What is Macro Photography?

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Macro photography is a term used for close up photos. It is a term applied to most close up photos but should actually only be applied to photos which have a 1:1 or closer magnification.

Macro Photography - Flower

Macro is a great area of photography as you can take macro shots where ever you are. Find small details of larger objects to create abstract looking images, or maybe you want to take pictures of creepy crawlies like spiders and beetles (my favourite subject) or maybe close ups of flowers.

However, you do need the right equipment to do it properly.

Depending on your budget and the type of camera you use, there are many ways to achieve a suitable magnification for close up images. The ideal solution is an SLR or dSLR with a dedicated macro lens. This lens will have the 1:1 capability built in and the lens will be good quality designed for this purpose. These lenses can be expensive though, costing several hundred pounds new, although there are a few bargains to be had via auction sites like ebay. Having the all in one solution reduces the hassle and you can concentrate on taking the picture.

An alternative to a dedicated macro lens is to use extension tubes. These go between the camera body and the lens on an SLR or dSLR, they don’t have any glass in them, but they allow you to focus a lot closer than the standard lens would normally. So let’s say you had a good quality 50mm lens, but it didn’t focus particularly close so you couldn’t use it for close up work. If you added 50mm of extension tubes between the body and the lens, effectively moving the lens 50mm further away from the sensor you would get a 1:1 magnification ratio and would be able to focus very close to the subject. You don’t want to add too much extension though as it can put extra strain on the lens and lens mount.

A cheaper way to achieve close up capability is to use the various diopters that are available to screw onto the front of your lens. These are like the filters you buy, such as UV filters or polarisers, but are designed to allow closer focus. You can also stack these, so maybe you want a +2 and a +4 to get really close up, or you could just use the +2 on it’s own. You have to remember though that each one you add to the front of the lens adds an extra piece of glass. Too many extra pieces of glass can have a detrimental effect to your image, so don’t go mad with them. It is a cheap option though, especially if you can find them in a camera shop’s bargain bin!

Another way to achieve good macro capability is to reverse one lens onto the front of another lens. So if you already have a decent 200mm lens and a decent 50mm lens, you could fix the 50mm onto the front of the 200mm with the filter threads facing each other to give a 4:1 magnification ratio which is very high, but the possibilities with this type of arrangement are very good as different combinations can be used to achieve different results. The adapters are cheap too.

So what if you don’t have an SLR or dSLR and can’t add anything in between the body and lens? Well the diopter route is an option and so is the reversing a lens route although you may have to be a bit creative with how to connect the lenses together. See if you camera has a macro mode too, usually a little yellow flower appears on the screen, as that can help you get closer. Several point and shoot cameras are great for macro, especially the Nikon Coolpix 4500 which I used for a while before upgrading to a dSLR.

When you are actually taking the close up shots you will need to keep the camera totally still, so a tripod or a beanbag is essential. You will also need to be patient, especially with insects as they are very quick, so get used to the settings which work best on your camera so you are able to get the shot quickly when you need to.

Depth of field is also going to be more obvious. Being that close up you will need to use a small aperture to make sure you get a suitably large area in focus, although you can also use aperture creatively to pick out one area.

About Author

A keen amateur photographer, Garry has been teaching people photography for over 5 years but is also always learning. Garry enjoys many types of photography but prefers Street Photography and Candid Event Photography

36 Comments

  1. I used to use film, but have gone digital completely now. With macro work it’s a major benefit as you can see if the shot you took worked straight away, and as macro can be very hit and miss, this makes things a lot easier.

  2. It’s not a a stupid question at all, all these acronyms can be confusing. SLR = Single Lens Reflex which is a type of camera, usually one that you can change the lenses on. DLSR = a digital version of an SLR, so it’s Digital Single Lens Reflex. Hope that’s explained it.

  3. Ans what about the compacts like canon powershots that can focus to 1cm? They take super pics as well.

  4. Indeed they can. I used a Nikon Coolpix 4500 for a while which was really good. A lot of compact cameras are really good for macro.

  5. Hi, what should be the distance between camera and subject? Another way, how close can one get to the subject inorder to get a macro shot?

    Thanks!

  6. The working distance depends on what sort of lens you are using. For instance with a 50mm macro you could be a few centimeters from the subject whereas a 180mm macro lens will give you a lot more room to work with. If you going closer than 1:1 then you will be getting very close to the subject so be careful that you don’t damage the front of your lens by getting too close.

  7. Thanks for the reply Garry! I just bought nikkor micro 105mm f/2.8.
    Still yet to make use of it though :) Browsed the internet for a while , and I really didnt get any info on working distance.
    For 1:1 , how far can you go close to the object? Don’t you think,If you get little closer while shooting an insect chances are more that it would run away?
    thanks again!

  8. Yeah, insects are tricky. I use a 90mm macro and the working distance is good enough to get quite close without scaring them off, but you have to be patient. The 105mm is a perfect length lens so you should be fine.

  9. Thanks Garry for the useful article, I really appreciate. I would though like to know on using flash during macro photography. Whether using flash in a macro overexpose it?

  10. Using flash with macro work can be tricky as you are very close the subject your camera gear may cause shadows. Ideally you want to move the flash away from the camera, so you’d need a flash gun rather than the on board flash. Alternatively you can bounce light to the areas that you want or use a diffuser to control the light. Check out this picture for an example of a DIY flash diffuser.

  11. Hi there,

    I have a macro lense for my canon eos 550D but for some odd reason, I have a focus area that is REALLY small when taking photos close up.
    To give you an idea of what i mean, if you look at the spiders on my website (category, macro insects) you will see the focus is a very small band across the middle of the photo.
    How do i change this so MORE of the insect is in focus please??

  12. This is all down to the aperture you are using and the fact that when you get closer to an object, your depth of field is going to be a lot less. To get round it you need to have enough light to let you use a smaller aperture, so you may need to use flash, but at the same time you also need to consider your subjects and not to scare them with the flash.

  13. Im thinking about getting a camera…. what do you think would be the best kind…i was thinking about getting a cannon rebel just to start off….is that a good choice or would there be a prefered camera for a beginner?

  14. Hi, nice article! Are all macro lenses dedicated to macro photography or are there any all round lenses? Will a dedicated macro lens produce the best results?

  15. Hi, macro lenses aren’t purely for macro photography. Their construction and lens geometry enables the close focussing for macro work, but they also make great portrait lenses as the quality of the glass and the size of the lens lends itself to portrait work too.

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  17. Hi Garry, overall good explanation of macro photography! I was just hoping you could elaborate on how reversing one lens onto the front of another lens works…is the inside of one of the lenses (the bit that usually attaches to the camera body) just totally exposed, it seems a bit dangerous if that’s the case…? thanks

  18. Hi. Yes the more delicate bit of the lens is exposed which is why I use an old manual lens that only cost about £10 from ebay so it doesn’t matter if that bit gets damaged as this is the only thing I use it for.

  19. I’m wedding photographer and just looking for an escape from the day to day photography and with the winter months decided to have a look at macro (which I know nothing about). This has been a really helpful read so now I have to decide if I want to use one of my dSLRs or the Canon SX1 and some sort of extra lens, the latter is cheaper that is for sure so might be a good starting point.

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