Photography Basics: Macro Photography

Macro Photography 101

Change your perspective

  1. What is Macro Photography?
  2. What do you need— 5 ways to get closer with your camera
  3. Depth of Field
  4. Technique — Get sharp images and focusing
  5. Technique — Lighting
  6. Composition
  7. Advanced Topics — ideas

What is Macro Photography?

People have different ideas about what they regard as Macro Photography. I have a simple idea: think about what your normal kit lens can do (I assume you have some kind of mirrorless or DSLR camera with a kit zoom lens). You try to get your small subject as big as possible into your frame, maybe a butterfly or a flower. At some stage, your lens can’t focus any closer, your minimum focus distance is reached. But your subject is still not large in the frame. You want to get closer to get the subject bigger in the frame. Anything which helps to get your subject bigger in the frame is reaching into “Macro Photography”. Some people say that’s not Macro Photography, that’s close-up. Some people say you have to have at least 1:1: magnification (that means your subject is as big in real life as it is on the sensor) to talk about Macro Photography. Well, pick your rule if you need one. I regard everything where you can get a bigger magnification for your subject than using your normal lens as Macro. Prove me wrong :-)

What do I need for this kind of Macro Photography?

Look at this image below. Is that a macro shot?

© Frithjof Moritzen
© Frithjof Moritzen
  1. crop in
  2. use a macro filter
  3. use a reverse ring adapter
  4. use extension tubes
  5. use a dedicated macro lens

Depth of Field

If you haven’t heard of what Depth of Field is, then macro photography is teaching you what it is. It creeps in, and you will see it when you have finished shooting and get back to your computer and see the images on the screen.

Illustration shallow DoF, © Frithjof Moritzen

Technique — Get sharp images and focusing

We briefly touched on that topic above, focusing is difficult with macro shots. My macro lens is so slow with auto-focus, that they decided to put a separate switch on it to reduce the range it can travel while trying to acquire focus. For example, you can tell it to only try to focus up to 90 cm or so. It will not waste time to try focussing on the mountain in the background in this case. You might wonder why a macro lens is even trying to focus that far into the distance, but a lot of dedicated macro lenses are also quite good portrait lenses, and for that, you will most likely be further away from your subject. Unless your portrait style is like Bruce Gilden’s.

Slow and accurate focusing

When you have all the time in the world for focussing, then you can be accurate. Set up a tripod, or put your camera on a solid surface. Now you can either move the focus ring to change the focus until the image is sharp where you want it. Or you can fix the focus at a specific magnification, and you move the camera back and forth until the image is in sharp focus. You can buy dedicated focus rails to help you with that, as sometimes you want to move the camera only a millimeter or less!

Spray’n’Pray focusing

If you don’t have time to focus properly, and your auto-focus is slow, then you need luck and a quick burst mode. Put your camera in high-speed shooting mode and shoot a sequence while you move the camera back and forth with a fixed focus setting. It is like the focus rail approach explained above, but you move the camera with your body, no tripod is needed. This way you will have a lot of blurry shots, but some are in focus. I have done that for insect photography, where e.g. bees are so quick in and out of different flowers that you don’t have time to focus. So you just shoot a lot of of bursts and try to move the camera into the sharp-focus range while doing it, hoping for the best. It takes a bit of practice and it is a bit random, but sometimes you get lucky. This image here for example was done this way:

© Frithjof Moritzen

Focus assistance:

Some cameras can help you with the focusing work. Check if your camera has a feature called “focus peaking”. If that is turned on, your subject will receive a coloured border when (and where) it is sharp, in the opinion of the camera. I find it quite useful to check what parts are in reasonable focus.

Soft Focus

The other side of sharp focus in macro photography is intentional soft focus. It can be very effective, especially for flower images. Sometimes this also leads to very abstract images, where the shape, or motion, or color are the most important elements, and you can barely recognize the subject itself.

Technique — Lighting

Most of the time as a macro photographer you do not have enough natural light for the aperture setting you would like to have for the desired DoF. Technology is a wonderful thing, it allows you to carry your own sun with you (a flash). Using a flash in a natural environment is a tricky thing, you need to be careful to not damage your environment with it. A mushroom is probably more forgiving than a night creature that does not appreciate a flashlight hitting the sensitive eyes. So be mindful when you decide to use a flash to increase the available light. Do your research before you point your flash at your subject.

© Frithjof Moritzen

Composition

Concentrate on one focal point. Avoid clutter, especially in the background. Macro photography is technically demanding, but with all the efforts of getting the focus right and the subject in sharp focus, the composition is often falling through the cracks. The resulting image lacks impact and can’t carry the viewer's attention.

Advanced Topics:

Here are some ideas for advancing your macro photography.

© Frithjof Moritzen
© Frithjof Moritzen
© Frithjof Moritzen
© Frithjof Moritzen

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