Focusing Tips for Macro Photography
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 a crazy aperture like 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 millimeters. You will want to take your photos between breaths and heartbeats – seriously – or you may find it impossible to get anything in focus.
At this distance, too, the autofocus system in even the newest DSLRs and mirrorless cameras cannot keep up with your hand movements. If you attempt to autofocus at high magnifications, especially something like 1:1, it will be an exercise in frustration. Unless you are using a tripod, it could be impossible for your camera’s focusing system 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. I will cover all those techniques below. Note, though, that you do not need to use any of the following information if you are working on a tripod. Instead, you can use autofocus or live-view manual focus without any issues.
The Easiest Technique: Manual Focus
You will almost certainly need to focus 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.
Some photographers attempt to use manual focus incorrectly for macro photography; they 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. That simply doesn’t work! This might work fine to focus manually for non-macro photos, but it is not feasible for handheld macro photography. Your hand movements from focusing will make the frame even shakier, and it will become impossible to change focus quickly.
Instead, the best method is to keep your macro photography lens fixed at a certain magnification. Then, slowly rock the camera forward and backward – sometimes on a stick or monopod – millimeters at a time, while looking through the viewfinder. When the viewfinder image is sharp, take the photo.
Although this method is not perfect, it gives me about a 40% 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, but even a small ratio of sharp macro photos at the highest magnification is quite an accomplishment.
Focusing Technique at Wider 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 about ten centimeters (4-5 inches) long, manual focus no longer has any major benefits. I recommend AF-C focusing mode (also known as Continuous or AI-Servo), because your hands still move enough that you’ll want your camera to be adjusting constantly for the best focus at these magnifications.
Aligning Your Macro Subject with Your Depth of Field
As I have mentioned throughout this tutorial, depth of field is very small for macro photography, regardless of your aperture. One way to make the most of a challenging situation is to align your subject parallel to your depth of field as much as possible. In the photo below (not a 1:1 macro, but the point stands), the damselfly is almost entirely sharp, despite the shallow depth of field.
In other photos, you will need to choose which part of the bug “deserves” to be in focus. Generally, this will tend to be the bug’s eyes, since they are the most important parts of an image. However, for certain subjects, you might care more about the wing pattern, such as ladybugs and butterflies. Either way, focusing is a crucial part of macro photography. You can also check out our longer tutorial on the subject if you want to learn more.
Step-by-Step Method of Taking Macro Photographs
One of the best ways to get good at macro photography, or any genre of photography, is to know the exact steps that you need to accomplish, even before you take a picture. In macro photography, a possible set of steps looks like this, if you are trying to take high magnification close-up pictures with a flash as your main source of light:
- Buy a monopod or find a stick.
- Get a strong flash, and use a diffuser to soften the light. If you don’t have a diffuser, the best solution is often to make one yourself. Experiment with cardboard, tin foil, tape, and paper towels (no joke). Also, check out our comprehensive tutorial on macro photography lighting.
- Put a macro lens on your camera and set it to manual focus at your intended magnification.
- Pick the correct exposure settings so that you capture the enough light. If the flash is your main source of light, and you’re shooting at 1:1 magnification, it is a good idea to use the fastest shutter speed that still syncs with your flash (typically 1/200 or 1/250 second). Use an aperture from f/16 to f/22.
- Set your ISO to whatever value gives an accurate exposure of a leaf when the flash fires in manual mode at roughly 1/4 power. That sounds extremely arbitrary, and it is, but it works well. The simple reason? You’ll want the brightest possible flash to help gather light, but if your flash is much brighter than 1/4 power, it typically will take too long to recharge between exposures. Hence, pick an ISO that results in a flash of 1/4 power most of the time.
- Switch the flash to TTL (automatic) mode. However, even though it’s in automatic mode, you know it will tend to hover around 1/4 power, thanks to step 5!
- To get an accurate exposure, you will need to adjust your flash exposure compensation, potentially by as much as a few stops. It is not uncommon to have flash compensation in macro photography that is something like +2 or even +3.
- At this point, the only “automatic” setting you’re using is auto flash, which will adjust itself depending upon the reflectiveness of your subject. All your other settings – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – will stay constant. Don’t worry about changing them.
- Put your camera on a monopod or a stick, assuming that it doesn’t interfere with reaching your subject at the right height.
- 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 manual focus technique covered earlier in this tutorial), and take the picture!
- Watch out for dust spots in the editing stage, and you’re done.
Next up is composition, which requires some different approaches for macro photography than with normal pictures.