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How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

In this article, I’m going to show you exactly how you can take the perfect macro photo.

I’m talking about macro photos that are unbelievably good – the kind of photo that professionals strive for.

Because it turns out there are a few simple macro secrets. And if you use them regularly, you can practically guarantee some gorgeous macro images.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

Are you ready for some step-by-step instructions that will take your macro images to the next level?

Let’s dive right in.

Step 1: Shoot during the right light (clouds or Golden-Hour!)

Macro photography starts with light.

And without good light?

Your photos just won’t work.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

But what counts as good light for macro photography?

First of all, the golden hours are amazing for macro photography. If you shoot during the hour or two after sunrise and the hour or two before sunset, you’re guaranteed incredible light.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

You do have to be careful about the light’s direction. During the golden hours, the sun is low in the sky. This means that the light hits your subject from an angle. And this angle will affect how your photos turn out.

In general, frontlight is the best type of light for macro photography.

(Frontlight refers to light that comes from over your shoulder, and hits the front of your subject.)

So if you stick to frontlight, you’ll do just fine.

If you struggle to find the best position for frontlight, try pointing your shadow at your subject. That way, you can be sure that your subject is always perfectly lit.

However, the golden hours aren’t the only type of good light for macro photography.

You can also shoot beautiful macro photos when the day is heavily overcast.

Because clouds diffuse the light, making it nice and soft.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

With soft light, you don’t have to worry about the direction. Instead, focus on shooting subjects with color. The soft light will make the hues more vivid.

And speaking of subjects:

Step 2: Find a single stand-out subject

All perfect macro photos need a strong subject.

Something that stands out. Something that can act as a focal point for your photo. Something that anchors the shot.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

There are dozens of possible macro photography subjects, including:

  • Flowers
  • Insects
  • Rocks
  • Feathers
  • Leaves

But here’s the thing:

The particular category of the subject isn’t important. You can take amazing macro photos of flowers or insects, rocks or feathers.

What’s important is that you choose the right flower, the right insect, the right rock.

Because you need to choose a subject that’s going to stand out from its surroundings. That is, you should aim for a subject that contrasts with the environment (ideally in multiple ways).

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

For instance, your subject can be sharp, while its surroundings are soft.

Your subject can be dark, while its surroundings are light.

Your subject can be red, while its surroundings are green.

The point is for your subject to stand out. If your subject blends in with the environment, the shot generally won’t work. Because almost every macro photo needs an anchor.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

Note that this means your subject shouldn’t overlap chaotically with other, similar objects. For instance, you don’t want a flower that’s surrounding by other distracting flowers.

Bottom line:

Make sure your subject is powerful. That’s the first step to capturing the perfect macro photo.

Step 3: Find a simple background that enhances the subject

You know the importance of a stand-out subject.

But your background is important, too.

If you want to capture a stunning macro photo, you’ve got to make sure that your background is totally aligned with this goal.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

What makes for the perfect macro background?

First, the perfect background is simple. It doesn’t have much going on. It doesn’t distract.

Second, the perfect background enhances the photo as a whole. That is, it adds a splash of color, or creates a pure white look for the subject to rest on.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

In general, you can make your macro backgrounds simple by creating a deep blur. You do this two ways:

  1. Use a wide aperture (in the f/2.8 to f/5.6 range).
  2. Have a large subject-to-background distance. For this, make sure that your background is off in the distance.

To enhance the photo with your background is harder. I like to make backgrounds by using the sun-shade technique – where you make sure that your subject is in the shade, and your background is in golden sun.

That’s how I was able to capture backgrounds like this one:

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

If you can’t use the sun-shade technique, that’s okay. Try to find a background that includes a bit of color – such as a distant autumn tree.

Note that you can often find better backgrounds by simply walking around your subject and observing it from multiple angles. Try getting down low, shooting from up high, or getting on a level with your subject.

Step 4: Pick the perfect settings for a sharp, well-exposed macro photo

Once you’ve chosen a subject and a background, it’s time to choose your macro settings.

I’ll start by sharing my common settings, and then explain why I choose them and what I suggest you work with.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

When I shoot macro photography, I use Manual mode, because I like tweaking both my shutter speed and aperture to try out different looks. However, it can also make sense to work in Aperture Priority mode if you’re not interested in playing with different shutter speeds for creative results.

I don’t recommend Shutter Priority mode, because this relinquishes control over your aperture – and aperture is something that you should absolutely choose yourself.

Speaking of aperture: I consistently use apertures between f/2.8 and f/5.6. This gives me the perfect blurry background – which, as I mentioned above, helps create a stand-out subject.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

However, macro photographers sometimes prefer their subject to be sharp throughout. In this case, you’ll need an aperture in the area of f/16 and beyond, and you’ll need a tripod. In fact, if your subject is very three-dimensional, you’ll need to focus stack (a technique that’s beyond the scope of this article).

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

I tend to work handheld (because I like the flexibility). This means that I rarely let my shutter speed drop below 1/120th of a second. But if you use a tripod, you’re free to let your shutter speed drop far below this mark (if there’s absolutely no wind, that is!).

In general, I advocate using the lowest ISO you can get away with. You want to minimize noise as much as possible. So try to keep this down.

Finally, make sure that you switch from autofocus to manual focus, especially if you’re working at high magnifications. You simply can’t focus well with autofocus at macro magnifications, no matter how good your lens. So manual focus is key to getting the perfect shot.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

And that’s it! Take your shot – and admire it! Because if you’ve followed the instructions above, it’s going to look really, really stunning.

How to take the perfect macro photo: next steps

You know how to take the perfect macro photo.

You know how to find the perfect light, the perfect subject, and the perfect background.

How to Take the Perfect Macro Photo (Step-By-Step Guide)

You even know the perfect macro photography settings.

So go out and take some perfect macro photos of your own!

Which step in capturing a perfect macro photo do you struggle with the most? Leave a comment right now letting me know – and I’ll see what I can do to help!


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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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