Quick Overview of How to do Macro Photography

Quick Overview of How to do Macro Photography

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In the photography domain, macro photography is defined as the art of magnification of subjects. It is a very interesting form of photography, which seems to have an application in almost every genre.

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For wedding photographers, it’s a great way to highlight wedding details like rings, the invitation suite, certain aspects of the bridal bouquets, and boutonnières. For nature photographers, it is a great way to get up close and personal with many interesting subjects like bugs, insects, and small animals. For food photographers, a macro lens is one of the ultimate tools to highlight their craft because it’s such a great way to emphasize textures, patterns, and details. Even portrait photographers are known to favor the long focal length macro lens, as it gives them the flexibility of getting close details of their subjects, without invading a client’s personal space, especially when dealing with camera-shy children and adults.

Gear choice

There are several options in the marketplace in terms of gear choices for the macro photographer. Extension tubes, macro (or close-up) filters, as well as specific macro lenses are available for every budget. Based on the macro lens used, you can achieve magnification anywhere from around half to four or five times life-size, of the object being photographed.

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Left image: 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro Lens
Middle: Canon 12mm Extension Tube
Right: Canon 5D MkII with 50mm lens and extension tube attached

  1. Speciality Lens – Macro lenses come in various focal lengths. Short macros are typically lenses in the 30-50mm range. Standard macro lenses are in the 60-105mm focal length range, and tele-macro lenses are in the 150mm-200mm range. These macro lenses tend to perform better than extension tubes and macro filters, since they are build specifically for close-up photography. They work great at short focal lengths as well as longer ones. The main disadvantage with these lenses tends to be the price point. Most of the dedicated macro lenses are upwards of $500 (or more) and that can be a limiting factor for someone just getting into macro photography.
  2. Extension tubes are hollow tubes that fit between your lens and your camera mount. They don’t have any glass elements within them, they simply move the actual lens further from the camera, and the front element of the lens closer to the subject, thus offering a certain amount of magnification to the subject. Extension tubes tend to be less expensive than traditional macro lenses and can be mounted on any lens. But they tend to work best with shorter focal lengths. The main disadvantage with extension tubes is that your lens looses the ability to focus on distant objects, since it works only on close-up magnifications. There is also some light loss, which can be compensated by increasing the ISO or by using a slower shutter speed. The camera sensor is also exposed to dust, and the external elements, every time you remove or add the extension tube to the front of your lens.
  3. Macro filters are similar to other types of filters that attach to the front of your lens. They come in different sizes, and different magnification ratios, so if you want to use them on various lenses, then you will need to invest in a variety of filters. They tend to be relatively inexpensive, and can be stacked one on top of one another, in order to get a variety of magnification factors for your subjects. Macro filters also tend to lose light, especially when used as a multiple stack. Hence these cannot be used very effectively with wide apertures. They work best when apertures are stopped down (higher f-stop number).

My initial choice for macro photography was the Canon extension tube EF12 II. As a wedding photographer, I wanted something small and inexpensive for photographing details and ring shots. Since then I have migrated to the Canon 100mm f/2.8 L-series macro lens, and find myself reaching for this beautiful lens more often than not. I have used it for portraits, food photos, as well as still life details.

Technical tips

The key thing to note in macro photography, is that depth of field (DOF) depends primarily on two factors: aperture value and magnification. For any given aperture value, the higher the magnification ratio, the smaller the DOF will be, hence the DOF tends to be very shallow for macro photography (higher f-stop).

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Both images were shot at f6.3 – the one on the left is using the 50mm with extension tube, right image is with 100mm macro lens

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The left image is a pull back using a 50mm lens
Middle is using the 50mm + extension tube
Right is using the 100mm macro lens (all other settings are fairly standard across all three images)

From an application perspective, focus on the main point of the subject that you want to target. If your camera supports live view, use it to zoom-in and ensure that the image is sharp. Set the aperture around f/11 (feel free to experiment to find the optimal setting for your lens, filter, extension tube combination). If you want a greater depth of field (more of the subject is in focus) use a smaller aperture like f/16 or f/22.

Another thing to note is that when photographing objects that tend to move suddenly, like bugs and insects, a higher shutter speed is advantageous to stop motion and freeze the subject. As a rule of thumb try not to drop below 1/400th or 1/500th shutter speed.

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One of the most popular uses of macro lenses is in food photography. Left image using 50mm with extension tube, right image using 100mm macro lens. Both have shallow depth of field because I wanted to blur out the food in the background.

Mirror lock-up

Most DSLR cameras have a mirror inside, which allows you see the image in the viewfinder. The mirror flips out of the way when you press the shutter button, and this action itself can introduce camera shake, and cause your image to be blurry. You can reduce the chances of blurry images by turning “ON” the mirror lockup function (look for it in your camera’s manual). On most cameras that means you will press the shutter button once and it will flip up the mirror, pressing it again takes the exposure. If you have a mirrorless camera then this does not apply to you.

Diffraction

In Photography, diffraction is the bending of light as it passes by the small sharp edged blades, which form the aperture opening. The light gets squeezed together, or blends together. Diffraction is worse with smaller aperture settings like f/16 to f/22. This causes the image to be less sharp, especially at the edges, even more so in macro photography when you are often shooting at smaller apertures. You can avoid diffraction by not dropping below f/16, or by using selective focus over multiple images, and stacking (focus stacking) them together in post-production to get an overall sharp image.

Practical Applications

Contrary to popular belief, macro photography is not restrictive to images of bugs, leaves, flowers and food. They can be an effective tool to highlight any form of detail, texture and pattern. Specific macro lenses also double up as great portrait lenses, extending their use beyond just macro photography.

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Left image is pull back of the ring
Middle is with 50mm + extension tube
Right is 100mm macro. F-stop was around f/9 and shutter speed was around 1/50 (I was loosing light very fast and had my ISO up to 2500).

So the next time you want a little boost of creativity, use macro photography to get a fresh, up close perspective on things!

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Karthika Gupta is a lifestyle, editorial and wedding photographer based in the Chicago area. Her images are fun, fresh and natural and her love for nature makes it way into most of her images.

  • Tim Lowe

    Strictly speaking, macro photography means photography where the image on the recording surface is the same size or large than the subject. Anything less is called close-up photography.

    I’ve only tried this once, with a view camera, because I don’t have true macro lenses for my 135 and 120/220 cameras. After spending much setup time in removing lens hoods and getting the maximum amount of light on the subject without having it shine into the lens. It was, in the end, impossible. In the brightest continuous light source I could find (equatorial sun at noon on a sunny day) was not bright enough to be confident of focus and after calculating bellows factor and reciprocity failure at f/64 (to get DOF greater than the thickness of a hair!) I got an exposure measured in days. 😉

    I truly admire photographers that do this work. I just wish they wouldn’t concentrate on shooting bugs.

  • SteveR

    I enjoy shooting bugs and flowers with macro. It allows me to see detail that we cannot see with our eyes. There have been many times I have found some insect that I had not seen on a flower before I took the shot.
    I will often use off camera flash (Yongnuo YN560) with macro. It can give some very interesting details otherwise not seen.

  • David Mott

    I bought a second hand macro lens of ebay and its been a great investment. It’s now my portraiture lens but I dearly love shooting bugs, which is great if you don’t have the time to drive to a location you can just walk around your own garden and find really cool stuff 🙂 This shot was taken freehand with a 100mm f2.8 macro lens. Our green friend was sitting on my son’s hand.

  • David Mott

    I bought a second hand macro lens of ebay and its been a great investment. It’s now my portraiture lens but I dearly love shooting bugs, which is great if you don’t have the time to drive to a location you can just walk around your own garden and find really cool stuff 🙂 This shot was taken freehand with a 100mm f2.8 macro lens. Our green friend was sitting on my son’s hand.

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