How to Shoot Macro Video of Wildlife
Macro filmmaking is the art of taking video of very small things. Filmmakers that come from a photography background will quickly learn the basics if they’ve spent any time studying or shooting macro photographs; macro video is basically an extension of macro photography with only a few differences. The main difference is in light acquisition. You need a lot of light to take a macro photograph, with big strobes. It’s extremely difficult to get the same amount of light constantly on a small subject. You also have to be very steady. A photograph can be taken hand-held, but a video cannot.
Purists will explain that you can’t shoot macro unless you’re able to reproduce the image 1:1. But thanks to new technology, the resolution of photographs and video are high enough to work around that.
In our search for reference material, we found that the Internet is full of very bad information on how to shoot macro video. Few have summarized the best cameras and techniques for the job. That’s why I made this short tutorial on shooting macro video.
Things to think about with macro video
Depth of Field
The first major obstacle in shooting macro video is that the depth of field becomes extremely small. For example, you may get only part of an insect’s eye in focus. While this can be a great effect, it may not be your intended result. The aim is to get the largest depth of field possible at a small scale. To keep the animal in focus you have to be creative with light and composition.
How do you increase the depth of field? Decrease the aperture (the size of the opening in the lens) by increasing the f value as seen on your camera. For example, f22 is more desirable than f1.4. Small apertures mean you’re shooting through a pinhole. This increases the depth of field but means you’ll need a lot of light!
Light is extremely important in macro video work when you’re trying to get the largest depth of field.
- Amount of light: The subject should have as much light as possible on it. It’s not always possible to get the maximum intensity. We did a shoot once on tiny, endangered snails that couldn’t be exposed to the heat produced by intense halogen light. We had to get creative with that shoot by changing our light type to a cooler LED.
- Type of light: While many shots might demand direct, contrasty light, we like diffuse lighting. A great way to get diffuse lighting is to construct a paper cone around your subject and direct the light evenly toward the paper. Doing this will decrease the glare that shiny objects might reflect.
- Direction of light: Macro video is taken extremely close to the subject, so much so that the camera may get in the way of the incoming light. To get around this we suggest using a ring of LED lights around the lens.
The composition of your macro video is extremely important when you are working against your shallow focus and trying to angle the animal to maximize the area in focus. For example, you might choose to shoot a snail as it’s crawling perpendicular to the camera. so that it always remains in focus. If it was crawling toward you, chances are that only part of the snail would be in focus at any given time.
For the most part when you shoot macro video, the background will be blurred. However, the color of your background will be seen, so try to choose a color that offsets or compliments the color of your composition.
Using a Tripod
While it isn’t necessary to use a tripod when you’re doing macro-photography stills, you will need a tripod for video to stabilize your shot and make it look professional.
Most of the time, you should focus on the eyes of the organism, because the eyes are what humans tend to look at first when we look at an animal. When you’re shooting flowers, you’ll probably want the center of the flower in focus, but then again, it all depends on what you’re highlighting.
Finding a Camera
By the time you read this, these camera choices may already be outdated. However, we present a few to help you get started in your research. Often, camera companies pride themselves on particular line of camera models that shoots great macro (like COOLPIX).
Point and Shoot Cameras
There are several cameras on the market that shoot great macro photographs and HD video. The quality of the macro video on many of these models is mind-blowing, considering what you needed 10 years ago for the same shots. These include the Nikon Coolpix line, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 and FZ38 with Raynox lenses, the Canon SX20is with Raynox lenses, and believe it or not a modified gopro.
GoPro Macro Hack
Gopros are great action cameras, but almost nobody would think that the gopro is good for shooting macro video. However, the last time I visited GoPro headquarters in San Mateo, they told me that you can hack the camera and make an impressive macro camera. Since they can’t tell people how to do it, I went ahead and made the tutorial myself. Here is how to do it.
A digital SLR camera with a great macro lens is another option to consider. For Canon users, these are our favorite three lenses
- 180 mm macro
- 100 mm macro
- 65 mm MP-E
Alternatively, you can add an extension tube, which essentially halves the focal distance and doubles the size of your image. The downside, though, is that it decreases the depth of field.
There are lots of great cameras that can take macro video if you get a macro lens adapter. The Raynox DCR-250, for example, can be added to many cameras.
Testing a Macro Setup
In my eternal quest to shoot the best macro shots while in the field I got ahold of Phil Torres and made this short before heading to the jungle to test out my own macro setup.
If you enjoyed this series, don’t forget to also watch the ULTRA-MACRO video we did with the forest entomology lab!