Tracie Callaghan

fine art | photography

Macro Light Bulb

Tracie CallaghanComment

With my recent competition winning success (come on, allow me a little gloating!) I thought it might be of interest to see how I achieved my macro shot of a vintage light bulb.

I knew what I wanted to shoot; now I just needed to figure out how.

A close up shot of a light bulb was going to be tricky to balance the bright light of the filament with the finer details of the structure. A dimmer switch was needed to reduce the power through the bulb and reduce the brightness of the filament.

A friend of mine is an electrician and the other half is a bit handy with the DIY, so we quizzed said friend on set up and came up with the following arrangement:

  • Dimmer Switch
  • Surface mount box
  • Pendant
  • Some 3-core wire (we had some laying around)
  • A plug
  • And a vintage light bulb

(for links to exactly what was used see the very end of this post)

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I would not want anyone blowing themselves up, so:

*** If you are not confident with electrics then seek professional help! ***

Don’t come crying to me if you’ve been a numpty and electrocuted yourself – you have been warned this stuff can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing!

Also, bear in mind that this set up is for a domestic UK power supply and probably isn’t suitable for other countries.

*** Remember – if in doubt contact a professional! ***

Disclaimer over, the set up was wired up as follows:

  • The two neutrals are wired into the dimmer switch itself (one from the pendant wire and the other from the 3 core cable)
  • The two lives were directly connected together using a connector block, inside the box but not through the switch itself.
  • The earth from the 3-core cable was connected to the earth connector in the surface mount box
  • Plug wired onto the end of the 3-core cable – and if you need instructions for that, you probably shouldn’t be doing this yourself!

With the electrickery all rigged up I set about having a play to see what sort of shots I could achieve. At this point I just used an old filament bulb, as I didn’t want to blow (literally!) the £10 spend on a vintage bulb.

With macro photography at this scale you have to use a tripod there is no way you can shoot hand held. The upside of this is that you can use the lowest ISO avaliable to you to keep noise to a minimum and an aperture that gives you the DOF you want – then the shutter speed can be as long as it needs to be.

I don’t happen to own a macro lens (on the wish list!) but I do own a set of budget manual extension rings – less than a fiver from eBay – and a 50mm prime that works really well with them. With manual extension tubes the aperture has to be set on the lens rather than the camera which is why I use an older style 50mm prime lens. All the other lenses I own do not have any way of setting the aperture other than through the camera, which is fine for extension rings with the electrical contacts, but not my cheapo set.

I used an aperture ranging between f/8 and f/16 to ensure a large enough area in focus – at macro magnification the depth of field becomes so shallow it’s impractical to use large wide open apertures as the depth in focus becomes only millimetres or fractions of millimetres. Really of no use unless you’re planning on focus stacking.

Additionally, focusing is manual also but to be honest manual’s the only way to go when shooting macro anyhow. At magnification of this scale I find it easiest to set everything up so it’s roughly how I want it then move the subject (usually on a piece of card) closer or further from the lens. Combine these small adjustments with live view zoomed in a bit to the area I want in focus and move back and forth until it’s sharp. You can buy specialist macro stages that allow you to fine tune focus but these are quite expensive. It takes quite a bit of trial and error but if you assess each shot after you take it for what you would do to improve, then make the adjustments for the next shot, you can get some truly amazing results.

Despite being tripod mounted with long shutter speeds you do have to be careful with camera shake. A remote release is really useful here especially when combined with mirror lock up (prevents the action of the mirror moving out of the way of the sensor from jogging the camera – known as mirror slap). Press the remote shutter release once to move the mirror, wait a couple of seconds for any vibrations to die down, then press again to fire the shutter.

If you don’t have a remote release some cameras will let you combine mirror lock up with the self timer function although a third party remote release will only set you back around £10 – £15, so it’s well worth the money.

After a bit of faffing I managed to get some shots I was happy with, so swapped to the vintage bulb.

One thing I really didn’t expect was how the light from the filament reflected off the inside of the glass casing, creating beautiful flame like wavy patterns!

The final image actually needed very little post processing, a slight curves adjustment in Photoshop, some desaturation and selective sharpening – job done.

And that my friends is how, with a little effort and some wiring, I got the below shot:

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