Last update: 02/02/2023
Macro photography allows you to shoot small subjects. However, although it theoretically refers to a magnification ratio of 1:1 at least up to 10:1 (beyond that we are in the field of microphotography), we will rather talk about proxy-photography because few lenses currently allow to capture at a ratio greater than 1:1 without accessories. We will still see what accessories can be used to increase this ratio.
For those of you who are not familiar with the magnification ratio, you may have already seen it in some of the characteristics listed in the technical specifications of the lenses. It is simply a matter of how big the subject can be in relation to your sensor. For example, a full-frame sensor has dimensions of 24x36mm, which means that a subject with dimensions of 24x36mm will occupy the entire frame. Roughly, 1cm will actually represent 1cm on the sensor. Most macro lenses have a magnification ratio of 1:1, but not all. Some are labeled “macro”, including some zoom lenses, but only have a ratio of 1:2 or less. Be careful not to get fooled, haha!
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Without accessories, macro lenses achieving a 1:1 ratio are therefore “really” macros only when positioned at the minimum focusing distance. Nevertheless, we will admit that smaller ratios also allow to achieve sufficiently large shots. Macro photography still involves standing very close to the subject, so a long focal length at a reasonable distance will not qualify as macro even though it allows relatively close shots.
You will find on our website an article that will allow you to choose your equipment for macro photography. Some details indicated in the introduction can be found there, as well as a fairly complete list of bodies, lenses and accessories. In summary, most mirrorless cameras and DSLRs are good enough for macro photography. It is not always necessary to have a fast autofocus. In fact, the practice of macro is often performed with manual focus, although for some subjects it will be appreciable, as will a good increase in ISO.
The majority of fixed macro lenses are of very good quality, they are designed to capture details as well as possible. So, don’t hesitate to look at third-party brands such as Tamron, Sigma or Tokina, which all offer very good lenses that compete with native brands such as Nikon, Canon or Sony. Again, don’t forget to check the magnification ratio, some macro lenses don’t have a 1:1 ratio by default, like the 60mm f/2 from Fujifilm which has a 1:2 ratio, and others like the Laowa ultra macro which have a magnification ratio higher than 1:1 (the 25mm for example has a ratio between 2.5:1 and 5:1). Also keep in mind that the focal length will only influence the perspective of your images. Macro shooting requires you to stand very close and get as close as possible to the minimum distance of your lenses. Therefore, whether you take a 50mm or a 200mm, you will always be at a distance that will quickly scare away certain subjects such as insects. For example, Tamron’s 90mm achieves a 1:1 ratio when standing 30cm from the subject while Sigma’s 150mm achieves this ratio when standing 38cm away. Knowing that the 150mm of Sigma measures 15cm and that the 90mm of Tamron measures about 12cm, you actually only gain 3cm of retreat which is not huge…
Larger sensors are appreciated for their better ISO performance in situations where there is a lack of light, which can often be the case in macro photography. They also generally provide better dynamic range and color reproduction, although this isn’t really a problem with smaller sensors. Whichever camera you choose, in most brands you will find accessories such as
- Reversing rings which allow the lenses to be mounted upside down (the shorter the focal length the higher the magnification ratio will be) but make you lose the automatisms,
- Conversion lenses that act like magnifying glasses,
- Extension tubes that reduce the minimum focusing distance,
- Macro bellows have the same principle as the extension tubes but with an accordion body allowing easy variation of the elongation.
Most of these elements cause a loss of brightness, especially as, the closer you get, the more likely your own camera is to cast a shadow over you, which can lead to the use of flashes which are more effective if they are ring-shaped, i.e. they are not placed on the body but around the lens like a ring.
Macro shooting requires a lot of preparation as it involves photographing subjects that are difficult to see with the naked eye. But these subjects are not that much different than in any other field of photography, some such as flowers or objects will be relatively still and others such as insects will be in motion. The settings required to capture movement will therefore be the same as usual. Use a short exposure time for fast subjects and a more permissive exposure time for static subjects. However, fast-moving subjects will require a shorter exposure time because the closer the subjects are to the subject, the more their movements will affect the image. Therefore, as discussed in the Equipment section, a good ISO upgrade or the use of a ring flash will be appreciated for fast subjects. For immobile subjects, the famous “1/focal” rule, i.e. minimum 1/50th for a 50mm camera, is a little less recommended for very tight shots. In macro, I advise you to take a safety margin by multiplying this time by 2 (so 1/100th for a 50mm) to reduce the risk of blurred movement. For moving subjects, take a large margin with relatively short exposure times such as 1/250th and if it’s still too long, don’t hesitate to reduce this time. On a tripod, the question of motion blur no longer exists and you will, as always, have to adapt your exposure time according to the subject’s movements.
If you have read the article on equipment for macro photography, then you know that the maximum aperture of a macro lens does not matter much. Indeed, the depth of field in this field is so short, even with a small sensor, that you will tend to close the diaphragm or use techniques such as focus stacking. This technique consists of shooting the same subject several times in a row by shifting the focus and combining the images so that they become one with a greater depth of field. Here again, we come back to the benefit of having a larger sensor since you will sometimes have to compensate for the lack of light due to the use of these small apertures with a very short exposure time, for which a flash or the use of focus stacking will become more than interesting, especially with small sensors since you will be able to open your diaphragm a little more and combine the images rather than closing it and therefore recover less light. To make it simple, instead of making a single image at f/16, you can combine several images at f/4, so that each photo will receive 16 times more light.
So, instead of having to go up to 3200ISO at f/16, for example, you can take several pictures at 200ISO and f/4, which will result in a noisier image in the first case than the combined image in the second. However, nothing prevents you from taking only one picture at f/4 and having fun with very short depths of field. Just because some people tell you that the depth of field is very short and that it’s better to close the aperture doesn’t mean you have to. If you find it more interesting to drown your image in blur so that you only focus on a very small area of your image, do it! Although macro lenses are designed to deliver very detailed images, avoid using apertures that are too small so that those details are not lost due to diffraction. In FF, don’t close at more than f/16, f/11 in APS-C and f/8 in Micro 4/3 (this also depends on the definition of your sensor but most of them being around 20MP, these apertures will therefore be correct for most cameras in these formats).
As always, try to keep the ISO increase to a minimum. The more you can keep the ISO sensitivity low (close to 100), the better the image quality will be. In macro, noise is quickly noticeable because you will tend to crop more often. After all, if you do macro, it’s to isolate details. When you can’t get any closer (because of the focusing distance), cropping will then be a simple solution to apply, but not without flaws. To maintain the exposure time or to be able to use smaller apertures, or to compensate for the loss of brightness due to certain accessories such as extension rings, you will sometimes have to deal with it and raise the ISO sensitivity, this is where certain accessories such as the ring flash will prove to be precious allies.
The depth of field in macro photography is usually extremely short, on the order of a millimeter, so focusing will be crucial. Autofocusing is very convenient but not always accurate, which is why many macro photographers prefer to use manual focus. For moving subjects, you’ll need some experience and a lot of practice, and even some accessories to improve your shooting comfort. Many digital cameras (almost all of them, in fact) are not designed to allow comfortable manual focusing to the naked eye, although they usually have aids such as a focus indicator or colored “flash” on DSLRs, a magnifying glass or focus peaking on mirrorless cameras. For static subjects, especially on tripods, manual focusing will be much less of a hassle and in some cases, will even help avoid focusing errors. In fact, once the focus is done, and as long as you don’t change it, you can shoot as much as you want, it will stay where it is. In fact, manual focusing can also be very handy for focus stacking without needing the option in the camera, since you can simply fire a burst by turning the focus ring in the direction you want to extend sharpness. The only drawback will be having to combine these images later via software, whereas it is easier to get an image directly from your camera body.
On many macro lenses with autofocus, you will also have a distance limit switch, allowing you to reduce the range of focus distance that the lens will cover to prevent it from focusing at unnecessary distances. Basically, if you’re photographing subjects that are 30 to 50cm away from you, there’s no need to let the lens try to focus beyond 2m. In absolute terms, while macro purists won’t be happy with it, autofocus can do the job just fine in most cases. For moving subjects, it will sometimes even be indispensable as the close-up movements of some insects are too random to be tracked manually (it can of course be done, but again it will require good practice). On the other hand, you have to admit that autofocus is irrelevant in macro because if you use autofocus, it implies that you change your distance and therefore that you do not always shoot at the same magnification ratio. If we start from the psychorigid principle of “macro is 1:1”, the only way to do this would be to manually focus at the minimum distance (or at least at distances ensuring a ratio of at least 1:1 on lenses offering a higher ratio) and not touching it again, moving back and forth to adjust it to your subject.
Macro photography is an abstract field, the closer you get, the harder it will be to see what you see with the naked eye. However, the same advice can be given as for many other types of photography, whether landscape or wildlife. So don’t hesitate to play with perspectives and leading lines or to give insects space as you would in a portrait.
The most important element in photography is of course the light, so you will have to focus on the hours when it is soft, typically at the time of sunrise and sunset. However, with today’s cameras, software and techniques, don’t lock yourself into this scheme. Imagine that you carefully follow all the advice you are given, and not only in macro, you will not have much time left in the day to take pictures. Especially since in macro photography, as already mentioned, you will be so close to your subject that often it will be you and your camera that will cast a shadow on the subject. When this is not the case and the light is indeed a bit harsh, you can use accessories like reflectors to partially direct the light or diffusers to soften it. Cloudy periods can also be nice as the clouds will act as large natural diffusers.
Colors are also a good way to reinforce a composition. But here again, with today’s cameras and software, and especially if you shoot in RAW, you can customize these colors endlessly, including simulating the mood as if you had taken your picture in one of those “soft light” moments. If you are using a tripod, get one with a tilting central column as you will sometimes need to position yourself at ground level for example, and in this case the column will allow you to orientate your camera. Hand-held, a camera with a tilting screen will also be appreciated for these same reasons.
If you wish to shoot insects, I invite you to go read the article on wildlife photography because you will have to do a similar preparation work, that is to say spot them, observe their habits, find out how to approach them discreetly etc.
The focal length will have a lot of influence here, the shorter the focal length, the more the perspectives will be amplified and will give “relief” to the image. Conversely, long focal lengths will compress the shots. Either way, you will have to pay close attention to your background. Even if it will generally be drowned in a lot of blur, the shapes, colors and light variations, among others, will give the backgrounds more or less distracting aspects. The advantage of macro photography is that you can capture very small things and therefore easily place elements behind the subject, much like a studio photographer who chooses his or her background. Obviously, for insects or moving subjects in the same genre, the attention will be much too focused on the subject and you will have to deal with the background, but again, with such large blurs, it will often be forgotten.
Use complementary colors as much as possible, the shape of the elements in the background, for example a leaf will become a large blurred oval usually green, whereas a cluster of leaves will give a relatively uniform background which will then be much more monotonous. You can also, with respect for the environment of course, arrange the background to your liking by adding branches, for example, or on the contrary by removing some, use backgrounds such as canvases, boards … why not even elements of your own material such as your bag. Almost anything is good for harmonizing the background, so make sure it has relief, shapes and various shades of color that match the subject.
Also play with ratios and orientation. The FF and APS-C cameras offer 3:2 ratios by default, while the Micro 4/3 are 4:3 by default. However, you can also use traditional ratios such as 16:9 or square format in order to make some shots more dynamic. Likewise, if you want to give a feeling of grandeur to the subject, for example a flower with its stem or to isolate it from its neighbors, you can orient your image in portrait. The portrait orientation is also suitable for insects.
Macrophotography is a challenging field for the equipment and requires a lot of preparation for the shooting but rest assured, unless you specialize, you will be able to achieve close-ups already very close with “reasonable” equipment. Many people settle for close-up shots that are more like proxy photography, which many lenses allow you to achieve, and even some expert compacts. In fact, many images that are described as macro are not actually shot at a 1:1 ratio.
I hope that this article will help you improve your close-up photography, keep in mind that the more space your subject will take up in your picture, the shorter the minimum exposure time should be to avoid blur or to freeze a moving subject.
If you are looking for other photography techniques and tips, I invite you to take a look at my best tips for waterfall photography.
Speak to you soon,