Essential Gear for Nailing Focus in Macro Photography

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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.

All 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!

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.
My “homemade” 4-axis macro focusing rail system, using an old Kirk Enterprises rail purchased from the B&H Used Department and a new Sunwayfoto rail
My “homemade” four-axis macro focusing rail system, using an old Kirk Enterprises rail purchased from the B&H Used Department and a new Sunwayfoto rail

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!

9 Comments

Instead of carrying a geared head, I use Composition Adjustment in my Pentax camera. This allows me to fine-tune the composition in Live View by moving the sensor by up to 1.5 mm left or right, and 1.5 mm up or down, and to rotate the sensor as well. With a crop sensor, that is a range of about 19% of the image height (in landscape orientation). It's perhaps less range than that available from a geared head, but I don't have to buy and carry another device, and it's always with me.

It uses the same principle as a shift lens. I use it for landscape work also.

Hey Rich,

Awesome solution! I have always loved how Pentax packs their cameras with tech that other brands charge an arm-and-a-leg for, yet they keep their price points more than competitive. Plus, they make great lenses, too!

Thanks for sharing this tool...and I am sure the non-Pentaxians will be jealous!

Best,

Todd

I've heard of gear heads but not geared heads so I've been using a damped video head, and as with standard tripod practice, turnng off image stabilization even though using manual focussing.

Hi John,

I was searching for my typographical error, or to see what we officially use as the product category, and then, as an actual gear head, I realized you slipped a zinger in there! Nice one! :)

A damped video head is a pretty good solution for this as well, but, as I use one with a spotting scope, I know there can be a little movement at times. However, if it is working for you, it is working for you!

Thanks for reading, gear head!

Best,

Todd

In your macro writeup, you included a picture of a slider focus rail with a crank on one end.  Do you sell it?   Where is it?

Thanks!  That was it.

Yep, that is the one I was using. And, just to try to "up-sell" you, I just replaced that vintage Kirk bracket with the new one from NiSi [https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1574871-REG/nisi_nisi_nm_180_nisi_macro_focusing_rail.html] after watching, I kid you not, a 29 minute review of it on the web. (I didn't watch the whole thing!)

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions!

Best,

Todd

Thanks, Howard!

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