Being able to photograph the extreme details of small subjects and getting close to them can be a challenging, but a very rewarding experience. In order to be able to do it, one often needs specialized skills and equipment to be able to get close enough to subjects in order to magnify them in great detail. This type of photography is called “macro photography”. Nature lovers get to spend hours outside searching for the most interesting subject, and studio pros can take their time and capture the perfect shot indoors. Also, one can take great macro photos anywhere, especially in their backyards. However, just because it is fun does not mean it is simple. Macro photography is a complex genre, and many people do not know the right techniques to take the best possible close-up pictures. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about photographing macro subjects from start to finish, taught by an award-winning macro photographer exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. By the end, you should be able to put these tips and techniques into practice yourself and take your skills to the next level.
Along with all the benefits of macro photography, there are some technical hurdles that you must cross. Physics comes into play in macro photography in ways that are not as relevant to other genres, which is a major reason why we wrote this guide: to clear up the most intimidating aspects of macro photography for beginners, and perhaps suggest some tips for seasoned macro photographers along the way.
Macro photography has to do with the size that your subject is projected onto your camera’s sensor. This is also known as magnification. If you have a centimeter-long subject, its projection at “life-size” would be one centimeter on the camera’s sensor, no matter how large or small the sensor is. Because the typical sensors in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are somewhere from 24 to 36 millimeters across (1 to 1.5 inches), an object which is two centimeters across (a bit less than an inch) will fill most of the photo. The result? Quite a lot of detail.
When an object is projected at life-size onto the sensor, it is said to be at “1:1 magnification”. If an object is projected at half of life-size (say, the two-centimeter object has a projection of one centimer onto the sensor), it is at 1:2 magnification. With 1:10 magnification or smaller, you aren’t shooting a macro photo anymore.
Working distance is easy: it’s the distance between the front of your lens and your nearest subject. The longer the working distance, the easier it is to stay away from your subject (and if that subject is skittish or dangerous, a large working distance is fairly useful).
The best macro lenses, as you might expect, have large working distances — a foot or more. The working distance increases as the focal length of the lens increases. The Nikon 200mm f/4 and the Canon 180mm f/3.5 are two examples of macro lenses with large working distances.
Also, your working distance increases as your magnification decreases. At 1:4 magnification, for example, you don’t need to be nearly as close to your subject as you would if you want to photograph it at 1:1 magnification.
Working distance is related to something called “minimum focusing distance,” which is the distance between your camera sensor and your subject. So, if your setup has a minimum focusing distance of 12 inches (30 cm), and your camera/lens combo is eight inches (20 cm) long, then your working distance is four inches (10 cm). It’s always best to look for a lens with the largest possible working distance so that you aren’t too close to your subject. Otherwise, you may scare it away or block some natural light.
DSLRs vs Mirrorless
For macro photography, both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can work very well. However, the optical viewfinder in a DSLR definitely helps, since it has absolutely no lag. Even a fraction of a second of lag can make a huge difference at the highest magnifications, since you will need to time your photo just right. On top of that, if you are looking at native mount options, DSLRs are going to be ideal due to the large choice of available macro lenses (particularly longer focal length macro lenses).
Of course, you can still take great macro photos with a mirrorless camera. You’ll be able to adapt and use a wide range of third-party lenses with mirrorless cameras, giving you more flexibility in your lens choice. Mirrorless cameras also frequently have a setting known as “focus peaking,” which is a manual focus aid that highlights the sharpest regions of a photo you’re about to take. You’ll use manual focus quite often for macro photography, and focus peaking is quite valuable – potentially worth the tradeoff of slight viewfinder lag for some photographers. In any case, DSLR or mirrorless, high-magnification macro photography won’t be a piece of cake. Tiny hand movements at such close focusing distances will lead to massive shifts in composition.
Full-Frame vs Crop-Sensor
If your goal is to create photos with the highest magnification possible, full-frame cameras are usually overkill for macro photography. Even the Nikon D850 with 46 megapixels cannot match the potential macro detail of the 20 megapixel Nikon D7500, simply because the pixels on the D7500 are slightly smaller.
With macro photography, the highest pixel density (most pixels per square millimeter of the sensor) is what determines the maximum detail you can get on your subject. The D850’s large sensor has fewer pixels per millimeter than the smaller-sensor D7500, despite having more total pixels. In many genres of photography, larger pixels – and more total pixels – are preferable. With macro photography, though, it’s all about pixel density, since you’d need to crop the D850’s photos by quite a bit to match the same field of view as the D7500. And, by that point, you’ll lose enough pixels that the D7500 comes out slightly ahead.
That being said, large-sensor cameras certainly have other advantages. Their larger viewfinders help with focusing, and they generally have more controls. More importantly, if you take photos which aren’t at maximum magnification, full-frame cameras have a distinct image quality advantage. For example, you probably wouldn’t want to take a photo of a crab as close as you can focus, because the final photo would not have the entire crab in it! In this situation, the larger sensor and higher pixel count of, say, the D850 would give you a real advantage over the smaller-sensor D7500, even though the D7500 has more pixels per millimeter.
So, a full-frame (FX) camera is still generally better for macro photos than a crop-sensor (DX or aps-c) camera, but the advantage isn’t as large as in other genres of photography.
Canon vs Nikon
For almost all genres of photography, Canon and Nikon (and Sony, and others) are so close in quality that arguments about which is “better” are, at best, extremely picky. Sure, there are differences, but it is rare that any system has a flaw that is fatal for the typical user. Macro photography is a bit different.
I don’t want to ignite a flame war, but Canon DSLRs simply are not as well-suited to macro photography as those from Nikon. This is nothing against Canon’s amazing cameras and fantastic macro lenses, which are certainly as good as those from other brands. Instead, there is a very simple reason why Canon is not ideal for macro photography: aperture calculations.
As you focus closer, something interesting begins to happen with a lens’s aperture. Even if the physical aperture inside the lens stays a constant size (say, ten millimeters across), the aperture starts to “act” smaller as you focus closer and closer. This is never something that you would notice in normal photography, since these effects do not become visible until you focus near life-size. However, at 1:1 magnification, a lens’s aperture could be the same physical size as f/11, yet it appears in every way (diffraction, depth of field, and exposure included) to be at f/22. So, then, what aperture would you want your camera to read? The actual, physical size of the aperture (f/11), or the aperture which is correct in every other way (f/22)?
In this case, it is better to know the aperture that is correct in practice — f/22 in this example. Otherwise, your settings (for example, f/11, ISO 100, and 1/100 shutter speed) would result in different exposures depending upon how close you focus! Nikon does this the proper way, by reading the “functionally correct” aperture of f/22. On the flip side, Canon’s cameras read the physical size of the aperture (f/11) rather than the practical aperture, and thus are far harder to use for macro photography. It is possible to work around this issue on a Canon camera, but it takes more time and can be confusing (especially if you are changing the magnification as you shoot). The formula to calculate the proper aperture on a Canon camera is as follows:
- Practical aperture setting = Physical aperture setting x (1 + fractional magnification).
The “fractional magnification” of, say, 1:2 is one-half. So, with a Canon camera that reads f/11 at 1:2 magnification, your practical aperture is 11 x (1.5), or roughly f/16. It’s not as though this calculation is difficult, but it’s just one other thing to work around in the field. Especially if you’re changing magnifications constantly, this will be a big deal.
There are, of course, a great deal of technical terms related to macro photography, but the most crucial is the concept of magnification. Once you understand the differences between, say, life-sized images and 1:4 images, you already know the most crucial macro-specific terminology that you’ll come across. And, although Nikon DSLRs with high pixel densities are technically “optimal” for macro photography, you certainly can take great macro photos with any camera, even compacts. Macro photography is extremely accessible, which is what makes it so popular among both beginners and professionals.
Next up? Depth of field. Click the menu below to flip to the following section, which is one of the most important (and difficult) techniques you’ll need to learn in order to take good macro photos.