Photo by Timothy Dykes

Step-by-Step Macro Photography

Words by Belinda Crossman & Jacob Pace

Seeing life through a macro lens is like discovering an entirely new world. Macro photography can make the most everyday subject look extraordinary and highlight details you’d never normally notice. 

But there’s more to capturing a great macro shot than just choosing the right gear.

With macro photography tips on everything from lighting choice to settings, here’s a simple, step-by-step guide to capturing great macro shots.

For advice on choosing cameras, macro lenses and other macro photography gear check out Macro Photography Must-Haves for Beginners.


Photo by Lachlan Tang | Taken using Canon EOS R + Canon EF 100mm f2.8L Macro IS USM Lens

Subject 

When it comes to macro subjects, the only limit is your imagination. Insects, shells, flowers, food, water droplets, and small items like toys or jewellery are all popular and easily accessible subjects. You can even shoot parts of larger subjects, which can look entirely different through a macro lens. Anything with fine details and textures is ideal. 


Photo by Samuel Ramos

Depth of Field 

One of the first things to consider when you shoot macro is depth of field. 

The closer your lens gets to a subject (i.e. the shorter your working distance), the shallower the depth of field becomes – often as little as a couple of millimetres. While this creates dramatic background blur, it also makes it harder to actually get your subject in focus.

It’s recommended that you open your aperture no wider than f16 to capture as much of your main subject in focus as possible. Your lens’ narrowest aperture may not give the sharpest results, however, so it’s worth experimenting. 

If you can’t get all of your subject on the same focal plane, you’ll need to choose which part of it to focus on – or do focus stacking (see below).


Photo by Dan Carlson

Minimal Movement = Maximum Sharpness

Macro magnifies everything. When you’re shooting things really close-up, even the tiniest movement can create blur that detracts from your image. So minimising unwanted subject and camera movement is key.

There are a few ways to do this:

Tripod or Focus Rails

If your subject is perfectly still, it’s a good idea to prop your camera on a tripod or focus rails. A tripod or focus rails will help prevent any camera shake. It will also allow you to capture multiple shots (handy for focus stacking – see below) and shoot long exposures (to capture more light in the image).

Hands-Free Shutter Release

If you’re using a tripod or focus rails, you can further minimise any camera shake by firing the shutter using a remote or your camera’s inbuilt timer. You can also turn on mirror lockup if you’re using a DSLR.

Bear in mind that even if your camera is perfectly still, any subject movement will still affect the sharpness of your image.

Shutter Speed

If you’re shooting without a tripod, a fast shutter speed will help reduce blur from camera shake. For stationary subjects try 1/125 or approx. 1/your lens’ focal length (i.e. 1/200 for a 180mm lens) seconds – whichever is faster. 

If your subject is moving, you may need an even faster shutter speed to capture it sharply. Try increasing the shutter speed and assessing the effect on sharpness.

Stabilise Your Subject

Stabilising your subject can be an easier way to freeze its movement – and a good way to get the exact composition you’re after. If you’re shooting a flower outdoors, for example, try tethering the flower to a stake. Alternatively, clamp it to a light stand.

Lighting

Shooting with a narrow aperture requires plenty of light. Doing so at fast shutter speeds requires even more. Increasing your ISO can help but it may not be enough (and it may introduce unwanted image noise). 

That’s why lighting is so important to macro photography.


Photo by Nica Cn

Lighting Options for Macro Photography 

Natural Light

If you’re photographing flowers or bugs, chances are you’ll be shooting outdoors in natural daylight. But natural daylight is also a great option for more staged shoots, like for product photography. For best results shoot in a bright area – ideally when the sky is overcast, so the lighting is even and shadows soft.

If the available light is inconsistent (e.g. interrupted by passing clouds) or harsh and creating unsightly shadows, try softening it with a diffuser or sheer white curtain, or shooting in open shade. This will give you more even and attractive lighting.

Flash

External flash (i.e. not your camera’s pop-up flash) offers much more control than ambient light.  Flash allows you to freeze both subject and camera motion, which makes it great for getting sharp shots while shooting handheld. 

Portable flash units, like speedlights or ring flashes, can also be used practically anywhere – from a studio to a shadowy corner of your garden.

Macro ring lights are designed to fit on your lens, so they cast light directly where your lens is aiming. Ring flashes can usually output different levels of light from each side to create contrast and emphasise form. Most models operate via TTL mode (so they sync with your camera to produce the optimal exposure). Some can be used in conjunction with speedlights.

When mounted on your camera, a traditional speedlight will cast light slightly above where your lens is aiming. If you have a transmitter, you can position a traditional speedlight off-camera to point it wherever you want to create different effects. TTL mode is the easiest option and works well for most macro shots, but manual mode (if available) gives you more control over exposure, if required.

Studio flashes are less commonly used for macro. Because they’re larger, heavier and tend to run off AC power, they’re best suited to static indoor shoots.

Continuous Lighting

While not as powerful or ideal for freezing motion as flash, continuous light is a great option for illuminating static or slower-moving macro subjects. 

Like natural light, continuous lighting allows you to see the light before each shot is taken. But unlike natural light, it’s easy to control and can be used almost anywhere, any time. Continuous LED panels are ideal; they also don’t get hot, so they’re suitable for heat-sensitive subjects.


Macro Photography Lighting Setup

How you set up the lighting for your shot is up to you and the look you want to achieve. 

A good starting point is to direct one main light source at your subject, from the side or an angle. Then, place a weaker second light or reflector on the opposite side or angle (as viewed from your camera) to fill in any shadows.

Example single-light macro lighting setup: Main light (speedlight) on right with fill light (reflector) on left

You could also pop another light—e.g. an off-camera speedlight— out of frame behind the subject. This will act as a rim light that dramatically separates the subject from its background.

If you want to create soft, even lighting and minimise unsightly shadows, diffused lighting works best. As mentioned earlier, shoot in open shade if you’re outdoors, or soften natural or artificial light with a diffuser or sheer white curtain. You could also use a flash or continuous light with built-in diffusion panel.

Alternatively, if you want to create strong shadows or make subjects such as jewellery sparkle, try using harder or more direct lighting – e.g. bare sunlight, an unmodified flash, or a silver reflector (placed to one side or even underneath). Simply manoeuvre the subject, flash or reflector between shots to reflect the light in different ways. 


Photo by Andrii Ganzevych

White Balance

Your choice of lighting will help determine which white balance setting to use. White balance is especially important for product photography, when you need to capture colours accurately. For optimum colour accuracy use a grey card to take a custom white balance reading.

Find Out More: How to Solve 12 of the Most Common Lighting Issues in Photography


Photo by Jessica Lewis

Focusing

Autofocus doesn’t perform so well with extreme close-up photography. Using manual focus will give you sharper results more reliably and consistently.

Focusing manually usually involves holding your camera and lens steady and rotating the focus ring until your subject is sharp. However, for handheld macro photography this can actually create more camera shake and, therefore, blur. Instead, try keeping the focus ring fixed then slowly, incrementally moving your camera back and forth until your subject is in focus.


Photo by Sergiu Vălenaș

Recommended Settings for Macro Photography 


Here’s a quick reference for recommended macro photography settings:

 

  • Shooting mode: Manual (M) 
  • Aperture: f16 (as a starting point) – narrow/widen your aperture to get your desired depth of field
  • Shutter speed: 1/125 sec (as a starting point) if shooting handheld or with bright light OR a slower shutter speed if shooting static subjects (with your camera on a tripod) 
  • ISO: The lower, the better
  • White balance: Matched to your lighting or a custom grey card reading
  • Focus mode: Manual (MF) 

Tip

Macro subjects like insects and small animals move fast and are hard to predict, so it’s worth creating a custom macro setting on your camera. That way, if a macro photo opportunity pops up, your settings will be ready to go almost instantly.


Photo by Vincent van Zalinge

Composition

Background

Simple, uncluttered backgrounds often work best, so try to remove any distracting background elements. Seamless backdrops are great for macro photography, as are walls, paper, card, tiles, etc. If you’re shooting a set backdrop, it’s often a good idea to take a shot of the background by itself.

Try capturing your subject against a contrasting colour – e.g. use a green background for a reddish flower or a light background for a dark insect – to make it stand out.

Another effective option is to crop out the background entirely. This can be a good way to really emphasise your subject and highlight details and patterns.

Angles

Work on angles to add feeling or meaning to your subject. For example, shoot products and jewellery on an incline, to give them a sense of importance. You can also place items throughout the frame to add contrast and lead the viewer’s attention to the main subject.

Rule of Thirds

Following the Rule of Thirds is a simple way to create strong yet harmonious compositions. (According to the Rule of Thirds, if you divide your camera’s frame into three equal sections both horizontally and vertically, the main element/focal point should ideally line up with one of these dividing lines or intersections.)


Photo by photostockeditor

Focus Stacking

Focus stacking is a way of extending the depth of field in your images to ensure more of the scene is in focus. How is it done? You take multiple images of the same subject, each time focusing on a different area. Then you can use focus stacking software like Photoshop or Helicon Focus (or your camera’s focus stacking feature, if it has one) to combine the in-focus sections of each image to create a single image that’s in focus from foreground to background.

(Keep in mind that any subject movement will throw off the sharpness in your image.)


Photo by Luke Braswell

General Macro Photography Tips

  • Keep the area clean – even the most minute details, like dust, will be magnified in your image.
  • Glycerin and water in a spray bottle works well for adding droplets to plant life.
  • Modelling putty is great for keeping jewellery in the right spot.
  • Chase good light. As with any other kind of photography, good light makes a world of difference to macro shots.


We hope this guide helps and inspires you to create some amazing macro photos!

If you need any more macro photography tips,

please get in touch with our knowledgeable team.