Macro Photography for Beginners - Part 1

Macro Photography for Beginners

The advent of digital photography swept away one of the most challenging problems in image capture: how to shoot macro without a pile of specialised gear. Now you can get down, dirty and close in the image capture business and make macro the digital way with a 100 per cent success rate.

ngeblues by Alfian Ismail on

I know I’m not alone when I say that macro photography is an absorbing activity: to be able to reach into ‘near space’ and record an image that is not easily visible to the naked eye is an attractive option. There is nothing more satisfying than to make a huge print of an insect, mineral specimen or any small object that is normally so tiny to the naked eye and captured with the technique of macro photography.

To shoot macro in the days of film — aside from the requirement of using an SLR camera — you needed a few add-ons to take highly magnified images of extremely small subjects. You could begin by slipping a diopter lens to the front of the existing standard lens … this would impart a degree of magnification; you could also install extension tubes between your normal lens and the camera body; you could also acquire a set of macro bellows and place them between lens and body; and finally, you could invest in a fairly expensive — and optically superb — macro lens that was dedicated to macro shooting; another option was to fit a reversing ring that allowed you to fit the lens on backwards … this improved the lens close up resolution and allowed to you to focus much more closely. But to be honest, it was a hassle — although you can still use these methods if using a DSLR to shoot macro.

These days, digital does it with a dash! With a digital camera — compact or DSLR — even newbies are surprised by how easy it is capture really, really big shots of tiny subjects.

In truth, you can make digital macro photography as basic or as complex as you wish it to be: even with a budget, $200-special digicam you can capture images of the tiny world before you, subjects as small as a matchbox, a match-head or even tinier. The higher-priced compact digicams can do it even better, some offering macro shooting with a powerful zoom lens, so you can stand back a bit.

The other approach is to use a DSLR; it is surprising how powerful a macro camera a circa-$1200 DSLR can become.

Grasshoper macro photography. Image by macropoulos

Image by macropoulos

What is Macro Photography?

First, an explanatory note for all those with a modicum of photo history and tech basics: the term macro used to refer to the capture of an insect or whatever, that resulted in an image on the 35mm film frame (24x36mm) that ranged from 1:10 to 1:1 the size of the original subject. For its part, the term micro referred to a film image that was larger than 1:1 life size; micro photography could easily give you a 35mm film image of an ant that was itself larger than the original ant.

A CCD or CMOS sensor can be as tiny as 3x4mm, so any definition term that applied in the film days is now obsolete. But the rules that apply in accomplishing successful and satisfying macro photography still stand.

Normal photography works in using a camera to record a sharp image by adjusting the lens-to-sensor distance to attain precise focus: for distant subjects at infinity, like landscapes, the lens is positioned at a minimum lens-to-sensor distance; to capture sharp images of closer subjects, like people, the lens-to-sensor is increased.

In macro photography, a sharp image of a tiny object requires the lens to be positioned much closer still, with the lens moved even further out than for normal photography.

As far as my investigations go, just about all compact digicams and most dSLRs have a selectable macro mode. In some cameras you can select macro mode via an external control, while in others you must access the viewfinder menu.

Think about it: no extra lenses, no macro tubes or bellows, no special lenses. What a wonderful world in which to shoot macro!

Flower macro photography. Image by macropoulos

Image by macropoulos

Tips for Macro Photography Beginners

Being curious about how digital cameras can capture macro so easily I investigated the subject. Here are my findings, gained by chatting to the tech expert at a major camera company.

Engage macro mode on a digicam and the system adjusts the lens elements to re-arrange them into an array that best suits close focusing. Quite a feat, as even simple camera lenses have a surprising number of lens elements to juggle.

Unfortunately, by engaging macro mode with the vast majority of cameras you lose control of both the lens aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed.

Why is this so important?

The best macro photography — regardless of camera — requires that you use the smallest lens aperture to gain optimum image sharpness and depth of field. Using a small lens aperture means you need more light, so you need to extend the exposure time to make a correctly exposed photograph.

So you can’t reduce the lens aperture to a smaller, more favourable setting; nor can you slow the shutter speed to permit the use of a smaller lens aperture.

For the keen macro makers I’ve discovered a few digicams that do allow the use of macro mode and lens and shutter speed adjustment (see Chosen Few).

With DSLR cameras the macro operation is somewhat different. Select macro and you activate a different chain of events: with any lens fixed to the camera, engaging macro mode on the camera commands the lens aperture to close to its minimum, so extending the depth of field and allowing you to move closer to the subject.

Shooting macro with a compact digicam is easy but you have to forgo a fair bit of control and you need to understand that the demands of an amateur as far as resolution and colour quality are less stringent than the pros.

The pro approach would be to use a purpose-built macro lens on a DSLR. Dedicated macro lenses are not cheap but they are optimised to operate at closer than normal distances. With macro lenses you are unlikely to experience problems such as colour fringing and optical distortion; many macro lenses also compensate for the additional exposure necessary when racking out the lens to distances very different to those used in normal photography.

Read the Second part to this series at Mcro Photography for Beginners Part 2.

Flower macro photography example. Image by ecstaticist

Image by ecstaticist

Read more from our category

Barrie Smith is an experienced writer/photographer currently published in Australian Macworld, Auscam and other magazines in Australia and overseas.

Some Older Comments

  • Cate April 28, 2013 02:36 pm

    Would the macro mode on a DSLR camera have the same effect as a macro mode on a lens? If I want to experiment with macro photography without buying a separate lens right off the bat is there an advantage to a lens with a macro switch on it or is macro mode on the camera going to be the same thing?

    I have an canon 18-200 mm standard zoom lens which of course isn't a true macro lens but is sometimes advertised as having macro capabilities. Some of the off-brand names, however, have zoom lenses with a macro mode built-in, which is what made me curious about whether they could do something with that lens that my camera/zoom lens can't do without the macro mode on the lens in addition to the camer. Thanks!

  • zacco February 26, 2012 11:29 pm

    hi,i am new to photography,what would be the best camera to learn macro photography with? i was looking at the Fuji Finepix S4500.this has a macro setting and a 30x zoom.i am on a budget up to around £300.if you have any information can you please pass it on.thankyou

  • don reichert December 5, 2011 11:40 am

    I found that using the filters and tubes a little awkward, I would recommend a macro lens. I bought the Canon MP-E 65 1-5X macro. The only issue with this lens, it is ONLY a macro lens. You can NOT take regular pictures with it, but it will be very close up. it goes upto 5:1, thats 5X more than a normal macro. I also bought the Tamron 90mm Macro lens, it can also be used as a portrait lens.

  • Wiliam K December 4, 2011 03:45 pm

    I have been taking pictures with DSLR for the last four years. First with a canon 30D and more recently with a canon 7D. I want to take close shots of insects, water, etc. I want to know if what I got (as far lenses go) can be used with additional kits or what should I buy to get good macro.
    I have a few lenses
    Sigma 10-20mm AF
    Canon EFS 18-200mm
    Canon EF 100-400mm
    a kit with four close-up lens +1, +2, +4, +8
    I want some that will magnify it many times over. I will be very appreciative of any suggestion or comment that will help me to choose a good lens. I have been reading about CANON EF 180mm f/3.5 L Macro USM Lens but I don't know if it will do.

  • JJ October 18, 2011 01:12 pm

    I currently use a Canon G10. I shot these photos using the built in macro lens of the camera:

    Do you recommend a better macro lens?

  • Terry June 28, 2011 01:46 pm

    Amazing macro photography shots that are impressive! I have been playing with macro photography for a few years now and have opted for extension tubes (note - I have a Canon 40D, and a few lenses). Using the tubes allows me to try different lens. I had done several with my 70-200L 4.0 when I had it, and they turned out awesome!! But I've sold that and now have the Canon 100-400L. I have yet to put the lens on with the tubes. I hope they don't bend! :)

    Keep the great advice coming on macro photography, and all other types.

  • whallid June 13, 2011 09:43 pm

    here's my share taken with a point and shoot cam ^^
    [eimg url='' title='SAM_2157.jpg']

  • DPStudent April 19, 2011 06:23 pm


    Not sure if it would help, but i have been in similar situation (used Samsung NV100HD) digital compact, and i'm afraid there is no other solution (at least, not that i have found) than just taking the photo from as close as possible.

    If the camera starts casting shadow, an additional light source might come in handy. It sounds silly but as help light source i have used my LED keychain (the one you buy in store for a couple of dollars). It does fuss up colors (white balance wise) a bit, but it's small, and it's convenient in such occasions. Later just fix color temp. in photoshop elements or any other tool you are using.

    Hope it helps

  • Don Reichert April 7, 2011 12:22 am

    Sorry, I meant to say WITHOUT using tubes or convertors.

  • Don Reichert April 7, 2011 12:20 am

    I have a question about lenes. Does anyone know of a len with a EOS mount that you can get 2:1 (2X) macro. I know Canon has their MP-E 65mm 1-5X, but the 5:1 is a little overkill, and the lens in only a macro. Was looking for something that could alos be used as a standard lens, but have 2X macro with tubes or teleconvertors. Any help would be great.

  • Glenn72 November 27, 2010 02:55 am

    Doesn't seem to be working

  • Glenn72 November 27, 2010 02:54 am

    photo here

  • Glenn72 November 27, 2010 02:53 am

    My very first attempt at Macro Photography using Extension Tubes

  • Sara April 12, 2010 12:46 am


    I'm a beginner and just have a compact point and shoot made by samsung that appears to have pretty limited 'manual mode' options.

    I've used the macro mode some, for taking product pics for my Etsy store, but have ran into one hang up and am not sure if I'm doing something wrong. If I try to zoom in on the subject while in macro mode it will NOT focus. The only way to keep it in focus and not get blurry is by not using any zoom at all, and just getting as close to the subject as possible. Which I could live with except that I or the camera then create a shadow over the subject and I have to try to rotate stuff (me or the subject or the light source)
    around to get away from that.

    I'm managing but didn't know if anyone else had experienced this or would know what I'm doing wrong - obviously if I wanted to take a macro shot of a bug the option to rotate it or me, or the option of getting in super close may not really be there! I want to be able to zoom clear in and have it still be in focus darn it! :)

    And actually - now that I'm playing with my camera - if I'm zoomed in all the way (macro mode or not) it refuses to focus. I'm lost!

  • Pam April 10, 2010 01:31 am

    I have just started to experiment with Macro photography on my Canon PowerShot SX 20 IS. I have a macro setting, but you are right, once I am in that mode, I have no control over any other settings. I have had some decent shots, but not exactly what I was hoping for. The shots are more like close-up than macro. Will keep experimenting. I learn something new everytime I read this site. Thanks for making me feel like a am part of a photography community of friends!

  • Mike Betourne April 4, 2010 05:33 am

    Can you tell me if the MASSA focusing rail is A good buy ,or if it is of good quality to use with my Sony 100mm2.8 macro lens?

  • DPStudent March 9, 2010 07:02 am

    Very nice macro tutorial,

    @mike_nesbitt - i guess that for insects you would want to get as much distance from your subject as possible, meaning the longer focal length the better. So maybe you should consider 180mm. One thing to note that with longer focal length comes shallower depth of field meaning smaller portion of the insect in sharp focus.

    I use 50mm 'true' macro lens 1:1, but for insects i try to use Sigma 70-300mm 1:2 'close-up' lens. It may not give the biggest subject (2x smaller as the 'true' macro lens) but it is a great budget option. Only issue around 200mm or 300mm is that shake becomes visible, meaning tripod is a must.

    Here are a couple more tips regarding shooting macros

    Top 20 Photography tips on shooting macros

  • mike nesbitt July 1, 2009 01:50 am

    Good work Barrie.
    I am going to get into macro in the near future.
    I am currently looking at either the 150 or 180 Sigma to fit on a Canon 40D. Which would you recommend for Dragonflies etc.
    Regards, Mike.

  • Pasquale Spagnuolo June 27, 2009 11:51 pm

    greart work Barrie

  • Gail June 26, 2009 07:43 am

    Sorry, but i'm still confused.

  • Matt May 18, 2009 12:35 am

    I highly recommend reading "Understanding Close-Up Photography" by Bryan Peterson. He covers the difference between close-up and macro and things like DOF, extension tubes, the Canon 500D, etc. His books are excellent.

  • Asanea April 1, 2009 06:33 pm

    Magnificent photos of the insects! Wish we could take such quality photos of ours too! ;-)

  • TP17 April 1, 2009 11:37 am


    I'm new to macro, and I'm excited and ready to shoot the bugs, flowers, and everything else. I purchased a 105mm, and would like to your input when shooting.

    How close should you, do you, need to get to you subject to get a tack sharp image? Should you be a little further away to get this result?

    Thanks in advance.

  • Katherine Marie March 31, 2009 12:05 am

    You have helped me alot... I only have one question though. . How do i get the lense cap off???

  • Katherine Marie March 31, 2009 12:04 am

    Thank you so much for publishing this online it has helped me a lot.

  • Ron Paris March 28, 2009 12:05 am

    Hi all, thanks for all the great tips,as a new Photographer this is a great site to learn some great things.
    I shoot a dslr a-100 Sony which is a great camera for the price and only have a kit lense 18-75mm
    and could use all these tips for future shots Thanks

  • paul March 27, 2009 09:01 am

    i tried the close up filter on my lens. i have 500D. it's a close-up filter not to be mistaken as macro. maybe the equivalent is 1:2-1:3. it means it's not truly a macro set-up. i tried reversing my lens. i haven't bought a reversing ring yet as it is hard to find. i just hold it instead but prone to light leaks that ruins pictures. google some DIY macros on the net. it'll surely help

  • Bob Dale March 27, 2009 08:56 am

    Nice color and nice composition all in the same shot by Image by ecstaticist.

    Bob Dale
    Master Photographer

  • hkki March 27, 2009 08:50 am

    Thabks. Nice photos and macro tips.

  • Radwar March 26, 2009 12:25 am

    Any pointers on using a close up filter (Canon 500D) with a regular lens to take macro photos?

  • Alvaro March 25, 2009 11:29 am

    Thank you!, I think i got it now!! :)

  • Mark Davini March 25, 2009 06:04 am


    The closer you are to your subject, the shallower your depth of field will be. The article is right on as far as information. If you're still confused, read it again, and check you "3 fs" of depth of field.

  • Steve Berardi March 25, 2009 04:46 am

    A cheaper alternative to using a dedicated macro lens, is to use a 50mm lens with an extension tube (25mm work very well). The extension tube will allow you to focus the lens A LOT closer (you can easily focus on a penny and fill the frame).

    The 50mm lens is a very popular lens, so most camera makers have a cheap one available (Canon's 50mm f/1.8 is $90), and extension tubes are pretty cheap too (about $75 for an off brand). So, about $165 for a good macro/portrait lens combo!

    This won't work as well as an expensive $400+ macro lens, but the results are surprisingly good.

    I've also heard you can use a closeup filter (about $100) on your telephoto lens to turn it into a macro.. but I haven't tried this yet.

  • Photography & Design Blog March 25, 2009 03:32 am

    Really great examples. Thanks for sharing!

  • Yanik's Photo School March 24, 2009 11:04 pm

    Great post Barrie. It's a great intro. It compliments my 3-part introduction to macro photography very well.

    This article is also a great first jump for my SUPER MACRO article that I wrote here on DPS. :)

  • Mark March 24, 2009 10:06 pm

    @alvaro - Depth of field is a function of aperture and magnification. The greater the magnification at an aperture, the smaller the depth of field. In macro work, the magnification is very high (1:1). The depth of field is typically millimetres, and so you need a small aperture (and a steady hand/tripod/flash) to get anything in focus.

  • Will March 24, 2009 07:58 pm

    Here is an article we wrote on macro photography:

  • John March 24, 2009 07:17 pm

    Great article, and perfect timing for it! I was looking just yesterday for a macro lens.. Initially decided for the Tokina AT-Xm100 f2.8 for my D70s, but i just got word that i need to replace the clutch and reshape the valves on my motorcycle (which comes first right now), so i will not afford it pretty soon..

    I was wondering, though, and i hope you will forgive me for asking this here, is it possible to use those macro rings with my 50mm F1.8D and/or my 18-70mm?? I think that would be the cheapest alternative, plus, i wasn't able to find any information for this on the internet so far. I'm talking about the "hollow" rings, no AF, no optics, just extension tubes.

    If it is possible, would they be worth it? I know these lens are far from great, but they're all i have at the moment, so i have to make do with that.

    Guess i need a flash unit, as well.. :( Will a SB800 do the trick?

    Thank you in advance!

  • kender March 24, 2009 06:42 pm

    Saw you talking about insect photography... Guess it's mostly about larger ones? Any specific tips for shooting ants? (Got a lot of them in my backyard, so at least I wouldn't have any problems with models... :)

  • Michael VanDeWalker March 24, 2009 01:58 pm

    On the other hand you can go shallow on the DOF and end up with some wild macro abstracts. It just depends on the end result that you are looking for.

  • Alvaro March 24, 2009 01:48 pm

    Pardon my ignorance, I'm new taking photos!... Why do we need to shoot at a high f stop?... all the macro photos I've seen here, have the subject pretty sharp, but the background blurry, and according to what I read about depth of field was quite the opposite (at least for normal photography) isn't it? less aperture to capture the subject and the background, and more aperture to focus on the subject and have the bg somewhat blured... I'm quite confused now... can anyone explain please??... thank you so much...

    by the way, great article (except for the part that got me all confused! hahaha)

  • Bluenoser March 24, 2009 09:20 am

    Great read, looking forward to the remainder of the series.

  • Martin March 24, 2009 09:03 am

    @alain: focus stacking is another option to increase the depth of field in macro photos.

  • alain March 24, 2009 08:33 am

    The secret to get nice insect pictures is to use a flash and shoot at f22. That is the only way to get enough depth of field and no blur.

    Personally, I use a right flash (Ray flash). Cant wait for the weather to warm up so I can go hunt some bugs!

  • Ilan March 24, 2009 08:07 am

    Like looking on an another world.. Which it is, in way.
    Awesome examples, great read !