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.
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:
Fortunately, there’s a wide range of macro photography tutorials and macro photography equipment out there to help you achieve the above.
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. If you plan to photograph live subjects, we recommend a camera that has a fast and accurate autofocus system.
For more info on which camera is right for you, please see our Beginners Guide to Digital Cameras.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the best lens for macro photography is one that’s designed specifically for the purpose. As well as being optimised for close focusing, dedicated macro lenses usually feature excellent optical quality.
Most major brands make macro lenses in different focal lengths. The longer the focal length, the greater its working distance (i.e. distance between the subject and lens). The greater this distance, the less likely you are to cast a shadow on your subject or (if it’s a live subject) scare it away – so longer macro lenses (e.g. 100mm) are preferred for things like flower or insect macro photography. Shorter focal length macro lenses, in contrast, tend to be lighter, more compact and not as pricey.
Added bonus: In most cases, macro lenses don’t just focus close up. Flick a switch on the side and they can also focus at midrange and up to infinity – perfect for anything from travel to portraits, depending on the lens’ focal length.
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.
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.
For more info on choosing the perfect tripod, please see our Buyer’s Guide to Tripods.
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.
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.
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.