Macro photography, or photographing the world of small things close up, is a way to take photos that are different and help you stand out from the crowd. It’s not how the world normally sees things so when you photograph something in macro it is immediately different. Click to Tweet
In this article I will cover everything you need to know to do macro photography, you can then apply to any macro technique.
Equipment for macro photography
Besides needing the obvious (a macro lens or another method to be able to focus closer) there are a few other things you’ll want to have to do macro photography. You don’t need all of them but it will help you get much sharper images, and make working with macro easier if you do have at least the basics.
- A sturdy tripod
- A tripod is essential, especially if you want to shoot at a small aperture to get added depth of field for your macro shots. You’ll likely end up using a slow shutter speed so the camera needs to be held study.
- A remote trigger or release to fire the camera
- You can use the 2-second self-timer if you don’t have one but if you get into longer exposures it can get tricky doing that. It’s a good idea to have one, or an app that can trigger your camera – you just want to avoid touching it when the shutter opens. Macro picks up any slight movement and you get a blurry image very easily. The images below compare one image taken when my cat decided to jump on the table to “help me” compared to no cat. Any vibration can make your image unusable.
- A flash or some form of light source
- Again while not essential, sometimes you need a little extra light o your subject. You could invest in a ring flash if you plan on doing a lot of macro work (make sure to get one that also works off-camera), or if you already have a flash you could pick up the Flash Disc by Fstoppers (photo right). I did and found it really handy for this type of photography. Or you can even use a small desk lamp or one that clamps onto things and is easy to move around. You may want to soften the light from such a lamp so it isn’t so harsh with strong shadows. A translucent reflector will do the trick there, or even a white bed sheet – anything white and semi-transparent that the light will come through.
- A macro tripod head
- another optional item that just makes doing macro easier. These are usually a system of rails which adjust in micro amounts by turning a handle or screw. Macro photography is a game of millimetres and having the ability to move the tripod head, and thus the camera and lens, back and forth in very small increments allows for more precise focus, image or focus stacking, and less frustration.
That’s really all you need to do macro photography. So let’s get started!
- Keep it low, around 100 or 200.
This will help keep the noise to a minimum.
Since you are using a tripod you can do long exposures and it shouldn’t be an issue.
If you are shooting handheld though, or have a moving target like a bug, use a higher ISO – high enough to make sure your shutter speed is sufficient to keep it sharp.
- Manual mode
- Put your camera in manual mode.
This will ensure consistent exposures and no surprises.
Again, if you have a moving target you may want to use Aperture Priority instead.
- Mirror lock-up
- Assuming you are using a DSLR, your camera has a mirror inside (helps you to see the image in the viewfinder) which flips up out of the way when you press the shutter button. This action itself can cause your image to be blurry.
Find the mirror lock-up setting on your camera and turn it on.
On most cameras that means you will press the button once and it will flip up the mirror, pressing it again takes the exposure.
If you are shooting with a mirrorless camera – you don’t need to worry about this step.
- When your subject to camera distance is really small, like it is doing macro photography, you will need to use a fairly small aperture to get more of your shot in focus.
Try using f/16 or even f/22 or higher if your lens offers those options.
Yes there is some diffraction that takes places at really small apertures that can affect overall sharpness, but your only other option is focus stacking which is more advanced and we aren’t going to get into here.
- White balance
- For white balance, choose one of the presets on your camera, one that is closest to the lighting conditions you’re working in.
If you’re indoors using subdued window light, choose the Shade preset, if you’re using flash, choose that option, etc.
Like shooting in manual this will get your more consistent results.
If you are shooting in RAW format you can always tweak it later but it’s nice to get as close as possible in camera.
- Set your lens (and camera if applicable) to manual focus.
Macro is tricky and you have to really nail the focus to get a successful image. This is one time where you want to do this yourself. Don’t worry I’ll show you a little trick to help make it easier!
Getting maximum sharpness
I already mentioned using a tripod, remote trigger, and the camera settings to make sure you don’t get blurry images due to camera shake. But let’s take a closer look at how aperture, depth of field, and other factors come into play for helping you get maximum sharpness in your macro images.
Depth of field
First up is choosing the right aperture. As we discussed earlier, the closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field will be – so you’ll want to close down your aperture to compensate. But how far? Only you can make the decision on how much of your subject you want in sharp focus. So, I suggest trying a few different settings and see what works for you, and your subject at hand. Try shooting wide opened, try a middle aperture like f/8 or f/11, and try a really small one like f/22 or even f/32.
Let’s look at a couple examples. These are all straight out of the camera, I have not sharpened or edited them in any way:
Because I shot the watch at an angle to the camera you can see the focus fall-off more pronounced. Had I shot straight down on the watch it becomes less dramatic, like so:
Keep in mind none of this is right or wrong, it’s just different. If you want a really shallow depth of field, go for it. Just do it for a reason and make sure it’s intentional.
Diffraction is part of the physics and properties of light and how it behaves.
Light bends when going through other objects (like water), and reflects off surfaces (like a CD or chrome bumper on a car) but it also bends when going through small openings.
It starts to interfere with itself which in photography causes lens diffraction and images become less sharp overall.
Fstoppers has a great article explaining diffraction in simple terms that you can understand, so I’m not going to go into it more here other than to say – it does occur and you need to know about it.
It starts to appear at smaller apertures, on some lenses around f/16, in others it’s okay higher yet. You need to test your own lens to see where it starts to lose sharpness. Then when you’re shooting you get to decide if you need more depth of field and are willing to accept slightly less sharp images overall to get it.
Here’s an example:
This are all straight from the camera, so take note of how sharp the sharpest part of the image above is – then compare to the next one.
I also noticed something else by doing macro photography for this article.
Take a look at the bottom right corner of the image above.
See the big hair?
I tried six times, unsuccessfully, to clean my sensor and inside of my camera to get rid of it. You can see a few other nasty dust particles too. So I realized it’s time to send my camera in to Canon for a full cleaning (not just the sensor – they take the body apart, clean all of it inside and out, then put it back together).
I’ve spent time on several beaches in the last year and have two cats – and it seems they’ve taken their toll on my camera.
Regular maintenance on your equipment is essential to keep it in optimal condition.
If you aren’t comfortable cleaning your own sensor, take it to a local camera shop that offers that service or send it to the manufacturer.
Lenses also need regular service as zoom lenses needs cleaning (they suck in dust and stuff when you zoom) and can get dried out inside and the moving parts may not slide smoothly.
If you notice any issues with your gear – get it checked by a trained professional at a camera store.
The next thing to consider after choosing your lenses optimal aperture, is where to focus. I could get all highly technical on you talking about hyper focal distance – but I’m going to keep it simple. Just remember this:
When shooting objects fairly far away, one third of the zone of focus (depth of field) falls in front of the point where you have critically focused, and two thirds is behind that spot.
The closer you get, the more even it gets.
In macro photography it’s pretty much 50/50. That means that where you focus, and the aperture you choose will both affect the zone which is sharp.
Here’s an example. The images below are all shot at f/8, the only thing I changed was where I focused. See how different they each look? Again, you make the decision on where to focus so choose wisely!
Manual focus trick
Earlier I promised a trick to help you with manual focus, here it is:
First frame up your subject how you want it using the viewfinder, then turn on Live View. While in Live View mode move the square around on the screen until it is on the place you want to focus. Usually that is done with the side arrows or little joystick thing on the back of your camera (consult your camera’s manual if you can’t figure out how to do that).
Next figure out how to magnify the view.
It might be a button that looks like a magnifying glass (go figure) or a plus (+) sign (again check the manual if you can’t find it, or do a Google search).
Press it and the view on the screen will be zoomed in (5x or similar, depends on your camera). Press it again and it will be enlarged even more to about 10x view.
I usually use the 5x view, but use either and it will help you focus the lens manually more accurately.
To return to normal view just press the same button one more time, or tap the shutter button half way down.
Just because you’re doing an extreme closeup of something does not mean you can forget about lighting.
Light is always the most important thing in photography, without it you literally cannot take a photo.
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Some things you’ll need to consider for lighting macro photography images:
- Adding light – you need something a light source which is small and portable that can easily be placed near your subject.
- Reflected light – sometimes all you need is the light coming from the right direction. Carry a small reflector with you (the 5-in-one kind are great, 22″ should suffice for macro) or make a DIY one out of foam board or even cardboard and tin foil. It doesn’t have to be fancy or large, it just has to bounce the light.
- Quality of light – look at the type of light falling on your subject. Is it hard light with strong shadows? Or is it soft and diffused, lower in contrast? Neither is right or wrong, just make sure to pick the lighting that will enhance your subject and add the desired mood to your image. Read “Quality of Light – What is it? How do you use it?” for more help on this topic.
- Direction of light – where the light comes from is also important. Some macro subjects look good backlit (leaves, flowers), while some need side lighting to bring out texture. Metallic objects need white (or silver/gold) reflected into them to make them look more shiny. Macro is a good time to pick a stationary object, slow down, and play with light. Just move it around and see what happens, take lots of shots and make note of what you learn.
These next three images are all taken with the same settings, the only thing that changed is the position of the reflector I was holding. I literally moved it a couple of inches and it completely changed the reflections shown on the watch.
Look at the first one carefully – I purposely moved the reflector to NOT light up the watch and see how dark the metal surfaces look?
Compare to the next two and see how subtle the changes are but it completely alters the look of the watch and how shiny or dull it looks, and also how three dimensional (by having parts with highlights and parts dark it shows the texture and shape of the gears).
Using a reflector for filling in the shadows
Another handy use for a reflector is to fill-in or lighten the shadows if the image has too much contrast. Again a fold-up white one, or even a white piece of foam board will work equally well. Just get in nice and close.
Let’s look at an example.
The first image below was taken without a reflector, just using the natural light from the window. It has a fair bit of contrast and the shadows are deep.
In the second image below I have used a white reflector, positioned about two feet away from the cork.
It has significantly lightened the shadows and lowered the contrast.
In the final image I moved the reflector really close, about a foot away.
You can see my setup in the shot below, notice just how close in the white reflector is to the subject and the camera.
In this case I actually used the Flask Disc and the flash is inside, mounted on a little stand holding the whole thing up. But you can just as easily use a reflector and prop it up or hold it.
Just be careful not to jiggle the subject, camera or the table.
From this you can see the huge difference moving the reflector in and out just a tiny bit can make. If you’re using natural light you have the benefit of being able to see it in camera before you take the shot. Leave the Live View on after you focus to get the light just right, then turn it off. You get to decide how much contrast is enough, and how much is too much and adjust accordingly.
Watch the details
Ha, I hadn’t intended to make a pun but I’ll take it.
One last thing you want to do it look very closely at everything.
A successful macro shot is in the details. Retouching out cat hair, dirt, or any stray material could be a pain or even ruin your image.
That huge cat hair is going to be really tough to retouch out. Take your time and look for stuff like that.
Even if you can’t see it on the item, look at your image on your LCD carefully.
Zoom in to check sharpness and the little pesky things that can cause heartbreak.
Likewise that hunk of gelatinous blobby thing (upper left corner on the blue ball) isn’t just a clone stamp away from disappearing. I noticed the chunk of undesirable stuff, stirred the balls up a bit and used tweezers to remove broken bits to get the image below.
I also noticed that in the first shot the texture of the white cloth below the set (it’s the Flash disc, see behind the scenes shot below) was showing up in the balls and I wasn’t crazy about that. So I used a larger aperture and less depth of field to minimize that affect.
I even sorted the balls into colours that went tougher like the blue and purples ones above, versus the image above with mostly white and yellow ones. It was painstaking to do so as they’re slippery little buggers and hard to control. But in photography, especially for macro work, being meticulous usually pays off.
Take note also of how dark the balls look in the image above. It is taken with only the light from the window off to camera right. Compare to the images above when the flash has been fired through the Flash Disc. See how much more the colours pop in the backlit versions?
Some behind the scenes shots of my helper
This is Munchkin. Apparently she likes reflectors, who knew?! Even though she’s super cute, and tried her darndest to help me, I had to move her a couple times because her movement was shaking the table and blurring my shots.
The Ultimate Guide to Macro Photography Continues
The next articles in this series include:
Action plan and summary
Hopefully this has given you some idea of what you need to get started in macro photography. Whether you decide to buy a true macro lens, use extension tubes, closeup filters, or even try reverse lens macro – all of the tips in this article will apply.
So use them wisely and get out and try some macro photography. Beg, borrow, or rent a lens if you haven’t got one. Find some interesting tiny subjects and off you go!