An Introduction to Macro Photography

How to shoot close-up photographs

Getting up close and personal to your subject is fun and that is why macro photography is so appealing. When you can capture a close-up image of a ladybug or examine the finer details of a flower, that is a magical moment.

Macro photography is great, but it is also a challenge to get as close as you really want to or create a truly spectacular image. There are a few tools and tricks that you can use to capture a great macro photograph.

Water droplets on pink rose petals
Kristin Duvall/Getty Images

What is Macro Photography?

The term "macro photography" is often used to describe any close-up shot. However, in DSLR photography, it should really only be used to describe a photograph with a 1:1 or higher magnification.

Macro capable photography lenses are marked with magnification ratios such as 1:1 or 1:5. A 1:1 ratio means that the image would be the same size on film (negative) as in real life. A 1:5 ratio would mean that the subject would be 1/5 the size on film as it is in real life. Due to the small size of 35mm negatives and digital sensors, a 1:5 ratio is nearly life-size when printed onto 4"x6" paper.

Macro photography is commonly used by still life DSLR photographers to capture small details of objects. You will also see it used to photograph flowers, insects, and jewelry, among other items.

How to Shoot a Macro Photograph

There are a number of ways to get up close and personal to your subject in a photograph. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, so let's take a look at the options.

Macro Lens

If you own a DSLR camera, the easiest way to achieve macro shots is to buy a designated macro lens. Typically, macro lenses come in either a 60mm or 100mm focal length.

However, they are not cheap, costing anywhere from $500 to several thousand! They will obviously give the best and sharpest results, but there are a few alternatives.

Close-Up Filters

The cheapest way to get macro shots is to buy a close-up filter to screw onto the front of your lens. They are designed to allow closer focus, and they come in various strengths, such as +2 and +4.

Close-up filters are often sold in sets as well though it is best to use only one at a time. Too many filters can deteriorate the image quality because the light has to travel through more pieces of glass. Also, autofocus does not always work with close-up filters so you may have to switch to manual.

While the quality will not be as good as with a dedicated macro lens, you will still achieve usable shots.

Extension Tube

If you have a little more to spend, you could consider investing in an extension tube. These will increase the focal length of your existing lens, while effectively moving the lens farther away from the camera sensor, allowing for higher magnification.

As with filters, it is advisable to only use one extension tube at a time, so as not to cause deterioration in image quality.

Macro Mode

Users of compact, point and shoot cameras can also take macro photographs as most of these cameras have a macro mode setting on them.

In fact, it can be far easier to achieve a 1:1 magnification with compact cameras, because of their built-in zoom lenses. Be careful not to extend too far into the camera's digital zoom as this can diminish the quality of the image due to interpolation.

Tips for Macro Photography

Macro photography is similar to any other type of photography, just on a smaller, more intimate scale. Here are a few things to remember.

  • When photographing macro subjects, you should always remember to use a tripod or pod beanbag, allowing for a steady camera and sharp images.
  • Use a shutter release cable or remote trigger if needed. Some macro images can get you into tight spaces and it may be hard to reach the shutter with your hand. Also, if photographing insects, your finger going for the shutter may scare them away!
  • Photographers should also remember that depth of field will be far more obvious with small objects. A small aperture will be needed to leave the subject in focus while blurring the background.