Welcome to the photography guide to shooting macro photography!
Macro photography can be a lot of fun, and you can create some amazing photos, but it’s not as simple as it may look.
You can do macro photography without a lot of expensive photography gear, such as studio lights, and it’s appealing because you can do it almost anywhere, such as your own back yard or in a local park. However, to get the best images you need to know the right techniques, which is what we’re going to look at today.
Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll have a solid understanding of macro photography and the skills to go out and create some beautiful images.
Why Can’t I Just Grab a Macro Lens and Start Shooting?
Because you won’t get the best possible images if you just jump in blindly. Macro photography can be simple once you get the hang of it, but there is a lot more technical, science-type stuff involved in it than with something like portrait or landscape photography. This can be daunting for beginners, so I’m going to try and explain things in an easy-to-understand way.
Magnification and Sensor Size
Macro photography and magnification go hand-in-hand. It has to do with the size of your subject, and how that is projected on to your camera sensor.
It doesn’t matter about your camera’s sensor size for this. If your subject is, say two centimeters long, a ‘life size’ projection on your camera’s sensor would be two centimeters, regardless of sensor size. Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras have a sensor size between 1 to 1.5 inches (2.4 to 3.6 centimeters) so an object that is two centimeters long will fill most of the photo and have quite a lot of detail.
Life-size magnification is called 1:1 in the world of macro photography, Half of life-size is at 1:2 magnification – your two-centimeter object is projected on to the sensor at one centimeter.
Once you grasp the magnification concept, you’re well on your way to understanding most of the macro-specific terminology.
Is a Full-Frame Sensor Better Than a Crop Sensor?
If you want high magnification levels in your images, full-frame cameras aren’t always the best for macro photography. It all comes down to the highest pixel density, which is the most pixels per square millimeter of your sensor. This determines the maximum detail you can get on your subject. A larger, full-frame sensor has less pixels per millimeter than a crop sensor, even though it has more pixels overall. Remember, it’s all about pixel density, so the crop sensor camera has more pixels per millimeter.
There aren’t many genres of photography where a crop sensor camera is preferable to a full-frame, but for extreme magnification macro photography it’s generally true.
If you don’t want such extreme magnification, a full-frame sensor does have advantages. You may want to take a photo of something like a large spider, but you wouldn’t want it to be as close as you can focus because you wouldn’t fit the whole spider in the photo. In these scenarios, a full-frame camera is superior to a crop frame one because the image quality will be much better due to the overall higher pixel count.
To sum up: for extreme magnification macro images, a crop frame camera is best, but for all other types of macro images a full-frame camera has the advantage for image quality.
DSLR or Mirrorless for Macro Photography?
Both types of camera can work well, but the optical viewfinder in a DSLR is better, as it has no time lag. If you are at the highest magnifications, a small time lag of even a fraction of a second can make a difference.
On the other hand, mirrorless cameras often have a setting called ‘focus peaking’, which helps you to focus manually and highlights the sharpest areas of the photo you’re about to take. A lot of macro photography is about manual focusing, so any aid to this is useful indeed.
Working Distance and Lenses
Working distance is exactly what it sounds like: the distance between the front of your lens and your nearest subject. A longer working distance is useful if your subject is easily spooked, as you can stay further away from it while working.
Quality macro lenses have larger working distances, often of a foot or more. As you increase your focal length, the working distance also increases. As your magnification decreases, your working distance increases too. If you were at 1:4 magnification, you wouldn’t need to be as close to your subject as if you were going for 1:1 magnification.
Two lenses with long working distances are the Canon 180mm f/3.5L macro, which costs around $1,399, and the Nikon 105 mm f/4 macro, which sells for around $896.
Depth of Field in Macro Photography
Macro photographers have a problem specific to the genre – thin depth of field. The closer you focus, the smaller your depth of field becomes, even at the same aperture. It can be difficult to get your entire subject in focus because the depth of field becomes so tiny. You will find that you can’t have a bee’s head and its legs in focus at the same time, even though they are millimeters apart.
How do you solve this problem? There are a few ways, but each has their downside as well as advantages. The method you choose will be down to personal preference.
You can use a flash and a much smaller aperture. Lack of light is a big problem in macro photography, and if you want a larger depth of field such as f/22 so your entire subject is in focus, you’ll need to add more light in the form of a flash. It’s easier to focus at f/16 or f/22, and you’ll have a much wider depth of field, but it means setting up and fiddling around with a flashgun until you get the lighting right.
Focus stacking is another way macro photographers combat thin depth of field. This is where you take multiple images of the same subject at the same settings, but change the focus slightly to a different area each time until you have covered the whole subject.
To focus stack, you need a good tripod and a lot of patience. Your subject also needs to keep still, so it can be hard to use when you’re shooting insects. You also need specialist software like Zerene Stacker, Photoshop or Helicon Focus to stack the images in post-processing.
Once the software has worked its magic, you should end up with a single image that is a composite of all the in-focus areas you took in your original photographs, and it should be all in focus.
You may decide that you actually like the thin depth of field, or only want to take images that are not 1:1 magnification, and in this case you can just stop down your lens to around f/2 to combat low light and you’re set to go. You don’t have to rely on lighting setups and software stackers if you choose this method, but it can be hard to get a good shot hand-held at closer magnifications.
Learning to Focus Manually
If you want to take great macro shots hand holding your camera, you’re going to need to use manual focusing. Your camera’s autofocus can’t keep up with your miniscule hand movements, especially at higher magnification levels, and that means it can’t lock focus on a subject.
The idea of manual focusing seems to put people off, but it’s really not hard to learn. Manual focusing in macro photography is different from most other genres, though. You don’t twist the focusing ring until your image appears sharp, you should focus by distance.
Set your lens to a certain focus distance, such as 1:1, and then leave the focus ring in that position. Slowly rock your camera backwards and forwards in small movements while looking through the viewfinder. When the image is sharp, press the shutter. You can do this on a monopod, or handheld. You won’t get every image right, but you should get some good keepers. If you use a tripod, you don’t need to manually focus unless you want to.
At wider magnifications, you can use autofocus hand-held, as it’s generally more accurate than manual focus at these distances.
Composition Tips for Macro Photography
The background really matters in macro photography. It will likely be very far out of focus, but it’s important that it looks good and doesn’t clash with your subject. Green grass and blue sky are two good background colors. Make sure before you take the image that there is nothing distracting in the background such as a sunbeam which can take attention away from your subject. If you’re feeling creative, you can make your own colored backgrounds out of card or paper.
You’ll find that colors and contrast in macro photography are far more vivid than other genres, and this is to do with there being less air to scatter the light between your subject and lens. Shoot in RAW format to be able to further tweak the colors in post processing.
Try and shoot from different angles, to make your compositions more dynamic and interesting. Try from above and below, and to the sides and see which ones you prefer.
Don’t let the technical stuff put you off from trying macro photography. With a little time and patience, it’s a really rewarding genre of photography.
Do you shoot macro photographs? Tell us about any tips or tricks you’ve learned along the way.