Do you remember as a child, the joy of wandering around the garden with a magnifying glass, discovering beauty on a different level.The detail, the intricacy, the alien-ness of this world. Well that world still exists and better still, our modern cameras can capture that beauty with a few small additions. Think you need a dedicated and expensive macro lens, think again, you may even have most of what you already need.
The first key item are macro rings, better known as extension tubes. These go between your lens and the body of the camera. Usually they come in a set of three, and can be used singularly or in any combination. Essentially these tubes are just spacers to hold the lens further from the body. But by doing so they increase the magnification of the object in front of the lens. The greater the distance between the lens and body, the greater the magnification. Just make sure if you buy a set that they are the "Automatic" version, these have connectors which allow the body to communicate with the lens.
The disadvantage of macro photography is depth of field, the amount of area that will be in focus. F11 to F16 will give you a couple of millimeters at best, so a flash is the other bit of essential kit. This will allow you to keep your shutterspeed's higher, freezing the action before your lens. But any flash will do and the amount of options on offer seems to grow daily. Second hand or knew, if you can adjust the power (brightness) of the flash and it can be triggered by your camera, it will do.
You don't need TTL, in fact I find it best to set the camera to manual mode,F16 a shutterspeed of around 1/125th of a second, and the flash attached to the top of the camera, to 1/4 power. Then head out and explore. If you do this then you might end up with an image like the one below.
Ugly isn't it, not the preying mantis, the image. Images like this is what frustrates people and convinces them that either they need to spend a lot of money or they might as well give up. But the truth is with a simple modification, which costs a few cents you can improve the image. But first we need to understand what is wrong. The image doesn't look bad because of the lens, or the camera, or the flash. It's the quality of the light, it's to harsh and lights the background as much as the subject. With this simple change you can transform the image above into this.
So what is this miraculous modification? The problem we need to solve is the light, we need to make it softer. To diffuse it somehow, spread the light which will help separate the subject from the background and reveal the details in a more pleasing way. Sure you could buy a small softbox, or some other modifier. But if you have a hair tie and a piece of paper you can do this.
By making the paper billow out in front of the flash tube, you effectively make the light bigger and spread the light over a much greater area. This may take a little fine tuning but you will be surprised at the transformation. These are some of the images I made out with my kids when we found a preying mantis on our lavender bush.
A closer up version of this, who knew preying mantis have a hairy butt lol
I hope this has inspired you to get out and explore :)