Macro photography tips

Damselflies

As much as I enjoy landscape photos, I do like to get up close and personal to little bugs. Macro photos allow you to reveal tiny worlds in great detail, one which otherwise cannot be seen by the naked human eye.

Macro photography is where subjects are photographed from an extremely close to the lens. Technically, the subject size as projected onto the camera sensor should be reporoduced at a 1:1 ratio. For example, a bug that is 1cm in length, should take up at least that much space on the sensor. Anything else is more correctly called a close up photo. In practice however, the term "macro" is loosely used to describe any sort of close up image.

Image

What lens do I need for macro photography?

You'll want a macro lens of course and a true macro at that. Lens companies like to label their lenses macro to get a few more sales, but a real macro lens should be capabale of a 1:1 reproduction ratio. Be sure to do your research before you buy, but here's a list of some popular lenses for DSLR cameras:

  • Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L
  • Canon EF 100mm f2.8L IS USM 
  • Nikon AF-S 105mm f/2.8 Macro VR
  • Tamron SP AF 90mm Di F/2.8 VC USD 1:1 Macro Lens
  • Sigma Lens 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro

Note that these are all around the 100mm range. You can get macro lenses in the 50-60mm range, but these mean you have to get super close to your subject which is not always ideal when shooting skittish insects. You can get macros in the 150 to 200mm range but these are come at a price. 100mm falls in the sweet spot.

If you're on a budget and can't afford a macro lens, you can use close up filters, extension tubes or lens reversing adapters, but these will never be as good as the real thing. Save your pennies and get the good stuff for better results.

I use the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L, I've had it for 8 years and it's as good as Canon's newer version that with image stabilisation but much cheaper. I always shoot on a tripod so image stabilisation doesn't matter to me. If you think you're going to be doing a bit of hand holding, then the image stabilised ones will come in handy.

Wasp macro

Spider eating a grasshopper

What other equipment do I need to take macro photos?

Keeping the camera stable in my opinion, is critical to a sharp macro or close up photo, therefore my two best friends are a tripod and a remote trigger.

Tripod

I always shoot macros using a tripod. You can hand hold if there is a lot of light, but even then, when you are at super close distances, even the slightest movement can cause a blurry image. A tripod means more work setting up and can be cumbersome, but I'd rather have 1 sharp image than 10 blurry ones. Any tripod will do, but one that can get real close to the ground can be handy at times - some have the ability to remove the centre column whilst some don't have a center column at all.

Remote trigger

Even when on a tripod pressing the shutter button you will cause the camera to shake, to alleviate this problem get yourself a remote trigger. These can be found for pretty cheap on eBay, the third party ones from China do exactly the same job as the more expensive first party ones. If you don't have a remote, the self timer function works as well.

Flash

If you want to get a bit fancy with lighting, or if shooting at night or in a studio environment, you can use a flash. Off camera flash is best (using the one on the camera will result in harsh front on lighting, and the lens may block off the flash anyway). If shooting during the day you won't often need flash. I use two flashes with cheap Yongnuo RF-603 wireless flash triggers if shooting bugs at night. 

Techniques and settings for macro photography

Manual focus

Forget auto focus and go manual for the precision and accuracy.

Aperture

When working at such close distances with a 100mm lens, it means that the depth of field will be extremely narrow, so you'll want to use a fairly small aperture. Of course this depends on what you are shooting, but you'll often find that you may need to go all the way down to f/20. Review your photos as you are taking them to see if you need a smaller aperture or not. However, sometimes you'll want to have a super blurry background, so don't be afraid to use a larger aperture either. Experiement and see what looks good!

Shutter speed

It depends on how fast your subject is moving, if at all. If it's completely still and you're using a tripod you can get away with really slow speeds like 1/20 second or even lower some times. If there's a slight breeze about and its blowing your subject about, or if your subject is making small movements, then you'll want something faster - the faster the better really, but aim for at least 1/100 sec.

ISO

Depending on the lightning, the aperture value you're using and the shutter speed you want, you might need to crank the ISO up if you're not using flash. If you're using a flash then 100 - 200 will be fine.

Aperture, shutter speed and ISO relationship

These are all related to one another - you change one and it will affect one of the others. I shoot in Av mode (aperture priority) when shooting without flash, so I set the aperture first, then the ISO which then gives me a shutter speed. I will then adjust the ISO if I want a faster shutter speed. If using flash, I set everything manually - aperture, shutter speed, ISO and flash intensity. I then take a few test shots to see if I need to adjust the settings (I'll usually adjust the flash power) to get a good exposure.

Focus stacking

To get around the limited depth of field issue, you can take multiple photos, focusing on a different area of the subject each time, and then combine the images later on using focus stacking software. The subject needs to be completely still for this to work however.

Spider

Other handy tips for macro photography

Get up early

Bugs aren't as active in the mornings so you'll have better luck at catching them resting. The lighting in the morning is perfect as well. 

Stay out late

Bugs are sleeping at this time, dragonflies for example. You will need to use flash from evening onwards however.

Patience

Be patient and approach sloooowly. I'm a little impatient and struggle with this myself! If shooting bugs, I'll usually start a little further back, take a few pics, then move a little closer, repeating until I've got the shot I want or if the bug has made a run for it.

Windy? Forget about it.

If it's windy, you may as well forget about it and come back when there isn't much wind around. Otherwise look for subjects that are either sheltered from the wind or on something solid that isn't blowing about.

Conclusion

Macro and close up photography is fun, intriguing and best of all - you only need go outside in your garden to do it! Happy shooting.