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5 Creative Macro Photography Ideas that Really Work

Editor’s Note: This is part a series on macro photography this week. Look for a new one each day. The next newsletter will have them all if you miss any!

Here are 5 quick creative tips to help you with your macro photography:

1) Use Flash for Tiny Details

While a macro lens with a 1:1 (one to one) ratio is a terrific tool for close-up work, so too is an external flash. Contrary to what some photographers will tell you, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a ring light for successful results. The trick is to reduce the flash output to approximately -1.75 in TTL mode. This will illuminate the finer detail in your macro work such as a butterfly’s antennae. Should you need even less light, cut the flash intensity further to -2 or -3 stops.


There are times when you’ll want more depth of field to keep the entire subject sharp. This can be problematic, however, as more of the scene remains in focus and can be distracting. Rather than opting for a shallow depth of field, consider using flash. With it, you can illuminate the subject, enjoy great depth of field, and render the background really dark, or even black. To do this, position yourself so there is at least six to 12 inches of separation between the subject and the background. Your reduced flash will effectively expose your macro subject without reaching what’s behind it.


2) Shoot Through a Flower Petal

Go beyond the routine snapshot by adding a layer of visual interest to your macro captures. By shooting through a flower petal or leaf, you can create a soft wash of color while keeping the main subject in sharp focus. The technique is simple but yields a sophisticated look that’s reminiscent of an impressionist painting. For this particular method, you may prefer the freedom of shooting without a tripod. By working handheld, it’s easier to position the camera directly into the patch of flowers.


Start with your widest aperture, preferably around f/2.8. Locate a flower that’s in front of your subject, and place your lens approximately one inch away from it. Don’t worry if it largely blocks the main subject, as the extremely shallow depth of field will render it nearly transparent. The closer your lens is to the front flower, the more out of focus it will become. Carefully compose so that you can still see your subject in the background. Finally, move your single active autofocus point to the flower you want sharpest.


3) Switch to Manual Focus

Autofocus is highly effective for the majority of shooting opportunities. In extreme close-up situations however, it can struggle to find its mark. This is particularly true with ultra fine details such as a delicate spider web. A better alternative is to use manual focus aided by Live View or focus peaking. These options take the guess work out of manual focus, allowing you to view the scene at extreme magnifications. At 5x or 10x magnification, it leaves no doubt that something is sharp. On some camera models you can even couple the enlarged view with focus peaking. This works by outlining the portion of subject that’s in focus. While it’s possible to do this handheld, a stable tripod will improve your accuracy.


4) Mind the Background

When shooting macro images, the importance of clean background can not stressed enough. If the area behind your subject is cluttered, it draws attention away from your main point of focus. Rather than taking the first vantage point offered, try composing with your feet. This is a deliberate process that forces you to slow down and explore the subject from all possible angles.


Filling the frame with your subject can be an effective way to eliminate distracting backgrounds. With the close focusing ability of a macro lens, you can carefully arrange the scene to only include the flower. This enables you to work with small apertures such as f/16 for maximum depth of field. With sharp detail throughout the frame, there are no areas of soft focus to detract from the subject. For a more dynamic look, try using the rule of thirds instead of a bulls-eyed composition.


5) Experiment

There is something serendipitous about in-camera double exposures that is lost when methodically stacking images in Photoshop. Making exposures this way builds a sense of anticipation that is normally not present in digital photography, with today’s camera’s featuring “instant everything”. Instead, you take the first image, look at it on the LCD and hold that visual in your mind while searching for a second scene to best compliment it. After capturing that, you have to wait a few seconds for the camera to reveal your creation. In that brief pause, suspense builds, and anything seems possible, much like the days of waiting for your film to be processed. Of course with a technique like this, there will be a few misses. Nevertheless, the results can be quite interesting when you get it just right.


Another creative option is to experiment with slow shutter speeds and intentional camera movement. You don’t even need a macro lens to try it, just a basic zoom. Start by filling the frame with the flower and make sure it’s in focus. For this you can be at the longer end of your focal range. Press the shutter all the way down and start the exposure, then immediately zoom out to a wide-angle perspective. You can also reverse the process, starting with a wide angle and zooming in. The following settings are a baseline to get you started.

  • 1/6th of a second for the shutter speed.
  • f/22 on the aperture.
  • A very low ISO around 100.
  • Based on the existing light you may have to adjust these for the best results.

Do you have any additional creative tricks to share? Please do so in the comments.

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Chris Corradino
Chris Corradino

is the CEO and Head Instructor at Photo Mentor NYC, a personal mentoring service for photographers of all skill levels. For more info, visit christography.com.

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