Maximise Macro Detail

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated August 31, 2017

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It's a bit of a paradox that my images seem to come out better when I don't focus excessively on sharpness in my macro workflow but instead look to maximise the macro detail.

What Influences Detail?

Bear in mind that the sharpness settings you use in-camera only apply to JPEG output. On RAW images, regardless of the sharpness that you actually set, the RAW has no added sharpening as you'd do the sharpening as part of your RAW workflow.

Camera Settings

oversharpen in-camera and you lose detail

Most DSLR come with all sorts of settings that you can apply to your images, including various sharpness options. For example my Pentax K5 offers 'sharpness', 'fine sharpness' and 'extra sharpness' as choices, all of which I can set in-camera on a +-5 scale. Bottom line though, having tried all sorts of settings on these, I invariably return to the use if 'fine sharpness' as it's a sharpening method that emphasizes detail rather than sharpness. You can always sharpen an image in post processing using a good editor if you still have the detail, but oversharpen in-camera and you lose detail.

ISO

I always shoot at the lowest possible ISO that I can get away with. As you increase your ISO, information gets more and more smeared at the pixel level.

Lens

for an extra bit of detail, use an off-camera flash across the subject

Lenses have a sweet spot where they perform best optically. As a rough rule of thumb it's a couple of stops up from their widest aperture, although as the lens gets more expensive, the better the performance even at the widest aperture. If you're like me, on a budget, with limited lenses, play it safe and give yourself a little optical headroom by stopping the lens down a stop or two, just to make sure that the optics work at their best.

Post Processing

I heartily recommend Topaz Detail, a dedicated plugin that I bought for photoshop. Topaz Detail gives you various sliders to enhance small, medium and large detail, together with some basic colour and contrast controls. The latest version then allows you to selectively blend in the detail enhanced areas.

Light Direction

Light that comes across the subject will pick up more detail than shooting straight on. It's a bit of an illusion really, mostly to do with the shadows that the light creates on the opposite side. So for an extra bit of detail, use an off-camera flash across the subject.

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