Beginners Guide to Macro Photography

By Nathaniel Stephan
Last Updated: May 13, 2020
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Macro Photography Guide Featured Picture

In this macro photography guide, you'll learn everything you need to know to get started as a macro photographer. Basic technical information about macro photography will be covered. Additionally, gear that is helpful to have as well as the best settings to use to capture macro photos.

What is Macro Photography?

Macro photography describes taking an image at life-size or greater magnification. Life size is the same as 1:1 or 1x magnification. This is different than close-up photography, which includes lower levels of magnification.

What all of those terms mean is that the subject being photographed is the same size as the imaging sensor. On a full-frame, 35mm equivalent sensor, this would mean the subject would occupy a 24mm x 36mm area or smaller.

magnification ratio = image size on the sensor : object size

Normal lenses are not capable of close focusing on their own. Macro lenses are able to focus to 1x magnification or higher on their own, without needing additional equipment.

For printed macro pictures it makes more sense to use final magnification.

final magnification = displayed object size : object size

Displayed object size is most easily applied to a printed photograph where the size is known. For a photo published online, including a scale for size is helpful because monitor sizes vary.

Photomicrography

High magnification macro photograph

Photomicrography is usually done with a microscope. Though a microscope objective can be used on a camera, or lenses can be stacked to achieve high levels of magnification.

In a broader sense, photomicrography can be thought of as taking a photo at ~10x magnification or higher. At that level of magnification and higher, photography gets significantly more difficult. Vibrations from walking near gear, trucks driving past, or gusts of wind, can cause enough movement to blur images.

How to Achieve Magnification

Macro Accessories

There are many ways for macro photographers to take images of small objects, insects, or wildlife. To get started with macro photography the ease of use and cost of a good macro lens is hard to beat. Inexpensive vintage manual focus lenses are widely available online and are the best way to enter the world of macro photography.

  • Macro Lens
  • Extension Tubes
  • Reversing Ring
  • Bellows (Such as a Nikon PB-4)
  • Microscope Objective
  • Auxiliary or Conversion Lens Such as a Raynox DCR-250
  • Diopters (Close-up Lenses)
  • Teleconverter
  • Stacked Lenses

Best Camera for Macro Photography

There isn't a single best camera to take macro photos with, digital cameras made by Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, and Pentax will all work. What you should be concerned about are the features a camera has, as some of them make shooting macro photography easier. Here is a list of features to consider:

  • Interchangeable Lenses - Being able to change the lens on the camera will allow you to use a macro lens, extension tubes, bellows, or a teleconverter.
  • A Hot Shoe - Using a flash is key to solving the macro photography dilemma of needing to use a small aperture to achieve a large depth of field while at the same time needing fast shutter speeds to prevent blurry images.
  • A Small Sensor - Cameras with Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensors are easier to use than full-frame cameras because you get a "free crop."
  • Mirrorless - The flappy mirror in a DSLR can cause camera shake. Mirrorless cameras also tend to have better electronic shutters, are easy to adapt vintage lenses onto, have better live-view features, and a magnified view in an EVF makes getting shots in focus easier.

While many point-and-shoot cameras have a macro mode, take into account that the macro shots they take will most likely not be life-sized. They will also limit the macro photography techniques that can be used.

Best Macro Lenses

Best Macro Lens

With macro photography, the focal length of a lens determines the working distance. The working distance being the distance from the front of the lens to the subject.

With most macro photography subjects you want as large of a working distance as possible. The distance will make it easier to use artificial lighting or to prevent small subjects from becoming skittish and moving away.

A macro lens in the 90mm to 105mm focal range will have a good working distance while not being excessively heavy like 150mm or 200mm focal lengths. The 90mm to 105mm range also cost less than the longer focal lengths.

For a crop sensor or Micro Four Thirds camera, a vintage 50mm, 55mm, or 60mm focal length lens will work great for macro photography. They also have manual aperture rings, which means you have control over the aperture if you decide to adapt the lens on to a mirrorless digital camera or reverse the lens.

What is a Macro Lens?

A dedicated macro lens has the ability to achieve 1:1 magnification on its own or in the case of vintage macro lenses, with a matched extension tube.

"Macro" appearing on a nameplate can be confusing as often zoom lenses will advertise 1:4 macro capabilities, which doesn't meet the requirements to be a macro lens. Instead, those zoom lenses should be considered close-up lenses.

Best Macro Camera Settings

The best camera settings for macro photography need to prevent blur from camera shake, and also provide a large depth of field. This is going to be difficult without using artificial light, such as a flash. In bright sunlight, it might be possible to just raise the ISO, but hard light often isn't flattering.

Using manual mode will produce the best macro photographs. Auto, aperture priority, or shutter priority modes will not give consistent results. Shooting RAW images will also help as the results of boosting shadows will be better than using a JPEG.

Aperture: Maximizing Depth of Field

The best results will often be with a lens set to f/5.6, f/8, or f/11. These aperture settings strike a good balance between getting the subject in focus and keeping what's in focus sharp.

As magnification increases, the depth of field gets smaller. With a lens at 1:1 magnification, only a few millimeters will be in focus. Even using the smallest aperture on the lens, that could still not be enough to get small objects into focus. Plus, at the smallest aperture, diffraction will show up and the macro images will not be sharp.

Another photography concept to be aware of is effective aperture. As magnification is increased, there is a loss of light reaching the camera sensor or film plane. A useful rule to follow is that at 1:1 magnification expect that almost 2-stops worth of light will be lost. So, focusing at 1:1 with the aperture set to f/8, the same amount of light will be needed as the lens focused to infinity at f/16.

Focus Stacking

One of the exciting techniques that have come from digital photography is the ability to do focus stacking. The basic premise is to take more than one photograph and combine the parts that are in focus.

Landscape photographers will use this technique with ~3 images. With a small number of photos, this process can be done in most image editors like GIMP, Affinity Photo, or Photoshop.

For macro pictures, tens, hundreds, or even thousands of images might need to be combined to get the entire image to be in focus. This process requires the use of specialized software such as Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus. These programs open up new possibilities for macro photography.

In order to take the series of photos a manual focus rail can be used, but more macro photographers prefer automated solutions. A few cameras with a compatible lens can take a series of macro photos in the camera body, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.

The other option is to use a motorized focus rail, such as the WeMacro rail. A focusing rail makes it possible to automate the process of moving small steps and firing the shutter to move the plane of focus across an entire subject. This is incredible for higher magnification macro photography because there is no way I would manually take tens or hundreds of photos.

Scheimpflug Principle

The Scheimpflug principle describes changing the orientation of the plane of focus, lens plane, and camera sensor (image plane). This can be done with a view camera, tilt/shift lens, or a bellows, such as the Nikon PB-4.

By applying the Scheimpflug principle it is possible to align the plane of focus along a subject that is not parallel with the camera sensor. Done correctly, the subject will be as in focus as the depth of field allows.

Shutter Speed: Freeze Movement & Eliminate Camera Shake

For a still subject, a sturdy tripod and remote shutter release or setting the shutter timer will work great. When hand-holding or capturing a moving subject, the faster the shutter speed, the better.

Obviously cameras with IBIS (in body image stabilization) and lenses with optical stabilization are a great benefit. Combining both of them is even better. However, for moving subjects, you're still going to need a fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur.

The "reciprocal rule" for selecting a shutter speed that will eliminate camera shake does apply for macro photography. Increasing magnification is going to have the same effect as using a longer focal length lens.

ISO (Use a Flash)

When doing macro photography with ambient light, ISO should be set to the highest level that still produces acceptable results. The option that makes life easier and produces the best results is to leave the ISO at the base level and use a flash.

A small aperture and fast shutter speed greatly reduces the amount of light available to the sensor. Even in daylight, the ISO may not be possible to raise the ISO high enough to get acceptable results. Either the ISO will be capped out, or more likely, there will be too much noise.

Why Use a Flash or Artificial Light?

Pop-up flash diffuser on a macro lens

A flash or other source of artificial light solves the issues of not having enough ambient light. This is especially true for capturing images of insects or research work that is done at dusk, dawn, or night.

For a flash make sure that the flash recycle time is decently fast. It will not have to be used at full power. Several shots can be captured before the flash needs time to charge.

Ring Flash

When many people think about macro photography a ring flash that mounts to the front of a lens is going to come to mind. It is a special type of flash that is an easy solution for lighting. The even lighting a ring flash produces means the lighting will always be the same for every picture taken with a ring flash.

Flash Diffusers

A more affordable solution for macro photography would be to use the gear you already have. There are many examples of homemade lighting diffusers designed to work with a flash mounted in the hot shoe or on a bracket. The nice things about these are they are cheap or free ways to shoot macro, often using parts you already have lying around.

Even though arts and crafts can be a big part of macro photography, you may not want to start off like that. One solution that works well is a tiny pop-up diffuser that slides over the lens and works with a built-in or hot-shoe mounted flash.

Macro Focusing Techniques

Macro photography can make focusing difficult. The majority of macro lenses can only go to 1x magnification at their closest focusing distance. In order to get a subject in focus at 1x, the camera and lens needs to be moved closer.

Changing focus to get the subject in focus will reduce the magnification from macro into what would be considered a close-up. Autofocus systems don't work well and tend to hunt around due to the thin depth of field, which is why manual focusing is the preferred method for macro photography.

Good macro technique is to set the desired magnification and then move the camera to focus. There are two main ways to do this.

Move Your Body

When hand holding a camera it is easiest to use good photography techniques to brace the camera with your upper body and then move your torso or shift weight between your legs. Only a tiny amount of movement will be needed to move the focus point.

A tip while doing this is to take several photos while moving. This will increase your chances of getting a keeper. Insects usually aren't willing to stay still and wind can move flowers around. Treat this type of photography as a numbers game and aggressively cull photos once you're home.

Focus Rail

Tripods pose a different challenge for macro photography because they cannot easily be moved in short distances. A solution to this is to use a focus rail, preferably with two movements. One that moves forward and backward, and the other side to side.

For doing macro photography in a studio, an XYZ stage can be a helpful solution, but even a basic one is expensive. An XYZ stage allows the subject to be moved in 3 directions while the camera stays in a fixed position, or more likely, mounted to a motorized focus rail.

Conclusion

With all types of photography, the best way to learn is to do it. Macro photography is no exception. There's no need to get caught up in all sorts of gear that is out there, as you're not going to want to haul it around with you.

Below are links to more macro photography related articles and tutorials.

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