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Macro photography is the term we use for photographing close ups – if you want to be really pedantic macro photograph is when the image on the sensor is the same size as the object in real life.  However with the decrease in sensor size and an increase in resolution of the optics that we use I think we can ignore that definition and for the purposes of this blog at least it is any time we are photographing something small and working close up.

So how can you improve you macro photography?  Here’s my top five tips.

1 – It’s all about the glass

It is said in photography that the lens or glass is the most important factor in creating an image.  This is doubly so in the case of macro photography.  You need to work with a lens that has the capability to focus close to your subject.

If possible use a specific macro lenses – these are typically fixed focal length of around round about 100 or 105mm and give you the capability to focus as close as 30cm.  Don’t be fooled by the ‘macro’ setting on a multipurpose zoom lens.  A 28-300mm lens with macro written on the lens is never going to be able to compete a prime lens.

If you don’t have a dedicated macro lens consider getting extension tubes – these are simply extenders that move a lens further away from the camera body enabling the camera to focus closer to the subject.  Extension tubes are relatively inexpensive but more often than not do not pass through all the electrical connections.  This means that functions such as autofocus may not be available (not a big deal – see later).  What is more significant is that you may not be able to change the aperture of your lens while using them.  There is a work round for this on canon camera and it may also aply to other brands.  Set the desired aperture with the lens attached to the camera as normal, hold down the depth of preview button (which will close down the iris to the selected aperture) and remove the lens from the camera this will leave the iris in the stoped down position.  The downside is that when connected back to the extension tubes the image seen in the view finder will be dark.

2 – The right tripod

For any serious macro work you need a tripod and it needs to be sturdy.  When dealing with subjects and depth of field that we measure in millimetres, the slightest vibration or movement can ruin you shot.

If you are working at table height, look for a tripod that has a hook on the central column onto which you can hang a weight or your camera bag to give the bad added stability.

Additionally, if you need to get your camera above the table you are shooting on look for a tripod with a central column that can be set at 90 degrees and used as boom arm.

For low level work out in the field you need a tripod with legs that can be splayed out so that you can get your camera as low as possible.

3 –Focus on focusing

Focusing for macro photography is critical, especially as the depth of field can be so shallow (more on this later).  Auto focus doesn’t really cut it for macro photography, so set your camera/lens into manual focus.

Here’s a few techniques to help you get your subject in focus

Firstly, you can use live view on your camera and then zoom the display on the camera to just show the most critical area of focus and then gradually turn the focusing ring on the lens until you can see it is in sharp focus.

If you have a set of focusing rails use them to help you fine tune your focusing. Focusing rails are an attachment for your tripod where you can make small adjustments to focus by minor repositioning of the camera by turning two thumb screws.  Many macro photographers find this way of focusing easiest for macro work.

I find back button focusing a useful tool for macro photography as it give the advantages of manual focusing specifically the ability for me to fine tune the focus, but with a single button press of autofocus to get me ‘in the right area’.

4 – Depth of field and focus stacking

The greater the magnification and the closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field will be.

This means that for most subjects photographed with a single image only part of the subject will be in sharp focus.  It is therefore necessary for you to decide which part of the subject you are going to focus on.  If your subject has eyes such as an insect then focus on the eyes.  For flowers if the stamen is visible I tend to focus on the end of it.

Obviously, the small the aperture the greater the depth of field, though with macro photography that difference may one or two millimetres.  Be careful not to select too high and f-number as some lenses (especially if they are not dedicated macro lenses) will not be at their sharpest when used with very small apertures.

If we want more depth of field than a single image will permit, then consider using focus stacking techniques.  I’m going to cover this topic in more detail in a future YouTube video, so please make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to know more about that topic.

But in summary focus stacking involves taking multiple images focused at different positions of your subject and then combining the sharpest sections of all of them together.  The most effective way to do this is use a set of focusing rales so that you can accurately move the plane of focus from front to back.  Once you have a set of images you can align and stack them in Adobe Photoshop.

5 – Don’t forget how to compose

One of the biggest mistakes I see with macro photography is that once we start shooting small subjects a photographer’s ability to compose an image goes out the window!  To many time people end up placing their subject bang in the middle of the frame which is very rarely the best place to position it.

Think about the rule of thirds and if you want the entire subject in the frame consider placing it off to one side.  Alternatively why not fill the frame with the flower that you are photographing.  Also think about your background it may be out of focus but bright areas will still draw the viewers eye away from the subject.

Bonus Tip – avoiding camera shake

The slightest vibration can ruin a macro image.  To avoid this use a remote shutter release or a cable release so that you are not touching the camera when you are making your image. Alternatively you could use self timer so that the camera has time to settle between you pressing the shutter and the image being created.

If you are shooting with a DSLR there is another possible source of vibration – that is when the mirror lifts to reveal the sensor.  To avoid this use mirror lock-up.  If you are using live view you mirror will already be locked up.  If not, enable mirror lockup.  You will need to press the shutter release twice the first time locks the mirror up, the second time takes the shot.

In conclusion

I hope you have found these tips helpful.

Until next time, keep MAKING great images,


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