Looking to master macro photography so you can capture pro-level shots of flowers, leaves, products, and so much more? While most beginners – and even experienced photographers – struggle to create magazine-worthy macro images, it’s nowhere near as difficult as it might seem.
I started taking macro photos when I was 15, and I spent the next decade developing tips, tricks, and strategies that everyone can use for great results. In this article, I share all the basics plus some of my favorite advanced techniques to really level up your images. Specifically, I discuss:
- The two essential pieces of gear you need to take stunning close-up shots
- The best macro lighting for vibrant colors
- How to create a scrumptious, creamy background blur
- How to capture consistently sharp macro images
- So much more!
Ready to start capturing breathtaking photos of the macro world? Let’s dive right in.
What is macro photography?
Macro photography refers to photographing at high magnifications. This may involve the use of a specialized macro lens, which is designed to capture detailed, close-up photos.
Technically speaking, a true macro photo creates an image on the camera sensor that’s the same size as the scene in real life, also known as 1:1 magnification. So if you were to photograph an inch-long flower, the flower would need to take up an inch of your camera sensor.
This image was captured with a macro lens at or near 1:1 magnification (in real life, those anthers were tiny!):
For instance, here’s a photo of a relatively large flower:
Is it a close-up photo? Yes, definitely. Would most photographers happily refer to it as “macro photography”? I think so. But it certainly didn’t involve 1:1 magnifications (and it probably could’ve been taken with a non-macro lens).
The same is true of the succulent image below. It’s close up, it’s not “true macro photography,” but I’d still call it “macro photography:”
Common macro photography subjects
It’s a popular misconception to pigeonhole macro photography into a single genre. Rather, it’s an approach to image-making that reveals the fascinating intricacies usually overlooked by the casual observer.
Therefore, macro photography spans a wide range of subjects and can be used in diverse photographic fields. A large number of macro photographers focus on the natural world, using close-up techniques to capture the intricate details of flowers, the delicate veins in leaves, or the vivid colors and patterns of insects.
That said, it’s not just nature photography that benefits from a macro approach. Product photographers use macro techniques to highlight tiny details of products to show the finesse and care that goes into their creation. And even a casual photographer might enjoy capturing macro shots of everyday items around the house; here, the macro lens can tease out textures, lines, and colors that are often overlooked, resulting in arresting images.
If you’re new to macro photography, it’s always a good idea to start with a more conventional approach. But remember, the joy of photography is experimentation and finding your unique point of view. Feel free to explore unconventional subjects and discover new ways of seeing the world!
Essential macro photography gear
Getting started with macro photography is easy, and you don’t need thousands of dollars worth of gear.
Instead, I generally recommend that beginners purchase two items:
- A camera
- A close-focusing accessory
It’s a minimalistic kit, sure, and there are certainly other pieces of equipment that can be useful (which I discuss in detail below). But it’s the setup I’ve used for most of my macro photography career, and it’s a great way to delve into the macro approach without breaking the bank.
Let’s take a look at both these pieces of equipment in greater detail:
Choosing a camera
It may seem blatantly obvious, but every macro photographer needs a camera.
What kind of camera should you buy? The best macro photography cameras offer interchangeable lenses; these tend to produce the highest-quality photos, and as you become more experienced, you can upgrade your lenses without needing to purchase a new camera. Plus, interchangeable lenses will just make your life a lot easier if you ever decide to shoot landscapes, portraits, architecture, etc., because you can buy lenses specifically for those purposes.
But as long as your camera can change lenses, you don’t need to be picky. Any DSLR or mirrorless model from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Olympus, or Pentax will work just fine (and there are plenty of other brands not mentioned on that list that will work, too).
And if you don’t want to shell out for a DSLR or mirrorless camera, that’s okay, too. Even a smartphone will let you shoot macro photos, provided you have the right close-focusing accessory, as discussed in the next section:
Choosing a close-focusing accessory
Most cameras cannot automatically focus up close. So in order to capture macro photos, you’ll need some sort of magnifier.
Here, you have a few options:
Close-up filters: an affordable starting point
Need a quick, cost-effective way to get your feet wet in macro photography? Try close-up filters. These nifty tools are essentially little magnifying glasses for your lens, and they mount onto the end of an existing lens (such as a standard 18-55mm kit lens or a 50mm prime ).
One of the best things about close-up filters is their affordability. They offer a very inexpensive entry point into the world of macro photography, making them an appealing option for beginners.
But like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Close-up filters have two main drawbacks: reduced optical quality and limited flexibility. Images taken with close-up filters tend to lack that next-level crispness that serious macro shooters love, and the filters impose a maximum focus distance on your lens, so you can’t capture images from a variety of distances.
Extension tubes: a small step up
Next up are extension tubes, the cylindrical spacers that fit between your camera and the lens, pushing the lens further from the camera sensor. An extension tube or two allows your lens to focus much closer than usual, creating a magnified image on the sensor.
Extension tubes are pricier than close-up filters, yet they offer an affordable and arguably higher-quality option for those dipping their toes into macro photography.
The downside? They can make quickly switching between subjects or different magnification levels a bit challenging. And while they technically don’t degrade image quality, lenses that aren’t designed for close focusing often aren’t as sharp at high magnifications. So you may still notice a reduction in image quality.
Reversing rings: cheap but limited
Next up is a somewhat unusual but budget-friendly option: reversing rings. These special adapters allow you to mount a lens on your camera backward. This simple adjustment effectively turns your lens into a magnifying glass, producing a macro effect.
Reversing rings offer a cheap and intriguing way to dabble in macro photography, but they share the same disadvantages as close-up filters and extension tubes: a potential loss in optical quality and a significant drop in shooting flexibility. Be sure to keep these limitations in mind when considering this option.
A dedicated macro lens: the premium choice
Lastly, let’s discuss the cream of the crop for macro photography optics: a dedicated macro lens. This piece of gear is specifically designed for macro photography and offers unparalleled sharpness and flexibility. Whether you want to create ultra-detailed shots at high magnifications or you’re looking for a powerful lens that can do a mixture of close-up and standard photography, a macro lens is a solid choice.
While these lenses carry a heftier price tag, there are affordable options on the market that don’t sacrifice quality. They’re a worthy investment for beginners serious about macro photography or enthusiasts looking to take their shots to the next level.
There are plenty of great macro lenses to choose from, but the macro lens you buy doesn’t have to be the most expensive or top-of-the-line model. What really matters is its ability to get you close to the subject. Ideally, look for lenses that offer 1:1 magnification for life-size images. However, a lens offering 1:2 magnification can also do a pretty decent job, particularly if capturing tiny details isn’t your main objective.
And don’t forget to consider the focal length based on your subjects of interest. A lens in the 80-120mm range is versatile and popular among flower, product, and still-life photographers. But if you’re keen on photographing insects, a longer macro lens in the 150-200mm range lets you keep a respectful distance.
Finally, for a more budget-friendly and versatile option, a shorter lens in the 30-60mm range works well for a mix of macro and everyday shooting.
Optional macro photography gear
There are a few items that some dedicated macro photographers like to use, yet they’re certainly not essential for certain types of macro shooting.
In fact, there are plenty of high-level macro photographers, myself included, who rarely use this type of equipment. But some (or all) of these additional products are necessary if you want to capture certain types of macro photos, like indoor product shots or photos with an extremely deep depth of field, so it’s certainly worth considering.
If you want my recommendation, I would suggest getting started without these accessories. Later on, you may want to consider purchasing them as you identify the types of images that you really want to shoot. But if you’re serious about delving into a specific genre of macro photography right from the start, then here are the items you’ll want to consider:
A tripod will keep your setup stable at high magnifications, and it becomes essential if you want to capture macro images where subjects are sharp from front to back.
You see, in order to achieve such a deep depth of field, you’ll be working with an ultra-narrow aperture, which usually results in a longer shutter speed. In that scenario, a tripod is really the only way to prevent blur due to camera shake.
You generally also need a tripod if you’re using a technique called focus stacking. With this method, you’ll have to maintain a single frame while capturing multiple shots. A tripod ensures that your camera stays in the same position throughout the process.
Now, if you decide to invest in a tripod, go for a reasonably lightweight one. Carbon fiber is your best bet for material, especially if you plan to photograph outdoors. On the other hand, if you only want to photograph in the studio, a heavy aluminum tripod will cost you less without sacrificing stability.
Additionally, look for a tripod that offers flexibility so you can position your camera at all sorts of angles. Ideally, you should purchase one with independently adjustable legs that can get down to just a few inches off the ground.
A macro focusing rail
This accessory might sound a bit technical, but a macro focusing rail can save you a lot of time and effort. It mounts between the tripod and the camera, allowing you to subtly adjust your camera’s position by moving it along the rail track. If you’ve ever found yourself spending lots of time adjusting your tripod position and tripod head angle to nail focus, this tool might be your solution.
A macro focusing rail is particularly handy for focus stacking your macro images. You can set your macro lens to its maximum magnification, frame your shot, and then slowly move your entire camera setup forward or backward while capturing a series of images.
A macro flash
Lighting can be quite challenging in macro photography. For one, increasing the magnification on a lens reduces the light that reaches the camera sensor. Add to that the need to use an ultra-narrow aperture for deep depth of field, and you’ll often find yourself needing extra light on your subject. That’s where a flash comes in handy.
The most popular type of flash among macro photographers is the ring flash. It encircles the front of the lens and casts an even light on the subject. This prevents shadows from being created by the lens barrel, providing balanced illumination.
There are also other forms of flash for macro photography, like twin flashes, which have two heads mounted on either side of the lens.
But I’ll be honest with you; I don’t like to use flashes in my macro photography. Even with diffusers, ring flashes can create results that are too harsh for my taste.
However, if you plan to do indoor studio macro photography, some form of flash becomes essential. A macro-specific flash is the only way I know that you can light your subject from the front without those pesky shadows.
Note: There is one type of artificial lighting for macro photography that I haven’t tried yet, which offers flexible arms that can be positioned independently around your subject. This might be something worth exploring if you are looking to experiment with artificial lighting in your macro photography.
Macro photography settings
Macro photography, while often very artistic, is a technically demanding genre. At high magnifications, light is limited, camera shake is magnified, and setting focus can be a challenge.
For the best results, you need to pay careful attention to your settings when shooting. Here are my three essential recommendations:
1. Set your camera to Aperture Priority or Manual mode
Pretty much every camera offers a series of modes: Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program, etc.
Aperture Priority lets you choose your aperture and ISO setting, while your camera chooses the shutter speed. I discuss aperture more in the next section, but taking control over the aperture goes a long way toward creating stunning macro photos.
Manual mode lets you choose the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO. Personally, I shoot almost exclusively in Manual mode, as I find it offers the most flexibility and creative control. It can take some getting used to, though, so if you like the idea of shooting in Manual mode but don’t feel comfortable adjusting all your camera settings, start with Aperture Priority, then switch to Manual as you become more experienced.
2. Carefully choose your aperture for perfect depth of field
The aperture is a hole inside your lens that opens and closes depending on your camera’s aperture setting.
Aperture is a key part of exposure (along with shutter speed and ISO). But aperture also affects the depth of field: the amount of your image that’s sharp.
By selecting a small aperture (also known as a high f-number, such as f/16), you’ll end up with a result like this one, where most of the subject is in focus:
And by selecting a large aperture (i.e., a small f-number, such as f/2.8), you’ll end up with an image like this, where very little of the subject is in focus:
Because macro photography occurs at such high magnifications, depth of field is already pretty limited. (The closer you are to your subject, the smaller the depth of field, all else being equal.)
So it’s pretty tough to get a shot with a sharp subject and a sharp background, even if you shoot at f/22. However, you’ll still need to carefully consider your aperture. Certain macro photographers like to keep their entire subject sharp from front to back, and they’ll often shoot at f/13 or f/16.
Whereas other macro photographers like to create a so-called soft-focus effect, where you only get a sliver of your subject in focus.
Neither choice is wrong, and both types of macro photography can look great when executed properly. Just make sure you’re thinking about the aperture for every shot you take. That way, you get the artistic result you’re after.
3. Use manual focusing for the sharpest results
These days, cameras and lenses offer amazing autofocus systems. You can capture birds in flight, cars at high speeds, airplanes taking off, and so much more.
Yet even the best autofocus systems come with a major weakness:
Unfortunately, autofocusing on objects at macro magnifications is just really hard. Which is why, for the best macro photos, you’ll need to focus manually.
This may sound intimidating, but it’s actually quite easy. Simply switch your lens from autofocus to manual focus (most lenses have a switch on their side). Then turn the focus ring until you achieve the point of focus you’re after.
You’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. And pretty soon, you’ll want to focus manually all the time!
(Quick tip: If you’re struggling to focus on a close-up subject, try setting your focus first. Then let go of your focus ring and rock your camera back and forth until the plane of focus is exactly where you want it.)
Macro photography lighting
For macro photography, I recommend you start with natural light. Don’t buy any flashes or studio strobes or ring lights, especially not at first.
Instead, take advantage of the sun and all it offers. Here are the two best times of day to do outdoor macro photography:
Cloudy light is great for macro photography. It’s soft, it’s flattering, and it makes colors look super vibrant.
Here’s a photo I took on a cloudy afternoon:
Do you see how the colors really pop? That’s thanks to the cloudy lighting.
Unfortunately, cloudy light early and late in the day doesn’t work so well – the sky will be dark, and you’ll struggle to get a nice, bright image. So if the sky is cloudy, make sure to head out toward the middle of the day.
Sunny mornings and evenings
The golden hours – that is, the first hour or two after sunrise and the last hour or two before sunset – are beloved by pretty much all photographers, and for good reason:
They offer soft golden light that looks magnificent.
Thanks to golden hour lighting, I love doing macro photography early in the morning and late in the day. Colors look beautiful, and you can create all sorts of interesting lighting effects:
The one caveat is that the sky needs to be clear. Too much cloud cover, and you’ll lose the beautiful light. Then you’ll have to cope with dim, cloudy light – and as I explained in the previous section, it doesn’t work so well for macro shooting.
Don’t do macro photography when the light is harsh
This is probably the number one mistake I see beginner macro photographers making. If you head out when the light is harsh, you’ll end up with bad exposures, ugly colors, and unflattering shadows, no matter how skilled you are as a photographer.
When is the light harsh?
Basically from a couple of hours after sunrise to a couple of hours before sunset, assuming you have no cloud cover. Midday (i.e., high noon) is the absolute worst for macro photography, but a few hours to either side is also pretty bad, at least at most latitudes.
(If you do have lots of cloud cover, then shooting at midday is completely fine.)
So shoot when the light is good, as discussed above. And avoid shooting when the light is harsh.
Tips for macro photography beginners
Now that you’re familiar with the macro photography basics, I’ll share a few tips and tricks to improve your macro photos.
1. Get close – and go even closer
If I could share one fundamental piece of advice from my years of macro photography, it would be this: Don’t be afraid to really push your lens to its limits.
It’s common for beginners to shy away from their lens’s full magnification capabilities. Sometimes, it might be a good idea to not push your lens to its max, but that should never become a mental roadblock.
Consider that macro photography is often all about showing your subject in a new light. The closer you get, the more unfamiliar and artistic your subject appears.
So each time you approach a subject, challenge yourself. See how far your lens can go. Explore its potential. You might be surprised at the stunning images you can create when you truly push your equipment to its limits!
2. Carefully position your subject for maximum impact
I’ve talked a lot about macro settings and lighting, but I’d also like to emphasize a third corner of the macro photography triangle:
Composition in macro photography is a huge deal; by positioning your elements in different areas of the frame, you can achieve very different end results. In fact, composition can be the difference between a boring, snapshot-like image and a stunning, please-let-me-print-this-and-hang-it-on-my-wall image. (No joke.)
But how can you create stunning compositions?
I’d recommend starting with the rule of thirds. By positioning your subject a third of the way into the frame, you can achieve a nice harmony while maintaining plenty of visual movement (also known as dynamism).
You might also experiment with centered compositions, where you place your main subject right in the center of the frame. Centered images tend to look pretty intense, and they work especially well if you have a symmetrical subject.
Once you’ve learned the basic composition guidelines, such as the rule of thirds and symmetrical symmetry, I’d recommend playing around with different image layouts. Find a nice macro subject, then position it in various parts of the frame. You might think about doing macro minimalism, you might try including diagonals, you might consider incorporating triangles or the rule of odds; basically, there are all sorts of different options, so have fun with them!
3. Increase the distance between your subject and the background
At the start of this article, I promised to explain how to achieve beautiful, blurred macro backgrounds. Part of it has to do with using a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field. But there’s another key part, too:
Make sure your subject is as far from the background as possible.
It’s a simple trick, but it makes a huge difference.
Now, you can increase the subject-to-background distance in two main ways:
- You can find a subject that’s far from the background. So if you want to photograph a tulip, find one that’s far from the trees or fence or grass behind it.
- You can change your position so that the area behind your subject recedes. For instance, by getting down low to the ground, the area behind your subject will often change from the grass (near to your subject) and become distant trees or distant flowers (far from your subject). And you’ll get a much better blur.
For the image below, I wanted to create a nice background blur while shooting some grape hyacinths. I didn’t have too many flowers to choose from, so I got low to the ground – I was practically lying face down in the flower bed! – and I shifted my camera back and forth until there was a nice distance between my main subject and the flower behind it. This was the result:
4. Frame your subject against the sky for gorgeous backgrounds
In macro photography, the background often matters as much as the subject. A good background will complement the main focus of the shot by adding color, bokeh, or negative space, whereas a bad background will clash with the image’s subject and distract the viewer.
There are a number of great techniques for leveling up your backgrounds, but one of my all-time favorite methods is to get down low so that my subject is framed against the sky. This can work at pretty much any time of day – on cloudy days, you’ll get a lovely white background, for instance – but I really recommend using the approach at sunrise and sunset.
You see, by carefully adjusting your camera angle, you can photograph your macro subject against the orange or pink sky created by the setting sun. I captured this image of a dandelion seedhead using that precise method:
A note of caution: Don’t look through your camera directly at the sun, especially at high magnifications. If you’re using a DSLR, I’d really recommend switching to Live View (where you shoot with your camera’s rear LCD).
But as long as you’re shooting safely, you’ll have a lot of fun!
5. Try selective-focus techniques
One technique that can truly transform your macro photos is selective focusing. It’s when you employ a wide aperture, like f/2.8, to create a shallow depth of field – then you deliberately position the focus on a particular part of your subject.
Let’s say you’re photographing a flower. With selective focusing, you could adjust the focus to only highlight the edge of a petal. The rest of the flower and the background blur into a soft wash of color, drawing attention to the sharp detail of the petal edge.
This technique can result in breathtaking, artistic images, but it does require a healthy dose of patience and persistence. Your initial shots may not turn out as you imagined, but don’t let that deter you. Continue experimenting, take multiple shots of each subject, and don’t be afraid to play with different focal points! You’ll eventually end up with some outstanding shots.
6. Try focus stacking
I must admit, I have a soft spot for shallow-focus macro photography. There’s something enchanting about having a small part of your subject in sharp focus while the rest fades into a dreamy blur. However, I understand this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it may not always serve your photographic purpose, especially if you’re showcasing a product or composing a still-life shot.
In such scenarios, you’ll likely want your entire subject to be in sharp focus. One way to achieve this is by using a narrow aperture. Dialing down to f/8, f/11, or f/13 can often give you more depth of field to work with, resulting in sharper images.
But what if an f/13 aperture doesn’t give you enough depth of field for a sharp subject? This can often happen when you’re dealing with a subject featuring lots of depth – like a coneflower with petals reaching out in all directions – or you’re aiming to shoot at extremely high magnifications.
One option is to narrow the aperture further, but not all lenses even offer apertures past f/16, plus an ultra-narrow aperture will lead to a phenomenon known as diffraction, which will soften your images.
So I recommend an alternative: focus stacking.
Focus-stacking involves capturing a series of images, each with a slightly different focus point. While a single photo might only have a portion of your subject in sharp focus, the set of images, when combined, encompasses the whole subject. Using post-processing software, you can stack these images together to create a final file that displays your entire subject in sharp focus.
(There are plenty of software options available for this, including more generalist programs like Adobe Photoshop as well as dedicated stacking software like Helicon Focus.)
A few words of caution: focus stacking can be time-consuming, particularly for beginners. Also, keeping your camera still throughout the process is vital – a tripod is a big help here. A focusing rail can also be beneficial, allowing you to subtly adjust focus between shots by moving your entire setup.
One last thing to remember: If you’re photographing outdoors, avoid this technique on windy days. A gust of wind can move your subject and ruin the shot. However, with practice and patience, focus stacking can produce macro images with a depth and clarity that’s hard to achieve otherwise!
7. Try freelensing for creative macro photos
I want to share one of my favorite methods for artistic macro photos: freelensing.
The term might sound a bit technical, but the process is simple: in freelensing, you disconnect your lens from your camera. You then hold the detached lens up against the lens mount and tilt it back and forth as you take your shots.
This maneuvering creates an effect similar to a tilt-shift lens – where the plane of focus hits the subject unevenly – resulting in beautiful and mesmerizing background bokeh. It’s like magic, creating a dreamy blur that transforms an ordinary subject into an ethereal capture.
One of the many advantages of freelensing is the ability to achieve unusually detailed photos. By pulling the lens slightly away from the camera, the image is magnified.
Additionally, if you allow some light to seep through the opening between the lens and lens mount, you can create cool light-leak effects. (Just remember not to cover the gap with your hand if you’re aiming for this look!)
Of course, every technique comes with its own challenges, and freelensing is no different. The biggest concern is that you’ll drop your lens or camera; you also risk allowing dust and dirt to reach the sensor.
Therefore, when I freelens, I prefer using my older backup camera and a relatively cheap 50mm prime lens. I also avoid freelensing in harsh weather conditions or in dusty or sandy areas (and I recommend you do the same!).
8. Use the broken-backlighting technique for beautiful bokeh
Broken backlighting can help you create stunning macro images with spectacular bokeh.
Let me explain how it works:
First, position yourself between the sun and your potential subjects. Then adjust your angle until there is something that breaks up the backlight – tree leaves work great for this purpose, but you could also use tree branches, bushes, or grasses in fields.
Next, widen your lens aperture and get close to your subject. Get down low so that the “broken” backlight is situated behind your subject, then take some photos.
And voila! The small sources of light created by the broken backlight will turn into enchanting bokeh, and your macro shots will feature lovely backgrounds like this:
Macro photography techniques and ideas
Macro photography opens up a whole new world of possibilities. The minute details of everyday objects, the subtle play of light and shadow, the textures we often overlook – everything can become a fascinating subject with a close-focusing lens at hand!
If you’re looking for inspiration or need some guidance to start off, here are a few subject and technique ideas to get you started:
1. Water splash photography
Water splashes can result in incredibly dynamic and visually appealing images. This technique involves capturing water droplets and their ensuing splash patterns as they fall into a dish, though you can take it to the next level by adding colorful dyes for even more artistic results.
Getting started with water splash photography doesn’t require a sophisticated setup. You can use a raised dropper to drop the liquid into a bowl and set a flash off to the side. Then it’s all about timing – firing your camera as the drop hits the surface.
(Of course, if you’re looking for even more precise results, there are kits available that can help you achieve perfection!)
Here’s a pro tip: Want the best splash patterns? Mix water and glycerol. This blend makes the water slightly more viscous, increasing the size of the droplets and thus enhancing the overall visual effect.
2. Droplet refraction
Macro photographers love to create refractive images using water droplets, and for good reason: they look amazing!
To achieve the same type of shot, head out after the rain or early in the morning when dew is abundant. Look for a colorful subject, like a vibrant flower, place it behind a droplet, focus close, and watch the magic unfold.
Want to have more control over your refraction photo? Create a mini-studio setup. It’s pretty simple. You can suspend a blade of grass in the air using a clamp and a stand, then place a flower behind it. With a syringe, you can apply droplets of water mixed with glycerol to the blade of grass. (Glycerol makes the droplets larger and more stable.) Then you can adjust the background and lighting to capture some stunning shots!
3. Everyday objects and fairy lights
One of the best things about macro photography is its power to transform the mundane into the magical. This is certainly the case when combining everyday objects with fairy lights. You’d be amazed at how ordinary items can take on a new life when photographed in a creative way, surrounded by a constellation of twinkling lights.
First, select an everyday object and compose your shot. Position a string of fairy lights in the background. With a wide aperture, ensure the lights are not too close to your subject; this way, they’ll appear as beautiful bokeh, enhancing your main subject.
Timing is also crucial. If you’re shooting outdoors, dusk is your best bet to make sure the fairy lights are visible behind your subject. However, shooting indoors gives you more control over lighting and timing. Test out different spots to find the perfect balance of ambient light and fairy light!
4. Dewey insects
Few things are more intriguing than seeing an insect up close, especially when it’s covered in dewdrops. It’s a classic subject for macro photography, and for good reason. The intricacy of the dewdrops and the insect’s texture together can create a stunning, alien-like image.
For this kind of photography, you’ll generally need a longer lens. Something in the range of a 150mm or 200mm macro lens would do the trick. A longer lens allows you to maintain a safe distance from your subject, keeping it undisturbed and providing plenty of detail.
When’s the best time to photograph dewey insects? Early mornings are ideal. Not only will you find plenty of dewdrops, but the chill of the dawn also calms the insects, making them less likely to scamper away. Late summer and fall, particularly after a rain and when the wind speed is low, present excellent conditions for capturing dewy insects.
5. Shooting-through flowers
Now, let’s move on to a technique known as “shooting-through” or “cramming.” Here’s what it involves: photographing your main subject while letting a second subject in the foreground blur out. This technique can lead to beautiful washes of color in the foreground, giving the image a dreamy quality.
The magic of shooting-through can be used with a variety of subjects, from insects to leaves, portraits, and even birds. But I find it most mesmerizing when used in flower photography. You can create a harmonious color palette by simply letting another flower or leaf blur in the foreground.
Here’s how you do it: set up your macro shot as you normally would, then adjust your angle until there’s a second subject close to the lens. This could be another flower head or a leaf. The key is to use a wider aperture (think f/2.8 to f/5.6) to sufficiently blur out the foreground subject. And remember, it’s okay to experiment! You could position your lens closer or farther from the foreground subject to get the look you want.
As for focus, manual is the way to go here. This ensures that you have control over focusing on the main subject, rather than the foreground object.
6. Condensation on spider webs
You might not think about spider webs as exciting macro subjects, but trust me, they can be breathtaking, especially when adorned with droplets of condensation. These droplets can act like tiny prisms, refracting light and creating a beautiful spectacle.
Timing is important for capturing these shots. I find the best time to be early mornings. If you’re planning ahead, look for conditions where there’s been plenty of rain, but the night is clear with limited wind. Fall is often the best time for this kind of photography.
Look for fields that are home to spiders, where larger webs might be found. Upon discovering a web coated in condensation, get close with your lens. Then, it’s time to play around with your compositions. Consider wider shots that showcase the entire web, or more intimate shots with a softer focus, emphasizing individual threads of web with suspended dewdrops.
These simple yet unique subjects can offer you a lot of creative freedom, so don’t be afraid to experiment. And remember, sometimes the simplest subjects can produce the most extraordinary images in macro photography.
7. Backlit dragonflies
There’s something incredibly magical about dragonflies, wouldn’t you agree? Their delicate, winged forms make for stunning macro photography subjects. Particularly when you take your shots against the backdrop of a rising or setting sun. It’s all about capturing that ethereal glow that gives your subject an almost other-worldly appearance.
Timing can be crucial when shooting dragonflies. Early mornings, in my experience, tend to be the best time as they are less likely to be on the move. That’s not to say you can’t catch great shots in the evening. If you don’t mind slightly wider shots, the evening light can work perfectly for this.
When it comes to positioning, consider having the sun between your camera and the dragonfly. This will illuminate your subject, adding depth and dimension to your photograph. Getting down low, at the same level as the dragonfly, will frame them clearly against a bright sky.
You can play around with how you angle yourself relative to the sun and the dragonfly. The sun could be directly behind the dragonfly or you might prefer to leave it out of the frame. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s all about experimenting with different angles to get the effect you desire.
I’ve already addressed this elsewhere in the article, but remember: if you’re using a DSLR to shoot into the sun, be careful not to damage your eyes. A good safety measure is to switch to Live View so you can monitor your composition and exposure without looking directly at the sun.
8. Oil and water
Now, let’s switch gears and dive into a macro photography classic: oil and water. This is the perfect setup for those days when stepping outside just isn’t in the cards. Whether it’s poor weather or you simply want a change of scene, this technique is a creative way to explore macro photography from the comfort of your home.
Start by combining oil and water in a clear dish. Lift the dish off the ground using cups placed on either side. This simple setup forms the basis for some truly mesmerizing images. Now, to add a dash of color and texture, position a colorful sheet of paper beneath the suspended dish. Construction paper works well, but don’t hesitate to experiment with different patterns and prints you might have lying around.
Now, it’s time to set up your camera. With your camera suspended over the dish on a tripod, the goal is to achieve a surface that’s perfectly parallel to the mixture below. This precise alignment helps in capturing all the swirling details of the oil and water mixture. To achieve this, it’s a good idea to switch to Live View and manually focus on the mixture.
Natural light from a window may be enough, but if you find your camera struggling with exposure or if you’re working in a dimly lit area, it’s time to introduce an artificial light source. A flash or a continuous light, positioned off to the side of the dish, can work wonders here.
Now, for the fun part! Gently swirl the oil and water mixture and wait for it to settle. The patterns will start to dance and undulate, creating an array of dynamic compositions. Keep your eye out for a particularly compelling design, and once it appears, take your shot!
Remember, camera shake can turn a dreamy shot into a blurry mess. Using a remote release to trigger your shutter can be a lifesaver. Many cameras offer smartphone connectivity for this purpose, which can be a handy alternative if a remote release isn’t readily available.
9. Ice abstracts
I have a soft spot for ice abstract photography. It’s an art form in its own right, producing beautiful images worthy of hanging on your wall. Even more exciting is the fact that winter, which is often barren of other macro subjects, is the perfect time to indulge in this technique.
What you’re looking for in this scenario is ice with a pattern of bubbles. As the temperature drops and water starts to freeze, your best bet is to find shallow moving waters, like creeks or streams. I’ve had great luck with these places, but don’t disregard the edges of small pools either.
Now that you’ve found your perfect ice patch, let’s discuss the setup. Even as someone who loves handheld photography, I must admit, a tripod becomes an invaluable tool in ice abstract photography. Position your camera so the lens is parallel to the ice, close enough to fill the frame with the beautiful bubble patterns.
Choosing the right aperture is critical. Opt for something around f/8 to ensure a sharp capture of those delicate ice bubbles. This also offers a bit of a safety net if your lens isn’t perfectly parallel to the ice.
Now comes the time for exploration and creativity. Play around with different compositions. The rule of thirds, the golden ratio, and the rule of odds can offer starting points, but don’t let them limit you. Try out various compositions and see what appeals to you most!
Super macro photography
While this guide is all about macro photography, it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its intense sibling – super macro photography. It’s a different beast altogether, involving techniques that go beyond standard macro photography so you can capture subjects at even greater levels of magnification.
This form of macro photography typically requires a controlled environment, a tripod, and artificial lighting. Serious super macro photographers often use specialized lenses that offer ultra-high magnifications. But there’s another approach that doesn’t require a specific lens: a reverse-mounting technique. This involves joining two lenses together, with one facing the correct direction and the other facing backward.
Common subjects for super macro photography are often small objects with intricate details. Insects (usually dead), leaves, flowers, and snowflakes all make for excellent subjects.
But don’t let that limit your imagination. The world of super macro photography opens up the door to a universe of unseen details, so feel free to explore and experiment.
The complete guide to macro photography: final words
Here’s the truth: Macro photography is not just a niche hobby; it’s also an exciting and endless journey of exploration! With just a few essential tools and techniques, you can turn the mundane into the magnificent and reveal the hidden beauty in everyday objects.
It’s not about having the most expensive equipment or mastering highly technical skills. It’s about seeing the world from a new perspective and being willing to get close – even closer than you might have thought possible.
Whether you’re just starting out or looking to sharpen your skills, the techniques I’ve shared here can help you elevate your macro photography game. Focus-stacking, getting ultra-close, exploring different subjects – all of these can bring your work to a whole new level.
But remember, the key isn’t to follow a strict set of rules. It’s to experiment, persevere, and have fun. That’s when you’ll discover what macro photography is truly about, and you’ll start creating images that not only capture the eye but tell a story. I can’t wait to see where your macro photography journey takes you!
Now over to you:
Do you have any macro photography photos that you’re proud of? Share them in the comments below!
A note on authorship: This article was updated in July 2023 using original contributions from Barrie Smith.
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES