With spring arriving in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s time again for many of us to go outside in humid, buggy areas in search of creepy-crawlies. Macro photography is… peculiar, I admit that. But anyone who’s tried this genre also knows its allure. Navigate some technical hurdles and heed the mosquitos, and you’ll find whole universes of photographs to capture in your backyard. If you’re just beginning macro photography, the following tips will show you where to start.
1. Learn Bug Behavior
You should understand your subject if you want to photograph it as well as possible. What, for example, is the easiest way to approach a dragonfly without scaring it off? By knowing the answer, you dramatically improve your chances of getting the photo you want.
Some bugs fly away when you get near, or when your camera’s flash goes off. Others need a few minutes to get used to your presence, but they’ll ignore you in time. Still others don’t have the slightest care about people. In that way, macro photography is like the broader genre of wildlife photography. You need to work with your subject’s natural behavior in order to photograph it successfully.
The best way to learn bug behavior is simply to take a lot of macro photos. The more you photograph one particular insect, the easier it will be for you to predict what it’s about to do. This tip extends to other animals like lizards and spiders, of course.
Now, to answer the question I posed a moment ago:
The best way to approach a dragonfly, in my experience, is to do so gradually. Approach slower and slower as you get nearer and nearer. Pause for a few seconds every so often. Lastly, never make sudden movements. These steps work almost flawlessly for me. Once, I accidentally touched the dragonfly with my lens hood and didn’t scare it away.
2. Start at Sunrise
A number of photographers have asked me when I prefer taking macro photos. My answer is always the same: sunrise, ideally on a warm, humid, windless, sunny day.
- Sunrise, because bugs are likely to be more sluggish from the night before.
- Warm, because you are more likely to find a lot of bugs out in the first place.
- Humid, because dew droplets look beautiful in photos. Water also slows down many creatures (making them sit still and dry off).
- Windless, because it is very difficult to focus on a macro subject when plants are moving in the wind, and more bugs are usually out on calm days as well.
- Sunny, because it makes for good light and attracts more creatures.
The common denominator here is sunrise; the light is great, bugs are slow, and water droplets are more likely to decorate the world.
Of course, sunrise isn’t the only time of day that works for macro photography. If you use a flash, your lighting will be similar regardless of when you take pictures. So, it’s all about finding an interesting subject, no matter the time it happens.
However, if you’re starting from scratch and you want the best chances, sunrise is my recommendation.
3. Tell a Story
The best photos work well because they resonate with our emotions. In the field of macro photography – or any genre of photography – one of the best ways to convey emotion is to tell a story.
Most of my favorite macro photos do not just show a subject. Instead, they show a subject doing something. A bug is reaching for a nearby leaf, or waiting for something. It’s playing with the light and background. Rather than looking at a photo of a bug, you are watching a story unfold.
Macro photography is at an advantage when it comes to telling a story. Because your subject is so far outside what people ordinarily see, you can get away with a more “plain” and literal style while still retaining a sense of wonder in your work. For example, you might capture an ordinary bug like a housefly, magnifying it through a microscope to show remarkable detail in its eyes.
Unfortunately, the importance of telling a story is also the reason why some macro photographers stage photos without telling their audience. To convey a whimsical mood, they find an interesting bug, put it in the freezer, and then manipulate it manually in a studio into unnatural positions. This sort of photo is easy to identify in many cases because it looks completely unrealistic, like a praying mantis on top of a mushroom with a perfect background and studio lighting.
4. Use a Flash
One of the primary challenges in macro photography is capturing enough light. There are three reasons:
First, you’re focused at extreme magnifications, which reduces your depth of field down to just a hair’s width. Unless you’re shooting a stationary subject and using a tripod (at which point focus stacking is an option), it will be a huge challenge getting enough of your subject sharp. Your best option is to use a small aperture like f/16 or f/22 (full frame), and that makes your photo extremely dark.
Second, the close focus not only magnifies your subject, but also motion blur (and blur from camera shake). The old “1/focal length” rule is not nearly enough to capture sharp macro photos handheld. Vibration reduction helps – as does standing a bit farther from your subject to magnify it less – but you’re still dealing with heavy blur even in the best of cases.
Third, the closer you get to your subject, the more natural light you will block. Even on a bright day, the wrong angle can cover everything with your shadow, cutting down the light by several stops. Not only does this make it even harder to get a bright enough photo, but it means that the quality of light itself may be quite poor – with your subject dark and the surroundings bright.
The easy solution – use a flash. It fills in all the light you could want, and the duration of a flash is so quick that it will freeze any motion in your scene instantly. Some photographers use constant lights for macro photography, such as ring lights, but I don’t recommend these because they only add a couple stops of light to your images. Flashes, when placed so close to your subject, actually outshine sunlight.
5. Diffuse Your Light Source
As valuable as a flash is for macro photography, they do come with some considerations. On one hand, they aren’t always necessary. For lower-magnification macro photography, like photographing butterflies, flowers, and dragonflies, you can get away with wider apertures and more normal shutter speeds, so you have plenty of natural light to work with.
More importantly, when you do use a flash, it is very easy to end up with harsh light and bright specular reflections that make your subject look ugly. Macro photography lighting is so complicated and important that we have a full article on the subject. The takeaway is simple, though: diffuse your flash.
Use a simple diffuser to spread out the area of your flash and make the light much softer. Done properly, you shouldn’t even be able to tell that you used a flash. One option is the $7.50 Vello Mini Softbox, or you can experiment with making your own. But this is a critical step that you shouldn’t skip if you’re just starting macro photography. If you’ve ever taken a photo of an amazing moment and beautiful subject, but the lighting is horrible and harsh, you’ll know how frustrating it can be.
6. Tone Down Your Flash
When I say to tone down your flash, a lot of photographers might expect that my reasoning is similar: make the light less harsh. But that’s not the case at all. The brightness of your flash doesn’t really affect its harshness – that’s more to do with how well it is diffused. Instead, my reason for recommending a lower flash power is simple: It will recycle more quickly.
At full power, even higher quality flashes can take a few seconds to recycle after each shot. This means, at a minimum, that you won’t be able to take bursts of macro photos in a row. And in the worst case, you might miss the prime moment of action simply because your flash doesn’t fire, or fires too weakly to matter.
Instead, I recommend shooting most of your macro photos with the flash at 1/4 to 1/3 power. This is a good balance between a bright output (so you don’t need to raise your ISO too high) and fast recycle times. Of course, “1/4 power” isn’t the same on all flashes, but these recommendations will get you in the right ballpark.
7. Set Auto (TTL) Flash Correctly
For flash-lit macro photography, my recommendation is to set aperture, shutter speed, and ISO manually, in combination with an automatic/TTL flash. You want your flash to hover around 1/4 power, increasing or decreasing slightly based on the reflectiveness of your subject. How can you make this happen?
It’s fairly easy. First, set your aperture to get enough depth of field. The ideal value depends on how far away your subject is. For high-magnification macro photography, I recommend sticking to f/16 or f/22 (full frame equivalent). You can use much wider apertures if your subject is farther away. I use f/4 and even f/2.8 for close-up photos all the time.
Then, set your shutter speed to its sync speed. For a lot of cameras, this is 1/200 or 1/250 second – the fastest shutter speed that still works with a speedlight. Since you’re lighting the image artificially with flash, you’ll want to cut down on natural light (and the motion blur that comes with it). Setting the sync speed is the way to do that.
Next up is your flash. For now, just manually set 1/4 flash power. Even though you will eventually make this automatic, the goal at the moment is to find the combination of other settings that allows good flash exposure around 1/4 power.
Lastly is ISO. Now that you’ve set everything else, gradually increase your ISO from its base value and take sample photos of a normal leaf up close. Stop increasing ISO when your photos look the proper brightness. From here on out, keep aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to the manual values you’ve set. Turn the flash to Auto/TTL. Now, even though it’s an automatic flash, it will always be around 1/4 power.
8. Focus Manually (Sometimes)
I’m a big proponent of autofocus even in genres like landscape photography where some photographers recommend manual. However, in macro photography, you might not have a better choice.
For extreme close-ups, autofocus simply isn’t fast enough to track all the movement going on. My recommendation is to set manual focus instead. Then, very slowly rock forward and backward until your subject looks as sharp as possible in the viewfinder or rear LCD. When it does, immediately take the picture.
This is not a perfect technique, but I have yet to find one that works better. For handheld images at full 1:1 magnification with a macro lens, and a stationary subject, this method will get anywhere from 25% to 50% of your photos perfectly sharp, depending on your technique.
You can improve your keeper rate significantly by avoiding maximum magnification on your lens and photographing larger subjects. In that case, autofocus becomes perfectly feasible, and it’s what I recommend.
Maybe the takeaway from this whole article is that macro photography is hard, but you can make it easier by photographing larger subjects! “Close-up” photography is simply easier than extreme macro photography. Both are worth doing, but anyone who is just starting out in macro photography will have more success and get less frustrated with less extreme magnifications.
9. Get Rid of Dust Spots
Lastly, it’s important to edit your macro photo well, and part of that includes removing dust spots in your images. The smaller your aperture, the more dust spots you’ll see, and the darker they will be. This will be immediately distracting to a lot of photographers who look at your images – and it still amazes me how often I see dust spots in published macro photos, whether online or in print.
Dust spots are easy to remove in most post-processing software. You can also use an “envision dust spots” tool in software like Lightroom and Capture One to notice dust that is a bit more subtle at first glance. There’s no excuse not to do this; it only takes a minute, and it elevates photos to their full potential rather than distracting a seasoned viewer.
If you enjoyed this article, you may want to check out the other following tutorials on Photography Life: