What is Macro Photography: An Up-Close Look

Surely you’ve been drawn to an up-close shot of an insect with all its tiny hairs, bright colors, and features you never knew existed. Or maybe you were more impressed by a gorgeous photograph of the most beautiful flower you’ve ever seen, with so much detail showing its pistil, stigma, and stamen. More than likely you were admiring a macro photograph.

But what is macro photography?

This guide will explain the definition of macro photography and how you can use this process to capture larger-than-life details and magnify small subjects.

Macro fly
Macro Photography

What is macro photography?

Typically, when you take a photograph, your subject is captured much smaller than it is in real life. Technically speaking, macro photography means taking a picture of an object at a magnification of at least 1:1, or life-size.

Keeping that in mind, when taking macro photographs, your subject — whether it be an insect, a flower, an eye, a piece of jewelry, or a part of something much larger — will always need to be the same size as your camera’s sensor or smaller. For example, if you have a 1.4-inch sensor, you will photograph something that is 1.4 inches or smaller.

Historically, macro photography used to require a wide range of equipment to achieve but, thanks to advances in technology, today all you need is a camera with a macro lens.

What’s the best camera for macro photography?

For shooting macro, you’ll do well with either a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. It’s most important to choose a camera that will let you use a good macro lens.

macro flower
Photo by Hoover Tung on Unsplash

What is a macro lens?

A macro lens is a lens that is designed specifically to focus on up-close subjects with a 1:1 or larger magnification. They are available in several different focal lengths, from short 35mm lenses up to long 200mm lenses.

They each have their benefits — short lenses are less expensive and lightweight but require you to be very close to your subject, which might scare it away if it’s a creature or cast a shadow. The longer lenses are great for shooting bugs that frighten easily, but they are also quite heavy and are the most expensive. 

A great choice for beginners is a mid-range macro lens that ranges from 90mm to 105mm in focal length. These lenses are light enough to handhold without a tripod if necessary and still give you a long distance from your subject.

  • Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro;
  • Nikon AF-S VR Micro Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G;
  • Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD;
  • Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro.

What are extension tubes?

If a macro lens isn’t in your budget, extension tubes are an option that will allow you to take close-up photographs with your existing lens. They are hollow tubes that you attach to your lens and extend its focal length. They do come with drawbacks, though.

Extension tubes will reduce the amount of light that enters your lens, so you’ll need to adjust your exposure settings to compensate. Also, they are only as good as the lens they are attached to. So, don’t expect good results if you use them with a cheap lens. 

If you’re serious about macro photography, it’s best to invest in a dedicated macro lens. However, extension tubes are a cheap way to play around with the technique and decide if macro photography is for you.

macro wedding photo
Macro in Wedding Photography

Camera settings for macro photography

As is the case with any other type of photography, there’s no one setting that fits all macro shots. But, there are a few things you’ll always want to keep in mind.

The aim is to keep all or most of your subject in focus, which means you’ll want to use a small aperture. A small aperture means you’ll need to let more light in with a slow shutter speed. You’ll also need a steady camera, so you more than likely will need to use a tripod.

Aperture and depth of field in macro photography

Take everything you know about aperture and depth of field and file it away — the same rules don’t apply when it comes to macro photography! When you take photographs at 1:1 magnification, you end up with a very shallow depth of field, even when you use a small aperture.

A landscape shot at f/11 would render most of your scene in focus, right? However, use the same aperture in macro, and a dragonfly’s head and feet may not both appear sharp at the same time, even though they are extremely close together.

macro dragonfly
Photo by Erik Karits from Pexels

There are several advanced methods macro photographers use to combat this issue and get their entire subject in focus:

  • Use the smallest aperture possible and add flash;
  • Focus stacking: This involves taking multiple photographs at different focal lengths and then combining them later with software. This is typically done in a studio because it requires extreme precision;
  • Use a costly tilt-shift macro lens.

How to focus with macro photography

As we mentioned above, even at a small aperture, only a tiny sliver of your subject will be in focus when shooting macro. That can make it extremely difficult to find focus on your subject. Here are some tips to help you nail your focus:

  • Use manual focus. At 1:1 magnification, your camera’s autofocus struggles to work properly. Instead, set your camera to manual focus, fix your lens to a certain point, then move your body — instead of the focus ring — to bring the details into focus.
  • Align your subject with the depth of field. Remember, your depth of field is going to be very shallow, perhaps only a sliver. If you want an entire bug to be in focus, photograph it from the side rather than head-on so that its entire body is in the area that is in focus, like in the example below.
Macro photography

Macro photography tips

Every situation is different and your photographs are always open to artistic interpretation. But, the following tips will help you when you’re getting started with macro photography:

  • Be aware of your background. This is the case with most types of photography and is no exception when it comes to macro. Make sure there are no bright spots, dark spots, or distracting backgrounds.
  • Use diffused light. If you’re shooting in natural light, take care to avoid harsh lighting. Look for overcast days or set up a scrim of translucent paper to shield the bright sun. If you’re using flash, be sure to use it with a soft diffuser.
  • Take lots of shots. When you’re just starting, don’t be afraid to take a lot of photographs, especially considering how difficult it can be to nail focus with macro photography. You may not have another chance to photograph that bug so capture it while you can!
  • Use angles to your advantage. Remember our tip above about aligning your subject with the depth of field? If you want different parts of your subject to be in focus, play around with the angle of your camera.
  • Go slow. This is especially true if you’re shooting insects or other animals. Move as slowly as possible so you don’t scare them away. 
  • Look for new subjects. Bugs and flowers have been done…a lot. We’re not saying you shouldn’t try it, too. But what else can you take exciting macro photographs of?
  • Practice makes perfect. Nailing a macro photograph takes a lot of work — even the most seasoned pros will toss a lot of their shots before they end up with a keeper. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t nail your shot on the first try.

Final thoughts

Macro photography is an exciting way to photograph extremely small subjects with surprisingly vivid detail. Will you take larger-than-life photos of creepy-crawly insects or will you focus on flowers?

No matter the subject, with the right camera and lens, and by following the advice in the guide, you’ll be well on your way to capturing your own macro photographs.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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