Macro photography is one of the most popular forms of photography, and with good reason. It is easily accessible, and it is a very broad genre of photography. Studio pros can enjoy taking macro shots of leaves, flowers, and sluggish insects, maintaining total control over lighting. Nature lovers can spend hours outside, searching for hidden treasures among flowers and leaves. Plus, in non-photogenic locations, like many people’s backyards, macro photography makes it possible to take great images of nature without traveling at all. In this article, I will provide some tips and ideas to help you take your macro photography 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 the main reason why I wrote this guide — I hope 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. If you have a one-inch subject, its projection at “life-size” would be one inch on the camera’s sensor. An object which fills one inch of the sensor will fill most of the resulting photo, since the sensors in typical DSLRs are no more than 1.5 inches long.
When an object is projected at life-size onto the sensor, it is at “1:1 magnification”. If an object is projected at half of life-size (say, that one-inch object takes up just 1/2 inch of the sensor), it is at 1:2 magnification. With 1:10 magnification or smaller, you aren’t really shooting a macro photo anymore.
1.2) Working Distance
Working distance is easy: it’s the distance between your sensor and your subject at the closest possible focus distance of your lens. 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).
A working distance of ten inches means that, with a camera/lens combo of eight inches long, the front of your lens will be two inches from the subject at its closest focusing distance.
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, of course, 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.
1.3) DSLRs vs Mirrorless
For macro photography, either DSLRs or mirrorless cameras would work great. 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) and accessories. If you are open to using adapters, mirrorless cameras can be used with pretty much any DSLR lens as well, although Nikon’s “G” type lenses without aperture rings are often quite painful to use with adapters, as you cannot set accurate aperture values. Having live view on the LCD is very helpful, since truly instantaneous feedback lets you know exactly how you have the image framed — tiny hand movements in macro photography can lead to massive shifts in composition.
1.4) 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 D810 with 36 megapixels cannot match the magnification of the 24 megapixel Nikon D7200, simply because the pixels on the D7200 are smaller.
With macro photography, the highest pixel density (most pixels per square millimeter of the sensor) is what determines the maximum magnification of the subject. The large-sensor D810 has fewer pixels per millimeter than the smaller-sensor D7200, despite having more total pixels. In many genres of photography, larger pixels are preferable. With macro photography, though, the smaller pixels lead to more magnification, even at the expense of sensor size.
That being said, large-sensor cameras certainly have other advantages. Their larger viewfinders help with focusing, and they generally have more controls, particularly on higher-end models. 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 D810 would give you a real advantage over the smaller-sensor D7200, even though the D7200 has more pixels per millimeter.
So, a full-frame DSLR is still generally better for macro photos than a cropped-sensor camera, but the advantage isn’t as large as in other genres of photography.
1.5) Canon vs Nikon
For almost all genres of photography, Canon and Nikon (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 its 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 light loss 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)?
By far, 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 “essentially 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 rough 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. Fairly easy, just something that takes too much time if you’re changing magnification constantly.
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 the “best” 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.
2) Depth of Field
For most types of photography, your typical plane of focus will be somewhere between five feet and infinity. At this distance, an aperture of f/8 or f/11 typically will render the entire scene within the depth of field — some items may be a bit out of focus, but they still should be recognizable (discounting extreme telephoto shots, of course).
The closer towards the lens that you focus, though, the smaller the depth of field becomes, even at the same aperture settings. The depth of field gradually becomes so tiny that it can be difficult to get your entire subject to appear in focus. In macro photography, especially, this can be a huge issue. It gets to the point that you won’t be able to have a fly’s head and feet appear sharp at the same time, even though they are just millimeters apart.
The thin depth of field leads into another difficulty in macro photography: general lack of light. First, at close distances, your camera itself will usually block some light from reaching your subject. Also, an on-camera flash may not be at the proper angle to illuminate something that is just a couple inches from the lens. Further, to compensate for the magnified vibration inherent in macro photography, you will need to use a much faster shutter speed than usual. Add these issues to the fact that your aperture will be extremely small (so that you get a tolerable depth of field), and your photos quickly start to look like you left your lens cap on, even in the middle of the day.
So, how do you fix this? There are a few ways, each with their own compromises.
2.1) Open it Up
You may choose to live with a minuscule depth of field for your macro photography — minuscule to the point that you won’t be able to get an entire ant head to appear sharp. Just open your lens’s aperture as wide as possible (or stop it down just a bit), and you’re set to take macro photos. The benefit to this approach is that you don’t have to worry about complex lighting setups or software fixes to make your macro photos look good. The downside is that it becomes nearly impossible to focus your lens hand-held at the closest magnifications, since there is essentially no depth of field. This method works best if you are trying to take photos of subjects that are at least a few inches across, but it is almost impossible to use if you want photos at 1:1 or 1:2 magnification.
2.2) Stop it Down
The next method (my personal favorite) is to stop down the aperture to a small value. By small, I mean between f/16 and f/32, with f/22 being a relative sweet spot. The upside to using such a small aperture is that it’s easier to focus (though still tough), and your depth of field becomes manageable. On the flip side, a flash becomes almost mandatory because you have lost so much light, and diffraction starts to come into play. Still, an f/22 shot with diffraction looks far sharper than an f/5.6 shot where none of your subject is in focus.
2.3) Stack it
Another method is focus stacking. It involves taking your photos at apertures where diffraction is less visible (usually f/8 or f/11) but depth of field is miniscule. To counteract this tiny depth of field, you take several photos at different focus distances, and you combine the best parts of each photo in post-processing. For example, you can take one photo where a bug’s eyes are in focus, one where the wings are in focus, and a third where the back legs are in focus. Then, you can combine them all into a fully-focused bug photo. Thomas Stirr wrote a good tutorial on focus stacking.
There are two upsides to this method: image quality is at its highest because diffraction does not rob sharpness, and depth of field can be extended artificially so that even relatively large bugs or plants can be completely in focus.
The downsides are numerous, however: focus stacking is typically completely confined to studio and tripod work because precision focus is required. Another downside is the time involved: for maximum quality, dozens of photos are often combined into one picture, meaning it may take hours of photography and processing to create the final result. You also need specific software to combine focus-stacked images (such as Photoshop or Helicon Focus). The biggest issue, though, is that your subjects need to be completely still. It is possible to find bugs that aren’t moving, but it isn’t always easy. This method works best for plants, or bugs that are sleeping (try the early morning).
This is also a fairly costly option, because you’ll need a decent amount of dedicated equipment. A solid tripod, a tripod head, a macro focusing rail, and special software are all requirements for the most dedicated focus stackers.
2.4) Tilt it
The final way to increase depth of field is to buy a special type of macro lens: a tilt-shift lens. These lenses let you tilt the depth of field along your subject — for example, you can focus simultaneously on a bug’s head and wings, even though both are different distances from the lens. Potentially, you can get an entire bug in focus in a single photo, without focus stacking and without using a super-small aperture.
The downsides, however, are considerable: tilt-shift macro lenses (like the PC-E 85mm f/2.8D) cost at least $1100 used and up to $1800 new. They don’t focus to 1:1 macro (only about 1:2), they are only manual-focus, and adjusting the tilt to change focus is very tough to do in the field. This lens mainly shines on a tripod with non-moving subjects, in which case focus stacking is probably a better solution. Granted, I have never used a tilt-shift macro lens before, so I could be missing something. But, as far as I am concerned, this seems like an impractical method to achieve wide depth of field in macro photography.
Ultimately, one of the most difficult parts of macro photography is trying to get a large enough depth of field to cover your subject. Many macro photographers use a combination of the above methods — I tend to use a flash and a small aperture, but I also use a wide aperture quite a bit for larger subjects (dragonflies and lizards, for example). I have, a few times, used focus stacking, but not as often as the other two methods.
As your skill grows, you’ll begin to see which scenarios demand each of these methods, and you’ll be able to set your camera appropriately.
In high-magnification macro photography, the amount of your subject that is in focus won’t be more than a couple of millimeters, even at f/32. It can be tough to place the focus accurately on a bug, considering that your pulse alone probably makes your hands jump more than a couple of millimeters. You will want to take your photos in between breaths and heartbeats, or else you won’t get anything in focus.
At this distance, too, the autofocus system in even the newest DSLRs cannot keep up with your hand movements. Trying to use any of the autofocus modes is an exercise in frustration, since (especially at 1:1 magnification) it is truly impossible for the camera to lock onto a subject.
All is not lost, though. It is still possible to get sharp macro photos at 1:1 magnification, even handheld. If you’re working with the camera on a tripod, you don’t need to use any of the following information — instead, you can use autofocus or live-view manual focus without any issues.
3.1) How to Focus
You will almost certainly be focusing manually at 1:1 macro distances, since the autofocus system in any camera cannot work fast enough to counteract your hand movements. However, this may not mean what you think it does.
Many photographers try to use manual focus incorrectly for macro photos; they attempt to hold the camera as steadily as possible and turn the focus ring left or right to focus, taking the photo when the viewfinder image looks sharp. Although this is the best way to focus manually for non-macro photos, it will never work for handheld macro photography — your hand movements from focusing will make the frame even shakier, and it will become impossible to change focus quickly.
The best way to work handheld is to set your macro lens at a certain focus distance, usually around 1:1, and then to leave the focus ring at that position. To focus, slowly rock the camera forwards and backwards on a stick or monopod, millimeters at a time, while looking through the viewfinder. When the viewfinder image is sharp, take the photo. Simple as that!
Although this method is not perfect, it gives me about a 50% keeper rate for 1:1 photos of fly-sized bugs. This may seem low, but it is very difficult to do better without a tripod. With practice, you should be able to improve your keeper rate even further (and you don’t need a monopod or stick — it just helps).
3.2) Other Magnifications
If you aren’t trying to magnify your subject as much as possible, autofocus is generally more accurate for macro photography. If your subject is more than four or five inches long, you start to lose the benefits of manual focus. I recommend AF-C / Continuous mode (AI-Servo for Canon users), because tiny hand movements will still throw your subject in and out of focus at these magnifications, which wouldn’t be clearly visible in the viewfinder.
3.3) Where to Focus
When you are hand-holding the camera for macro photos, especially at 1:1 or 1:2, the depth of field will rarely be large enough for the whole bug to be completely in focus, even at f/22 or f/32. To counteract the tiny depth of field, you can try to place the bug parallel against the plane of focus. In the photo below (not a 1:1 macro, but the point stands), the damselfly is almost entirely in focus, despite the tiny depth of field.
In other photos, you will need to choose which part of the bug “deserves” to be in focus. Although it varies depending upon what I’m trying to emphasize in the photo, I usually focus on a bug’s eyes, since they tend to be the most important part of the image. However, for certain subjects, I care more about the wing pattern than about the eyes — ladybugs, for example, fall into this category.
3.4) The Checklist
One of the best ways to get good at macro photography, or any genre of photography, is to know the steps that you need to accomplish pre-photograph. In landscape photography, those could be scouting a location, arriving pre-dawn, setting up your tripod, turning on mirror-lockup, and then using a remote release for the photo. In macro photography, a typical routine may look like this:
- Buy a monopod or find a stick.
- Get a strong flash ready, and make a flash diffuser to soften your light (try experimenting with cardboard, tin foil, and paper towels. Duct tape never hurts, either).
- Put a macro lens on your camera and set it to manual focus.
- Set your camera properly. For 1:1 macros that use a flash, put the camera in manual mode and switch to the fastest shutter speed that still syncs (typically 1/200 or 1/250 second). Turn the aperture to f/22 for starters — if you want more or less depth of field, adjust accordingly. Set the ISO to whichever value gives an accurate exposure of a leaf when the flash fires in manual mode at roughly 1/4 power (any more flash power, and you risk the flash taking too long to recharge between exposures, losing you the ability to take multiple photos of each scene).
- Switch the flash to TTL (automatic) mode. To get an accurate exposure, you will probably need to increase your flash exposure compensation by a couple of stops.
- Put your camera on the monopod/stick.
- Find a bug that lands long enough for you to photograph it — hopefully, one that is the size of a housefly or larger.
- Focus (using the techniques in this article), and take the picture! Watch out for dust spots in the editing stage, and you’re done.
Obviously, even in macro photography, the basics of a pleasing composition are no different than usual. It is still important to balance the compositional weight of your frame, for example, and you have to exclude extraneous details from your frame just as you would in other genres of photography. However, being macro photography, there are some aspects of composition which stand out more than they otherwise would.
4.1) The Background
One of the main tips for composition in macro photography is to be aware of the background. Since the background will be far out of focus, it is important to know how to make it look how you want. From a low angle, for example, you could get an out-of-focus blue sky in your photo. From a different angle, your background could turn the color of autumn leaves. Green grass complements many subjects, as well. If you bring friends on your macro expeditions, you can even consider asking them to hold something that would make a good background. Be creative!
When you know your different options, experimentation can show you the best way to make your subject stand out (or blend in) against the background. The photo below is attention-grabbing because of the contrast of the bright orange dragonfly against the cooler, green background.
Also, something interesting can happen with the background in macro photography as you focus closer to your subject. If you use a flash to illuminate a scene at 1:1 or 1:2 magnification, you may find that the background of the image turns dark, if not completely black.
This happens because of a property of light: as your distance from a light source doubles, the amount of light you receive cuts in four. For example, a flower five feet from a lamp gets four times the light that it would ten feet from a lamp. In macro photography, your “lamp” is your flash, and it will probably be about two or three inches from your subject. See where this gets interesting? If your background is a couple feet from your subject, it will be essentially black. A flash is much brighter than daylight, and even the mid-day sun may not be strong enough to brighten the background.
It is important to know how certain colors can work to balance each other out, in terms of composition. Reds and oranges stand out and draw the eye’s attention, whereas blue-green colors will naturally fade into the background. It is also worth mentioning that the more attention-grabbing colors do not need to take up much of the photo to be effective. In the ladybug picture at the very top of this article, for example, I knew that I didn’t need to focus super close to the ladybug — if I had, the vivid red would have overpowered the soft, aqua-colored background.
Another tip to remember for macro photography is that the angle of the camera can throw things in and out of focus. According to basic geometry, any three points in space can be connected by one plane, no matter where those points are. The practicality of this law in photography is that at least three items, even if they are at different distances from the camera at first, can always be brought into the same plane of focus in a photo.
Now, if the three objects are, say, the head of a crab and its two front claws, this is easy to put into practice — all that you need to do is move around the camera until the three objects are within the same plane of focus.
Lastly, with macro photography, colors are extremely pronounced. Shooting in your camera’s RAW format is always important, but it is especially crucial to make the most of macro photography’s color detail.
A major reason for such vivid colors is the small amount of air between the lens and the subject. The moment that light waves hit anything, even air molecules, the rays start to scatter. The more air between you and your subject, the more that the subject’s light is scattered into the atmosphere. This is why distant objects look so hazy.
In macro photography, you’re minimizing this distance significantly, which means that your colors and contrast are going to be more pronounced. This effect isn’t immediately obvious, but as you look closer at your macro photos, you’ll probably realize that they are more vivid directly out of camera. The foggier that the atmosphere becomes, the punchier that macro photos look in comparison to distant scenes.
Also, as you focus closer to something, your lens will be able to pick up tiny color detail that normally is not visible. For example, each compound eye on a fly is a slightly different color. We see their eyes as red because that’s the color they average towards, but a macro lens will see much more. Because of this detail, colors in macro photography generally will look more pronounced.
4.4) Approaching Your Subject
Bugs are skittish. Dragonflies, for example, tend to scatter when anything enters their field of view, and smaller bugs tend to fly whenever they feel like it. Approaching a restless bug is as much about luck as it is science. Still, there are some techniques that you can put into place. These techniques vary depending upon the bug that you photograph.
For dragonflies (and damselflies), it is best to move slowly. Dragonflies instinctively fly when anything moves directly towards them or directly away from them, sometimes even if that movement is slow. My guess is that this behavior occurs because dragonflies associate backwards movement with the instant right before a predator pounces. However, side-to-side motion does not affect a dragonfly much at all, especially if you sway like a tree would. To approach a dragonfly successfully, try taking a small step forward, rocking (slowly) side-to-side for several seconds, then taking another step forward. If you wait ten or fifteen seconds between steps, a dragonfly will generally forget that you exist. Using this technique has allowed me to get within an inch of a dragonfly, leading to great photographic opportunities.
Bees, on the other hand, do not get scared easily. They are always very focused on their task, and they’ll only leave a flower after they’ve gotten the pollen they needed. Don’t make crazy movements, of course, but you don’t need to be obsessively slow and quiet. The hardest part about photographing bees is they are rarely still. To get a good bee photo, it is easiest to pre-focus on one point on a flower, then wait for a nearby bee to crawl over that area. It may take some time, depending upon the willingness of your subject, but it can be a helpful technique if the bee is moving too fast to follow by any other method.
Flies are a bit more skittish, but still easy enough to photograph. The best part about flies is that they typically do not react to slow movement in any way. They are easy to approach without scaring them away — just be sure to avoid sudden movements, and change your camera settings slowly. The annoying thing about photographing flies is that they don’t like to stick in any one place for long. So, approach flies quickly, but be slow and deliberate about it. Easy enough?
With non-flying bugs, you clearly wouldn’t need to worry about scaring them away. Ladybugs, grasshoppers, and some ants, for example, can fly, but they typically do not. At the very least, they aren’t really scared by photographers (with grasshoppers being the most skittish of the bunch). The issue is that these bugs tend to walk very quickly, making it tough to focus on them properly.
Butterflies are very sensitive if you move close to them, but they are very easy to stand back and photograph. Luckily, since they are so large, you don’t need to get too close to them in the first place.
Spiders are a photographer’s best friend. Most of them hardly move at all, and they are large enough that they are easy to get in focus. Spider webs can look great in photos, but some webs are just distracting. Try photographing jumping spiders, since they rarely move, and they look “cuter” up close than most spiders. Not to mention, they are generally harmless (they rarely bite, and it isn’t typically worse than a mosquito bite if they do).
For tiny bugs, your best hope is to avoid getting your shadow over them. This is a good tip for approaching most bugs, but tiny insects in particular tend to ignore you if you don’t get between them and the sun. These bugs are the only ones which seem affected by the flash from a camera — not all small bugs, of course, but some will jump every time that you fire your flash.
Hopefully these tips have given you some ideas of how to improve your macro photos. The technical aspects of macro photography are certainly important, but, as with most genres of photography, the practical considerations of composition and finding subjects are far more relevant to creating great photos. And, with macro photography, these subjects may be no farther than your backyard. If you can brave some dirt and mosquitoes, you’ll be able to find hidden treasures almost anywhere.