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Design, Photography, & Fashion

Complete Macro Photography Guide for Beginners

Written by MasterClass

Aug 16, 2018 • 9 min read

Written by MasterClass

Aug 16, 2018 • 9 min read

Macro photography is a form of close-up photography, originally developed for scientific research. The very strict definition of true macro photography is that the subject is photographed at 1:1 magnification—that it is life size in the photo. However, most people refer to the genre more broadly as simply a close-up image of a small subject or a very detailed shot.

History of Macro Photography

Macro photography started out as a scientific pursuit. Scientists wanted to see and record things that were too small for the naked eye to observe. Cameras attached to microscopes magnified scientific subject, making it easier to photograph. That was macro photography for nearly a century until F. Percy Smith photographed insects using much of the same equipment we use today—bellows and extension tubes, which both extend the distance between the film and the lens. These placed the lens further away from the film negative, which created a closer focal point and allowed more close-up images. The invention of the SLR camera (Single Lens Reflex) in the 1950s, which allows the photographer to see through the actual camera lens with the viewfinder, made macro photography more widely available and easier for an amateur photographer to pick up. This lead to a boom in macro photography, which in turn lead to the invention of the first, dedicated macro lens. Today, there are a variety of different cameras, lenses, and extension tubes to choose from when delving into macro photography.

The Best Camera for Macro Photography

When buying a camera and thinking specifically toward macro photography, you will want to choose a camera body that is compatible with a good macro lens. Micro four thirds cameras, such as the Olympus M macro shooting line, are a good starting point, however other DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, or full frame cameras are also a good option. If choosing a mirrorless camera, be sure that it has an electronic viewfinder, since focusing a macro shot from an LCD screen is very difficult. Mirrorless cameras (with electronic viewfinders) have the slight advantage of displaying the final photograph for review through the viewfinder, so you can adjust without moving the camera. In the end, any bells and whistles are certainly nice to have but what is most important is that the camera is compatible with good macro lenses.

Each brand, be it Nikon, Sony, or Canon, have their advantages and drawbacks, which are all different depending on who you ask and what type of photography someone specializes in. One thing to note about Canon cameras is that they tell you the actual aperture rather than the “functionally correct” aperture. For macro photography, this may make a difference since magnification affects aperture. For example, you may be shooting macro at f/11, but factoring in the effects of magnification, exposure, and depth of field, the camera acts as if it is shooting macro at f/22. A Canon camera would read f/11 whilst other brands like Sony or Nikon would read f/22. This is not a huge drawback, just something to keep in mind.

The Best Macro Photography Equipment

The most important equipment for macro photography is a macro lens. A macro lens is specifically designed to focus close up to the subject with a 1:1 (life size) reproduction. There are many different sizes of macro lens to choose from, from 35mm up to 200mm in focal length. Most experts in this field of photography recommend that a beginner or amateur get something in the middle, between 100mm to 150mm, depending on the type of camera you have. Lenses that have a short focal length mean that you have to be very close to your subject, which can cast shadows and (worse) could scare your subject away.

The plus side with macro lenses is that they function just like any other lens you may have. While it’s not recommended, you can use your camera’s full automatic settings (like autofocus and shutter speed) with a macro lens. The Canon EF and Nikon AF series are good options. Unlike using an extension tube, you do not lose light with a macro lens. You can just pop a macro lens on your camera and begin practicing your macro photography.

If you are not ready to commit to a macro lens, there are a couple of options. Many camera stores offer equipment rentals—check in with your local camera store to see if they have a macro lens available to rent. That way, you can experiment freely and try before you buy.

Extension tubes are also a relatively inexpensive alternative. These are essentially hollow tubes that you attach to your existing lens which extend the focal length. Typically, extension tubes come in a set of three which can be mixed and matched depending on the situation A starter set generally costs about $150–$200. If you can only afford one extension tube, get the widest one possible. Know that not all extension tubes are created equal, and the cheap tubes are cheap for a reason—they might be flimsy, might not properly hold the lens, or might get stuck onto the lens or the camera. When selecting extension tubes, spend a bit more money and purchase an extension tube that offers electrical connections between your lens and the camera, allowing greater control with settings like aperture and focus.

Keep in mind that extension tubes are only as good as the lens they are attached to—they will not miraculously make a bad lens better. Invest in a good lens from the start and your photos will turn out better. Another thing to keep in mind with extension tubes is that they reduce the amount of light that hits the camera sensor. By virtue of the fact that your are placing more distance between the lens and the sensor, you will have to adjust your camera settings (like aperture and film speed) to accommodate.

Another option is to reverse your existing lens. This is pretty much exactly as it sounds: put your lens on the camera backwards. Simply buy a $10-$15 lens reversal ring, and attach your lens onto the camera the wrong way. This is a great way to cheaply experiment with macro photography. Keep in mind that the only way to focus using this method is to move the camera itself. Reversing the lens also creates a fixed, small depth of field, so most of your image background will not be sharp.

Close-up filters are yet another option to mimic macro photography, however they significantly reduce image quality because they are typically manufactured with low-grade glass, and can break easily. Due to its compact size and lightweight, a close-up filter can be good for travel photography.

Photography Tips for Focus Distance

When choosing a macro lens, you want to keep the working distance in mind. This is the focus distance between the end of the macro lens and the subject. As mentioned above, the smaller the lens, the shorter the working distance. Too small a lens, and you will have to get so close to your subject that you may scare it away. You also run the risk of casting shadows over your photo when the working distance is too close. This may very well still happen with a larger lens, but you will have more room to adjust when your working distance is larger. Try to get a 100mm to 150mm lens, which should give you enough working distance to not scare subjects away.

If photographing live creatures, remember to be ethical. Try not to disrupt their environment or their daily habits. Do not capture insects and place them somewhere else that might be more photogenic—or worse, do not freeze them and then photograph them. Remember, if aliens came and started putting a lens inches away from you, how would you feel? Treat the subject the way you would want to be treated.

Camera Settings for Proper Depth of Field and Focus

Finding the proper camera settings for macro photography is much more a process of experimentation or trial and error than it is a hard science, but there are some baseline things to keep in mind. When using any macro lens or macro extension tubes, the depth of field and focal length is going to be extraordinarily narrow. When working at a 1:1 (life size) magnification, your depth of field can be so small that the head of an ant might be in focus while the back end is not.

If you do not have a flash, or do not want to use one, you can keep your aperture open at the widest setting (or one f/stop down from the widest setting) in order to allow as much light in as possible. This works best when getting a macro image of something larger, like a butterfly, in a naturally-lit area. If you do have a flash, you can photograph with a very small aperture, like f/16 or f/22. This will increase your depth of field slightly, providing enough room to keep an entire small insect in focus. A flash may startle the subject, however, so a flash diffuser might come in handy to soften the light and leave your subject undisturbed.

A more technical method for obtaining a greater depth of field is to stack your photos using a post-processing software like Photoshop. Stacking means combining a number of photos that all have a different focal point. This means taking multiple photos of the exact same thing, without moving, at different focal lengths. It is nearly impossible to do this when holding a camera with your hands; a tripod is a must when attempting this method of increasing your depth of field. A still subject is alo ideal for this method, since a skittish or mobile subject will disturb focus and continuity. This method is also used by professional photographers who shoot products in work studios.

Focus is an additional challenge with macro photography. When photographing such high levels of magnification, the camera’s autofocus feature ceases to work because it cannot automatically find a focal point. The most basic way to focus on a subject when doing macro photography is to get as close as possible and use the manual focus on your camera. After you have come as close to focused as you can, start moving your body back and forth in a rocking motion, which will bring different parts of the image in focus. Snap a picture every time the subject is in focus. If you cannot get the whole subject in focus, try taking multiple shots with different parts of the subject focused.

Best Macro Photography Subjects

Macro photography was invented to capture insects and plants that the naked eye could not see in detail—scientists wanted to study and record these creatures. To this day, macro photography is a great way to get close-up shots of flies, bees, dragonflies, butterflies, worms, flowers, leaves, grasses, and more. Macro photography is a great way to discover the “secret lives” of these creatures and flora and fauna. You can go to your local park, or even your backyard, to find subjects to photograph. If you are not sure where to go, go to a place with water—many plants grow near water and bugs like to be near water. Be sure to cover yourself thoroughly to protect yourself from bug bites, wearing long pants, long sleeves, a neck covering, and, if needed, gloves.

There are many other subjects to photograph on a macro scale outside of bugs and plants. Macro photography is a great way to create a unique portrait of a person. You can photograph their eyes, ears, or nose all close-up—just make sure it’s an area the person is comfortable being put under the microscope of your lens. Food is yet another great way to experiment with macro photography. The colors and textures of the food can really be accentuated using a macro lens.

On a more commercial level, photographers use macro photography to create detailed shots of different products. If you want to use macro photography to aid your photography business, practice capturing the details of different products around your house—a mascara brush or a set of pencils, for example.

Macro photography is a fun way to explore a new, microscopic world. While it can seem expensive to get started, it does not necessarily have to be—so get out there, experiment with your telephoto lens and depth of field, and have fun photographing a variety of subjects in great detail!

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