Up close and personal: what you need to know about macro photography

We delve into macro photography; how it works, the challenges you may face and how you can achieve beautiful macro shots of your own.

Photographing tiny things is deceptively challenging. A ladybird crawling across a leaf, a dewdrop hovering at the end of a branch; objects that are too small to see properly with the naked eye are fascinating, but they’re also difficult to photograph with the right amount of closeness and detail.

Here, we’ll discuss how macro photography works, the challenges involved, and what you can do to overcome those challenges to capture your own stunning macro shots.

What makes it macro?

The terms close-up and macro are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t always the same thing, exactly. A close-up is more of a blanket term for any image that seems, well, close up. Macro photography is all about the level of magnification, with a sprinkle of ratios to make things interesting. For a true macro shot you’ll want a macro lens, although there are some ways to “fake” the effect that we’ll cover a little later on.

Ideally, macro photography starts at a 1:1 ratio. That means the object you are photographing is projected at the same size on your camera sensor as it appears in real life. The first number in the ratio is your subject, while the second refers to its projection on your sensor. So, a 1:2 ratio means that your subject is projected at half its actual size (1:2 is still considered to be macro in some circles, but as that second number gets higher, you’re getting further away from a true macro magnification). Macro can go all the way up to 10:1, though you probably will see mostly 5:1 and below.

Once you move past a certain point of magnification, you’re heading into micro photography territory, and will need an actual microscope to get the right amount of magnification.

A macro lens should tell you what ratio it is capable of, in its name or on its barrel. If you don’t see a magnification ratio in the product images and there’s not one listed in the name, do some research in the specs section before purchasing.

When should I use macro?

A photographer never needs a reason to experiment. The world is your practice room when you’re trying out a new technique. That said, there are certain situations where macro photography really shines:

  • Product photography—there are often very small, very important details that a seller will want their potential customers to see. Macro photography is great for showing off intricate jewellery settings or fine stitching on clothing.
  • Insects—we don’t usually see bugs up close, so a macro shot that lets us see them in detail can be fascinating.
  • Single-component compositions—a small subject that is powerful enough to carry the whole image is a great choice for macro. Frost patterns are good for this, as well as interestingly-shaped branches or other bits of flora.

Of course, some of the best photography breaks all the rules. Don’t box yourself into the “best” categories for macro if you have another idea you’d like to try.

Common challenges of macro photography

Though macro solves the problem of getting close enough and detailed enough, it introduces some challenges of its own. Here’s what to look out for and how to compensate:

Problem: Living things like insects (even small ones) will likely be on the move as you photograph. That makes them difficult to focus on, and there’s a chance of frightening them away while you’re adjusting your equipment.

Solution: Use a longer focal length (90mm or longer). This gives you a greater working distance (so that you can shoot from farther away and get the same amount of magnification), which also helps keep your shadow out of the frame.

Problem: Getting a wide enough depth of field to cover the entire subject can be challenging in macro, especially while trying to correctly balance the exposure. You may only have a sliver of sharp focus to work with at a time.

Solution: A tilt-shift lens will help you manipulate the depth of field around your subject’s position. If this option is cost-prohibitive to you, try bouncing a speedlight with TTL against a reflector to get a little extra light and allow more flexibility in your settings.

Problem: Focusing is the number one issue for most photographers as they master macro photography. It’s hard to get and keep the right focus on such a small point, but there are several solutions to this problem.

Solution #1: Focus stacking will allow you to use multiple points of focus throughout the image. It’s a lot like exposure bracketing, in that you take photos at each point of focus rather than compromising on a single one. A macro rail is a great tool for this process. It allows you to shift your focus in tiny amounts and holds that point of focus once you’ve achieved it. After that, you can use Focus Merge in Affinity Photo to merge the different shots together to get sharpness throughout the image.

Solution #2: Let your body do some of the work. Rather than manipulating your focus ring, which can go off by small degrees as you fiddle with it, choose a point of focus and move yourself forward and backward until the subject is sharp. Your neck and shoulders are more stable than your fingers and hands. As you take the shot, hold your breath. Even the smallest inhalation or exhalation can throw off the precision of your focus.

Solution #3: If you have a mirrorless camera, you may have the option of focus peaking. This setting will highlight the point(s) of focus in your image so that you can know with certainty what you’re focusing on. You may need to implement other solutions on top of this, but it will help you assess your focus in real time and make adjustments before you press the shutter button.

What if I don’t have a macro lens?

You can get the macro effect without a dedicated lens, though in most cases it still won’t be true macro photography. You can try mounting an extension tube between your camera body and lens, adding separation between your sensor and lens elements to increase magnification. Buy one made by your camera manufacturer, if possible, to avoid mechanical vignetting in your images.

Another option is a diopter filter that threads onto your regular lens. Think of it as a magnifying glass for your camera sensor. Once again, you’ll want to watch out for unintentional vignetting. However, this is quite a good option for testing the waters of macro before you invest in a full-on macro lens.

Lastly, you can simply test out the macro setting on your DSLR. This will almost always be identified with a little flower symbol. You’ll get more of a close-up effect than an actual macro one, but it may just be enough to get the shot you want if a spontaneous macro urge hits you and you don’t have the right equipment. The downside of this is that you will be sacrificing a lot of control. Your camera will probably decide the aperture and shutter speed settings to get what it thinks is a good exposure, so you may need to pull out your tripod if you get stuck with a shutter speed below 1/250 or compromise on your depth of field if the aperture is wider than you intended.

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.