(Last updated on July 5th, 2022)
Macro photography is a fascinating photography genre. It’s all some people love to do. Macro photography opens up whole new worlds for photographers to explore. The fascination with photographing little things provides them with hours of satisfaction.
In this article, I’ll cover the camera equipment and techniques needed for macro photography. I’ll also offer some tips on how to get the best close-up images of your favorite little subjects.
- What Is Macro Photography?
- Why Do People Find Macro Photography so Fascinating?
- Camera Gear Needed for Macro Photography
- Other Recommended Equipment for Macro Photography
- Best Settings for Macro Photography
- Tips For Better Macro Photography
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Macro Photography?
Macro photography is taking close-up pictures where the subject appears at least 1:1 magnification. This means the subject is life-sized or larger than life in the photo. The term is often loosely used to describe any close-up photography.
To take macro photos some specific photography skills and camera equipment are required. Not all camera lenses will focus close enough to capture macro photos. Specialist lenses or other accessories make it possible to take macro photos.
Why Do People Find Macro Photography so Fascinating?
It’s all about getting in close and being able to create sharp images of subjects that can be hard to see with the naked eye. Flowers appear like landscapes. Small beetles look like giants in macro photos. Small, seemingly insignificant parts of machines look like they could be at home in a science fiction movie.
Being able to capture such intimate detail in photos seems to me to have a somewhat fictional essence. We view macro photos with more fascination than we look at the same subject from a normal distance. This becomes more pronounced the larger the images are that we look at.
Macro photography has been around for well over 100 years. F. Percy Smith started photographing insects back in the early 1900s. In the early days of this photography genre, it was a scientific pursuit. It made possible the closer study of things like insects and plants. Since the 1950s when the first macro lenses were invented, it has become increasingly more popular.
The great photojournalist Robert Capa famously stated that “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He was not talking about macro photography. But this quote can apply to very small subjects equally well as to the news stories Capa covered. To get close enough to capture images at a one-to-one ratio or closer requires using the right kind of camera gear the right way.
Camera Gear Needed for Macro Photography
True macro photography requires the use of a lens or lens attachment that allows you to capture your subjects at a 1:1 ratio or closer. Photos taken at a lesser magnification are not technically macro photos.
Managing the camera and lens settings properly results in sharp, clear, and well-exposed macro photos. There are some distinctive characteristics of macro photography that make it more challenging.
These are the main types of camera equipment used for making macro photographs:
- Macro lens
- Close-up filters
- Extension tubes
- Reversing rings
Each of these pieces of gear enables you to focus closer to your subject than a regular lens does. You only need one lens or lens attachment, not all of the above. But, be warned! Macro photography can become addictive. You may find that if you can’t get close enough with one of these items, your gear inventory may begin to grow.
Other accessories commonly used in macro photography include:
- Flash or Other Lighting
- Clips, clamps, blu-tac, etc.
- Focus stacking software
You can take macro photos without the aid of any of these things. But, when you have them they help make the process more precise and enjoyable.
Cameras for Macro Photography
A DSLR or mirrorless camera is best for macro photography. These types of cameras are best because you can change lenses and they tend to produce the best quality macro images. You can also add macro filters or include the use of bellows or extension tubes.
Being able to change lenses means you are more flexible in what you can photograph. It is still possible to use other types of cameras for macro photography. You can take macro photos with some compact cameras and even some phone cameras. But for the most flexibility and highest quality, a DSLR or mirrorless camera is your best choice.
All camera lenses have a minimum focusing distance, MFD. This is the closest distance you can focus a particular lens. It is measured from the camera sensor to the subject. The MFD varies depending on the lens. With zoom lenses, it can vary depending on what focal length you are using.
Most standard lenses, for example, the MFD is not close enough to capture a subject at 1:1 magnification. These are not suitable for macro photography. Macro lenses have a much closer MFD. This also varies from lens to lens. Some macro lenses have a closer MFD than others.
Setting my 24-120mm zoom lens at a focal length of 105mm, its MFD is about 415mm (16.34 inches). My 105mm prime macro lens has an MFD of 314mm (12.36 inches) on the same full-frame camera. This is significantly closer and produces photos of subjects at a one-to-one ratio.
For macro photography, using a dedicated macro lens is the most convenient option. Any of the other accessories take more time to learn to use and they tend to be more complicated to use.
There are three different types of macro lenses:
- Short macro lenses in the 35mm to 60mm range.
- Medium macro lenses in the 90mm to 105mm range.
- Long macro lenses in the 150mm to 200mm range.
The shorter the lens, the closer you need to be to your subject. So for subjects like insects that you might scare away if you are too close, a longer lens is more practical. The advantages of shorter macro lenses is that they are cheaper. They are also smaller and lighter, so easier to hand hold when using a tripod is not convenient.
This type of magnifying filter screws onto the front of a regular lens. It is an optical filter that further magnifies a subject, much like using a magnifying glass.
These filters are relatively inexpensive, but will not provide the same image quality as a macro lens. This type of accessory does not interfere with the autofocus function of a lens as other accessories can do.
Macro bellows attach between the camera and lens. This accessory makes it possible to vary the distance between the lens and the camera, thus altering the focusing distance.
Bellows provide the greatest flexibility of any macro accessory, but they are cumbersome to use. They need to be tripod mounted and this limits their use somewhat. But, for suitable subjects using bellows is the best way to get in super close.
You can use a regular lens or macro lens with bellows. There are also specialist bellows lenses that can achieve infinity focus when attached to a set of bellows.
Extension tubes function in much the same way bellows do, but without the degree of flexibility.
These tubes come in different lengths. They fit between the camera and lens to allow for close focusing. You can use a single extension tube or you can stack two or more to allow for even greater magnification.
This inexpensive macro accessory screws onto the front of a regular lens. It is then attached to the camera so the lens is mounted backward. There are a variety of options. The cheapest is very basic and provides no autofocus or aperture control. More expensive reversing rings have electronic contacts. These allow the camera and lens to communicate and give you control of the lens aperture.
You can combine a reversing ring with extension tubes for even more options when taking macro photos.
You can do macro photography with a camera, lens, or other macro accessories. These are the bare minimum tools you need.
Here is a selection of other accessories that will make taking macro photos easier and more enjoyable.
Whenever I am taking macro photos I prefer to use a tripod. This helps steady my camera and allows for more precise focusing.
When you are so close to your subject with a macro lens or accessory, it can be challenging to frame it and focus on it if you don’t use a tripod. Any small amount of camera movement means the focus point changes. The nature of macro photography is that it has a very shallow depth of field because the focus distance is so short. I address this in more detail later in this article.
The more light you have when taking macro photos, the easier it is to obtain a sufficient depth of field. The most common mistake I see photographers make with their macro photos is a depth of field that is too shallow. This is usually because there is not enough light for them to use a narrower aperture.
Adding extra light with a flash or continuous lights allows you to set a narrower aperture, a higher f-stop number. This increases the depth of field so that more of your photo appears sharp.
With macro photography, it is often helpful to be in control of your subject. Having a collection of clips, clamps, blu-tac, and tape provides you with the right tools. Wire is another great accessory that comes in very useful. I will use any of these items to hold a subject and keep it in the right direction in relation to my camera and the light.
You won’t need these items for every type of macro photography, but I find they come in handy quite often. I have a selection of different-sized accessories so I have options. Larger clips and clamps may hold a subject more steadily but are also more likely to be seen in the photo.
The technique of focus stacking is often employed by keen macro photographers. This involves taking multiple photos at slightly different focal points. These photos must be taken using a tripod to ensure the camera does not move between frames. The photos are then managed with focus stacking software to blend them into a single image. When processed with focus stacking software the rendered image has a deeper depth of field than can be achieved with a single photo.
Best Settings for Macro Photography
The best settings for macro photography center around the challenge of depth of field. Because you have to be so close to your subject this means the depth of field is very shallow. Even with a medium aperture setting the depth of field remains shallow because the focusing distance is so close.
Many photographers who are new to macro photography forget about the physics of focus distance and how it affects the depth of field. The closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field is, no matter what lens you use.
This is why using a tripod and additional lighting is helpful. With your camera mounted on a tripod, you can use slower shutter speeds and therefore set a narrower aperture. This produces more depth of field in a photo.
Adding light allows for some balance. You may not always be able to set such a slow shutter speed. Popular macro subjects like flowers and insects can move. So a very slow shutter speed is not always a good option because you’ll risk getting motion blur in your photos. Adding more light means you can choose a faster shutter speed and a narrower aperture.
Choosing the optimal part of your subject to focus on is important in macro photography. The point you focus on determines what portion of your photo will be in acceptably sharp focus. There is always more in focus further from the camera than there is closer to it. If you focus on the front edge of a subject, the middle may not be in clear focus. Focusing too far from the camera means what is closer to the camera is blurred.
I prefer to use manual focus when I am taking macro pictures. I find the autofocus will often wander and not fix on my subject easily when my lens is very close to my subject. So I switch my camera to manual focus and it is much easier to set the focus precisely where I want it.
Here are some additional tips I consider to be most helpful when you are starting to experiment with macro photography.
Depth of field is a challenge with macro photography. So you are best to carefully position your subject and camera with this in mind.
When you choose a point to focus on, every other part of the composition that’s the same distance from your camera will be in focus. Where you position your camera in relation to your subject determines how much of it will be in clear focus.
For example. If you are photographing a coin and focus on it with the camera at a 90-degree angle, the face of the coin will be in focus. With the camera positioned at an oblique angle, less of the face of the coin is in focus.
As you are taking your macro photos, think about how much of your subject you want in focus. Position your camera accordingly.
Tip #2: Isolate Your Subject
Isolating your subject makes it stand out more. In macro photography, an isolated subject adds more of a sense of mystery to your photos because it remains unclear how larger the subject is.
Part of the fascination with macro photography is that you can make a small subject look much larger than it is. By isolating your subject you heighten the impact of this illusion.
You can isolate your subject by moving it further away from the background or using a high-contrast background.
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Backlighting enhances the look of your subject in interesting ways. You can use backlighting to help isolate it or add a mysterious glow to it.
If you can control the light behind your subject this gives you more options for creativity. By placing the light in different positions you can experiment with lens flare. Or you can create a completely overexposed background.
Tip #4: Use Focus Stacking Techniques
With a static subject and a tripod, you can use focus stacking to produce a composite image that has a much deeper depth of field.
Start by focusing on the nearest edge of your subject and take a photo. Then adjust the focus manually so the focus point is a little further away. Take another photo. Repeat this process as many times as you need to until you have your focus point at the furthest part of your subject.
Use focus stacking software or manual techniques to combine the images. The result is a photo with far more depth of field than you can achieve in a single photo.
Tip #5: Start with Static Subjects
If you are new to macro photography, start by photographing subjects that do not move. Flowers and insects are popular subjects, but these are challenging because they move. A small puff of wind will sway a flower in the garden, making it difficult to focus on. Insect movement can be sudden and unpredictable.
Starting with static subjects will help you gain experience and build your skills. Once you have a feel for how to set your camera, position your subject, and manage the lighting, then you can move on to photograph moving subjects.
Macro photography is a lot of fun to experiment with. Everyone can enjoy it with just a few specialist pieces of equipment. Whether you want to invest in a macro lens or pick up a cheap screw-on macro filter or reversing ring, you can take macro photos anywhere.
One other key accessory is a good tripod. This keeps your camera steady and in exactly the same spot. If you hand hold your camera while taking macro photos it is much more difficult to keep your subject in focus precisely where you want it to be sharp.
The key technical challenge in making good macro photos is managing the depth of field so that a good amount of your photos are in focus. Use as much light as you have available and set your aperture as narrow as you can. Position your camera well in relation to your subject so you capture as much of it in focus as possible.
As always, take your time and experiment. Use the tips I have given you and start to make wonderful macro photos of your favorite little things.
Frequently Asked Questions
Macro photos show the subject at a one-to-one ratio or greater. This is a true macro photo. To make this type of photo a macro lens or other camera accessory is necessary.
The main ‘rules’ of macro photography are:
Use a macro lens or a macro attachment to ensure your subject is at least 1:1.
Make sure your depth of field is sufficient. This usually means using a narrower aperture than normal because the close focusing distance reduces the depth of field.
Use a tripod.
Macro photography records a subject on the camera sensor at the same size it is or a little larger. Micro photography records images at a far greater magnification. It is often of subjects that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Photographers who love macro say it allows them to discover whole new worlds they would not even notice otherwise. There is a fascination with miniature subjects that, when photographed and enlarged, become larger than life.
Yes, it is possible to do macro photography without a macro lens. Camera accessories such as bellows, extension tubes, and macro filters allow you to capture photos at a one-to-one ratio or closer.
Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and author. He has been passionate about photography for as long as he can remember.
Kevin began his career in newspaper photography in the late 1980s and worked in editorial photography for many years. After this he interned with a commercial photographer, learning many new skills. From there he freelanced, covering many different genres of photography ever since.
He ran his own award-winning photography business before moving to Thailand in 2002. Since then Kevin has continued to work in photography and also moved into video production. For the first ten years of his life in Thailand, he focused on producing media content, both photos, and videos, for non-profit organizations. He funded these efforts primarily through the sale of his stock photography and videos. In more recent years Kevin has discovered a great enjoyment in teaching photography.
He also runs in-person workshops, develops online courses, writes, and creates videos about photography.