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The Ultimate Macro Photography Guide: Top Tips, Hints & Advice

Here we cover everything you could want to know about macro photography. From kit choices and techniques to subject suggestions and more, our guide is packed with all of the advice you need.

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macro pink flower

 

Macro photography is a genre that's accessible to almost anyone, and more importantly, right now, it's something that can be undertaken without having to travel far at all. You probably have subjects right there with you in your home that you can take some macro photos of and you don't need a lot of expansive kit to have a go at macro photography either – it's even possible using only your smartphone. Here, we take you through the ins and outs of capturing macro photos, covering everything you could possibly want to know about it.

 

What is macro photography?

When we think of macro photography, we think of close-up images, photos that show us the intricate features of an object or small life form that might otherwise be missed. Technically, macro photography is extreme close-up photography, and by that, we mean that the subject is portrayed as life-sized or larger.

To understand this in more detail, we need to think about ratios. Ratios are calculated by looking at the subject size on the sensor plane and then comparing it to the actual subject size. So to achieve a macro image, the ratio should be 1:1 or greater. This means that the subject is seen as the same size both in-camera and in real life.

The sensor size and the size of the subject when it fills the frame can be used to calculate magnification. Some macro lenses give a 2:1 ratio, meaning the image produced is 2x life-size.

 

So what's special about a macro lens?

You may, quite rightly, ask what makes a specific macro lens special, as surely a 1:1 ratio means that you can just move the lens closer to the subject until it fills the frame, and Bob's your uncle. Well yes, you can, but many lenses can't focus on subjects that close-up. This is where your specific macro lens comes in.

Look out! Some manufacturers like to call a lens 'macro', when really is can only focus down to 1:2 or 1:3. Look for the 1:1 ratio mark on the barrel. You can still get great images from 1:2 and 1:3 lenses, and use optical accessories (more on these below) to create great captures.

Using digital microscopes can help you to get sharp images of an even smaller area of a subject. These can give a subject ratio of anything from 10:1 or higher. This is called photomicrography, an even more extreme version of macro work.

 

The difference between macro and close-up photography

What's classed as macro photography and close-up photography can be confusing. To add more confusion to the mix, Nikon likes to call their Macro lenses 'micro' which is just another word for macro.

Essentially, if a lens has a 1:1 magnification ratio, then the image you produce is a true macro. If you don't fill the frame with your subject, or the lens has a ratio of 1:2 or 1:3, then technically it's just a close-up image. But, you can still take heed of the tips here to improve your close-up photos as well.

 

Kit for macro photography

cameras

 

You don't need lots of expensive kit to have a go at macro photography – even smartphones and compact cameras these days will have a macro mode that can be used to give you the closest focusing distance possible. (As we mentioned above, your camera may only give you 'close up' mode instead of macro, but you should still be able to capture some intricate images of your subject).

 

  • Advanced compact - Most compacts are fairly advanced these days – basic compacts have been all but replaced by mobile phones. They should have a mode dial, and under the 'scene' section you should be able to find a macro or close-up mode.
  • Bridge - Bridge, or ultra-zoom cameras as they've become better known, are not usually outstanding performers in terms of up-close focus but some do buck the trend – like the Canon Powershot SX70 HS. This camera features a 0cm macro mode, which enables you to shoot objects literally right in front of the lens. Other models should also have a close-up mode.
  • Mirrorless - If you have a mirrorless camera model, you'll have the option to choose a dedicated lens especially suited to close-up and macro imagery.
  • If your mirrorless camera is also Micro Four Thirds, we've compiled a list of the 41 best lenses for MFT cameras, which includes the best macro optics available.
  • DSLR - Again if you own a DSLR, you'll be able to choose an optic that's ideal for the job at hand and have maximum flexibility when it comes to manual settings to get things just right. Check out our 19 best macro lenses for photography 2020 roundup to find the best lenses. 

 

Which macro lens should I choose?

macro lens on tripod

 

Which lens you choose for your macro journey will be an important one. The 3 main considerations you'll want to think about are:

 

1. Image quality – Most macro lenses are incredibly sharp by nature, but there will be a difference between the results you can achieve depending on the quality of the optic. More expensive lenses do tend to provide better sharpness and a nicer bokeh, which we'll discuss in more detail below.

 

2. Focal length – There are 3 main focal length categories for macro lenses:

  • Short (35-60mm) – Short macro lenses are great for keeping things compact on the go and they also make good 'all-round' lenses as well, meaning you could shoot more than macro on your travels without having to change lenses. But the drawbacks are that they tend to give a less defined bokeh due to their short working distance. By this, we mean that the subject has to be really close to the lens and this can be tricky when it comes to insects. Having to be so close to the subject
  • Mid-range (90-105mm) – Choosing a mid-range lens should give you a much better bokeh result than the short-range option, and also offers you a slightly better working distance for subjects such as flowers, where you don't want to be too close to the subject but you still want to eliminate distracting objects such as stems from the photo.
  • Long (150-200mm) – Longer macro lenses generally offer you the best bokeh, a better working distance and top of the range image quality, but they tend to be the most expensive of the lot and be heavier and more cumbersome to carry around. If you can afford one and want it specifically for close-up images, then a longer macro lens is the ideal purchase.

 

3. Price - Prices for macro lenses can vary quite substantially depending on the focal length. The best thing to do is research lenses according to your preferred focal length and usage.

To give you a rough idea, at the budget end, you can pick a lens up for around £200-300 depending on your lens mount. At the more premium end, you can pay up to £1000 for a top-of-the-range optic.

Amazon has a massive range of macro lenses for you to browse, plus you can specify your camera mount and see what's available within your specification.

 

Shop macro lenses on Amazon UK    Shop Macro lenses on Amazon USA

 

Creativity on a budget – macro photography hacks

magnifying glass

 

If you don't have a macro lens and can't afford one, don't despair! There are ways that you can use your existing lenses and accessories with an open mind and a bit of out of the box thinking and still create amazing photos. Here we cover four of the main 'hacks' available:

 

Hack #1: coupling, or doubling lenses

If you have a couple of standard primes, take a 100mm and a 50mm for example then can be coupled onto each other using a special adapter, called a coupling adaptor.

What this does is allow you to attach two lenses face-to-face, and achieve extreme macro close-ups.

The Extreme macro website has a great resource, which explains this in more detail and has a lens magnification calculator which gives you the magnification ratio of your combination when you input the focal lengths.

 

Hack #2: Reversing a lens

Think backwards – literally! You can attach a lens to your camera backwards, using a reverse ring adapter

You can use almost any lens for this – just make sure you buy the correct filter thread size adapter for the front of your lens. Try it out before you invest – hold the lens backwards to your camera and place the front of the lens up-close to a subject. You can achieve amazing close-ups using this technique!

If you have old lenses from SLR cameras, these will be ideal for using as reversal lenses as they often have aperture control on the lens – something which is done in-camera with a lot of modern lenses. It'll mean you have more flexibility with the amount of light that gets into your shot.

 

Hack #3 - Extension tubes

extension tubes photo

 

An extension tube fits between the lens and the camera, the flange focal length of the camera, making the scale bigger. They come in varying sizes, most commonly 12mm, 20mm or 36mm. So if you don't want to invest in a dedicated macro lens, you could consider a set of these instead.

The main things you should look for when buying extension tubes is the availability of data transfer contacts, the quality of assembly (they should snugly fit together) and a matte finish of the inner material to prevent glare.

They are a versatile option that can be used with all the lenses for the same camera mount – you don't have to worry about filter thread size, for example, as you would with macro filters.

The only problem is that they slightly lessen the light that can reach the sensor, meaning you'll have to compensate with a larger aperture.

Buy extension tubes on Amazon UK     Buy extension tubes on Amazon USA

 

Hack #4 - Macro filters

close up filters example

Left: No filter, Right: Using a Plus 4 + Plus 3 filter combined

 

Another option to consider is macro filters. These screw on to the front of your lens, like any other filter, and increase the magnification of the lens. They're usually available in +1, +2, +4 and +10 magnification strengths. They can also be combined on the lens to create different magnifications.

As it's a filter set that attaches to your lens, you'll need to make sure that you purchase the correct filter size, and it might mean that you can only use the filters with selected lenses that you own for this reason.

If you have a magnifying glass lying around at home, you could see what effects you can achieve with that first – holding it in front of the lens and altering its position until the item you're photographing is in focus.

Buy macro filters on Amazon UK    Buy macro filters on Amazon USA

 

Magnification explained

 

To learn more, have a read of this: Using close-up filters and extension tubes for macro photography

 

Accessories to make macro photography easier

These items aren't essential for you to take part in macro photography, but they might make things easier and help you to achieve a better result:

 

Tripod

tripod

If you're setting up to shoot a macro subject, a tripod, even a basic table tripod, will enable you to precisely set up the shot without having to put the camera down and lose your focal points every time. Mount your camera or smartphone on a tripod, and you'll find it much easier to shoot, especially when working with very shallow depth of field as is often the case with macro subjects.

Sometimes macro shooting calls for you to move the subject rather than alter the camera setup, and this will also be a lot easier with a tripod. Look for one with the ability to invert the central column if possible, so you can shoot closer to the ground.

Browse tripods

 

Macro rails

macro rail slider

Macro rails can be attached to the top of your tripod, for you to then mount your camera onto.

They allow you to precisely change the camera position and measure the distance between the camera and your subject. They're especially useful for intricate subjects where you may want to focus stack (more on this below), and take several images at different focus points to merge together.

You can get single-axis or dual-axis models, depending on whether you want to be able to just move the camera backwards and forwards or left and right as well.

Buy macro rails on Amazon UK    Buy macro rails on Amazon USA

 

LED Ring Flash

ring flash

Some macro techniques mean that you're shooting very close to your subject, and therefore shade and shadows become more prominent. Using extension tubes, or reversing your lenses will also mean that less light can reach the sensor. An LED flash, or ring flash, will help to light up the subject and even out any dark areas.

Buy LED ring flash on Amazon UK   Buy LED ring flash on Amazon USA

 

 

Reflector

reflectors

If you're shooting in natural light and the sun's out, it might be possible to reflect the light using a simple reflector rather than an LED light. Depending on your subject you may want a warmer or colder reflection, and this can be achieved by using either a gold or silver reflector.

Buy reflectors on Amazon UK    Buy reflectors on Amazon USA

 

 

Using a smartphone for macro photography

smartphone

 

A smartphone may not be the first thing to spring to mind when we think about macro photography, but there's no hiding from the fact that these days, phones are more than capable of shooting close-up images.

Some may automatically change to close-up mode when you get up-close to a subject, others will allow you to access the setting through a menu or using manual shooting mode – it's worth experimenting to see how your smartphone incorporates a macro mode.

As there's no focus dial as such, you'll probably find that the best way to alter what's in focus is to move the phone back and forth until everything looks right in the frame. You should also be able to tap the screen to choose where you want the main point of focus to be, which is useful.

Some of the accessories listed above will still be useful for smartphone macro photography – a tripod with a smartphone adapter and reflectors for example.

There are lens adapters that you can purchase, giving you up to 15x closer shooting capability, but make sure you check that they're compatible with your make and model of smartphone first.

 

Subjects that are great for macro photography

So you've got all the kit and we've learned a little about what macro photography actually is, but what subjects actually lend themselves to this type of photography?

Well, the truth is that anything can be photographed in a macro style, even larger objects, you just have to think out of the box and be a little abstract with your captures.

The 5 following subjects are items which naturally lend themselves to macro photography:

 

Orchid

 

1. Flowers – There are endless possibilities with macro and flowers. From the leaves and fronds to the petals and stamen, flowers and plants are endlessly beautiful to shoot in macro, with their beautiful colours and textures, and whether you grow them in the garden or buy a bunch from the shops, or even photograph wild ones, they're an accessible and easy to shoot subject for all.

 

macro spider

 

2. Bugs and insects – The second macro subject on our list is a little trickier to photograph. Bugs and insects can move fast, meaning there's an element of luck to shooting these. If you're photographing bees, you might want to set up a tripod and focus your camera on a flower, to wait until a candidate comes along. For butterflies and beetles, the early morning is a good time to shoot, while they are still cold and sluggish. There's an element of exploration to this subject. Of course, one way to get around the issue of the movement is to shoot deceased insects – if you can find them. Of course, we're not condoning going out and killing insects just for your photos!

 

3. Dew and water droplets – Head out in the early morning and you might be lucky enough to find dew or frost depending on the season, covering the landscape. This is a really common phenomenon and it provides an excellent opportunity for macro photography, photographing the random patterns formed by the droplets on anything from the car, to blades of grass, or cobwebs – endless opportunities. If it's raining, look for patterns on your windows you could shoot.

 

macro cats eye

 

4. Things with intricate patterns – If you're housebound, think about things that have small patterns that are often overlooked by the naked eye. Do you have a vase or ornament with an interesting print? Old currency, coins and notes also make great subjects.

 

5. Textures – Things like carpets, rocks, and brickwork can all make great abstract macro images, in fact, fabrics of all kinds. Have an embroidered cushion or artwork? Get up close and see how you could capture it!

 

Carpet

 

Indoors or outdoors?

It's a big question but the fact is you can do either relatively easily. Ideally, you want an overcast day to diffuse the light unless you're specifically after a harsh shadowy look. You can always use reflectors as mentioned earlier, to help even out the light. If you're shooting indoors then setting up next to a window for a natural light source is a great idea.

 

Bokeh

bokeh bee

 

When you shoot using wider apertures to let more light in, the focal range becomes shallower and this means that the background of the shot is thrown out of focus. If that background features dappled light or bright elements, then you can get bokeh. The term bokeh refers to the circles created by the lens. The more aperture blades the lens features, the rounder the bokeh will look.

Learn more about creating it here: Create great bokeh following these simple steps

 

Direct light vs shaded/diffused light

To some extent, this will depend on your subject. As a general rule, you want to diffuse the light if you can to get rid of harsh shadows on your subject. If it's not cloudy, a muslin sheet can be used to create shade.

One subject where direct light does work a treat is with dewdrops. Getting the sun glinting off the dew can create a magical, jewel-like feeling to the photo. Experiment to see what works best with your chosen subject.

 

What time of day is best to shoot?

Again, the time of day can depend on your subject but generally, avoid shooting around midday as this is when the sun is highest in the sky creating difficult shooting conditions.

If it's overcast, this doesn't matter so much. But in the evenings and mornings, the light is generally more flattering. As mentioned before, shooting early in the morning is best to shoot dewdrops and insects which will be more sluggish at this time.

 

How to brighten the shot when using extension tubes

extension tubes

 

As we mentioned before, using extension tubes is a great way to get closer to your subject but the sacrifice you make is the amount of light getting to the sensor because the max aperture you can use is reduced. One way is to use a strobe flash, or on-camera flash to lighten the shot when you press the shutter. If this gives to harsh of a result, try covering the flash with a muslin or plastic diffuser to make the result less harsh.

You can also use reflectors to try and combat dull images and introduce more light onto the subject.

 

How do you get the perfect focus when shooting macro?

focussing

 

One of the best things you can do if you're able to is use manual focus for your shoot. If you're shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, this will be a lot easier.

You will need to set up your shot on a tripod to keep everything stable and in order to ensure a precise focus. Very slight changes in focus on a macro subject can bring a whole new area of the subject into view so keep checking your camera screen's live view to see what the shot is shaping up like.

Once you've got your camera precisely set up, you might think it's easier to move the subject slightly rather than alter the camera setup. You can use a ruler to measure precisely the amount you move the subject.

 

Focus stacking

stacked vs not stacked

Left: Not stacked, Right: Stacked

 

Focus stacking is a method to allow you to get more of the subject in focus in the final image. Because the field of focus can be shallow when shooting close-up, you'll probably find that only a small part of your chosen subject is in focus.

To combat this, we can take several shots with everything in the exact same position, and just slightly adjusting the focus point for each new capture. The images are then stacked together in post-processing software to create one image where more of the subject is in focus. It's commonly known as focus stacking. Some cameras will give you a mode to do this in-camera, such as the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-4, which took the above images.

Focus stacking can be tricky – as we mentioned, you need everything to be very stable and immobile for it to work. This is because you're going to stack all the images together later, and if the frame varies slightly, things won't match up when they stack, giving you a blurred result.

It might be worth investing in a remote release for this, to avoid any vibrations when you press the shutter. The number of images you'll need to shoot will vary, but it could be anything up to 50 frames to achieve the right effect.

Adobe has an article on how to achieve the technique in Photoshop CC on their website but ePz does have a couple of focus stacking tutorials, too: 

 

Still, want more macro photography techniques?

Check out these macro techniques to learn more about how to shoot specific subjects: 

 

Why not share your macro images below – we'd love to see them! Or, alternatively, upload them to the ePz Gallery

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