10 Top Tips Photographing Macro

Before I give the tips, let’s just define Macro Photography. Macro photography is not only photographing subjects up close, but it is also achieving a 1:1 or larger magnification. Any subject photographed less than 1:1 magnification is called close-up photography, and not macro photography. What does 1:1 magnification mean? Well it means that the subject you are taking will be displayed exactly the same size on the sensor as what it is in real life. Below is a very basic illustration of this, if you take a full frame sensor (sensor size 36mm by 24mm) camera like the Canon 5D MkII and you photograph a tape measure, for the tape measure to display 1:1 on the sensor, the measurement should read 36mm.

If 18mm was displayed then the magnification is 2:1 (the subject displayed on the sensor is double the size than real life), and on the other hand, if the measurement was 72mm, the magnification will be 1:2 (the subject displayed on the sensor is half the size than in real life, which is not macro photography but close-up photography). Well with all that technical stuff out of the way let’s start with the tips:

#1 No need for expensive equipment

Macro lenses can be expensive and are specialized lenses. There are a few ways to make use of your existing lenses by adding a few accessories to them, which will give you a lens that you can photograph at 1:1 magnification. The first way is to get extension tubes. These tubes fit between your lens and camera body, taking the lens further away from the sensor and, therefore you need to get closer to your subject to focus, and this in turn increases magnifications. Extension tubes are very effective with short focal length lenses between 20mm - 50mm.

The second option, and I really like this option, is to stack two lenses. The concept works as follows: use one of your zoom lenses, and the longer the focal length the better, screw a coupler (you can buy these couplers at most large photographic dealers) onto the filter thread in front of the lens, now take a short focal length lens, and turn it around and screw that onto the other end of the coupler, this lens now acts as a magnifying glass. These combinations give you very quickly 1:1 or larger magnifications. To work out the magnification, take the long focal length and divide it with the short focal length for example, if the lens mounted on your camera is 100mm and the reversed lens is 50mm then the magnification is 2:1.

#2 Know your Depth of Field and be aware of Diffraction

When you work at these very close subject distances, your depth of field becomes very small, and if I say small then I mean small. You can calculate your DOF beforehand with the lens combinations you are going to use.

From the above table you can see that when you photograph at f11 you only get 3.1mm DOF, and remember this DOF is 50% in front of point of focus and 50% behind point of focus. Ensure that your point of focus will allow the use of the front DOF. Too many times you focus on the front end of the subject and then lose the entire front DOF. Try and photograph the subject parallel with you to maximize the use of your DOF. When you photograph a subject and you can’t get the entire subject in focus due to a lack of DOF, focus on the eyes. You will also see that I used f11 as the example and not f22. F22 does give you more DOF, but at these small apertures you start to get something call diffraction. Diffraction causes the image to go “soft” and you lose the detail in the image. To prevent diffraction, photograph at f11 – f16, nothing more.

#3 Use Manual Focus

Auto Focus usually does not work with macro images. Typically, it will focus on the front part of your subject (not good for DOF utilization as discussed above), plus you never know when you are at your 1:1 or larger magnification. The best technique to photograph macro images is to put the lens on MF, then turn the focusing ring all the way clockwise so that the focus is now set on the closest focusing distance. Once you have done that, you can now move the camera closer to your subject until the image appears sharp in focus in your viewfinder, then take the photo.

#4 Use Live View for static subjects

If you are photographing static subjects like flowers, use Live View to help with the focus and check the use of DOF. Once you have composed the image, press Live View on your camera, now press the “magnification” button on your camera, this will zoom in on the Live View image on the LCD screen. You can now turn the focusing ring to get perfect focus, if you press the DOF preview button on your camera and hold it in, you can also check the DOF on the LCD screen.

#5 Backgrounds

When you are looking through the viewfinder make sure that you also look at how the background looks. Photographing at f11 - f16 can give you very disturbing backgrounds. If you want you subject to stand out, the background must be neutral, well out of focus without any “hot spots”.

#6 Flash

Because you are working so close to your subjects and at such small apertures, shutter speeds become an issue. To overcome this, the use of flash becomes imperative. Once again you can buy expensive “macro flashes” but I will rather use my normal flash, put it off-camera with a bracket and off-camera flash cable. Flashes can give very “harsh” light, so it is best to diffuse the flash by adding diffusers to your flashlight. Once again, you can buy these diffusers from most photographic stores, but I build my own one out of cardboard and material.

#7 Back lighting

Doing macro photography is no different than doing any other type of photography. Once you have mastered the technique to expose and focus correctly, you need to start thinking of other creative ways to show your subject off. One of these techniques is to use backlighting, enhancing textures, colour and hair.

#8 Know your subject:

I think you can put this to any type of photography you do. By knowing your subject, you can anticipate what they will do next, also when and where to find them. Here is an example; jumping spiders are very inquisitive little creatures. As you approach him, he will come closer to inspect rather than jump away, be ready for that. They are also very territorial, so once you have found him you can go back to the same spot and he will still be there.

#9 Practice

Macro photography is not easy, so go out and go and buy yourself some plastic bugs (at a toy shop). Put the bug on a stick and practice the focusing technique as well as learn how to expose the image correctly with your flash set-up. Take the images and put them on your computer. Zoom now to actual pixels (100% view) and check how well you have focused.
Sometimes the equipment is too heavy for ladies to handhold, use a monopod to support the gear, something else to get use to before you venture out into the field.

#10 Early morning

The best time to photograph insects is very early in the morning, when they are still cold and waiting for the sun to warm them up. The other advantage early mornings gives you, is that there is usually no wind. Wind is the biggest enemy for macro photographers, because you are working at such close distances and with so little DOF, any movement is a major problem. Wear dark clothes and always be aware where your and your equipment’s shadows are. Make sure your settings are correctly set before you approach. When you approach, do it slowly and once your subject is in focus take more than one photo.