Macro photography demands a high amount of precision from the photographers since the available depth of field is very limited with the close distance to the subject and already small movements of the camera can result in the subject being out of focus. These movements do not only occur when recomposing the image or through movements of the subject itself, but also unintentionally while adjusting camera parameters. This is especially true as most macro subjects are not present at a usual human working height (tabletop) but often on the ground or other hard to reach places, where fine-grained control of the camera becomes even more challenging. Finally, another issue is that it is quite hard to focus correctly in such situations with the tiny viewfinders and screens on the backs of the cameras. So it is a tough problem to end up with tack-sharp macro photos.

Some of the aforementioned issues can be addressed by using a tripod for shooting macro photos. But even with a tripod, touching the camera for fiddling around with the menus easily results in slight movements and hence out of focus photos.

This is the time where tethered shooting can greatly improve the situation. The idea behind tethered shooting is that you connect your camera to an external device like a laptop, tablet or smartphone and then use this device for some of the camera’s functionality, e.g. pressing the shutter and reviewing the resulting photo on a much bigger screen. Usually, setting up the camera, laptop and the wired connection and then being limited by the cable length is not an option with the resulting setup time and inflexibility but as taking macro photos is usually a slow business at the same place, this is not a real issue here.

During the last years many options for tethered shooting have emerged but the available functionality differs considerably and some solutions are more useful for macro photography than others. To my mind the following features are required for providing a real help with macro photography:

  1. Live view: Live view of the camera image on the tethering device for composing and defining the focus.
  2. LV 100% zoom: 100% zoom in live view for accurate focusing.
  3. Zoom position: Free position of the zoomed view in the whole live view image. Usually the subject is not in the center of the image…
  4. Camera control: Control of common camera parameters like aperture and shutter speed to avoid touching the cameras as much as possible.
  5. Focus: Setting the focus automatically and manually inside the tethering software.
  6. Review: Instant review of captured images with full size to review focus and DOF.

Considering these requirements I have evaluated a few available tools for my personal use. In the following paragraphs I will share my experience with these tools. As I currently own a Macbook and an Android tablet as portable tethering devices the selection of tools is limited to these platforms.

Adobe Lightroom

Lightroom screenshot

Link - Commercial

Lightroom provides tethering support since some time and has support for a wide variety of cameras. Many photographers would probably prefer using Lightroom as a “one size fits all” solutions so that no additional software needs to be used. Unfortunately, only a minority of the requirements for macro photography are fulfilled.

  1. Live view: no
  2. LV 100% zoom: no
  3. Zoom positions: no
  4. Camera control: minimally, only shutter
  5. Focus: no
  6. Review: yes

Sofortbild

Sofortbild screenshot

Link - Free

A Mac application for tethered shooting. It basically provides the same operational mode to tethered shooting as Lightroom does but for free.

  1. Live view: yes, but basically unusable, i.e. no control of the camera like auto focus works when in live view.
  2. LV 100% zoom: yes
  3. Zoom positions: no
  4. Camera control: no
  5. Focus: no
  6. Review: yes

Helicon Remote

Helicon Remote screenshot

Link - Commercial with limited free version

An Android application. Helicon seems to be one of the state of the art providers of technology for focus stacking, a kind of special use case for macro photography. Helicon Remote is the Android application to control the capturing of images for focus stacking they provide. Naturally it also meets some of the requirements for usual macro photography.

  1. Live view: yes
  2. LV 100% zoom: yes
  3. Zoom positions: yes
  4. Camera control: mostly. Camera mode needs to be selected on the camera, basic settings like aperture and ISO can then be adjusted inside the app.
  5. Focus: yes
  6. Review: yes

Notes:

  • Helicon remote is not entirely free. For shooting in RAW format a license needs to be purchased.
  • When the camera is in manual mode I experienced several bugs when changing settings like aperture on the tablet, which required a restart of the app.

DslrDashboard

DslDashboard screenshot

Link - Free (GPLv3)

An open source Android application for tethered shooting with a lot of functionality. Unfortunately, with the amount of available features the interface is quite cluttered and its sometimes not easy to understand how to achieve what you need. Moreover, I have observed some crashes in the past but not with the most recent version.

  1. Live view: yes
  2. LV 100% zoom: yes
  3. Zoom positions: yes
  4. Camera control: yes
  5. Focus: yes
  6. Review: yes, sometimes automatic launch is buggy but can be manually triggered after the shot

Notes:

  • The review feature only works reliably if JPEG files are used (in conjunction with RAW files). This is not a problem for me as I can easily shoot both RAW and JPEG in parallel.
  • DslrDashboard also supports shooting focus stacks.

Verdict

Lightroom and Sofortbild implement a tethered shooting mode that basically replaces the screen of the camera for review with the computer screen in addition to directly downloading the photos to the computer. Besides having a bigger screen for reviewing purposes this does not help very much with the macro shooting process. Much better suited are Helicon Remote and DslrDashboard. Both satisfy nearly all requirements with their fine grained camera control and live view capabilities (and additionally, a table is more portable than a laptop). Personally, I decided to use DslrDashboard. It is entirely free and doesn’t require a license > 40$ for shooting in RAW format as Helicon Remote does. Also, it offers more controls and features than Helicon Remote already does with the price of a more cluttered user interface. Finally, I had less annoying bugs and crashed in the most recent version of DslrDashboard than with Helicon Remote.

In one of the next posts I will try to come up with a short tutorial how to use DslrDashboard for macro purposes and how to understand the user interface. ;)