Get up Close and Personal

Macro Photography
Macro shot of Fungi in Mt Field National Park, Tasmania

Macro photography is the art of capturing the fine detail of very small subjects that may not even able to be visible to the naked eye. These images can be blown up, maybe even to billboard size.

It produces those awe-inspiring shots where the viewer looks right into the eyes of a grasshopper seeing it in all its intricate detail or shots that make a minuscule drop of water on the petal of a flower have the profound effect of the moon in a rich night sky. Macro photography at its less extreme can also be considered some extreme close-up of food shots or products shots.

It can be a really fun thing to experiment with macro both for new and experienced photographers. Zooming in on objects and tiny specimens of life around you house or around the garden gives you a whole new perspective on things.

Professional and specialised macro photographers might have their own unique set-ups and kits using such things as prime lenses in reverse. For this blog we are going to assume you have gone as far as investing in a great camera and macro lens, and that you are shooting a variety of tiny objects for maximum impact.

So, first thing first.

What is a macro lens and why do you need it?

Macro lenses are specially designed to minimise the focussing distance, allowing you to get closer to the subject and increasing the reproduction ratio. It is classically a lens capable of reproduction ratios greater than 1:1.

Hence a standard postage stamp will fill the whole frame of your viewfinder and depending on the cameras resolution potential could be blown up to huge print formats.

Extension Tubes for Macro
Extension Tubes are a cheap way to get started

How about extension tubes?

If you have a macro lens you’ll find just playing around with it fascinating. The next step in exploring the amazing world of the macro is using an extension tube, these fit between your lens and camera like a teleconverter would and will help you get even closer to the subject.

You can use an extension tube on a normal lens and it will increase the magnification of the object by the extension distance dived by the lens focal length. It is probably not necessary to do the math on these things but rather use your eyes and get some practical experience but roughly that means adding a 25mm extension tube to a 50mm lens will give you a magnification gain of 0.5x.

Monopods, Tripods and Bean Bags for Macro Photography

It’s really important that you have a steady camera to avoid any camera shake blur when shooting macro. A monopod may do the trick, depending on what you’re shooting. Personally I prefer to use a tripod. My Really Right Stuff TVC-33 does’t have a centre pole, this allows me to get down real low when the legs are splayed wide out, and get close to what I am shooting.

I have also heard of macro photographers using a small bean bag on the ground and resting their camera on it. I have not personally tried this but imagine it would be a great way of getting down low and keeping your camera steady.

The best settings for Macro Photography

Personally, I use aperture priority for macro photography. This way I have control of the depth of field.

Use a small aperture such as f11- remember higher the number, small the aperture.

Having a small aperture is especially essentially with shooting insects and any moving object but will get you crispness in macro shots. You will find one of the biggest issues faced when shooting macro is a shallow depth of field. Macro lenses usually will go to a minimum aperture of f32 or even f45 in some cases.

If possible, keep you ISO low, because you don’t want grain in your macro photography.

3 in 1 reflector for macro photography
3 in 1 reflector

How to Work with Light in Macro photography

With a fast shutter speed, small aperture and low ISO you will need some extra light. LED ring lights can be added to the front of your camera. They are surprisingly inexpensive but they will add that extra weight to the lens and make the camera quite chunky to get in to tight spaces. Also, the artificial light might look cold on natural subjects.

Something I do and recommend is to use a reflector, and as I’ve mentioned before you don’t have to buy a big fancy umbrella shaped one, I have a 3 in 1 reflector, you can get them for about $30 and they fold up pretty compact. They have a silver and a gold reflector, plus, a transparent white diffuser that can be handy when the light is harsh.

If you don’t have a reflector, a piece of white paper will do the trick. In fact a piece of white paper may be the best solution here as you can bend, fold and rip into shape so that it doesn’t disturb you tiny subject but it does capture they natural ambient light and diffuse it across your subject.

How to Set and Pull Focus in Macro Photography

My advice is to always focus your lens manually, but if you are on autofocus always choose a single focus point. This is really important for getting a sharp defined subject and if you are having trouble pulling focus, going into your settings and check your not in some weird focus tracking mode.

You may decide as you play that you would like the focus point to be off centre (for the rule of thirds), but still make sure it is a single focus point and that you are aware of the focus point as you look through he viewfinder.

Pick your day and subject

Wind or even a slight breeze makes macro photography outside virtually impossible. If there is any sort of breezes outside, stay indoors and practice around the house. You can get quite creative with things like the prongs on a fork, coffee beans or anything really, just get creative.

macro photography, shooting food
Macro photography

For outdoor macro ideally the day will be cloudy (natures light diffuser) but not dark. In this way you have constant light and are not dealing with changing shadows and light conditions, and of course with absolutely no wind.

You can use a clamp of some sort to hold a flower still, this is a pretty common trick in macro photography.

Take lots of shots

At the end of the day, you have a digital camera so just keep shooting. Only a small number will be pin sharp, so delete the one dozens or hundreds of bad ones, and keep the good ones that will take your viewers breathe away.

Final Tips

I have learnt a few valuable tips from other photographers that may help you.

1. Keep a small plastic drop sheet or poncho in your camera bag. You will be kneeling or lying on the ground, and sometimes it’s damp and yuck, so a cheap plastic sheet of some sort is invaluable

2. Pack some tweezers, they’re great for removing bits of dirt or other stuff from a flower or fungi before shooting.

3. Stage the scene if you have time. If you’re shooting something like fungi, spend some time setting up your shot, move anything out of the way that doesn’t add to your image and add something if you need to.

4. Use live view to focus, this way you can be sure that you have your subject tack sharp!

I hope you enjoyed this article!

What tips have you got to share? Leave them in the comments below…



2 Responses

  1. Ben – nice, practical tips here. I am looking forward to the weekend so I can get out again with my macro lens and try some of these. Thanks for this.

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