Nothing catches the eye like a genuinely unique macro photograph. Macros can seem to transport the viewer into another world. But unlike astro or abstract photography, macros show us a spectacular view of the world that is around us all the time. It’s our world but from a new and different perspective.
What is Macro Photography?
While there are many technical definitions of what makes a macro, the simplest explanation is as follows. Macro photography is the art of making tiny things look big. You can do this by getting very close to your subject, or by getting a telephoto lens and zooming way in.
The proper macro photography definition is an image whose subject is reproduced to at least 1:1. That means that the image on the camera sensor or film plate is the same size, or even bigger, than the real-life subject.
Macro photos can be of pretty much anything, but there are some classic genres that macro photographers come back to again and again. Insects are the perfect example. They are tiny, and a great macro image of an insect takes the viewer into an entirely different universe.
Macro Lens Photography for Beginners
While the premise of macros is simple, taking beautiful macro images is not. Once you dive in, you will quickly find that some equipment and technique issues become apparent.
Macro photography demands that you operate right on the edge of your camera and your lenses abilities. Pushing the boundaries is fun, but it also means that if you aren’t keenly aware of camera settings and what your camera and lens combination can do, you risk blurry photographs and disappointing results. While most cameras can take some macro images, you’ll need a specialized lens (and a DSLR or mirrorless camera to support it) to capture professional-quality macros.
You’ll also want to learn about how to compose and how to light a macro. Depth of field plays an especially important role. Depending on your subject, you might have to learn about other specialized topics as well. For example, if you’re after insect photos, you might want to learn about the types of insects and their behaviors.
All of this might make macro lens photography sound overly complicated, but it’s not. It’s simply a specialized genre of photography that is a lot of fun and opens up many new options.
12 Tips for Macro Photographers
1. Get the Right Camera
As you will soon see, the real equipment requirements for macro photography are centered around the lens you choose. But to use the best macro lenses, you’ll need a camera that can use them.
Camera systems with interchangeable lenses are the favorite for macro photographers. DSLR and mirrorless systems function equally as well. If you already own a camera, there are likely many macro options. If you are looking to start from scratch, consider shopping for the lenses first. It may seem a bit backward, but in the end, you might be happier with the selection.
The most significant consideration in camera selection will be the type of sensor to use. A cropped sensor, like an APS-C or micro four thirds, will offer more focal length for your buck. That’s not to say that full-frame sensors can’t be used for macros, but a cropped sensor will provide a little more zoom which might come in handy!
2. Get the Right Lens
So what makes a good lens for macros? There’s no one ideal lens since there are different types of macro images.
For starters, compare lenses based on their minimum focusing distances. This goes hand in hand with the focal length of the lens. If you want to get a close-up image, you can either get the camera very close to your subject or you can use a telephoto lens and be farther away. Generally, telephone lenses require you to be farther away from the subject.
The focal length of your lens of choice depends on what sort of macro images you want to produce. Generally, macro lenses fall between 70 and 200 mm. The sweet spot is the 100 to 135 mm range, which provides a balance between getting close enough and having a nice field of view.
Macro lens photography is usually done with careful manual focus. As such, many photographers enjoy using legacy lenses and adapter tubes. Consider picking up an older fully manual lens. You can get great deals on lenses like these from top manufacturers like Leica, Canon, and Nikon.
3. What about the Macro Camera Setting?
Many small cameras and smartphones have a built-in macro setting. While this can’t change the actual lens element, it adjusts the digital settings for an “as good as it gets” macro image. It’s not perfect, but if the opportunity presents itself and you’re in a pinch, give it a try. You might be surprised with what you come out with.
Of course, the best way to get the best image is to have an interchangeable lens camera with a purpose-built macro lens. But sometimes we’re in the field, shooting something else, and something catches our eye. It’s nice to know how to use all of the tools in your kit.
4. Nail the Depth of Field
When operating so close to your subject, the depth of field becomes considerably trickier. Wide aperture settings will produce too shallow a depth of field that leaves much of the image blurry. As a result, f-stops between f/8 and f/16 are most commonly used in macro photos.
A quick review of the exposure triangle will show the problems associated with this. If you are limited to shooting at f/8 or above, you must make adjustments to the shutter speed or ISO. Generally, professional photographers will leave the ISO set lower to preserve image quality and to avoid sensor noise. So shutter speeds must be slowed way down to allow enough light to fall on the sensor. Leaving the shutter open longer produces lovely images, but it means that handholding is not an option, and you must use a tripod.
5. Keep an Eye on your Shutter Speed
Shooting at slower than normal shutter speed brings up several considerations that you’ll need to address. The first is the risk of the handshake. Hand holding the camera for macro photos is not usually a realistic option. In certain conditions, with bright lighting and a still subject, you might get lucky. But if you want to get the shot, you’ll have to use a tripod to support the camera.
But the slow shutter speed means you need to pay attention to other sources of motion as well. If you are shooting plants or flowers outdoors, any breeze might make the plants move. If they move, they will not only blur due to the motion, but they might blur due to them moving outside of the depth of field. If there’s any wind, you might want to consider having an assistant hold the plant steady. Or you might be able to work out some form of wind block.
Lastly, with slow shutter speeds, you will need to think about how your subjects move. Insects or other animals do have minds of their own. If they are creeping and crawling along, the might not come out crisply in focus. Wings might be blurred. All of this can be used to artistic effect, of course, but chances are it’s going to require a lot of patience to get the shot.
6. Use a Good Tripod
It should be obvious now that you’re going to need a tripod, but it shouldn’t be an afterthought. A quality heavy-duty tripod is a photographer's best friend. The beefier it is, then the better it will work. The purpose of a tripod is to provide a stable and steady platform to mount the camera.
Unfortunately, choosing a tripod is almost as complicated as buying into a new camera system. Quality tripods are expensive. They come in many different designs, options, and accessories. Picking what’s right for you is a bit mindboggling.
The primary choice you must make when choosing a tripod is balancing your need for mobility with your need for sturdiness. Many lightweight travel tripods are made to pack away small and carry easily. Unfortunately, they fall short when at full height and holding a bulky DSLR and lens. They are better than nothing, but they will move in the slightest breeze. Likewise, that industrial tripod built to hold a telescope is probably an overkill. You don’t want something that will break you back getting to and from the shoot.
The other consideration of importance with tripods is the quality and usability of the components. Is the head smooth and easy to attach? How easy is it to extend the legs? Can you easily tell if the legs are locked?
7. Light the Scene
In some respects, lighting a macro photograph is easier than lighting any other type. You are, after all, only lighting a tiny area. While many macros can be taken with natural light, photographers will occasionally want to control the lighting conditions more closely. This might simply be to maintain a high-key look or to control the level and placement of shadows.
The only real restriction with lighting macros is to avoid on-camera flashes. At lower focal lengths, you might get the shadow of the camera or lens in the shot. With telephoto lenses, the light will usually be too harsh and direct. You can fix these problems by diffusing your flash, either by bouncing it or using an off-camera setup.
8. Go Back to the Basics like Manual Focus
Great macro images require some planning. Rarely do you come across a scene, snap a photo, and be done. There’s a lot of setup and planning, and more often than not you will use the manual settings on your camera, especially the manual focus.
In macros, the point of focus becomes an integral part of the overall composition. Plan your point of focus ahead of time while framing the photo. Consider its placement in the image frame and how to position the camera for the optimum balance.
9. Consider using Focus Bracketing
Modern DSLR and mirrorless systems have several tools that can be of great benefit when shooting macros. Focus bracketing allows you to shoot several photos at different focus distances. If your depth of field is limiting you, you can use focus bracketing to modify it after-the-fact in post-production. It’s also a handy tool to help you fix any mistakes you didn’t catch the first time around.
In addition to focus bracketing, cameras often now have a focus assist function. This previews the shot at extreme magnification, allowing you to quickly and accurately fine-tune the manual focus.
10. Experiment with Lens Modifications
There are several other techniques for capturing macro images if you are a bit more adventurous. Extension tubes allow you to manipulate the effective focal length of lenses you already own, thereby allowing you to focus on objects closer than the lens normally allows. Extension tubes range from simple manual adapter tubes to more complicated examples with built-in electronics that will control focus and aperture adjustments. They usually come in 7, 14, or 28 mm versions and can be combined or stacked.
There are also various ways to reverse your lens. By mounting the lens on the camera backward, you change the focal plane and operating characteristics. You can buy special adapters to accomplish this, and like extension tubes, they can be simple and manual-only, or they can be fully functional with your focus.
You can also combine two lenses together. One is mounted backward on the front of the primary. This focuses the image for the primary lens through a reversed lens, giving the impression of being very close to an object. While all of these are fun to experiment with, they all require special tubes and adapters. But with so many combinations available, the sky is the limit! You can achieve a unique look and feel in your photographs, and if you are willing to experiment, it’s easy to pick up some old second-hand lenses to play with.
11. Abstract Macros
One of the best reasons to take macros is to share a unique view of the world around us. Once you zoom in to the macro level, you might notice things you’ve never seen before. Textures, patterns, and other abstract elements may make beautiful compositions themselves. Consider snapping a few photos like these and you might be surprised at the results.
12. Don’t Forget to Compose the Photograph
With so much to think about, it can become easy to forget the basics. Step back and consider how to compose your photograph. We’ve already covered how you can use your point of focus in the image as a compositional element. Can you use any other composition tricks in your toolkit to improve the image?
Here are just a few thoughts.
- Don’t forget the environment. Macro pictures bring a view of an alien world. Animal and insects look entirely different at this scale.
- Don't get too bogged down with the macro photography definition. Without a little background and some of their environment in the image, it can be hard for some viewers to tell what they are looking at. Back off a little, give your subject an environment in which to live. If you have a living animal in the frame, make sure they have room in the image to move into.
- Also, remember to move around. Try new and creative angles. Macro images, with their small field of view, mean that even a small change in your position can have considerable results in the image. Try shooting from up high or down low.
- Of course, don’t overlook the basics. Many macro compositions can easily apply the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio. Are there any lead lines that can be used? Ask yourself, how will the viewer see the image, and how can you help them explore this new world?
Macro photographs aren't hard to take and it doesn’t require expensive new equipment. Yes, you can go out and spend thousands on the best lenses, but as with many other sorts of photography, there are inexpensive ways to experiment and play. Once you understand what is macro photography, your eyes are opened to the possibilities. You may not want to zoom out again for a long time.
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