Macro photography aims to capture and reveal the unseen world to a large audience. Much of this type of photography focuses on capturing the delicacy of wildlife and plantlife in its natural habitat. In this way, macro photography can be a beautiful medium of storytelling that inspires viewers to stop and appreciate the details of the world around them.
What is macro photography?
Macro photography is photography that captures images at high magnifications. In true macro photographs, the size of the subjects captured must be the same size in the camera sensor as they are in real life. In other words, a true macro photograph features a 1:1 magnification ratio. So, if you photograph an insect that is one inch long in real life, then it must also be one inch long in your image to be considered macro photography.
Since this unique form of photography makes small objects look life-sized or larger, it’s often used to photograph flowers, insects and other small subject matter that we can’t normally see up close with the naked eye.
While an image must feature a 1:1 magnification to be considered a true macro photograph, in general, the term ‘macro photography’ is broadly used to describe imagery featuring close-up subject matter.
How to take a macro photograph
Get a dedicated macro lens
To take what is considered a true macro photograph, you have to use a dedicated macro lens. The quality of the lens you use is very important in macro photography, perhaps even more so than the camera you’re using. Currently, there are a wide variety of macro lenses available that can project life-sized subjects onto the camera's sensor at a 1:1 magnification ratio. You’ll want to look for a lens that has a 1.0x Maximum Magnification (MM) or higher at the lens' Minimum Focus Distance (MFD). Some lenses will even be able to exceed a life-sized projection of a subject. For example, the Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro, which can achieve an up to 5:1 magnification ratio. That being said, a macro lens of this caliber is not required to take a true macro photograph. Lenses with a MM of between 0.50x to 1.0x (0:50 to a 1:1 magnification ratio, respectively) will do. Keep in mind, if you’re planning to photograph flat objects like coins or stamps, using a “flat-field” macro lens will ensure edge-to-edge sharpness.
If you can’t source a dedicated macro lens, you have alternatives. Today, many point-and-shoot cameras have a built-in macro mode that automatically adjusts lens elements to capture close shots of objects at an observable distance. Furthermore, you can buy more affordable macro photography accessories like extension tubes that work with any lens you’re using. However, you’ll likely have to sacrifice some infinity focus and working distance with an accessory.
A last ditch alternative is to “fake” a macro photograph by cropping an image to make your subject appear more close-up and magnified. However, this can drastically reduce your image quality and would not achieve a “true” macro photograph.
Choose your subject
What interests you and what can be photographed effectively and safely at a close distance? Along with the common macro photography subjects like flowers, leaves and insects, you can also shoot rain drops and inanimate objects like dolls, jewelry, pencils — you name it. Since inanimate objects don’t move, they can be easier to photograph than insects or butterflies. For the latter, always make sure to shoot from a safe, observable distance so as not to harm the animal or yourself.
Select the right camera mode and aperture
Most cameras offer a series of modes: Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program, etc. For macro photography, stick to Aperture Priority or Manual mode. Both modes will allow you to manually configure your aperture which is critical to finding the right depth of field for your macro photographs. Along with shutter speed and ISO, aperture is one of the key determinants of the exposure of your photographs. Aperture also affects your depth of field, or the sharpness or softness of your image.
Small apertures (marked by higher f-numbers like f/16 or f/20) will result in a sharper focus. On the other hand, larger apertures (marked by lower f-numbers like f/2.8) will result in a softer focus.
Given the high magnification level of macro photography, it’s hard to achieve a depth of field that includes a sharply focused subject and background. However, you should still think intentionally about whether you’d like a sharper or softer focus in your macro photographs. For example, some macro photographers will shoot at f/13 or f/16 to keep their entire subject in sharp focus. Other macro photographers will shoot at lower f-numbers to achieve a soft focus effect in which just a small part of a subject is in focus. Neither is wrong and both can be aesthetically pleasing. Just make sure to keep your aperture level in mind to achieve the style you intend.
Curate the lighting
If there’s one thing photographers crave most, it’s the perfect lighting. Depending on whether you’re photographing indoors or outdoors, make sure to plan around the times of day when the light will be at its most glowing. Generally, this means only photographing during the golden hours. This includes the one to two hours after sunrise and the one to two hours before sunset. Colors are amplified and subjects will be well-lit at these times of day.
But, make sure not to attempt taking macro photographs when the light is too harsh. This will result in bad exposures and unflattering shadows no matter how advanced you are with macro photography. Assuming no cloud cover, the harshest lit parts of the day are around midday at or around high noon. Additionally, the one to two hours on either side of high noon tend to also be harshly lit. That being said, if you have lots of cloud cover, midday can work in some cases.
Macro photography tips
#1: Use a tripod
Using a tripod or monopod is a great way to remove any risk of messing up your composition or depth of field through movement. Of course, you will not be able to use a tripod to macro photograph certain subjects or terrains. But, especially, if you’re shooting inanimate objects indoors, consider using a tripod to steady your equipment while shooting subjects close-up.
#2: Manually adjust your focus
While modern cameras offer amazing autofocus capabilities, many photographers prefer to manually focus their cameras to capture an image exactly how they want to. Furthermore, auto focusing can hinder the high magnification focusing aimed for in macro photography. For the best macro photographs, switch your camera mode from autofocus to manual. Then, turn the focus ring to get the point of focus you’re looking for.
If you’re still struggling to focus on a subject manually, try setting your focus first and then letting go of the focus ring and rocking your camera back and forth until the plane of focus in your camera sensor is exactly where you want it.
#3: Shoot a subject that’s far away from its background
This is a great hack for taking macro photographs with an ethereal, blurred background. To do it, make sure your aperture is set to a wide setting for a shallow depth of field. Then, make sure your subject is as far away from its background as possible.
If you’re shooting inanimate objects in your house, then this is an easy trick. However, if you’re shooting wildlife outdoors, we do not recommend that you move, harm or misplace animals or plants (remember: the heart of macro photography is to appreciate nature in its original, chosen state). Instead, try one of the following options:
- Only photograph wildlife subjects that are far from their background. This could be a specific flower that happens to be pointed far away from the grass behind it or a spider hanging from a web woven high in the sky.
- Change your own position so that the background of your subject is far away according to your vantage. This might mean getting low to the ground so that the background of your subject is no longer the grass behind it as you’re looking down, but the sky behind it as you’re looking up.
#4: Point your lens into the sun
A fantastic way to achieve beautiful lighting effects when shooting images at high magnifications is to photograph subjects so that your camera is shooting into the sun behind them. Of course, this tip will depend on the lighting and positioning of your subject. Again: we do not recommend you move live wildlife or plant life to try this trick!
#5: Be intentional about composition
With subject matter shot so close-up, composition is tremendously important in macro photography. Even slightly shifting the positioning of the elements in your macro photographs can have a seismic effect on the feeling and impact. Remember the rule of thirds and how placing your subject a third of the way into the frame can create a harmonious interplay of visual movement, or dynamism.