5 Macro Photography Tips

By: Wesley Fenlon

Floral subjects are very popular in macro photography because the tight focus offers a unique perspective on tiny details.
Floral subjects are very popular in macro photography because the tight focus offers a unique perspective on tiny details.

Macro photography is the art of the close-up. Not like a close-up of Marlon Brando's Don Corleone slowly acting out a scene with nothing but a powerful stare in "The Godfather." We're talking really, really close-up stills. While there's no single, specific definition as to what, exactly, constitutes a macro photograph, the term is often used to describe a shot taken at a 1:1 ratio; that is, the object appears to be the same size on a camera's sensor as it does in real life. But that's a pretty strict definition. Odds are, if you hear someone chatting about macro photography, they're just talking about getting up close and personal with their subject.

Sometimes, that subject is a cool gadget like the iPhone, photographed with a macro lens to show off tiny buttons and sleek industrial design. More often, macro photography is used on very small subjects, like flowers or bugs, to capture a dramatic shot we'd never experience with the naked eye alone. Just run a Google image search for macro photography and you'll find yourself face-to-face with a whole page of larger-than-life insects. That's a macro lens in action!


Want to take some macro photographs yourself? It's easy! Here are five tips to get you started. The first is dead simple: Get a macro lens.

5: Get the Special Lens

Macro photography begins with a macro lens. Let's say you want to photograph a praying mantis up close -- close enough to capture its insectoid eyes and interesting legs. What would happen if you stuck a camera with a regular zoom or wide-angle lens right up against the praying mantis and tried to snap off a picture? Well, you'd probably scare it off! But even if the mantis stuck around, you wouldn't get a very good picture, because your camera won't be able to focus at extremely close range with one of those lenses. Enter the macro.

The simplest (and least expensive) macro lenses simply screw onto other camera lenses and magnify images, allowing the camera to focus on small subjects from greater distances. These are often called close-up lenses or macro filters. Real macro lenses are different. Instead of screwing onto the end of another lens like a filter, macro lenses attach to a camera in place of a zoom lens or wide-angle lens and specialize in bold close-ups.


A real macro lens for a digital SLR camera can cost hundreds of dollars, but it gives a photographer the ability to take close-up shots in perfect focus. For example, the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro can focus on objects a mere .65 feet (19.8 centimeters) away. The longer EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro has to be a whole foot (30.5 centimeters) away to focus. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, depending on how you want to use the lens. Shooting from further away gives you more working distance, and is better for skittish subjects.

4: Use Your Camera's Macro Mode

Macro lenses -- real ones that cost hundreds of dollars -- attach to powerful DSLR cameras and allow photographers to magnify a subject to a true 1:1 ratio on the camera sensor. But say you don't have a DSLR. Say you don't want to spend $500 or more on a macro lens. How will you ever photograph the stamen of a flower or get that close-up of a praying mantis you've always wanted? Don't give up! It's not a lost cause.

Even a cheap point-and-shoot camera can take a close-up. Many cameras, including inexpensive compacts, offer a macro mode that helps the camera focus on objects at extremely close distances. The macro mode, sometimes represented by a flower icon, doesn't produce the same kinds of images as a true macro lens because the lens, not the camera, performs the magnification that delivers a life size image.


Still, macro mode is better than nothing. The camera may be more difficult to focus than usual, but turning on macro mode will allow you to take close-ups of small objects. Consider it practice for shooting with a macro lens. If you crave more power, it may be time to step up to the real thing.

3: Get Equipped With Inexpensive Macro Gear

Macro shots like this one give us glimpses of aspects of our world we almost never get to see with the naked eye.
Macro shots like this one give us glimpses of aspects of our world we almost never get to see with the naked eye.

The first two tips touched on the cheapest and most expensive ways to get into macro photography: using a camera's built-in macro mode, buying a simple macro lens filter or going all-in with a real macro lens. There's actually an in-between solution that's more expensive than a lens filter, but cheaper than a $500 macro lens. For less than $100, you can slap an extension tube onto your DSLR. And bam -- instant magnification!

Unlike a macro lens, there's no glass in an extension tube. It's a hollow cylinder designed to sit between a DSLR and a non-macro lens, presumably whatever you typically shoot with (like a telephoto or wide angle lens). The tube does exactly what its name implies: It extends the amount of space between the lens aperture and camera sensor. By doing so, an extension tube brings the focal distance much closer to the camera and increases magnification.


The increase in magnification is equal to the distance of the extension tube divided by the lens focal length [source: CambridgeinColour]. That means an extension tube will have a much more dramatic effect attached to a 35 mm lens than a 200 mm telephoto. Adding more extension tubes increases effectiveness, but stacking too much weight onto a camera will make it tricky to balance.

2: Use a Tripod

Ah, the tripod -- is there any more reliable tool in a photographer's arsenal? Maybe the flash owns that distinction, but there's no debating that tripods are instrumental for all kinds of photography, and macro shooting is no exception. Remember our goal: to magnify the subject through the powerful optics of a macro lens, capturing details we couldn't observe with the naked eye. For that, we need to get close.

But not too close! A macro photograph requires perfect focus. And when dealing with nature, getting too close could mean bumping into a flower, scaring off an insect or otherwise disturbing the moment. Insert a tripod into the equation and you remove movement, which makes it easier to focus and compose a shot. Since macro photography is often used for small subjects, a full-size tripod might even be overkill -- miniature or specialty tripods like the Gorillapod can get the job done.


Some macro photography situations don't really benefit from a tripod -- or, more likely, shooting with a tripod just isn't practical. Let's say you're a technology reporter sitting in a sea of news folks as Samsung unveils their latest smartphone. When the press conference is over you want to grab some nice macro shots of the device. So do the other hundred reporters in the room! They all rush the stage, crowd around the device and begin taking dozens of pictures. Do you think there's time or space to set up a tripod for your own shots? Not likely!

1: Make the Most of Composition and Depth of Field

One of macro photography's limitations is minimal depth of field. The closer to a subject you focus, the shallower depth of field becomes. In macro photography, subjects are often mere inches away from the lens -- sometimes even closer. Solid macro shooting requires coping with depth of field as shallow as a few millimeters, which can make it difficult to keep the entire subject in focus. Consider it a challenge. When you succeed, your reward will be a sharply focused photograph.

But depth of field doesn't tell the whole story. The challenge of finding that perfect focus drives home the importance of composition. Composing a shot involves shooting from the proper distance and angle. It requires using natural lighting as effectively as possible. This is where we leave behind technology and focus on artistry. Light and shadow, angles and lines -- all these components come together to affect how appealing a shot is to the viewer's eye. Practicing composition is the fun part -- all you have to do is go out and shoot. Experiment!


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Author's Note

Writing about photography's always a challenge for me. My father is a photographer, and the intricacies of the technology fascinate me, so I'm always drawn to researching image sensors and lenses and autofocus systems. Professional photography is as much art as science, but really learning macro photography requires some serious study of the relationship between a digital camera's image sensor and focal length. As I found out, there's much more to macro than shooting a mere close-up! I balanced out research into lenses and extension tubes by spending way too much time looking at galleries of macro photographs. Lizards have the coolest eyes.

Related Articles

  • CambridgeinColour.com. "Macro Extension Tubes & Close-Up Lenses." (Feb. 12, 2012) http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/macro-extension-tubes-closeup.htm
  • Canon.com. "Macro lenses." (Feb. 11, 2012) http://shop.usa.canon.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/subCategory_10051_10051_-1_29759
  • Creek, Neil. "About macro extension tubes." Nov. 10, 2007. (Feb. 12, 2012) http://www.neilcreek.com/2007/11/10/about-macro-extension-tubes-p365-nov03/
  • Leong, Steven. "Canon 100/2.8, 180/3.5L and MP-E65." Jan. 21, 2007. (Feb. 12, 2012) http://www.photomalaysia.com/forums/showthread.php?20651-Canon-100-2-8-180-3-5L-and-MP-E65
  • Punti, Tanya. "Macro photography tips with example photographs and images." (Feb. 15, 2012) http://www.slrphotographyguide.com/blog/macro/macro-tips-images.html
  • Rockwell, Ken. "Nikon 55mm f/2.8." (Feb. 15, 2012) http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/55af.htm