Getting Started with Macro Photography

4th September 2018

Macro photography can yield fascinating results, as it magnifies smaller subjects and puts more emphasis on little details you wouldn’t normally pay attention to.

Macro photography is also highly accessible for beginners, because unlike with wildlife or landscape photography, you’ll never have to travel very far to find a suitable subject or location, whether it’s a flower, insect or droplet of water.

Creating a compelling macro photograph does require some basic photography knowledge as well as an understanding of the equipment you’re using. So if you’re interested in giving macro photography a try, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Invest in the right equipment

Photographing smaller subjects with a prime or zoom lens generally won’t give you the results you’re looking for, so it’s usually a good idea to invest in a dedicated macro lens. Macro lenses can be expensive, however, so if you want to experiment before spending money on a macro lens, you can purchase an extension tube or simply reverse the prime lens you already have.

In order to do this, just remove the lens and turn it back to front so it magnifies your subject. You will need to shoot in manual mode, and unless you have a reversing ring, you’ll have to hold the lens in front of the camera, which can be tricky. It’s also best to shoot indoors where there’s less chance of dust or moisture getting inside the camera or damaging the exposed lens element.

2. Choose your subject wisely

You’ve probably seen that famous Bullet through Apple photograph by Harold Edgerton, but if you’re just getting started with macro photography, it’s best to find a subject that won’t move or at least not too quickly.

Subjects like flowers or insects are usually a good choice if you’re new to macro photography, because they’ll stay in the same place long enough for you to get a good shot. But with that said, the possibilities really are endless, from early morning dew or frost to feathers, items of jewellery, coloured pencils, glassware, or even rust and peeling paint.

3. Use a faster shutter speed

We’ve written about shutter speed before and talked about how it can be used to either freeze action or capture motion. Although there are always certain exceptions, macro photography is generally at its best when you use a fast shutter speed.

This is because you’ll be capturing a lot of detail and will want your subject to be sharp. When shooting outdoors especially, even the smallest gust of wind can cause the subject to move, and if your shutter speed isn’t fast enough, the photo will appear blurry or out-of-focus. So when you’re first starting out, try to keep the shutter speed at 1/250 or higher.

4. Learn to control the depth of field

The term “depth of field” refers to the area within an image that is sharply in focus. The depth of field within a photo can be controlled by adjusting the aperture, and knowing how to do this is especially important with macro photography, because if certain parts of your subject aren’t in focus, it can throw off the whole image.

Usually, with macro photography, it’s best to use an f-stop no larger than f/16, as this will ensure that all or at least most of your subject is sharp. Sometimes it’s not possible to get everything in focus, though, so you’ll have to consider this when composing the photo and make a conscious decision about which areas you want to keep sharp.  

Switching to manual focus can also give you more freedom to adjust your focus point. Since you’ll most likely be working with stationary or slow-moving macro subjects, you’ll have plenty of time to adjust the focus manually and make sure the correct parts of your image are in focus.

5. Look for a simple background

With macro photography, you want your subject, whether it’s a flower or insect, to be the main point of interest, which means it’s best to avoid overly busy backgrounds that compete for attention.

Plain, solid-coloured backgrounds are usually best, but if it’s not possible to change the background by moving your subject, see if moving into a different position yourself would help. Finding uncommon angles to shoot from can also make your shots more interesting, so try to move around a bit and shoot from the side, from above, and from below to see what looks best.

Looking for some general advice on how to design your first photo book? Check out this photographer’s advice for designing your first photo book or use these ten quick tips for getting started.