Macro Photography Tutorial (How to Take Stunning Close-up Photos You'll Love)
Chances are you've heard of macro photography but perhaps you've never really given it much thought.
You see close-up photos of flowers and insects and think they look great but you really don't care about the natural world up-close.
Maybe you think you couldn't afford the needed equipment.
Perhaps you just don't think you have the skill for it.
What if I told you these shouldn't stop you from macro photography?
In other words…
There is a whole world of photography available to you that you may have never thought of, capturing it does not have to break the bank and it's actually really easy to do.
If you are a beginner or just wondered if this type of photography is for you then I have you covered.
We are going step-by-step to discover how much fun taking photos up-close can be. Let's jump in…
What is Macro Photography?
Let's get the obvious out of the way and properly define macro photography. From Wikipedia:
Macro photography, is extreme close-up photography, usually of very small subjects and living organisms like insects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is greater than life size.
Simply put it's magnifying a subject through the lens of your camera. The image projected onto the camera sensor is life-sized, or greater.
The ideal magnification is 1:1. A 1-inch object is projected at 1-inch on the camera sensor.
Technically a lens isn't considered macro unless it can achieve a 1:1 magnification.
There are some lens that can achieve extreme close-ups with ratios up to 5:1. Imagine how terrifying an insect would be at that range?!
How Do You Take Macro Photos?
If you have a point and shoot camera , smartphone, or DSLR/mirrorless camera you have the basic macro photography equipment.
Point and shoot camera
A point and shoot camera typically has a macro mode setting that automatically adjusts the lens to focus up-close.
If you already this type camera then this is a no-cost way of exploring macro photography. The downside is that the photos will not have the same quality as those taken with a dedicated macro lens.
Buying a point and shoot camera specifically for macro photography is probably not a wise use of your budget. I say probably because there are always exceptions to the rules. A select few offer lens and shutter speed adjustment in macro mode.
Your smartphone may have a macro setting but frankly it will be junk. You best option is to purchase a lens kit.
As with most things these can be as expensive as you want. However with a modest investment you can get a nice kit that includes a couple macro lenses.
These lens simply clip onto the smartphone covering its built-in lens to provide the needed magnification.
The nice thing about these lenses is that they are small enough to put in your pocket. You never know when you might see something interesting to photograph.
Finally, a DSLR or mirrorless camera provides you with better options for macro photography. You will have much more control over the quality of the photos.
Most of these cameras have a macro setting that you can select. You can simply use your kit lens and explore the world of macro photography.
The problem with using this “auto” mode is you lose the ability to control aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed.
Macro photography relies on optimal image sharpness and depth of field. This requires a small lens aperture. The smaller the aperture the more light you need. Therefore your exposure time will increase.
There is a better way.
You can use lenses made specifically for macro photography.
What Lens Do You Use for Macro Photography?
A prime lens marked “macro” is the optimal piece of kit. It's just that simple.
You want to ensure the lens achieves a 1:1 magnification. Most macro prime lens above 60mm will be at least 1:1.
Macro photographers debate which focal length is better. Some say 60mm. Others say 90mm. 100mm is popular. 200mm is a great option.
If you want distance between your subject and want to spend a ton of money then the 200mm is a great option.
A 60mm lens is great if you have a budget and don't mind stepping closer to your subject.
What lens you buy depends mainly on two things:
- Are you taking close-up photos of creatures that might get spooked?
- Can you avoid blocking light?
To make the matter even more precise, is shooting critters up close your bag, or not?
Shooting a foot or two away with a 200mm works best for insect photography. Anything less and you will likely spook the subject.
The closer to the subject you get, the more likely you are to block your light. Your own body will cast annoying shadows across the scene.
If shooting insects is not your main objective then a less expensive and shorter lens could be your option.
Shooting a stationary object does not require you to be stealthy. You can get as close as your lens allows.
Blocking the available light is avoidable by moving the camera, or moving the object.
One issue with a shorter lens is that you risk distorting the subject if you get really, really close. With Photoshop this is not really problem anymore as it's fairly easy to fix in post-processing.
How Do I Take Sharp Macro Photos?
Getting the right macro photography settings correct is the key to sharp photos.
Taking photos that do not have camera shake is a challenge.
Depth of field must be taken into consideration as your photo is being composed.
To get consistent depth of field you will want to steady the camera and take careful consideration of your lighting.
There are other tips that we will go into below.
1. Depth of field is an issue in macro photography.
How do you get the entire subject in focus the closer you get to it? It’s a problem with a shallow depth of field.
You will have to work out the balance between aperture and shutter speed. To get your subject fully in focus you can decrease your aperture. Unfortunately that restricts the available light coming into the camera.
You can compensate by decreasing the shutter speed but you risk introducing camera shake into the image.
You can increase the ISO to let more light in but, of course, you risk a grainy image.
This is the photographer’s struggle. Macro photography magnifies this struggle, pun intended.
Ultimate solution? Shoot a lot and experiment.
Or be happy that the head of the wasp is in focus while the rest of the body is blurred. There is nothing wrong with that either.
2. Use a tripod
A tripod with shutter release is optimal. It alleviates the aforementioned slow shutter speed and camera shake problem.
Unfortunately, if you are shooting critters the chances of you spotting the animal and then setting up the tripod and camera before it moves is questionable.
If it’s a butterfly you can forget it. It you’re shooting a caterpillar then it will work.
Stabilizing the best you can is all you can do without a tripod.
For best hand-held results having a camera with built-in stabilization and pairing that with a stabilized lens is optimal.
Tripods are great when you are photographing stationary objects. I wouldn’t shoot without one. Which leads to #3…
3. Move the object and not the camera
When you have a creative idea for a macro shot, stage the scene, set the camera on the tripod, prepare the camera settings and don’t move it again.
If a different shot is needed, move the scene around the camera, not the camera around the scene. Get your object on a surface that can be easily moved and adjusted.
Just keep your camera in a fixed position.
Lighting can be tricky in macro photography. Getting sharp macro photos at a small aperture, say f/16 or f/22, you are going to have to add some light most likely.
Working with natural light is easy and free. The only issue is that you are working in tight spaces and might be casting shadows across your subject.
This may or may not be an issue depending on your lens. But sun positioning and shadows always have the potential of problems.
Some folks like to use a flash.
Using a typical on-camera flash requires that you be at least 3-4 feet away from you subject. That’s fine if you have a requisite 200mm macro lens to shoot at the required distance. You’ll also want to use a diffusion device to soften the flash.
Ring light are a great option as it gives a nicely diffused light around the subject. A main downside is the catch-light reflection in the eye becomes a circle.
That’s not a problem with a caterpillar. It could be annoying in a close-up of a gecko.
There are some macro specific rigs for on-camera flash. Articulated arms attached to the camera allows you to use a couple of flash rigs.
Off camera flash is fine but location is key. Are you sure that flower is going to attract a butterfly or bee?
And of course you could use these same flash set-ups shooting stationary objects.
Continuous bulb lighting is an excellent option for stationary objects. You will want to use one if staging objects. Creating a lightbox or using a softbox is a great way to add light to your objects.
5. Manual focus
You will get the sharpest photos by focusing the subject yourself. In many modern DSLR/mirrorless cameras manual focusing is assisted with the use of focus peaking.
This is likely not the case with every fancy camera but auto focus spends too much time hunting in many of the cameras I’ve used.
I almost never use auto focus in macro photography.
Tip #1: Keep the scene clean
Macro photography is cool because it gives you the opportunity to see things up-close that you might otherwise miss.
That also applies to all the up-close things that don’t want to see like dust and hair.
Take a few minutes to glance around your scene to eliminate any unwanted items in your magnified photo.
Tip #2: Patience
There will a lot of trial and error in taking macro photos. Very likely there will be more out of focus shots than not.
Handheld photos of nature subjects will really try your patience.
The flowers will bob in the wind. The butterfly refuses to let you get close enough. The mosquitoes are more interested in your legs than being photographed.
Finding the right camera setting is a test as well. The field of view is challenging.
The perfect shot of the caterpillar may be ruined when you realize that only half of its body is in focus.
What Can You Photograph in Macro?
When someone says macro photography the first thing that usually comes to mind is creepy insects and beautiful flowers. Type in “macro photography” in a photo search engine and you will likely see pages of insects and flower close-ups.
While those subjects can be fascinating to photograph there is so much more to explore.
Here are some macro photography ideas of things that you can photograph just about anywhere you are::
- Water - drops, splashes, condensation
- Dew – on grass, spider webs
- Electric circuit boards
- Rust on metal
- Mini figurines
- Textures – concrete, brick, tree bark
You are only limited by your imagination.
Why You Will Love Micro Photography
Macro photography opened up a whole new and fascinating world of photography for me.
I don’t really consider there much to photograph within a 15-20 mile radius from my house. I’ve lived here over a decade and am just not seeing anything new to photo.
There are no mountains, streams, beaches, street photography, etc. But with macro photography there is always a ton of things to photograph in my house and backyard.
Macro photography will teach you more about light and how it affects your photo. You will see things that you may never have notice before.
There are so many fascinating things to photograph that go unnoticed. It’s easy to notice the grand mountain range and reflective lake in front of it.
What about the rusted bolt holding up a door that you never noticed? Macro photography will change and challenge the way you see your world.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Chris Morris