Macro photography: tips for mastering the close-up.

Macro images change our perspective of a subject to focus on the hidden details – taking magnification to another level. Macro photography can often introduce colours and textures not picked up with other types of shots.

Fire ants on the prowl captured in a macro photograph

Taking extreme close-up photos of small subjects requires special techniques, tricks and equipment to get the best results. Whether you’re new to the style or looking to improve your skills, master the art of the close up with these macro photography ideas and tips.
 

What you’ll learn:

 

What is macro photography?

Macro photos are images in which the magnification of the subject is life size or greater. Macro photography is often used to describe images where there is a slightly larger subject and all the traits of extreme close up photography are present – focusing on the detail to achieve a dramatic effect.  

 

It’s all about showing something small much larger than it is in real life – an extreme close-up of something like an insect, flower or food. A full-frame insect in a five-by-seven-inch photo or a four-inch product shot of a cornflake go well above life size.

 

Macro and close-up photos allow us to view these subjects from a new perspective. They unlock details which are hard or impossible to see otherwise – such as the antennae on a grasshopper or the contours of orange peel.

Grasshoper

How to capture macro photographs.

Shooting macro images relies on different preparation and techniques to standard wildlife and landscape photography. For beginners, start with these basic macro photography tips.
 

1. Keep your eye on the details.

As you move closer to any object, the fine details and tiny imperfections that are invisible from a distance become clear. When you’re magnifying to such a degree, you may notice stray hairs and dirt. Prepare to clean these off with tweezers or little brushes, depending on your subject, for more visually pleasing results. 

Snail in red flower

2. Plan what you want to capture.

Working with smaller subjects means your depth of field shrinks, making it very important to go into macro shoots with a plan for what you want to capture. Your margin for error is higher – small adjustments can throw everything off – so your preparation must be greater, with previsualisation key.

 

3. Shed some light on your subject.

Just like detail is amplified in macro and close up photography, so too are the effects of light and shadow. You can control these in some macro shoots to your advantage. 

 

When working inside, you can adjust the lighting to suit the needs of your detail photography shoot – repositioning to avoid dark shadows on the subject. Outdoor shoots and those with dim lighting can be more challenging, so take along a battery-powered flashlight for greater control over the situation. 

Tiny figurines, photographed in macro, playfully posed on a book

4. Consider your scene.

Beyond lighting and photo-ruining dust motes, your background is another area requiring attention. With your focus mainly on your tiny subject, it can be easy to forget to check the backdrop. Consider what will make an effective background for the subject. Will your subject stand out or blend into the coloured background? Is the background distracting or too simple? 

 

Shooting inside is easier to control, while outside you may need to change your angle to achieve the desired background. 

 

5. Beware of movement.

Motion always has the potential to add blur to a photo, and much like all aspects of macro photography, that issue increases with small subjects and scenes. A good setup and tripod will keep the camera body steady. 

 

If you’re shooting insects or flowers, timing is critical to capture them before they fly off or a breeze affects the petals. Movement of even the slightest part of your subject could blur your close-up photo.  

 

“When you’re working with macro photography, you have such a narrow plane of focus that little adjustments will throw the whole thing right off. It takes a lot of time and a lot of careful planning.” 

Photographer Stephen Klise

a-bee-collects-honey-from-a-flower

The best equipment for macro photography.

For the perfect macro and close up photos, you need the right equipment. While you can zoom in using many digital and smartphone cameras, it won’t capture the same level of detail required for high-quality macro images.
 

Best cameras.

You’ll need a camera with a good macro lens with that has as little lag as possible. A mirrorless or DSLR camera is generally best to effectively shoot macro photography. 

 

There are benefits to using both.
 

  • A DSLR camera can accommodate many macro lenses and has little lag between pressing the shutter and capturing an image.
     
  • With a mirrorless camera, focus peaking and an electronic viewfinder enable quick review of sharpness and flash exposure.
     

Pixel density is also an important consideration when choosing a camera for macro photography. The higher the pixel density, the greater the detail in your close-up photos. Full-frame (FX) cameras are still preferable to crop-sensor (DX) cameras, as they pick up a greater number of pixels. 

 

Some cameras have a macro mode that automatically adjusts the camera’s lens for up close photography. This helps you focus on the subject easily – it’s a great option for beginners. However, macro mode on most digital cameras means you lose control over the camera’s aperture and shutter speed, which can affect your results. 

 

camera-looks-at-the-night-city

The best macro photography lens.

You need a special lens for macro photography. In regular photography, adjusting the lens-to-sensor ratio brings your subject into clear focus. With landscape photography this lens-to-sensor distance will be at a minimum, increasing as you snap human subjects and capture more detail. For macro and close up photography, the lens needs to move further out to get a sharp image of a tiny subject. 

 

While most lenses shoot at a ratio of 1:2.8 and greater, macro lenses shoot at a 1:1 ratio and focus only within the macro range of about 12 inches or fewer – essential for the super-sharp focus needed to make the minuscule larger than life. Macro lenses enable closer-focusing distances as you get nearer your subject. 

green frog on a leaf

A macro lens is important due to the very shallow depth of field you’ll have when taking close-up photos. To reduce the impact of this, try shooting at a small aperture such as f/11 or f/16. However, this introduces the additional challenge of having little light to work with. Some macro lenses include a built-in light as a solution.  

 

If you want to experiment before investing in a dedicated macro lens with a focal length better suited to the style, you can get a reversing ring for a fraction of the cost. This allows you to mount a regular lens backward on your camera to create a macro effect.

Pink flower macro.

Other equipment. 

To improve your chances of producing good macro images, a few other bits of equipment can help:
 

Extension tubes.  Circular elements connect between the camera and lens with no optical elements to maintain the same level of quality. Extension tubes usually come in packs of three, allowing seven different extensions and shooting distances. However, they can take light away – so you may need to adjust your settings or lighting set up.

 

circular object with yellow background.

Filters. Essentially, filters are magnifying glasses that usually come in packs of three or more. Stack filters to increase your magnifying power – but remember that using multiple filters at once can reduce the image quality. 

 

three-photo-filters-with-a-camera

Tripod. As a macro photographer, you have a shallow depth of field, which means any slight change in the camera-to-object distance can result in blur. Use a tripod to keep your camera as still as possible. . 

 

professional-black-mirrorless-camera-stands-on-a-tripod-against-a-white-wall-blogging-and-video-photo-shooting

Lighting. You lose light as the depth of field narrows with macro photography. Strobes are a good way to increase light levels – you can dial it down with tissue if required. Shadows can cause issues, but using a ring flash or diffused strobe near the subject is one solution. 

photography-studio-vector-photo-studio-white-blank-background-with-soft-box-light-camera-tripod-and-backdrop-vector-illustration-isolated-on-white-background

Macro rails. Depending on what you’re shooting, you may want to move the camera and not the subject. Macro rails are devices that grip the camera and move it forwards and backwards. You can buy them from most photography retailers or even try to build your own.

 

“I used to bring along a tiny, handheld battery-powered light – it was essentially like a flashlight. I like to use that in my ring shots sometimes, just to add some dimension and drama to the scene.” 

Wedding Photographer Khara Plicanic.

Macro photo of a diamond ring resting on a bed of lavender flowers

Techniques for macro photography. 

Capture stunning and sharp imagery with incredible levels of precision by taking on board these best-practice macro photography tips and techniques. 
 

Marco photography and magnification.

Magnification is simply how big or small your subject appears on your camera sensor compared to its real size. This is always expressed as a ratio, so 1:1 is life size magnification, 1:2 magnification is half life size. 

 

As most camera sensors fall between 17 and 36mm across, if you have a subject that’s 10mm and shoot at 1:1 magnification, it will take up most of your frame. That might be OK, but it might be worth lowering magnification to 2:1 depending on how the image will be used. The lower the magnification, the more you move away from macro photography.

 

gamay-grapes-on-vines-with-lush-green-leaves

Working distance.

Working distance is the amount of space between the front of your lens and your subject. This is smallest when shooting at 1:1 magnification (or lower), when you need to be extremely close. The best possible working distance is anywhere from 15cm to 30cm or more, though it depends on your subject. 

 

It’s an important consideration as the nearer you are, the more likely you are to cast a shadow or scare off your subject (when photographing insects in nature photography). Lenses with a long focal length are best, as they enable close-up photography with a larger working distance. 

ladybug and leaf

Depth of field.

With up close photography your depth of field is limited. To keep as much of your subject in focus as possible, drop down to a narrow aperture (such as f/18 or below). Otherwise you may struggle to keep the antennae and back legs of a ladybird looking sharp even though they’re only a few millimetres apart.    

 

Focus stacking is one technique to retain a good depth of field with macro images. Simply take the same photo at different focus distances – one each with the ladybird’s antennae, wings and legs in focus – and combine the best of each part for a great image. Some cameras can do this automatically, otherwise you can use Photoshop to combine the images yourself.
 

Focal length for macro photography.

Macro lenses come with different focal lengths. The longer the length, the further from the subject you can shoot at a 1:1 ratio. Each focal length is suited to different subjects. For example:
 

  • 50mm – Stamps, coins and jewellery. 
  • 100mm – Small insects and flowers. 
  • 160mm – Reptiles and larger insects. 

 

When photographing inanimate objects that won’t be scared away, a shorter focal length is best to capture more detail. For wildlife that may move, a longer focal length can be better. 

chameleon-panther-with-black-background

Lighting and Exposure.

In macro photography you usually have to work with low light levels. This is for three key reasons.
 

  1. Smaller aperture settings let in less light.
  2. Fast shutter speeds reduce blur but darken the image.
  3. The camera can block natural light.

 

Using a flash can increase lighting levels when combined with a low aperture. Another option is to increase ISO to 800 or 1600 and above. Paired this with a fast shutter speed – especially when shooting insects where movement may occur – is a common technique for high detail photography. 

 

With an awareness of your camera’s limitations, including focal length and shutter speed, you should know which kinds of shots are achievable. 

“What makes a great macro image is the same thing that makes any great photograph great. It’s always the job of the photographer to ensure that they’ve organised the frame and used all of the expressive mechanisms they have – like depth of field, motion stopping power, and the control of light and shadow – so that the viewer immediately knows what the subject of the image is.” 

Photographer and Teacher Ben Long

chocolate-bar-pieces-background-with-chocolate-sweet-food-photo-concept-the-chunks-of-broken-chocolate

Tips and tricks from the experts.

We asked our experts for some macro photography ideas for those new to the style or looking to perfect their techniques. 

 

“A really great place to start is to work your way through the refrigerator,” photographer Ben Long suggests. “Berries are fascinating when you get in really close. There are really cool textures – they’ve got hair on them. I shot a cornflake at some ridiculous level of magnification, and it looked like either a really gross piece of meat or the surface of Mars.”

 

Really thinking about your subject is important, photographer Stephen Klise explains: “Macro photography is dependent on the photographer and what it is that they want to enlarge for people to see.”

 

Best-selling author and photographer Carli Davidson backs this up by saying: “If I’m doing a macro shot, I’m always thinking, ‘Where is my subject?’. I’m thinking, ‘How is this image going to be presented?’” 

close-up-of-a-pretty-girl-taking-a-photograph-of-a-flower

Don’t worry if you don’t get it right first time. Even the experts make mistakes when producing macro images. “I made this little scene with toy dinosaurs and all that,” photographer Jeff Carlson says. “I was about to send it to my editor, but my wife looked at it and said: ‘There’s no way you’re sending that. There are dirty dishes in the background.’”

 

“That’s one of those difficult things that people overlook or need to learn. I would like to say – and I’ve been doing photography for years – this never happens to me, but no, it totally happens.”

 

Using Lightroom to perfect your macro photos.

iPhone, tablet and Mac with Photoshop application open and picture of a red setter dog.

Taking macro photos is most of the work. To perfect them you can use Lightroom and employ techniques such as focus stacking, adjust colours and professionally edit your images. Edit, organise and store your macro images at your desk or on the move, using the cloud-based software on laptops, tablets, smartphones and other devices.    

 

In need of some inspiration? See some of the incredible macro photography produced using Lightroom in this online gallery. 

You might also be interested in…

Coffee brewing in a coffee shop - Shallow depth of field tips | Adobe

An introduction to shallow depth of field.
Explore how shallow depth of field can add dimension to your photographs.

Mouth-watering image of an open-faced avocado and cream cheese sandwich

Getting a taste of food photography.

Explore the world of culinary photography with advice from industry professionals.

Still-life image of blooming yellow daffodils in low light

The art of still life photography

Improve your composition skills by learning the art of still life photography.

landscape-photography

Building a great landscape photo.
Explore ways to artistically capture scenic views with tips on landscape photography.

Enhance your macro photography with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.