“Since the start of this pandemic, I’ve noticed more and more people getting started with macro photography at home,” the São Paulo-based photographer Bruno Militelli tells us. “It’s a genre with a steep learning curve, but this past year, people had the time to experiment and learn. I was glad to see so many photographers take the risk and embrace the challenge.”
Strictly speaking, macro photos are images taken at a 1:1 magnification or greater, revealing details in tiny subjects. Global lockdown orders encouraged many photographers to head out and explore the flowers and insects in their own gardens, while also inspiring others to get creative with unusual materials. In the past few months, for instance, Bruno has photographed several items found in everyday pantries, ranging from oil and water and soap bubbles to coriander seeds and black peppercorns.
Whether you’re shooting ordinary items from your kitchen or venturing into your backyard for some macro wildlife images, here are some key tips to keep in mind.
Respect your models
This one is the most important tip of all. While it won’t apply to inanimate objects in your house, it will apply to every single animal you might find in your backyard, from insects to frogs. “The animal’s well-being always comes first,” the wildlife photographer Ignacio Yúfera, who works with amphibians, reptiles, and arthropods, tells us.
Ignacio often works alongside field biologists to learn more about his subjects and their needs, so do your research and study up on any backyard inhabitants you might find. Always keep your distance, and avoid handling any critters. “Small frogs and other amphibians will immediately show signs of distress if overcrowded or mishandled,” Ignacio explains. “They might be small, but they deserve the same respect as birds and mammals. A frog who is scared or stressed will look totally different from an alert, healthy, confident one.”
Species manipulation is unethical, as is ruining a habitat. Good ethics will result in better photos, so be patient, and let your model come to you. Ignacio regularly has animals approach on their own time. Your backyard is also their home; don’t stage or move things around for the sake of a picture.
“Don’t overload yourself with novelty equipment and gadgets,” Ignacio urges. He’s made some of his strongest images with affordable, portable gear. The most important tool, of course, is the macro lens, so choose one that works for you. When renting or shopping for a lens, keep in mind that shorter focal lengths require you to get closer to your subject.
Ignacio’s 60mm f2.8 Macro lens (120mm equivalent on his Micro Four Thirds system) starts at $499.99, but even if you don’t have the budget for a dedicated macro lens, you can still start making macro photos at home. For example, you can use extension tubes (they’ll only set you back around $100, at the most) or even try a reversing ring and reversed 50mm prime lens for the macro effect. Once you get more advanced, you can start to combine your extension tubes and macro lenses for more magnification.
Shallow depths of field can easily become an issue with macro lenses, so Alberto Ghizzi Panizza recommends starting with larger subjects and shooting in aperture priority mode. “One of the most frequent mistakes photographers make is wanting to immediately jump in with shooting macros at very high magnifications,” he tells us. “The more you zoom in, the more complicated it will be.” Alberto also suggests starting with inanimate or stationary objects before moving onto moving subjects.
Master manual focus
“When using autofocus, it’s common for your camera to focus on something other than your subject, as the system just can’t cope with the high magnifications that macro images require. So learning how to use the manual focus on your lens will deliver much more precision,” Bruno Militelli says. “Additionally, find out if your camera has a focus peaking tool. This electronic focus aid shows in real-time where exactly your camera’s focus is on the subject, highlighting the edges that are in focus and ensuring you never miss an image due to focus issues.”
Shoot in live view
“For most cameras, I also recommend using the ‘live view’ mode to better view your image before shooting,” Alberto advises. Working in live view will allow you to see how your exposure settings (most importantly, your aperture) affect your image in real-time, while also giving you more control over the focus.
Use a stabiliser
To contend with shallow depths of field, you’ll likely need to stop down your aperture (f/16 or smaller on a full-frame camera). When you do this, of course, you might need to increase your shutter speed, and any movements will be exaggerated by the magnification. That’s where a tripod and remote shutter release will prove invaluable.
“In addition to the tripod and remote shutter release, I prefer using an electronic shutter, as the movement of a mechanical shutter will reduce some of that sharpness,” Bruno explains. “I’ll then close down my aperture, but I won’t close it too far, as that’ll result in diffraction, and you’ll lose sharpness around the edges of your image.” Finally, if you’re shooting outdoors, opt for a day without much wind or breeze.
Get enough light
Another way to compensate for narrow apertures is to add more light. But before we dive into options, an important disclaimer: some creatures are sensitive to light, especially at night, and not all animals can be safely photographed using flash. When working with living subjects, including those in your yard, do your research, consult an expert, and always exercise care and caution when it comes to lighting. Different species have different needs.
If you’re shooting inanimate objects at home, of course, you have free rein to experiment with all sorts of lighting while refining your technique. To start, off-camera flash is often the most powerful option. In the field, Ignacio prefers the lightweight Olympus FL 900R or Godox V860 II flashes with the Godox X-Pro transmitter. He always uses a diffuser and is constantly experimenting with different options.
For a more affordable solution, you can also use continuous light. Ignacio sometimes uses a Lume Cube, and Bruno uses a small but powerful Aputure LED panel with an adjustable colour temperature output. With all that being said, depending on your subject and camera settings, bright natural sunlight might do the trick.
Modify your light
For macro photographers, diffusers can make all the difference, whether it’s a softbox or a DIY solution. Alberto uses diffusers with daylight and during the blue hour, the golden hour, and sunrise. “Instead of bulky panels, I use white cardboard or polystyrene cutouts,” he says. “Even ten-centimetre pieces are generally more than enough to properly illuminate a small macro subject. In macro, as in photography in general, correctly illuminating the subject with diffused light is one of the most important aspects for emphasising colours, depth, and details.”
Mix up your angles
“Finding the right angle is just as fundamental as finding the right lighting or the right depth of field,” Alberto says. “Instead of being satisfied with your first good shot and calling it a day, experiment with different angles and types of light, from direct light to side to backlight. Depending on the direction of your light and your angle, your subject could be diminished or come to life. Almost all of my macro shots are the result of countless trials and attempts, often unsuccessful. Keep trying new things.”
Watch your composition
“The composition is often what will differentiate a good macro photo from a spectacular one,” Bruno says. “The objective of macro photography is not only to capture small objects and details but also to create an aesthetically pleasing image. Learning the rules of composition will help you think outside the box and create the best image possible with whatever you have available in the moment. I often use abstract shapes, colours, and patterns to transform everyday objects into something else.”
“The most common mistake I notice is when photographers shoot too quickly,” the Paris-based photographer Sophie Thouvenin tells us. “The best advice I can give is to take your time. Take your time to set up your camera, perfect your depth of field, and notice how the light shines. If you slow down, macro photography can be a magical, meditative experience.”
Learn to pause and reflect as you take pictures. Use your time in the backyard as a chance to take a breath and reconnect with nature, or take the time to notice details in your surroundings that would otherwise go unnoticed. There’s a whole miniature world out there waiting to be explored, so don’t rush it.
Once you feel comfortable with the basics of macro photography, feel free to experiment with new or unconventional techniques. You can often create gorgeous images by going against the grain, and Sophie is the perfect example. She uses only natural and available light (no flash), so her images have a soft, painterly feel, and she’ll sometimes use a wider aperture for an intentionally shallow depth of field and an ethereal blur or bokeh effect.
Your pictures can be as sharp or as dreamy as you’d like them to be. “I don’t know of any ‘rules’ when it comes to macro photography,” Sophie tells us. “Making a nice photo is easy. Making a soulful photo is another story. I see macro photography as a way to escape reality and express myself. I’ve enjoyed every step of the way, including the accidents. After all, accidents give us the chance to learn, and they can also result in creative images you never expected.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.