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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
Jaymes Dempsey

is the Managing Editor of Digital Photography School, as well as a macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.

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