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DRAFT: Macro Photography Technique: Overcoming Photo Blur

One of the most common hurdles to overcome when taking macro photos of any subject, or even life size subjects (1:1 or greater), is overcoming image blur. We all want sharp images. Image blur leads to less-than-sharp images. The cause of image blur could be the subject on a leaf during moderate to high winds, a moving subject or even the shake of the camera itself by the photographer who has less-than-steady hands (or too much coffee!).

Camera shake gets worse the greater the magnification, or, the larger the subject becomes in the frame or viewing area of the camera. What one should accomplish with macro photography is trying to obtain the sharpest image possible, thus, getting the subject to be still.

To overcome motion blur there are 2 methods: use of a flash and use of a tripod. Or perhaps even both.

Using Flash: Flash is probably the best method in getting the subject to be still. Using a flash will "freeze" the subject at the moment the flash is fired, whether the subject is flying, swimming, or the magnification is so high that your own hands are creating the movement. The only problem with flash is that sometimes it can create a harsh light making the image look over-saturated or too constrasty. Flash will also destroy any ambient light. For instance, say you are taking a photo of a grasshopper on a blade of grass at a high magnification so that the background is a smooth tan-green making the image more appealing. That is the ambient light that makes the background visible. When you fire the flash, since there is nothing behind the grasshopper and grassblade close enough for the flash light to bounce off of, the background will become a solid black. This is not a bad thing. It all depends on your preference, taste and sometimes you just have no choice. Now to overcome the black background you can use 2 flashes, I flash directed at the subject and the other flash directed at the background. Using flash also has a benefit of creating "catchlights" in the subjects eyes (if photographing organisms). Catchlights are those small white reflections in the eyes of the subject that add an ever greater sense of depth and realism to the photo and subject.

Using Tripod: Use of a tripod is a great method for subjects that are motionless, like spiders. With a tripod, most times a flash won't be needed, as the camera will be mounted on the tripod, with the tripod adding stability and preventing you from having to hand-hold the camera, which relieves camera-shake caused by your own hands. The bad part about using a tripod is that at increased magnifications, the depth of field is so small, that for any organism that is moving, you will have to keep moving the tripod in order to keep the subject in focus. That is why a tripod is best for still subjects such as spiders, or early in the morning when dragonflies or other such critters haven't yet fully warmed up and are inactive or asleep. The added benefit of a tripod is that you get to have a more aesthetically pleaseing image as you will have ambient light show up since you are not using a flash. What this means, is that if you are taking a photo of the same grasshopper on a blade of grass (and he just so happens not to move much), and the background is blurred out due to the arpeture creating a nice smooth and calm tannish-green background for your scene/subject, that background will show up in the final image. Whereas, if you used a flash, that same background would be black.

Image Quality
The quality of images often called IQ is the result of many factors. Conventional wisdom is to shoot at a shutter speed that is equal of faster than the focal length of the lens used. In general most lens are sharpest at f8 or so, but it is easy to run a few tests and find the "sweet spot" of a particular lens you are using. This can be complicated by wanting to use a small aperature like f22 to increase the DOF.

Lots of articles on macro photography are concerned with increasing the DOF. Shooting at f22 or higher is the way to do this in camera, but it does introduce problems of its own. And even with this technique it still may be necessary to use a focusing rail on a tripod to place the DOF on the desired part of the subject. All this assumes that the subject is stationary. One way to deal with this problem is to use something like a sunblocker (normally used behind a car windshield) to block the wind and increase control over the light.

While there both advantages and disadvantages with using a flash for pratical purposes it is a necessity. And more often than not a single flash will not sufice. A good TTL (thru the lens) flash and a ringlight would be a good starting point. There are also some setups with multiple flash units that work well.

This is not to say that acceptable images can not be captured without all this stuff, but that better images can be captured with it, and with less effort.

Another thing to consider is postprocessing after the image or images or captured. A freebie like combinez (do a web search) can combine two or more images with the DOF placed in different places for a much greater DOF. There are also other programs available for purchase that can combine multiple images, some cost several hundred dollars and seem to be worth it. Using these programs require the images have an identical FOV and probably require a tripod and focusing rail.


Using a flash is great help as well. The shutter speed used during flash is typically set by the manufacturer. The effective time of the exposure though, is the flash length, and not the actual shutter speed. So, on a Canon 10D, the shutter speed is 1/200th of a second. The flash time is typically much shorter. When using higher ISO, like 200 or 400, wider apperture, the flash lenght is tiny. Another blur reducing technique.

Additonal thoughts
Image stabilization lens are available for several makes of camera.

Decreasing the f stop -> less depth of field, but faster shutter speed
Increasing the f stop -> more depth of field, but slower shutter speed

Depressing the shutter release is often a cause of camera motion, set the camera to take multiple images and press the shutter release and hold it to take 3-4 images. Easy enough to delete the bad ones or duplicates you don't want.

For flash use - use a diffuser or bouce it off of a large white card

flash, f stop, timer
I always use a flash except in very bright sunlight because of the stop-motion effect for both my and the creature's movement. As Jim suggests, definitely use a diffuser or reflected light, especially with specimens that are at all shiny. Also, yes, take as many images as you feasibly can, as I don't know how many times I thought that I had a perfect image and then realized later when viewing it larger that it was out of focus, blurry, or whatever. When I take a lot of images that I think are all good when I look at them on the camera, it increases the chances of getting a great photo. Increasing the f stop too much can easily make an image blurry, so I would suggest doing some tests and zooming in on your images and seeing how much this happens. When using a tripod and an immobile specimen, using the camera's timer reduces blurriness from pressing the shutter.

mirror lock-up or NO mirror!
The new Samsung NX10 looks interesting - no mirror box, perfect for macro or telephoto work. If this gains traction, maybe Canon will make one that'll accept current lenses.

Paul, It'd be interesting to
Paul, It'd be interesting to develope further your two main points. Issues as shutter speed, f step and ISO settings (as commented above)need to be explained with detail in order to overcome blurry results. Moreover, flash and tripod aren't a suitable help when wind moves focal plane at great magnifications (1:1 or greater). The same applies when the subject is in motion, unless AF could do the job in the selected focus plane, which often isn't possible.

What about stabilizers? Some experience with stabilized or balanced lenses? Thanks for advance :)

Image Stabilizers
Everything I've read suggests that image stabilization is of little or no value at macro distances. The current systems simply aren't designed for the biggest killer of sharp images in macro - forward and back motion. I would guess that it might be better to simply ramp up the capture rate to say 3 fps with the hope that one is on target. Precludes using most flashes, but maybe a video light would work?

Personally I take as many images as I feasibly can even after I think that I've gotten the perfect shot, as the more images I take, the greater chance that one will be good. The refresh rate on flashes, even with fresh batteries, won't get you 3fps, but it's not too bad and for me, except in bright sunlight or for very large insects, flashes are an absolute necessity. I just got one of those little gorillapod tripods to help stabilize my camera while shooting macro and in preliminary tests, it appears to work well enough to stabilize and increase my chances of a good iamge, but is also quick and easy enough to change the configuration of, unlike a normal tripod.

Maybe a remote
battery pack would help. Probably wouldn't refresh any where near 3 fps, but would certainly help, especially if you drop the output power.

I would love to give a pocketwizard a go - purportedly allows very high speed flash sync by actually strobing as the slit produced by the first and second curtain passes. Great idea. Wish I lived near somewhere you could rent these for a day.

"purportedly allows very high speed flash sync by actually strobing as the slit produced by the first and second curtain passes"

That's exactly how Canon and Nikon external flashes work, "out of the box", in high speed sync. I don't see much advantage to the Pocketwizard aside from its RF capability, but I haven't had any problems with Canon wireless at macro distances outdoors in bright sunlight.

External battery packs are sweet. I'm not sure what all is available, but my Quantum Turbo 2x2 recycles a single 580ex from a full-power discharge in under one second even after a couple hundred firings, compared to 4-6 seconds from fresh AA's. So three fps continuous isn't much of a problem for fill-flash. You have to be careful using them though, since the flash can heat up very quickly and die if you don't give it a break.

Another battery option, if you want to save $500+, is to remove the 6V SLA battery from a $10 high-power flashlight and wire it to a set of fake AA batteries - four battery-sized wooden dowel rods glued or taped together. It doesn't look pretty, but I did it that way for about a year with my Sigma ef-500 flash.

Good to know
This is one area where Nikon is really ahead of Canon. I guess the new [pricey] 7D will trigger an external flash with the little built in flash. I would love to see an untethered mt-24ex like Nikon has. The only downside I can see is that the batteries would have to be in the flash head.

ISO Setting
Another possibility: I've had good luck on occasion by increasing the ISO speed setting in my digital camera. It increases the noise in the photo, but sometimes it's acceptable, and it gives you higher shutter speeds without using a flash.

ISO Setting
I very occasionally increase ISO in my Nikon Coolpix 5700 to 400, but generally stick with 200. I've found that on sunny days, I often want to decrease ISO to 100 so that I can keep aperture priority on and not get stuck with washed-out images. (A 6x8-inch sheet of diffusing plastic used to cast a shadow helps in this situation as well, reducing the overall light and reducing shadows dramatically.)

Don't forget that stabilizing the insect can help as much as stabilizing the camera. Most often the insect will fly, but I've gotten some excellent shots by holding the flower stem in my left hand (out of frame) and shooting handheld with my right.

Finally, I've become sold on the high-continuous setting on my camera. I can take two or three fine-resolution shots at 3/second. Often one is a keeper even in difficult conditions. The obvious corollary is to stick with it and take as many shots as you can. I sometimes trash 50 shots to get a few good ones.

Also, consider home-made flash modifiers for insect photography. I've posted a page with some of these here:

Good call I completely forgot about ISO.

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