Macro Photography: A Complete Guide
Macro photography is about the magnification of small objects. Shooting coins, stamps, beautiful jewellery, insects, flowers, are some of the examples of macro photography. It is one of the hardest forms of photography, which produces excellent results when done well.
The original macro photography, back in the days of the film, used to be about capturing the subject within the range of 1:10 to 1:1 on the 35mm film (24 x 36 mm). A 1:1 ratio has an object fill the frame completely on the sensor. 2:1 or higher ratio is called microphotography – in which a subject isn’t there in its entirety on the frame. With digital, the concepts have remained the same but due to the varying sizes of the sensor – the definitions have slightly changed.
The Eye for Macro
The most important requirement for macro photography is to develop an eye for it. Macro photography mostly involves insects and pollen and other small organisms that we won’t notice usually. They are a part of nature that we don’t even realise their presence. The art of seeing insects, framing them by going close to them, understanding how not to make them fly or move, are some of the essential parts of shooting insects in macro.
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It is more comfortable for flowers, and easiest for still life. But again, you need to see and understand textures. For example, in the case of coins, you need to be able to see how it will look on magnification, and how to light it up correctly for the textures to show best. The joy of macro photography is in the finer things of life, and unless you can enjoy and take pleasure in it, you won’t be able to truly excel in macro photography.
The Photography, Challenges, and Equipment Requirement
The major challenge in photographing small subjects is the need to get close to fill the frame and to be able to focus from that close. Also, the light can be very less when we go close. Shooting macro also means that the depth of field is really shallow. This allows for you to create pleasing backgrounds, but it means the light is very less to get the subject in proper focus.
Another major challenge in the way of Macro Photography is the focusing. It isn’t possible to use auto-focus and image stabilisation in macro because there’s always a very thin line of focus, and it can go off very easily. For insects, for example, you need the sharpest focus on the eyes, and a slightly out of focus image will make the eyes blur due to the shallow depth of field.
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The equipment required for macro photography may be as low as a mobile phone, or as high as a full-frame camera with macro or microlenses, special lights, and so on. We consider that it’s not easy for everyone to carry or operate heavy equipment, and also that the end result requirements for hobbyists differ from that of professional photographers. The technology is another major factor that comes into deciding the equipment requirement.
The Mobile Cameras, Digital Cameras, and the Macro Mode
The mobile cameras, the digital cameras, and even some of the digital Handycam happen to have a small switch which turns the camera into macro mode. It is a very effective mode which doesn’t do anything except for allowing us to get close to the subject, and thus fill the frame with the subject. Since they are small, it is also easier to not scare away the small insects who might feel threatened with bigger cameras. Also, the ease of the camera usage is breathtaking. All you need to do is use the macro mode.
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Additionally, accessories are now available for digital cameras and mobile cameras that allow us to get even closer to the subject. These clip-on macro lenses can provide an amazing view. Additionally, you can use wide angle and macro lenses together. These can allow you to create stories instead of just filling the frame with macro, and using lens distortion to create a fish-eye effect.
The disadvantages of using the mobile camera or digital camera are the final quality, resolution, and the sensor size. With a very small sensor size and a quality that isn’t really as great as a DSLR, the pictures often can’t be reproduced at a larger scale, and the picture quality isn’t as fine as those of DSLR. For a hobbyist, it may be perfect to use these and not invest in high-end cameras, but for professional photographers – it may not be a great deal.
The DSLRs and Getting Closer to the Subject
DSLR lenses traditionally have a minimum focus range that is marked on each lens with a sign that is similar to the macro mode sign on digital cameras. The two significant differences between normal lenses and specialised macro lenses are the ability to focus from close to subject, and also the ability to get the texture out of even a paper-thin subject. This is the reason that the shallow depth of field effect is more pronounced in macro lenses.
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If you can afford a macro lens, there’s no better option. Some of the options of leading macro lenses are
1) Canon 100mm f2.8 (with both IS and non-IS variants)
2) Tamron 90mm f2.8
3) Nikon 85mm f3.5 DG
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Nearly all the lens manufacturers produce macro lenses in this range or the range of 50mm. The 100mm or thereabouts focal length, while filling the frame, also helps in keeping distance. Distance is important because usually we end up getting too close to the subject and the light reaching the subject is very less. Additionally, we may be scaring the subject. For coins and food, 50mm focal length is an ideal one that can produce amazing results.
Macro lenses are also good for shooting portraits, especially extreme close-ups. Therefore, all the eye portraits, the lips portraits, etc, are a feature of quality macro lenses. Also, the fact that you can use your macro lens as a normal lens helps in producing fine quality pictures.
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The Alternatives: When You Can’t Afford a Macro Lens
Macro lenses are specialized lenses, and not everyone may be having those. For those who want a high-quality picture but don’t want to spend loads, there are a few options.
a) Telephoto and Crop
Using a telephoto lens and then cropping it to fill the frame with the subject counters two problems. Firstly, since we are shooting at a distance, the light is ample. Secondly, the distance allows us to work peacefully with subjects that may be scared of getting close. The cons – it doesn’t produce quite the same effect as the macro lens, and you can’t get large size prints.
b) Close-up Filters
Close-up filters are usually screw-on filters that can be added to the top of the lens, and that provide magnification of the subject. They usually come in as a set of +1, +2, +4, and +8. These aren’t actually magnification but some numbers that are used by the manufacturers as standards.
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With the magnification of the subject, and the ability to focus slightly more closely with each added filter, you can fill the frame with the subject. You could use one or more than one filters in combination, and the magnification will be amazing. It is a convenient method to shoot macro.
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The cons – are the quality of the glass. If the quality of glass is bad, the more the filters are added, the worse it gets. If the quality of glass is good – you are paying almost as much as a good macro lens, and still not getting the same output. On a budget, in a controlled way, it is a good method.
c) Extension Tubes
Extension tubes are hollow tubes that are mounted on the camera, and the lens is mounted on them. This creates a distance between the lens and the focal plane of the DSLR. The more the distance, the more pronounced the macro effect becomes. This, however, also reduces the light going in the system. Two types of extension tubes are usually there:
The manual extension tubes don’t have contacts. Therefore, there’s no way of controlling the lens aperture and focusing when a manual extension tube is used. The aperture needs to be set before uninstalling the lens from the camera, and thus it gets locked. With old manual lenses which had aperture control on the lens, it’s best to use manual extension tubes. Focusing in macro isn’t done using auto-focus anyway.
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For the modern lenses, electronic extension tubes provide slightly better control as you can change aperture on the fly. The only disadvantage of using extension tubes is that the light becomes lesser as the focal length of the extension tubes is increased. The image quality remains unaffected because there is no glass involved, and the original glass quality is retained.
d) Lens Reversal Rings
Lens Reversal Rings allow us to mount the lens in reverse, which provides an amazing magnification and the ability to focus close to the subjects. They are similar to the manual extension tubes because you can’t use aperture controls since the lens is reversed. Therefore, the aperture needs to be set and locked before the lens is removed from the camera. Also, since there is no glass involved, the image quality is good. However, the light is considerably reduced. Also, since the lens is open in front of the subject and really close, it might not be good for the health of the lens as the dust may get in. This remains, however, the cheapest way to shoot macro.
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Ring Flash and Using Speedlight
The ring flash is an amazing flash unit designed especially to shoot close-ups. A ring flash is a circular flash mounted around the lens. They can light up the subject even centimetres away from the lens, and are a perfect solution to shooting macro, especially the ones that can’t be shot in the studio. The other option is to use speedlight. Speedlight, when used normally, will not throw the light in the correct direction for the close-up subject to be lit properly. Using a DIY technique, one can use a tissue paper or any small paper that can diffuse light hang in front of the speedlight. This gives the light the correct direction and makes it reach the subject, while also giving the light the diffusion and no hotspots are formed as a result.
Moving Away from Close-up: Macro Storytelling
Most of the macro photography focuses on close-ups which can bring out the details and the colours of the subjects while making them magnified and fill the frame; it is important to try the element of storytelling by moving a bit backwards. Catching the insets and the flowers tell their story via just observing and capturing a slightly wider view can enhance macro pictures way more beautiful.
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For close-ups, once you’ve mastered the art, it is all about the one who has a better lens and lights. But storytelling is where you can excel. Be it ants carrying food, or insects carrying dew drops, or a family of insects doing their regular activities amidst nature – these ideas can give life to an image and give your image a unique perspective.
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Shooting macro requires patience, skill, equipment, and understanding. It requires the ability to observe the surroundings. If you can’t look at the tiny world with awe, you can’t shoot macro even with the best available gear. Go to a nearby park without the camera, start observing the minute creatures and flowers, and there you will be able to begin your macro photography journey.
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If you thought you had to travel to exotic locales to photograph captivating subjects, think again. Award-winning conservation photographer Clay Bolt shows you how to find, approach and photograph fascinating insects in your own backyard with spectacular results. Learn to work with available light and shallow depth of field to create crystal-clear images. Explore a variety of off-camera flash setups to enhance colour and texture, increase sharpness and freeze motion.
Use wide-angle macro lenses to create surreal images that showcase your subject and its habitat, and get Clays expert tips for successfully photographing insects in flight. Finally, learn to adjust images in the digital darkroom to illuminate the beauty of translucent wings and emphasize eye-catching textures.
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