A Beginner’s Guide to Macro Photography

In Features by Rusty Parkhurst6 Comments

As we go about our daily lives, it's all too easy to overlook (aka, take for granted) the finer details of things around us. Attention-grabbing grand vistas and epic landscape scenes tend to hold us in a sensory-overloaded trance. Macro photography is an excellent way to break out of that trance and dive into the much more intimate spaces of our surrounding environment.

There are many things about macro photography that make it an appealing genre. It gets you up close and personal to see fine details that most of the world will never see. It is also something that can be done virtually anywhere, from the kitchen table, your backyard, a local botanical garden, or a national park. The subjects are endless, no matter where you shoot. Since it can be done indoors, it may be just the thing for those super cold or rainy days when going outside to shoot isn't high on your list of fun things to do.

If you've ever wanted to do macro photography, then just go for it! Macro photography doesn't take a lot of expensive gear to get started; it can be done just about anywhere; and it's a lot of fun. Not only will you begin to look at the world differently, but it will also help improve your photographic skills. 

 

What is Macro Photography?

That is the $64,000 question. The easy answer is that it is the making of photos of small objects. In the good old days of film, a macro photograph was considered one in which the subject was captured at least at 1/10th of its original size, up to life size (1:1), on a piece of 35mm film. In the modern world of digital photography, sensor size varies greatly, from the tiny smartphone cameras up to full frame DSLRs and beyond. A macro photograph is still defined as one in which the subject is captured at life size or larger. However, splitting hairs over whether an image is a “true” macro or just a close-up seems counter-productive to me. Getting down in the dirt or off into the weeds to get up close with our surrounding world is what it's all about.

Technical Considerations

I personally don't like for a lot of technical details to get in the way of creativity, but it is important to understand some of the challenges faced with macro photography. Shooting macro shares some of the same basic principles as any other photography genre. Light, subject, composition, and focus. The basic building blocks are the same, although you are working on a much smaller scale. There are a few additional things to consider, however. Macro photography can be challenging, and requires a fair bit of patience. With plenty of practice, and a lot of trial and error, you'll soon figure out what works best for creating the images you want.

Depth of Field

The depth of field – the portion of the image that is in focus – is razor thin with macro photography. This is because of the magnification of the lens and the very short working distances from the lens to the subject. With the focal length and distance to subject set, the only other thing to control depth of field is the aperture. In other types of photography, you would ‘stop down' the aperture (i.e. smaller opening, larger number) to achieve more depth of field. In macro photography, stopping down the aperture works the same way, but the depth of field is so miniscule that you may not see much change. Even after stopping down to an aperture of f/16 or f/22, there may still be a significant part of the image out of focus. The decision of what you want in focus is very important.

Focus stacking is a more advanced technique to expand the depth of field in an image, but it won't be covered in this article.

Depth of field illustration. The focus point stayed on the SanDisk in each image. Note how the rest of the label becomes readable at the smaller apertures, but never really gets sharp.

Minimum focus distance

Since macro photography is all about taking pictures of tiny things, the idea is to use the focal length of the lens and get as close as possible to the subject to make it appear large in the frame. The problem with most lenses is that they are not capable of focusing close enough. Something about physics and optical engineering, but those are topics best left to a different article. To put it simply, the shortest distance at which a lens will focus is the minimum focus distance.

In order to get close-up or macro shots of small objects and show intricate detail, you need to be able to focus on the object at a close distance. Dedicated macro lenses are made to focus up close. For other lenses, there are things you can do to decrease their minimum focus distance, such as using the reverse lens technique or adding extension tubes. We'll discuss gear in more detail below.

Working Distance

This is sometimes confused with minimum focus distance, but the two are quite different. Minimum focus distance – or MFD – is the closest a lens can focus and is measured from the focal plane to the subject. By the way, the focal plane is probably marked on the top part of your camera body. The location of the mark varies with different cameras, but it will look like a small circle with a line through it. The MFD of a lens is measured from that mark to the subject.

Working distance is a little different, but still very important for macro photography. The working distance is the distance from the front of the lens to the subject. Sometimes the MFD can be so short that the lens is nearly touching the subject. Depending on what you are shooting, this may not be a problem. However, if your subject happens to be a skittish insect, you will need a little more space. Another thing to consider that as the lens gets closer to the subject, you may be blocking much-needed light from falling on the subject.

The MFD is commonly listed in the specifications for lenses. Working distance is not typically listed, but can be calculated using the MFD, length of the lens, and distance from the lens mount to the focal plane (typically 1.4″ for Canon and 1.6″ for Nikon). Simply add the length of the lens and the distance from the lens mount to the focal plane mark, then subtract that number from the MFD. Note that this is without the lens hood, so you'll need to account for that if you will have it attached.

Keeping your distance can sometimes be a wise thing. Photo by Rusty Parkhurst.

Magnification Ratios

Without getting overly technical, the magnification ratio is the relationship between the size of a subject as projected on the image sensor and its size in real life. For instance, let's say that a butterfly has a wingspan of two inches in real life, but the wingspan is measured as one inch on the image sensor. That would mean the magnification ratio is one inch to two inches, or 1:2. A macro lens capable of capturing subjects at life size would be said to have a 1:1 magnification ratio.

You may have noticed that some lenses have a “macro” label, even though they may not be a macro lens. As an example, I have a Canon 24-105mm f/4 L lens with a macro setting on the focus ring, but is it truly macro? The lens has a MFD of about 1.5 feet. By comparison, Canon's excellent 100mm f/2.8 L macro lens has a MFD of just under a foot. That doesn't seem like much of a difference, but the 24-105 is capable of only about a 1:4 magnification ratio, whereas the 100mm macro lens is capable of 1:1. In other words, just because a lens has a macro label doesn't mean it is able to produce true macro images. However, some of my favorite close-up images have been created with my trusty 24-105mm lens.

Tools of the Trade

What's a photography article without talking about gear? Gear is important in some respects, and there are a few things you'll need to shoot macro photos. For the purposes of this article, I'll assume that most readers are using some type of interchangeable lens camera – whether a DSLR or mirrorless. One of the great things about macro photography is that you don't need a ton of gear, and it doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't matter if you are using an entry level Canon Rebel or the high-end Nikon D850. Great macro images can be made regardless.

If you have a camera and lens, then you already have most of what is needed to get started. The lens you have may even have a macro setting. It may not be a 1:1 macro lens, but you can sure do some close-up photography. Let's take a look at some things you could add to your kit to start getting some great macro images.

Extension Tubes

Using extension tubes is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to get started in macro photography. Prices can vary dramatically, with some well over $100, but you can spend much less. I have a set of these, which mount easily and seem to work just fine. Auto-focus is sometimes a little finicky with these, but I'm usually focusing manually anyway for macro shots. Just make sure to get the right mount for your camera.

Extension tubes are simply mounted between the camera body and lens, moving the lens further from the sensor, which in turn will decrease the MFD of the lens. They usually come in a set of three, each providing different extension lengths. They can be used individually or in any combination to provide the MFD that you need. As a general rule of thumb, the increase in magnification is the length of the extension divided by the focal length of the lens. For example, adding 30mm of extension to a 50mm lens would increase magnification by 0.6x. This means that for the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens, which has native magnification of 0.21x, the new magnification with 30mm of extension would be 0.81x at the MFD. The same Nikon lens has a native magnification of 0.15x, so adding 30mm would increase it to 0.75x. As you can see, even a common lens could be transformed into a macro lens with 1:1 magnification (or greater).

Extension tubes are great in that they are relatively inexpensive, but there are some disadvantages. The image quality won't be quite as good as with a dedicated macro lens. Plus, they are a little more cumbersome to work with, and only allow the lens to focus on objects up close. Finally, it is best to use extension tubes with mid-range focal length lenses, somewhere in the range of 35mm to 100mm. The magnification gain for telephoto lenses would be minimal and the MFD for shorter focal length lenses may actually be too close.

These relatively inexpensive extension tubes is what I most often use for macro photography. They can be used individually or stacked in any combination.

Reversing Rings

Reversing rings can be at attractive option because of the low cost, which can be as little as $15 or less. These rings mount to the camera, and have threads on the other side to screw onto your lens's front filter mount, which mounts the lens in the reverse direction on the camera. You just need to make sure to get a ring compatible to your camera mount and with the correct thread diameter to screw onto the lens you are using. Generally speaking, shorter focal length lenses allow for closer focusing distances and higher magnification.

Using this technique can be difficult in that the range of available focus distances can be extremely small. Additionally, all auto-focusing features are lost, which isn't a big deal. However, you may also lose the ability to control the aperture, which can be a problem. However, due to the minimal cost, it may be worth a try.

Close Up Filters

Close up filters are another option that could work with an existing lens. These vary wildly in cost, but this is one of those situations where you get what you pay for. A close up filter is like a magnifying glass that screws to the front of your lens, just like any other filter. The quality of the glass is obviously important here to prevent degradation in image quality. Some of the best close up filters are made by Canon, but quality comes at a price. Close up filters come in different diopter strengths, which work with the focal length of the lens to increase magnification. Be sure to get the diopter strength that is compatible with the focal length you are using.

Macro Lenses

Dedicated macro lenses are the best, and also most expensive way to go for getting macro shots. Whether you shoot with Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, or just about any other brand, there are tons of great options. Most major camera manufacturers make their own macro lenses, but there are also great third party options from the likes of Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina. There are many options available with brands, focal lengths, and prices, so do your research to see what works best for your budget and gets the best reviews. Dedicated macro lenses will undoubtedly be the easiest to use of all the options provided and will have the best image quality. They are also more versatile and can be used for other types of photography.

This image is not a “true” macro (not 1:1), but I still like it.

Other Gear

The gear necessary to get started with macro photography is minimal, but the list can grow as you become more absorbed by it. Another thing good to have in the bag is a small collapsible reflector/diffuser. They are cheap, easy to carry, and can come in handy to add or diffuse light on your subject. They also work well as a backdrop to cut down on distracting clutter.

Light is also a very important consideration with macro photography. When shooting indoors, you will likely need to add some artificial light on your subject. There are many options for doing this. An off-camera speedlight with flash trigger can work well, and is fun to experiment with. Another option is a macro ring light, which can be attached to the front of the lens and provide plenty of light on the subject. A continuous lighting kit with daylight balanced bulbs is also a good option. If you are doing tabletop macro photography, a lightbox works great. This kit comes with everything you need, but there are also plenty of do-it-yourself videos Youtube for making these with a few inexpensive items.

Although you can shoot macro hand-held, a tripod will be a vital piece of gear in some instances. Using a tripod makes it easier to set up just where you want, compose the shot, and achieve perfect focus on the subject. It is also necessary if the shutter speeds get too slow.

Speaking of focus, a macro focusing rail is a handy tool to help you achieve perfect focus without fiddling with the lens. This mounts into the ballhead on your tripod using a mounting plate, then the camera is mounted on the focus rail. After setting this up, turn the focus ring on the lens to the closest focus setting and place the subject roughly that distance from the camera. Focus is then fine-tuned by adjusting the knobs on the focus rail, which slowly moves the camera forward or back to place the area of sharpness right where you want it.

The macro focusing rail I use. The bottom knob moves the camera forward and back, while the top knob moves it left and right to fine tune focus.

 

Camera Settings

As with many types of photography, there is not one perfect setting for all situations. The camera settings will vary greatly, depending on the amount of light available, the depth of field needed, and the look you are going for. There are, however, a few things to keep in mind, which I'll discuss below. Keep in mind that these are only very general guidelines. You should experiment with various settings to see how each one effects the final image. That's what makes photography so much fun!

Aperture

The aperture is what controls the depth of field. The smaller the aperture (larger number), the more of the subject that will be in focus. Working at such close distances and high magnifications, there may not be a huge difference when switching to the smallest aperture on your lens. For this reason, I generally prefer to stick with a middle-ground aperture of f/8 or f/11 and work from there. That is usually the sharpest setting for most lenses anyway.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed will be determined by the amount of available light, whether the camera is on a tripod or not, and subject movement. When taking a picture of a flower on the kitchen table where everything is completely still, mount the camera on a tripod and let the shutter speed go as slow as it needs to go. Shooting a flower outside, where there might be a slight breeze, will require a much faster shutter speed to freeze motion. Choose the shutter speed that is right for your situation, but don't be afraid to experiment for different effects. Keep in mind that shutter speed needs to be at or below the flash sync speed for your camera if using speedlights.

ISO

Generally speaking, try to keep the ISO as low as possible for the cleanest image. In low light situations, it may need to be boosted even at a slower shutter speed. Again, it's very dependent on the situation.

Don't forget to have fun!

In Conclusion

Macro photography is a big topic. This article covers some of the basic gear, settings, and other things to consider when getting started. Some of the information may seem overly technical, which it can be. The best thing to do is just get out there and try it for yourself. Find out what works for you and the type of images that are most pleasing to your eyes. My suggestion would be to start with an inexpensive set of extension tubes and work up from there. If you find that macro photography is something you really enjoy, step up to a dedicated macro lens. There are many options that won't completely empty the piggy bank, and you may even find a good deal on a used lens. Macro photography is a lot of fun and it will help you learn more about your camera and photography in general. So give it a try.

 

 


About the Author

Rusty Parkhurst

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Rusty has been passionate about learning photography and creating great images since picking up his first 'real' camera 5 years ago. He works in the environmental consulting industry by day, spends evenings and weekends trying to keep up with 3 growing boys, and squeezes in as much photography time as possible. He loves talking photography and welcomes any questions you may have. More of his work can be found on his website.

Comments

  1. When I first started reading the article I thought “This won’t take long”. But your very thorough, extensive article brought up options I hadn’t considered in a “beginners” article. Thanks for being so detailed! I think everyone, including myself, learned a lot by readying this.

  2. Author

    Thanks, John! Macro is fun to shoot and this was a fun article to write. I’m glad you found some good information in it.

    Thank you are reading!

  3. I have been reading up on macro for a couple weeks now, and just bought a Canon 100mm f2.8L IS USM macro lens. I’ve had a number of dedicated macro lenses in the past, and do fine till it gets down to the nitty gritty true 1:1 macro. This time I intend to be prepared. I enjoyed your article, and got some useful points from it, thanks.

  4. Author

    Oh, you’ll really enjoy the Canon 100mm f2.8 L; that’s a great lens! I just recently got a focus rail, which really helps to fine-tune my focus when things really get magnified. Another tip I forgot to mention: turn the focus ring on the lens so it is at the MFD, then move the camera slightly back and forth until you find the sweet spot for the part of the image you want to be sharp.

    Have fun with the new lens and thanks for reading!

  5. Great, great article Rusty. You covered a lot of important info, yet kept it real… have fun! Still, my favorite lens I own is my Sigma 150mm lens.

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