Macro Photography Tips

Male Giant Crab Spider closeup
Male Giant Crab Spider closeup

Last Sunday during the Photo walk I had given a short talk on Macro photography. Preparing for the talk I jotted down several tips. I thought I will compile all of them into an article which will be useful for all my viewers. So here it is in much expanded form than during the photo walk. I hope the points I noted here will be helpful for many who want to pursue macro photography.

For a photographer who wants to explore the small details of environment – such as flowers, leaves, colorful insects – awaits a whole new, rich world of possibilities. Macro photography requires time and diligence. It typically can’t be done quickly. Taking close-up pictures of microscopic objects is called “macro photography”. If you really pedantic then it needs to be called “photomacrography”.
Whilst many definitions of macro seem to revolve around 1:1 magnification, that does not work very well in practice. Most macro shooters do not use their lens at 1:1 all the time and the definition applies to image size on the sensor not “print magnification”. The working definition of macro I prefer to use is that it should show detail not visible to the naked eye when viewing the image as a print or image on the PC screen.

When we take macro photography pictures, we have three choices of optical solution: special macro lenses, intermediate rings (extension tubes) or bellows, and macro filters, which are screwed to the lens, just like a typical photographic filter. Even though compact cameras usually have the macro mode, it usually doesn’t allow taking life-size pictures of smaller flowers or insects (not to mention overall quality of the photos).

Fatal Attraction
Fatal Attraction

Macro Lenses
This option is the easiest and quickest to use, but at the same time the most expensive. These are essentially normal lenses, which glasses, however, can be put much further in the direction of a photographed object. These lenses usually provide excellent picture quality, and at the same time are brighter than the other optical options.

Using lenses designed specifically to carry out macro photography pictures you can take advantage of the full range of automatic light metering and focusing. The most popular macro lenses have focal lengths that are in the range from 50mm to 105mm. Also, some zooms provide focus range in a macro mode – but usually this is not really a 1:1 reproduction ratio. If you want to do a lot of macro photography and it will be your important theme of photos, it is definitely worth to invest in a macro lens.

Bellows and Intermediate Rings (Extension Tubes)
Both types of this equipment work in the same way: while holding the lens further from the surface of the camera’s sensor, it allows to increase the scale of mapping. It is a little wieldy solution, but cheap, and allows us to use other, non-macro lenses with fixed focal length that provide a good picture quality. Bellows and intermediate rings, however, cause loss of light. With the increasing loss of light simultaneously depth of field remains the same.

Macro Filters
This is the cheapest option for macro photography, but allows achieving satisfactory optical effects. It is the only solution that can be used for most compact cameras, which lenses aren’t possible to be changed. They are just magnifying glasses of different magnification magnitude, fastened to the front of the camera lens or other filters. Additionally, you can combine them together in order to intensify the magnification. It must be remembered that the more additional layers of glass (or plastic in the case of the cheapest macro filters) will be put in front of the camera lens, the worse optical quality of the pictures. For those wanting to receive a picture of the highest optical quality, such magnifying lenses are not the best solution.

Depth of Field
Irrespective of our optical solutions when doing macro photography we should take into consideration that the closer the photographed object is to the lens, the less depth of field we can utilize. As far as possible let us set photographed object that all or the majority of it would be located in the plane of focus. If we want to have a whole photographed object sharp – in other words it would be located in the depth of field range – we should use the small aperture diaphragm (thus, rather f/11-f/16 instead of f/2.8 or f/3.5). It should be remembered that usually lenses provide the best picture quality with the aperture around f/8. Aperture higher than f/16 (macro lenses often have even f/32 aperture) causes a noticeable deterioration in image quality.

Hang Me Not!
Hang Me Not!

But not always a strong depth of field in macro photography is what a photographer really needs. Very often we prefer to have only one fragment of a sharp image (e.g. a single flower or its small detail), and the remainder of the picture we prefer to leave as a blurred background. Thus, having aperture diaphragm around f/5.6- f/8 we try to maneuver the camera that the selected object remains in a narrow plane of focus, and other elements of the background as far away from it as possible. The best approach is to try to set the camera in a position that the most important for us part of the photographed scene remains parallel to the camera sensor (or film frame). Initially, it seems quite difficult, but quickly becomes easy.

Tripod, mono pod
Probably only photographers of insects do not agree with the statement that without a good tripod it is difficult even to talk about macro photography. If we want to have stronger depth of field, we have to use higher apertures, which usually prevent us to take a shot by hand. In the case of macro photography exposure time is typically much longer than in other types of photography. In addition, in this kind of photography even the slightest move of the camera or your subject during exposure time, not only leads to change the frame, but above all causes severe loss of sharpness.

Self-timer, Shutter Release Cable
Using the long exposure time, we shouldn’t push the camera’s shutter manually, because even in case of solid tripod, it still can cause vibrations of the camera. So we should use the self-timer – the best would be the remote self-timer, because it allows us to take a picture at exactly the selected time (wind factor at this point is quite important). If we don’t have the remote self-timer, we use the built-in, set for at least 2 seconds – to avoid any vibrations from our touch. By setting the self-timer for too long while photographing in the open air, you risk that in the meantime the wind breaks and spoil our frame.

For macro photography usually the best is soft, diffused light, especially in the case of plants which aren’t very bright and lack of saturated colors. The easiest way to have such a light is to take outdoor pictures in the early morning or during about one-hour time just before sunset.

Macro Stitching a Moth - Final Result
Macro Stitching a Moth - Final Result

Beware of contrasts. Illuminated by direct sunlight part of the photographed object will be even a few aperture degrees brighter than the rest of it remaining in the shadows. Neither photographic film, nor the sensor in digital camera can balance that and the picture would be too contrasty, even with the lack of any details in highlights and shadows. However, it can be easily mitigated, and even in the case of very intense midday sun. On the one hand, we can use a reflector, which reflects sunlight, and kept at the proper angle makes shadows brighter. On the other hand, we can diffuse harsh rays of the sun while holding over the photographed object a diffuser, such as a thick, matte foil or matte glass.

It would be the best to use both mentioned above solutions at the same time – then we will have a very evenly illuminated object. With the camera on a tripod and with a little practice we will be able to simultaneously hold a reflector and a diffuser in both hands, and meanwhile be able to release the trigger (or self-timer). Avoid taking pictures of objects located entirely in the shadow, even with the use of reflectors, because pictures come out flat and dull.

While setting the focus it is often more convenient to slightly move the entire camera toward or from the photographed subject than to use auto focus or focus adjustment ring on the lens, that could slightly change the mapping scale of your subject and affect the composition.

Wind is an important, disturbing factor in macro photography. Even the slightest gust during shutter release can completely spoil a picture. But even during very windy day there are moments when the wind stops for a moment, and a trembling leaf or a flower became still for a moment – so we should just wait with everything already set up to be ready for this moment and take a picture. Usually, the wind is the weakest in the morning and late afternoon when we also have the best lighting conditions (warm, soft, low angle sunlight). It is advisable to check the weather forecast while scheduling the outdoor macro photography sessions, and if it indicates strong and moderate wind, it will be better to change those plans.

Nearly all the fixed focal length 1:1 macro lenses from 50mm to 180mm are capable of giving excellent results, but remember the shorter the focal length, the shorter the minimum focus distance.
I normally shoot with manual focus and the camera set in manual mode and ISO 100 aperture F11-F16, shutter around 1/160th-1/200th (1/200th is the highest sync speed for my 5D Mark II) and the flash in ETTL mode (Canon’s advanced TTL mode). The reason for these settings is basically to get good Depth of Field (DOF). On my flash I have the built in wide angle diffuser deployed as well as using my homemade soft box diffuser. I handhold the rig most of the time, but sometimes use a mono pod.

Thorn Mimic Treehopper
Thorn Mimic Treehopper

I pre-set the focus at the required magnification level. Focusing on the subject is then achieved by gently moving your whole body back and forth and shooting as you pass through the focus point.
You can on my camera, partly hold the shutter button half in and it lights up a focus point and beeps as the subject comes in focus. This sounds a bit hit and miss, but when I first started I found about 8 out 10 shots were not in focus, but using this method and a lot of practice I’m now up at about 8 out of 10 shots with the focus where I want.

I have two methods for approaching subjects. The first most obvious one is to slowly move in on them trying not to block any light on them, I have most success doing this if I am either level or slightly below the subject. The second method is to stay near where you have seen the subjects and wait for them to come to you. This often works even when you have scared the subject off in the first place.

I am guessing that about 75% of the photos I are cropped one way or another- often just to improve the composition, however again about 75% will be taken at the minimum focus distance (i.e. highest magnification) which means the subject is about 4.5″ from the front of the lens.

I do not bait them with anything, but seem to have lots of plants/flowers they like settling on or feeding from. The easiest technique is to find a bush or flower etc. that you have seen insects near or on and sit down beside it. Within a few minutes you will find the bugs come back and as long as you move the camera in slowly (taking photos as you go) they are not that easily spooked as long as you are quiet and do not make sudden moves. Interestingly enough, with flies normally if they are doing something interesting like cleaning, defecating, blowing bubbles or mating they are easier to approach.

One slightly sneaky trick is actually to take photos early in the morning as the sun is just beginning to light up the plants- at this time I think the insects are still warming up and are not that mobile.
With dragonflies I think it depends on the species, the chasers/skimmers/darters (basically the smaller dragonflies) seem easier than the big ones (Hawkers) but if you have seen them on a stick and spook them – try sitting down near it and they will often come back.

Male House fly
Male House fly

With all insects it seems easier to sneak up on them if you are not above them and you must not get in the way of the light. I shoot in RAW format so have to use a software conversion utility to change them to JPG. I use Adobe Lightroom for most of my workflow. I also at this stage correct any exposure problems normally not more than half a stop. If I have significantly cropped the picture during processing, then I frequently use noise reduction software to reduce the noise.

I only wish that this was all it takes to take great macro shots. I forgot the hardest part, and that’s the art side. I critically evaluate every frame I shoot. That process weeds out the bad ones, so only 1 out 20 shots gets selected.

Here are my observations that separate really good macro from average macro.

  • Lighting: #1 problem. Poor lighting will kill any shot you may have had. Not enough and you will lose detail, too much and there are hot spots all over the place. Using a diffuser is a must from what I see. I now use a flash mounted on a handheld flash bracket with a diffuser and paper towel over the unit. I shoot on manual flash at full brightness. I also use the on-board flash for fill.
  • Focus: The hardest part. When I started, I was trying to use natural light and that resulted in large aperture and resultant shallow DOF which was just too narrow for most bug and plants. With my current getup (5DMark II, 100mm f/2.8 macro) my shots have improved dramatically since I started shooting with flash. Generally, go for the eyes and hope for the best.
  • Subject: First, you got to find them. They are everywhere; not just bugs and plants. Try some rocks or crystals (jewellery is very difficult to shoot), wood, metal and anything else. Try unique angles. Most people see bugs from the top, so try shooting on their level.
  • Background: Very important. Yes, it’s usually blurred, but it acts as a colour filler and contrasts with your subject. If you look at the better macros, the background colours and shapes really add to the photo.
  • Perseverance and patience: You won’t succeed without both of these. It takes time to develop macro skills even with a good macro lens.
  • Oh, I almost forgot the most important part of all this: HAVE FUN!!

2 thoughts on “Macro Photography Tips”

  1. That’s one detailed description on Macro photography. I used to try this on flowers using my old digi cam. But after I bought SLR I didn’t dare enter into macro photography for the price of macro lens or the hardship of reversal rings. Missed your lecture as I was away from Mangalore 🙁

  2. Krishna Mohan Sir,
    I really appreciate, your efforts are commendable in writing this article. Thank you so much. You have given a total insight into the world of “Macrophotography”, covering all aspects and in a simple way, so that anyone can understand. I have learnt a lot from this.

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