Macro photography

By Matic Broz, editor-in-chief of Photutorial covering stock media, Adobe, and design. He founded Photutorial while finishing his PhD in computational biosciences.

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Macro Photography 1-1

Will you learn macro photography in a day? No. But can you buy an expensive camera and you will instantly start taking better photos? No. Like any other skill, macro photography takes time and practise to master.

Just like you, I used to have no idea how macro photography worked, what to pay attention to, or even what to shoot. Then a macro photographer, a friend of mine, taught me everything I needed to know and now I am gladly sharing the information with you.

What Is Macro Photography?

Macro photography is a genre of photography of capturing small items, details, and organisms. Extreme close-ups open the door to a new world that usually remains invisible to our superficial minds.

Macro photography is unlike any other genre of photography, yet it can be incorporated in any of them.

What do I mean with that? Landscape, street, portrait, astro, etc, all focus on capturing harmonious compositions of large objects and beings; consequently, similar gear and mindset can be used across all of them. In contrast, macro photography can be found in all of them (perhaps not in astro), yet the approach is wildly different.

To introduce you to this concept, I comprised the following macro photography tips and instructions.

1. Choose the Best Camera

Camera - 16x9 [Landscape photography tips]

Almost every camera has an automatic macro mode – a feature that enables users to focus on subjects closest to the lens. However, seldom do these cameras allow for aperture and shutter speed adjustments; thus, making it crucial that you choose a camera that will let you freely adjust the settings while using a macro mode.

One such camera is Canon PowerShot S5 IS. It houses an 8-megapixel 1/2.5″ CCD sensor and Image Stabilized 12x zoom lens. This handy little powerhouse has a fantastic macro mode. Unlike the vast majority of digital cameras, it has a separate slider placed on the lens that lets you select aperture or shutter priority, and macro mode simultaneously. 

More Macro Cameras:

While the compact cameras are a decent place to start with macro photography, pros will opt for camera systems with interchangeable lens.

If you already own a camera, look at your macro lens options – there is likely a plethora of options.

If you’re just starting, consider researching the lenses first to find a camera brand that suits you the best.

When you’re buying an SLR camera, the sensor type should be your number one priority. Because you want to photograph close-ups, cropped sensors, such as APS-C or micro four thirds will work the best for macro photography. 

Related reading: Best Camera Brands

2. Get a good macro lens

Wide angle lens - 16x9 [Landscape photography tips]

While the aforementioned cameras will guarantee great photos, if you want gallery-worthy macro photos, you’ll need to purchase a DSLR and a dedicated macro lens.

You might be astounded by the price tags of a high-quality macro lens; these will easily set you back two grand or more, but if you’re trying to get the best macro photos possible, they are certainly worth the money.

With high-quality macro lenses, you won’t see certain problems such as optical distortion, colour fringing, and poor corner sharpness.

Bonus tip: To get the best possible performance, use a flat-field macro lens.

3. Large depth of field

Depth of field - macro photography

Having an in-depth (pun alert) understanding of depth of field in photography is crucial – and macro photography is no exception.

To achieve the greatest depth of field you should use smaller apertures (=larger f-stop number); however, the problem with smaller aperture is that the reduced and diffracted light will be detrimental to the sharpness of your photos. On the other hand, larger apertures will result in a shallower depth of field, so part of your subject of interest might end up out of focus.

The key to mastering macro photography is achieving the perfect balance between the depth of field and the desired photo sharpness.

An elegant solution to the problem of depth of field is the so-called “focus stacking”. Some cameras come with a built-in feature, alternatively, you can do it manually in Photoshops or ON1.

Check the video where Mark Denney teaches you how to focus stack:

On occasion, you might want a shallow depth of field to create beautiful bokeh and make your subject stand out, but more on that later.

Related reading: Depth of field

4. Perfect lighting

Lighting - macro photography

Light is everything in photography and macro is no exception. Having more light in your composition will help reduce shutter speeds, resulting in sharper photos.

Achieving the perfect lighting conditions is not an easy task. When you’re shooting macro you’re probably only a couple of centimetres away from the subject, so you and your camera are dropping a shadow on it.

Macro photographers use ring flashes or twin flashes to get good 3D lighting, rather than built-in flashes that overexpose the the subject or produce sharp, unnatural light.

Midday sunlight is too harsh for good macro shots. Finding a convenient way to diffuse it will crucially improve your photos – consider using baking paper or similar to get softer shadows.

5. Use longer focal lengths for living subjects

Long length lens - macro photography

Lenses with longer focal lengths (90mm+) will allow you to keep your distance in certain situations, such as photographing insects. This way, you can zoom in closer to your subject without disturbing it or its environment.

Best high focal lengths lenses for each brand:

Since some brands don’t offer the same zoom range of macro lens, you can use connective lens accessories, such as bellows or tubes. More on these in the next macro tip.

6. Macro accessories

Bellow - macro photography

If you’re not after professional-grade macro photos, a so-called diopter can save you a lot of money, acting as an alternative for a dedicated macro lens.

Diopter is a magnifying glass that you screw onto the front of a regular lens to achieve the same magnification as with an expensive macro lens – the overall quality of photos will be worse, though.

Bellows and (extension) tubes are attached to a lens as an adapter to increase magnification. Their only purpose is to move the lens farther away from the camera – there are no optical elements involved, making tubes and bellows inexpensive.

7. Tripods

Tripod - 16-9 [Landscape photography tips]

Tripod is a photographer’s best friend. Purchasing a tripod is difficult and comes with several questions: they come in various sizes, options, designs, accessories, and prices. Which should you choose?

Tripod is supposed to provide a stable surface to mount the camera. The sturdier it is, the better it will work. When you’re choosing a tripod, you should be balancing your need for sturdiness with your need for mobility, while also staying within the desired price range.

Related ring: Best tripods in 2020

8. Choose a suitable subject

Object - macro photography

What makes a good macro subject? Virtually everything if you know how to capture it.

No matter what you choose for your macro subject, it should be distinguishable from the background and discernible, so the viewer knows what they’re looking at.

Frequently photographers’ subjects include insects, butterflies, flower blossoms, and inanimate objects such as raindrops, coins, jewellery, and miniature everyday objects.

When you choose to photograph alive objects, make sure to keep your distance as to not to damage or disturb them or their environment.

9. Background

Background - macro photography

Shooting still objects is reasonably easy as you have total control over the lighting, composition, and background. When you’re shooting at home or in your studio, simply place the object against the desired background – just make sure they go well together.

When you’re spontaneously shooting outdoors, some more planning and patience will be necessary. To get the background of your liking, you might need to change your perspective or even use a custom made background. Many macro photographers carry satin sheets of different colours with them to always get a desirable background.

10. Improve your in-camera composition

Composition - macro photography

If you learn to get the composition just right with the camera, you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle with photo editing – and improve your photos.

This includes perfectly framing the subject before taking the photo, instead of counting on photo editing to perfect your composition – a method that can dramatically reduce the resolution of your photos as you crop them.

Don’t hesitate to try different angles, moving back and forth, or using a different lens to find a better composition. I know that breaking a good composition once you find it is difficult, but don’t let it take away your creativity – take a couple of photos of it and move onto the next one.

Related reading: Rule of thirds

11. Experiment with your point of focus

Camera focus - macro photography

Once you have your composition locked and loaded, you just need to press the shutter, right? Wrong!

Macro photography is a delicate hobby. Having your subject ever so slightly out of focus will ruin the shot. But this begs a questions: what should you even focus on?

Well, mastering this takes practice. If you’re a beginner, I suggest you take multiple photos of the same composition and try focusing on multiple parts of the image. When you get home, you will choose the one that looks the best for you and discard the others. After a while, you’ll notice a pattern of what works well and what doesn’t.

12. Be patient

Patience - macro photography

Just like landscape photography or any other genre of photography, mastering macro photography takes time. Don’t expect outstanding photos right away, rather keep improving and learning from your mistakes. After a few months go back to your older photos to compare them to new ones.

Did you get any better? Yes, you did.

Conclusion | Macro Photography

This short tutorial on Macro Photography should be a great starting point for you. As I learn more, I promise to expand it.

If you know a budding photographer, who’d also like to learn about macro photography, feel free to share this article with them.

Stay healthy,

– Matic


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