Five Ways to Take Your Macro Photography to the Next Level


Macro photography can be incredibly rewarding. However, it can also be frustrating if you find yourself shooting the same photographs over and over again, struggling to improve. You find yourself uninspired. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Clemantis macro photography

But there are a few simple tips that you can take to improve your macro photography, right now. The tips that follow will help you take your macro photography to the next level, and they won’t bog you down with technical details, either.

1. Move in close (and keep going closer)

You might be tempted to shoot subjects such as flowers the way that you would a headshot – putting space around the subject, so that flowers are fully recognizable as, well, flowers. However, I urge you not to take a step back, but rather to take a step closer. If you can, think not in terms of “flower” and “background,” but in terms of shapes and lines.

If you have a dedicated macro lens, use it. Experiment with high magnifications and see how that opens up whole new worlds for you to shoot. Look for abstract compositions that make use of shapes and color.  Fill the frame completely with your subject.

dahlia macro photography colorful

I used my macro lens to emphasize the lines and colors of this dahlia.

2. Consider the light

Lighting is incredibly important in macro photography. However, you can boil things down to a few simple rules of thumb:

  • Photograph in the morning.
  • Photograph in the evening.
  • Only photograph at any other time of day if it’s cloudy.

Photograph in the morning and evening

When I say “morning,” I’m talking about very early, during what photographers often call the “golden hours“. Essentially, these are the first two hours after sunrise.

The same goes for the evening. If it is sunny, I suggest you wait until two hours before sunset. One hour before is even better.

flower macro photography golden

I took this image in the evening, which ensured some great golden light.

These morning and evening hours are the times when soft, golden light falls on your subject. Not only does this result in a more evenly lit subject and an easier exposure, but the golden cast simply looks beautiful.

If conditions seem a bit too bright, you can also create really interesting images by using the shade. For instance, try working with a subject that is in the shade, while the background is lit by the (hopefully setting) sun.

flower macro sun shade - Five Ways to Take Your Macro Photography to the Next Level

I photographed this flower as the sun was setting, positioning myself so that the background was well lit, but the flower itself remained shaded.

Photograph in cloudy midday light

Midday sunlight tends to be incredibly harsh and results in photographs that are very washed out and contrasty.

Hence: if you’re shooting in the middle of the day, make sure that it’s cloudy. The clouds will serve to diffuse the light, allowing for wonderfully saturated colors.

coneflower macro color - Five Ways to Take Your Macro Photography to the Next Level

I photographed this coneflower on a cloudy day, ensuring that the colors were nicely saturated.

If you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely must take images and you cannot wait until conditions become better, then you can try to offset the harshness of the sun by shooting in the shade, using a reflector, or by using a flash.

daisy background night macro

The artificial lights plus this flower made for a fun photography session.

3. Consider the angle

One of the mistakes that I made most when I was first starting macro photography was not thinking about my angle to the subject. For instance, I would point my camera down at a 45-degree angle, so that I would capture subjects as if I were a few feet in front of me as I walked.

While intuitive, this approach often results in a less appealing image. It causes elements of the subject to become messy, to cross over one another. It also tends to distort the shape of the subject, so that the overall impact is lessened.

Instead, I recommend two main approaches:

First: place the subject at eye level. For instance, if you are photographing a tulip, crouch down so that the tulip is directly before you. If you are photographing an insect, you should be staring directly into its face.

macro flower pink - Five Ways to Take Your Macro Photography to the Next Level

By photographing this flower at eye level, I was able to create an even composition.

Second: place the subject directly below you. That is, you should be looking straight down so that the petals of an open flower are parallel to the camera sensor.

Hibiscus flower macro photography

By composing from directly above this hibiscus, I was able to emphasize its geometry.

Of course, these are just starting points. Pleasing images can be made from many angles, and a lot depends on the subject itself. But these are good places from which to begin.

4. Think about the subject quality

This tip is very simple – before taking an image, look your subject over. Is it at its peak? Or is it on its way out, wilting, or dying?

If the latter is the case, then try to search for a better-looking flower. Unfortunately, such elements can really detract from an otherwise excellent image.

Rose macro close up - Five Ways to Take Your Macro Photography to the Next Level

I found this rose in excellent condition.

Also, look for things like bugs, dirt, and torn petals. These are all indicators that you should search for a better subject.

Though it’s worth noting that sometimes wilting flowers can make for very interesting images. Just be sure that, if you are photographing a subject that’s on its way out, you compose with that in mind.

daisy macro - Five Ways to Take Your Macro Photography to the Next Level

I focused on this wilting daisy in order to create a more somber photograph.

5. Consider the background

One final tip for really enhancing your macro photographs is to think about the background before taking that shot. This is probably the most important of all these tips because careful attention to background can make for incredibly special images.

What should you consider?

First and foremost, look for backgrounds that are simple and uncluttered. A background that doesn’t distract is often enough to ensure a great image. However, it can also pay to be creative, by shifting your position so that colorful elements, such other flowers, or a sunset, sit behind the subject.

You might also use bright spots to your advantage, working so that they frame your subject.

flower macro cosmos - Five Ways to Take Your Macro Photography to the Next Level

The colorful flowers behind this subject made for an interesting background.

In Conclusion

By moving in close, considering the light, angle, subject quality, and the background, you can quickly improve your macro photography. Hopefully, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it as well.

If you have any other tips for people just starting with macro photography, please share them in the comments below.

peony macro flower - Five Ways to Take Your Macro Photography to the Next Level

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Jaymes Dempsey is a macro photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To see more of Jaymes's work and read about his time in the field check out his website and blog or follow him on Facebook.

  • Stacey

    Lovely images, I particularly liked the pink cornflower. Out of curiosity, you dont say what kind of lens you are using. I know my Canon 100mm macro is nice but the background separation and blur on the 180mm is outstanding, and gives a completely different image as a result.

  • Thanks! Most of these were taken in the 100mm range, with the exception of image 4, 11, and 12, which were with a 150mm macro. At the moment, I use the Canon 100mm and the Sigma 150mm, but I do have my eye on the Canon 180mm. One reason that I’m a bit hesitant to take the plunge and purchase the 180mm is because I like to shoot handheld and close to the flower, and a heavier, longer lens reduces my flexibility a bit.

  • Day Tooley

    Live flowers have obvious appeal, but other life stages can also be poignant.

  • Grunvald

    Concentrating on the eyes, being at eye level
    Taken at a butterfly farm in the uk

  • Stacey

    I did a course with Kathleen Clemons on flower photography and she works fairly extensively with the 180mm and she hand holds here – I hear you there as I struggle to keep my gear steady enough with the 100mm, its heavy enough on a 7d mk ii – her work is lovely and I found the course most valuable. Looks like you have mastered a lot of what she covers, but if you are are interested

  • Thanks so much! I’ll look into that, her images are extremely inspirational.

  • Good point–and nice image, I love the sequence of three.

  • Definitely, being at eye level works especially well with insects, and you’ve nailed the focus here, I love the ‘stare.’

  • Manoj Kumar
  • WillyPs

    Consider using focus stacking.

    Also, consider unusual subjects… flowers, bugs, birds, are popular but rocks, rotting wood, even pealing paint should be considered. Nothing is off limits for macro!

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    I agree they are all lovely images. I’ve been contemplating which lense to get, with a limited budget. anyone know how the new Canon macro lens w. built in ring light work?

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    beautiful. what kind of flower is that?

  • Carlos J Encarnacion

    Shoot from a distance with a tele macro, sometimes you see an object and the first thing you do is step closer, and the shot is not what you first envisioned. your fisrt shot should be from the spot where you saw the object, then, go closer.

  • glennsphotos

    Really enjoyed this article and enjoyed your photos. I love photographing my flowers in my garden similar to you and have been doing it for years. Recently during the NY winters I have been bringing them inside and been playing with soft boxes to light them with nice results using a 60 MM Macro on my camera. This Orchid that had just re-bloomed , was taken in my dining room 2 nights ago

  • Jeffrey Korn

    Jaymes, are you using a tripod for your macro images? I went out 2 days ago to take macro images of flowers and was able to have a fast enough shutter to eliminate motion. But I would imagine I would need a tripod if shooting at the golden hours as you suggested. My macro does not have vibration control. Jeff

  • Thank you! That’s an excellent photograph, I love the composition and that splash of yellow–and I like to take garden photographs as well, I’m just waiting for spring to actually arrive here in Michigan…

  • Good point–and I love how nothing is off limits for macro, that makes it so exciting!

  • Good point–I agree, it’s often valuable to just step back and observe.

  • Lovely shot, I love those colors!

  • I like your image, beautiful colors and bokeh. I don’t shoot with a tripod, because I find that it limits my flexibility. Assuming you don’t mind shallow depth of field, it should be possible to handhold, even on cloudy evenings, at around 1/160th of a second (without any vibration reduction). But if you’re interested in sharpness all throughout the frame and are at high magnifications, you will likely need a tripod, even in direct sunlight on sunny evenings. One tip to reduce vibration is to use live-view–the mirror is already up, and so you don’t get the extra vibration that occurs when you press the shutter.

  • Jeffrey Korn

    Thanks for the suggestions. This photo was taken at f/7.1 at 1/400 sec (it was pretty bright), so hand held was easy – Jeff

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