It's hard not to be taken in by the lure of macro photography. Like aiming your camera through a magnifying glass, macro photography opens a fascinating portal to a world rich with normally unseen detail. It makes tiny or insignificant objects look extraordinary and lets you zone in on colours, forms and patterns with striking, abstract effect.
What is Macro Photography?
By traditional definition, you’re making macro photography if your subject’s size on your camera negative/sensor equals or exceeds life size (1:1). These days, macro photography tends to refer to any extreme close-up photography of small subjects. It’s a go-to for nature as well as advertising and food photographers.
As a general rule, for good macro photos you need:
quality optics that let you focus up close
a steady camera and subject
sufficient depth of field
a fast shutter speed
Fortunately, there’s a wide range of macro photography tutorials and macro photography equipment out there to help you achieve the above.
Choosing the Best Camera for Macro Photography
Some cameras have macro photography settings under their ‘Auto’ mode options. This leaves all the technical decisions up to the camera – great when you’re starting out or in a hurry, but far from ideal if you want more creative control and polished results.
Manual settings will give you the control but a quality, close-focusing lens—and, ideally, a large image sensor—will help deliver the results. Because of this, interchangeable lens cameras (DSLR or mirrorless) are ideal choices.
With macro photography your choice of camera isn’t as important as your choice of lens.
Due to pixel density, and the possible need to crop a full-frame image, there’s less of a gap in image quality between full-frame and cropped sensors than with most other photography genres.
A nice clear viewfinder is ideal, especially if using flash on a mirrorless system. Shooting macro with a viewfinder is much easier than just using a display monitor.
Focus peaking (available in most mirrorless cameras) is really helpful for hitting critical focus, as it highlights exactly which area is in focus before you take the shot.
If you plan to photograph live subjects using autofocus, we recommend a camera that has a fast and accurate autofocus system.
As mentioned, choosing the best lens is really important for macro photography. But what kind of macro lens is best for you and your camera?
It depends largely on what you want to achieve, but here are the key features to look for.
One of the key factors to consider when choosing a macro lens is the magnification ratio.
While many non-macro lenses have a relatively short focusing distance (i.e. can focus relatively close up) compared to other similar lenses, they may not allow you to get as close to your subject as you would like. If you want that ‘life size’ effect, look for lenses with at least a 1:1 magnification ratio. At this ratio your subject appears as large on the sensor as it does in reality.
Focal Length and Working Distance
Lenses of different focal lengths can have the same magnification. However, they will have a different working distance – i.e. the allowable distance between the front of your lens and your subject. (Working distance is sometimes confused with minimum focusing distance, i.e. the distance from the sensor to the subject.)
The longer the lens, the greater its working distance. So longer lenses allow you to shoot further away from your subject. Shooting further away makes you less likely to cast a shadow on your subject or (if it’s a live subject) scare it away.
Compared to shorter lenses, longer lenses also have a shallower depth of field. This means that you’ll need to narrow your aperture and/or focus stack to capture more of the subject in focus.
Types of Macro Lenses & Their Uses
Short Macro Lenses (30-60mm*)
Short macro lenses are best for cropped sensor cameras, which capture more magnified images than full frame cameras do. (A 30-60mm focal range appears as 45-90mm on an APS-C sensor and 60-120mm on a micro four-thirds sensor.)
A big advantage of short macro lenses is that they’re compact and lightweight. They also offer deeper depth of field (to capture a greater portion of the image in focus) and a shorter working distance, which means you need to get closer to your subject. This makes them suitable for product photography (such as jewellery) and other small inanimate subjects like stamps or coins, but less ideal for live subjects that scare easily. Bear in mind that the closer you get to a subject, the more chance you have of overshadowing it.
Standard Macro Lenses (60-100mm*)
60-100mm* or so-called ‘standard’ macro lenses are the most popular kind of macro lens. They tend to provide a good balance of magnification and working distance (generally 20-30cm) that’s ideal for insects, flowers and other small subject matter.
Tele-Macro Lenses (100mm+*)
Tele-macro lenses have longer focal lengths and working distances, which allows you to stand further away from your subject and provides more room for lighting. These lenses are suitable for insects or other small animals (especially ones that bite!) and minimising shadows on your subject.
Macro lenses are useful for reproduction work (e.g. copying artwork or documents) as they have a very flat field of focus, which keeps focus equally sharp from the centre to the edges of the frame.
Standard macro lenses also work really well for portrait photography, as their focal lengths flatter facial features.
Other Macro Lens Features to Look For
Autofocus (AF) is less reliable in with macro photography, so look for a lens with reliable manual focus.
While autofocus is less important for macro, it’s a definite plus if you want a macro lens that doubles for other jobs like portraiture.
Image stabilisation is helpful for handheld macro shooting, though its benefits are less noticeable the closer you get to the subject.
Many macro lenses come with a focus limiter switch. This lets you restrict the active focusing area (e.g. to close-up, far away or in between) for faster AF performance.
Lenses that operate quietly are less likely to disturb little critters.
While not essential, an internal focusing system ensures the lens’ front element won’t move forward and potentially touch or disturb your subject.
Extension Tubes & Reversing Rings
If you have existing lenses, extension tubes and reversing rings offer simple, compact and affordable ways to get started in macro photography.
Placed between your camera and a non-macro lens, an extension tube allows your lens to focus at a closer range (depending on the tube’s thickness). Extension tubes do reduce the amount of light entering the lens (so you have to widen your aperture to compensate) and they tend to affect or rule out aperture and autofocus function.
Often used with the popular ‘nifty fifty’ (50mm prime lens), a reversing ring lets you attach a non-macro lens to your camera back to front. This has the same basic effect as a macro lens, i.e. capturing a small subject at a large scale. Edges can look soft but the results can otherwise be surprisingly good. Reversing rings may not be available for all camera brands, and some may rule out aperture and autofocus function.
Steady Does It: Tripods & Focus Rails
Keeping your subject and camera steady is essential to getting sharp macro images. While stilling your subject might require the use of flash, you can easily stabilise your camera using a tripod and/or focus rails.
A tripod is the simplest and most effective method of stabilising your camera. Tripods are incredibly helpful for advertising or product photography, where composition and consistency need to be spot-on. For this reason they’re also hugely beneficial when it comes to focus stacking.
Designed for more serious macro shooters, focus rails let you move your camera back/forward or left/right with incremental precision. Once mounted on a tripod or other stabilising device, focus rails provide one of the easiest and most exacting means of adjusting your camera (and focus point) position. They’re especially good for focus stacking.
DIY Depth of Field: Focus Stacking
Depth of field in macro photography is extremely shallow, so the slightest change in subject or camera movement can render your chosen spot out of focus. Adding more light and stopping down (i.e. narrowing your aperture) is one solution. Focus stacking is another.
This technique involves taking multiple shots of the same image, each one focusing on a slightly different area, then using software (like Photoshop) to combine the focused areas. Some cameras, e.g. selected Panasonic models, have focus stacking in-built.
Light Speed: Macro Photography Lighting
Along with depth of field, shutter speed is one of macro photography’s key challenges. Unless you’re comfortable with ramping up your camera’s ISO, the easiest way to boost your depth of field and/or shutter speed is to stop down, speed up and add more light. With sufficient light (such as bright sun or flash) you can freeze movement—such as swaying flowers or a scurrying bug—without blur.
Shooting in bright outdoor daylight is one option, and a likely one if you’re doing something like macro flower photography. On the upside, it’s free! On the downside, it’s unpredictable and tends to create unsightly shadows. For more even and attractive lighting, try shooting in open shade or mimicking that effect using a diffuser.
Flash is another, much more versatile lighting option that can travel with you anywhere, any time. It also offers much more control than ambient light. Like daylight, flash can create unwanted shadows so it’s best to use some kind of diffusion, whether built-in or external.
A macro flash setup could be as simple as one light or multiples, e.g. a key light and rim light for added drama. A ring flash is a quick and easy option that produces effective results. Held in place by your lens, ring flashes usually incorporate two diffused and individually controlled flash elements—one on either side—allowing you to create contrast and three-dimensionality.
With a bit of know-how and the right gear, you’ll be well on your way to making a big impact with small subject matter. If you have any questions about the products in this guide, or are just after a few macro photography tips, we’d be happy to help you in store, online or over the phone.