Photography Basics: Macro Photography
Macro Photography 101
Change your perspective
A lot of people have started close-up photography lately as you don’t need to travel for it, you have a whole new world of images right where you are now. You don’t even have to move anywhere to take a good macro photography shot, you can do it at home by day or at night time. Brilliant for times when you are locked up at home.
So, is this article for you? Here is what we are diving into, glance over the table of content and decide if it is worth your precious time.
- What is Macro Photography?
- What do you need— 5 ways to get closer with your camera
- Depth of Field
- Technique — Get sharp images and focusing
- Technique — Lighting
- Advanced Topics — ideas
Let’s dive right into it.
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?
This was taken with an iPhone 7 camera. I used Lightroom to darken the background, and it’s not an award-winning image, but that’s not the point here. Would you regard this as a macro image?
Ok, now look at this image, also taken with an iPhone 7:
Is this a macro shot? No? Ok, look at the Daisy just above the yellow flower, does it look familiar? Well, it should, the two images are the same base image, I just cropped in for the ‘macro’ image above.
If your camera has a sensor with a decent amount of pixels to work with, then the easiest way to get your subject larger in the final image is to just crop in. Easy as that. You lose pixels and image quality, yes. But you may still have more than enough, depending on what you want to do with the final image. If you want to print it big on a billboard, it might not be the best solution, but for an image on your Instagram account? Why not?
“But that’s not Macro Photography!” Maybe. As I said above, you are the image creator, you decide if you want to follow rules.
“But it’s still not Macro Photography!!” Ok, I see, you want something else.
What about we try to give your kit lens some ‘reading glasses’. Because it is old and can’t really read fine-print books anymore or an ingredient list on a hair shampoo bottle. We can do that, in the photography world that is called a macro filter. It is a magnifying glass you can screw into the filter thread of your lens. That way you can get closer to your subject and can still focus automagically. Everything works fine with the electronics, autofocus and aperture, and all that stuff. The quality of the image might be a little bit degraded, depending on how much money you want to spend on this kind of ‘reading glass’ for your lens. But it is still cheaper than buying a dedicated macro lens for your camera body. A macro lens would be the option if you want the best image quality, but it is the most expensive, and the heaviest, and most space-hogging in your camera bag.
What other options do we have to magnify the image we capture with the sensor?
There is another, surprisingly simple option. Just put the lens you have upside-down on the camera body! Obviously, it is a little bit more complicated, you need an adapter to fit the lens properly, but there is not much more to it. You buy a very cheap macro reverse ring for your lens for a few bucks, and you gain some magnification. But you lose all the electronic helpers. No automatic exposure, no autofocus. The whole electronic of your lens is disconnected and rendered useless, you have just the pure glass. Must be bliss for all you pure photographers out there! But for me, it is a pain to do all the manual stuff to get a sharp and properly exposed image, so I haven’t used the reverse ring I own. Not even once. It is an option if you really want to get closer, but do not have the money to spend for a macro filter or a dedicated macro lens. But wait, there is another option! I know, it gets confusing, so many options!
Here is the cheap(-ish) option you might want to have a closer look at: Macro extension tube rings!
What’s that? If you want to be mean, you can describe it as a clever way to sell air between your kit lens and your camera body. Surrounded by black plastic or metal. It basically moves your normal lens away from the camera, that way the light circle on the sensor gets bigger and the magnification increases, and the focusing distance decreases. All that together gives you a bigger image on your sensor. And because there is no heavy and expensive glass involved, these extension tubes are cheap compared to a macro lens. You can get them without connecting electronics (even cheaper), or with electronics to pass through the signals between the lens and the camera body (more expensive). Some tubes have also weather sealing. You can get them in sets of three, to use them separately, or combined to get more magnification. A disadvantage with these extension tubes is that the increased distance of your lens from the body leads to light loss along the way. You have to expose longer to get a properly exposed image (or you have to select a more open aperture, or increase ISO, see my article series about the exposure triangle here), and that could be an issue if you have a moving subject. It's not an issue for product photography. You choose. 5 options (or 4, if you think cropping-in is not valid):
- crop in
- use a macro filter
- use a reverse ring adapter
- use extension tubes
- use a dedicated macro lens
All of the options have their pros and cons. In general, you pay a premium for image quality and convenience/ease of use. I think the extension tubes are a good compromise to start Macro Photography if you are not committed to buying a Macro Lens. The macro filter can be a good option as well, especially if you have only one lens to put it on, and you are not bothered by screwing it on and off as you need it. It does not take up much space, and you can use it on any lens with the same filter thread diameter. But make sure you get a decent one, the cheap macro filters are degrading the image quality a lot, they are not worth the money in my opinion.
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.
Macro photography is very demanding on getting the focus right. But once you thought you nailed the focus, you are so happy that you forget to check how far the focus went. What is sharp in your image, from front to back? That’s the Depth of Field (DoF), the range of acceptable sharp focus around the pinpoint razor-sharp focus. So you had that bee in focus from the side, the front wing is sharp, and then it starts to get a bit softer around the eyes and the back wing is already completely out of focus. This could be a couple of millimeters, and the focus is already gone. That’s called shallow depth of field, and you get a lot of it in macro photography!
So the art is to get enough DoF for your subject, to have the important parts in focus. Do you remember your exposure triangle knowledge, and what the aperture does? What has an influence on Depth of Field? Getting more DoF is mainly about manipulating your aperture setting, increasing the number, making the hole smaller. But then you either get a slow shutter speed, or high ISO, or both, to have a properly exposed image. A slow shutter speed is bad for most macro photography, as you are often trying to capture something that is moving (an insect, a flower in the wind), but it could be acceptable for tabletop, product, or still-life macro photography. If you want to avoid longer shutter speed, a higher ISO value can be a good solution in this case, but getting more light in is definitely also on the plate. More on that later in the section “Technique — Lighting” further down.
So learn to juggle your aperture to get just enough DoF for your subject.
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.
Where was I? Right, focus. There are several techniques to get razor-sharp focus for your macro images, I will divide them into two different categories: slow and accurate vs. spray’n’pray.
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!
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:
For sharp images, it always helps if you have a short shutter speed to avoid all sorts of movement blur (your own movement, or that of the subject, or both). If you have the luxury of a non-moving subject, and you can use a tripod, then you can also add a cable release, or wireless release, or timer release to the mix to avoid camera shaking even more.
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.
A lot of cameras have also a magnification function, which means you can electronically zoom in to the subject on your camera screen before you take the image. That way you can better inspect where the image is in sharp focus. I have a dedicated button setup on my camera to turn on the zoom, I use it quite a lot for accurate focusing.
Your camera might also have a function to check the depth of field of your chosen aperture before you take the image. The button will stop down to the chosen aperture, and you can see the changed DoF in real-time on the screen. When you release the button, it will go back to the open aperture (default position). This is useful to see how much of the subject will be in focus with the chosen aperture before you take the image. Useful in combination with focus peaking.
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.
A flash can also be useful to throw a less-than-flattering background into the darkness, and it might help to get the short shutter speed you want or need for your subject. Taking macro shots with a flash is somewhat more advanced, so I will not dive into that here, but it can open up the subjects you can shoot as a macro photographer.
Sometimes you don’t need a flash, a simple torch can do the trick as well. Just be aware that you will most likely introduce a color cast, as most LED torches do not emit daylight-colored light. But if you for example shoot B&W mushrooms, that could be a good addition to your kit.
Lighting is especially important for product and tabletop macro photography, where you might be in a studio setting and have all the options to put light where you want it. This is also a specialized topic for an advanced article.
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.
Let me iterate: take care of the background. It should support the image, not distract from it. Often when you are in the field, you haven’t got much of a choice for your background, but with some technique, you can make it less distracting. Throw it out of focus (that should be easy!), use a flash to highlight the subject, and underexpose the background. Try different angles. Or do some post-processing, if you want. Try a uniform background with a supportive color palette.
For a studio setting, there is no excuse for a bad background, as you have full control.
For your subject, all usual composition techniques apply (e.g. leading lines, ‘rule’ of thirds, use negative space to balance). It is often useful to concentrate on only one simple subject. Pay attention to the focal point (and the focus point!). Where do you want the viewer to look first? Squint your eyes and see if other bright spots might compete for your hero subjects attention, try to avoid them or tone them down.
With leading lines, in nature you often have branches or other natural elements in the image, try to arrange the image in a way that lines support the visual flow. Try a circular flow where elements prevent the eye from moving out of the frame, but instead turn the direction to a secondary element, and from there back to another element leading back to the starting point. Keep the viewer engaged, make them explore the image.
Here are some ideas for advancing your macro photography.
Focus stacking: you can increase the DoF by taking multiple images of different focus planes and merge them together in a post-process called focus stacking. Some cameras can do that also in-camera.
Water Droplet Photography:
Illustrate a concept or emotion:
Food Photography (or drinks):
Insects in flight:
I hope you learned something new or got some new ideas for your macro photography work. As this is an introduction article, a lot of details haven’t been discussed. For a second article, what part of macro photography would you like to learn more about?
Have fun creating images!