy crawlies. This doesn't mean you cannot enjoy the visual treats afforded by peering at everyday objects at life-size or greater magnifications. To illustrate my point, I pulled a half dozen spice jars out of my cupboard along with a few herbs from our spring garden and photographed them with full confidence that none of them would bite or sting me.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021

Assorted peppercorns magnified greater than life size resemble shards of ancient pottery at a remote archeological dig.
Assorted peppercorns magnified greater than life-size resemble shards of ancient pottery at a remote archaeological dig.

My setup was quite simple. My camera and lens combination was a Sony a7R III and a ZEISS 100mm f/2.8 Makro-Planar T* lens adapted with a Novoflex Contax/Yashica to Sony NEX lens adapter, which enabled focusing down to life-size (1:1). For additional magnification, I added a set of Vello EXT-SFED2 AF extension tubes (10mm and 16mm), which, together, added approximately 25% additional magnification to my existing camera/lens combination.

My system for these photographs consisted of a Sony a7R III with a Zeiss 100mm f/2.8 Makro-Planar macro lens, 10mm and 16mm extension tubes, a tripod with an inverted center post, and an LED lamp mounted on a floor stand. Nothing fancy, but very serviceable.
My system for these photographs consisted of a Sony a7R III with a ZEISS 100mm f/2.8 Makro-Planar macro lens, 10mm and 16mm extension tubes, a tripod with an inverted center post, and an LED lamp mounted on a floor stand. Nothing fancy, but very serviceable.

I extended the legs of my tripod to clear the narrow shooting platform and reversed the center column of my tripod. This configuration enabled me to shoot straight down at the spices, which were scattered just below the lens on colorful sheets of construction paper and poster board.

Cinnamon sticks look like an ancient form of decorative writing.
Cinnamon sticks look like an ancient form of decorative writing.

Two light sources were used to photograph these spices and herbs: a Genaray SP-E-365B SpectroLED Bi-Color lamp mounted on a floor stand and a small generic LED flashlight. The Genaray lamp output a broader, softer light than the flashlight, which output a harder, more focused light with more defined shadows. In a few instances, I used both lights together. The camera's AWB setting kept the colors well in check with a bit of tweaking, as usual, post capture.

Grains of annatto seeds on a sheet of blue paper make for an interesting abstract composition. Lacking any measure of scale, it's virtually impossible to determine how large or small these seeds are, and that's part of the magic of macro photography.
Grains of annatto seeds on a sheet of blue paper make for an interesting abstract composition. Lacking any measure of scale, it's virtually impossible to determine how large or small these seeds are, and that's part of the magic of macrophotography.

In most cases, the light was positioned off to one side at a low angle about 12" from the live area of my frame lines to avoid casting shadows onto the live area of the frame. When using the handheld flashlight, I still kept to a low angle but moved the light around to maximize the "drama" of the shadows.

Same annatto seeds, same background as the previous photograph of Annatto seeds, but a harder, cooler light from a flashlight in place of the softer, warmer LED lamp head creates a totally different mood and feeling than the previous photograph of the same subject.
Same annatto seeds, same background as the previous photograph of annatto seeds, but a harder, cooler light from a flashlight in place of the softer, warmer LED lamp head creates a totally different mood and feeling than the previous photograph of the same subject.
Black and white sesame seeds scattered on a sheet of orange poster board.
Black and white sesame seeds scattered on a sheet of orange poster board.

Focus and depth of field (DoF) should be considered carefully when shooting macro photographs. Some images look better when stopped down to minimum apertures for maximum DoF, while other images are far more interesting when captured at wider apertures for limited DoF. It's all a matter of aesthetics—there's no right or wrong. For maximum depth of field, focus stacking can be incorporated into the workflow process.

Dried rosemary on a yellow-gold background
Dried rosemary on a yellow-gold background.
Dried chamomile flowers display a wide range of textures and patterns.
Dried chamomile flowers display a wide range of textures and patterns.
The crystalline nature of Himalayan pinksalt granules make for interesting lighting possibilities.
Nope, it's not a cantaloupe—it's a nutmeg seed.

In addition to dried spices and herbs, I also photographed a few live herbs we had growing in starter pots. For these photographs I used the same setup, albeit from a higher camera position to allow for the additional height of the plants.

Sprigs of fresh dill (above) and oregano (below) are both fascinating to look at in their own ways in proximity. Shooting at wider apertures adds to the visual mystique of the photograph, especially in the photograph of the tip of the dill leaf, which in the above macro photograph resembles the toes of a green lizard.

Until I took this macrophotograph I never knew oregano leaves had tiny fuzzies along their edges.
Until I took this macrophotograph, I never knew oregano leaves had tiny fuzzies along their edges.

Finding subjects to photograph at life-size or greater is rewarding regardless of subject matter: Shooting close-ups is fun. Period.

To learn more about macrophotography, check out some of the many macro-related articles available on the B&H Explora website, including:

Essential Gear for Nailing Focus in Macro Photography, by Todd Vorenkamp

Effective Aperture and Macro, by Bjorn Petersen

Tools for Capturing Macro Photographs Without a Macro Lens and

Exploring the World of Ultra-Wide Macro Photography, by yours truly.

And read more articles during Food Week, on Explora.

Do you have a favorite subject you enjoy taking macrophotographs of? If so, let us know about it in the Comments section, below.

6 Comments

Been doing macros for 20 yrs with a "real camera" and Kodachrome 25 slide film, Minolta 50mm lense & most of the time handheld. All as sharp as it gets. Using Digital camera now w/macro feature. Depth of field is harder so I pre-focus about half-way into subject buy holding button down the moving to get best shot where all is in focus. Tricks ! My favorite shot is a housefly resting atop a white small spider resting on a green leaf very sharp handheld as usual. Trick don't breathe. Preying mantises are way to easy & if you are in their zone they will be curious & follow you with those big eyes. Yes, I started with horticulture but became a "bug lady" giving slideshows to 4th graders about good & bad don't touch insects. My favorite ? Butterflys & Silk Moths. That's why my business name is "HOLDSTILL!" Productions - nature will welcome you with your "I am not a threat" attitude. You will be able to walk up to most anything including bees & wasps & snakes.

Dianne, thanks so much for the detailed explanation of your technique! we hope that these instructions will help some of our readers, and it's kind of you to post.

That looks like a serious, old-school aluminum tripod!

That's because it is an old-school aluminum tripod - an original Tiltall tripod originally made by the Marchionni Brothers in Rutherford NJ, and later picked up by Leica as their official tripod. You can find original models online used for around $100 in fine working condition even afte 50-plus years. 

-AW

"Marchionni Brothers... later picked up by Leica" Stuff like this is why I come here. Well done.

Thank you. We love trivia, too.

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