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What is Macro Photography

Macro Photography is a genre of extreme close-up photography. Macro photography is the art of capturing a very small subject and making them large enough for us to explore and enjoy. In much simpler terms, macro photography is simply magnification, that allows taking images of small objects in their life-size forms.

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What Is Close-Up Photography?

There is no real super precise definition of close-up photography. However, in general, you can say that it is a photo of a subject taken much closer than you normally would, and until you reach a magnification of 1:1 ratio which Iwill explain just below. Photos of plants, flowers, and leaves are often close up photos.

What is macro photography? This is a close-up but not a macro photo.
Close-up but not a true macro photo

What Is Macro Photography?

When Macro Photography started, especially with film, it was about capturing a life-size or close to life-size pictures of the objects on the sensor. With a full-frame sensor being 36 mm wide, a 1:1 ratio means that the subject takes up 10 mm of the 36 mm sensor. On a crop sensor, which typically measures 22 mm in width a 1:1 magnification would still mean that a 10 mm subject would take up 10 mm of the 22 mm sensor.

A magnification of over 1:1, like 2:1 to 5:1 or even 10:1, can be achieved too and is often referred to as extreme macro photography. With i.e. 5:1 magnification, your subject will be 5X the natural size on the sensor. Continuing with our example from above 10mm subject would then take 50mm on the sensor, which for a full-frame sensor is only 36mm wide. This means that with a 5:1 magnification, you can no longer have the entire 10mm subject in the frame.

What is macro photography? This is  a true macro photo.
This small insect is only about 5 mm in real life.

You can get a more detailed and a little heavier to consume explanation of macro photography definition here.

Useful Gear for Macro Photography

Macro Lens

A dedicated macro photography lens can help you get better results.

There’s nothing better than a macro lens for doing macro photography. It is a dedicated lens that is designed to get you close to the subject, with minimum focusing distance being very low. It also is capable of focusing and getting details out of almost smooth subjects, and can produce to 1:1 magnification.

What are Extension Tubes Used for in Macro Photography?

Extension tubes allows you to go beyond 1:1 magnification in macro photography
Extension Tube (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Extension tubes work by increasing the distance between the lens and the sensor. The hollow extension tubes are inserted in between for the purpose. The larger the distance, the more pronounced the magnification. You can also add more than one extension tube in one setup. Newer extension tubes work with your cameras autofocus system. However, at the magnification ratio you can achieve with extension tubes many drop using autofocus and instead use manual focus.

Lens Reversal Ring

Lens reversal ring
A Shopee Lens Reversal Ring

Lens reversal rings are mounted between the lens and the body, wherein the lens is attached in reverse. It, again, allows for macro capabilities to shine despite having no proper macro equipment. Like extension tubes, they also don’t have any glass in-between, therefore don’t impact image quality. However, personally I have never used this reverse lens technique, as with the lens mounted opposite as you are supposed to, you lose the ability to change the aperture of the lens.

Macro/Close-up Filters

Macro or close-up filters are like camera lens filters that provide a close-up view. These are simply magnification lenses of different values that can be attached in front of the camera to provide a close-up view – the ability to get a magnified subject while also allowing to get slightly closer. In short, don’t use it. They will introduce distortion and degrade image quality. You will be better off by saving the money for a used dedicated macro lens. They are actually not as expensive as your think, if you get an older dedicated macro lens perhaps without autofocus.

What is The Most Common Gear Related Macro Photography Issues

Macro Photography happens to be one of the toughest genres of photography. It is almost an impossible genre to master, and a single image may require hours of practice and patience. In case you find yourself stuck at some of the points, here is the way to traverse through the tricky macro terrain.

You’ve tried everything – close-up filters, extension tubes, and lens reversal rings – but can’t get it right, and the lenses are too expensive…

Is Gear Holding You Back From Getting Better Macro Photos? Perhaps…

It is true that the macro lenses are expensive, the better the quality – the costlier the lens. It is also true that you can’t ascertain if you’ll be interested in it or not without trying and getting sufficient results. What do you do? Possible solutions:

  1. Try out a Lens: It is easy to rent lenses these days, or you might have friends with macro lenses. It might be a good idea to spend a day in the field with lenses.
  2. Macro reversal ring and extension tubes – Let’s Fix the Problems
    1. The Major Problem with these methods – the focusing. It is extremely difficult to get the focus right because the depth of field is too shallow. Worse, the control of aperture goes away, and more often than not, you end up with an open aperture. That makes focusing even worse.


Old manual lens with aperture control
Image by ds_30 from Pixabay (Old Manual Lens with Aperture Control)
  1. Use a manual lens. The old manual lenses are still in demand, and often have a quality that will be fit even in years to come. A manual lens has an aperture control ring. With aperture control in hand, depth of field can be more properly managed when you use the reverse lens technique.
  2. Lock the aperture when using the reverse lens technique. With the aperture set around f/11 or higher (narrower), before the lens is reversed, keep the depth-of-field preview button pressed. Remove the lens with the button pressed only, and leave the button. Now put the lens on reverse, and the aperture will be locked. This allows for a better chance of focusing.
  3. Don’t use the focus ring. The best way you can focus in macro reversal ring or manual extension tubes is by moving the body back and forward. It can be almost impossible to focus using the focus ring – it is even counter-productive when using special macro lenses.
  4. Use automatic extension tubes. The automatic extension tubes are ones with the contacts still available. The various auto functions and controls like aperture remain intact. You can use it to set aperture without having to remove the lens each time. It also helps in auto-focusing, but it is not advised to use auto-focus while shooting macro.

What are the Common Macro Photography Problems?

Insufficient Light

We know we need a high f-number or a closed down aperture to properly focus shooting macro, especially with reversal ring or extension tubes. We also know that these methods reduce the light considerably from reaching down to the sensor. Solutions? Let’s have a look.

Shoot Using Natural Light

There’s no light source as powerful as the sun. Even during the early morning and the evening, the light is very powerful. Chances are that you can shoot in natural light without having many problems, once you have found the right combination of settings.

Ring Flash or Mounted Flash.

A ring flash or even better dual flash is an ideal solution for macro photography. It covers the subject perfectly. If you don’t want to buy a ring flash, then a flash mounted on top, with a diffusion paper in front and pointed downwards can get you good results. When the light passes the diffusion paper, it comes from the front of the subject, and without any specular or highlights.

Motion Blur

A hazy picture or a motion blurred picture in macro terms is a pretty common sight. You are dealing with low-light at high f-numbers. It is imperative that there will be an issue with shutter speed. Here are the few reasons why motion blur can come in, and the possible solutions for the problem.

The Subject Moved

In case the issue is because the subject has moved, it is imperative to boost the shutter speed, and reach the minimum shutter speed wherein the subject doesn’t move. The other reason, which is more likely, is that you have not captured the subject at the right timing, or you moved just a tiny bit, which also shifts your point of focus. To counter subject movement, you need to prepare harder and learn about the subject, and thereafter get the timing right. It will take practice, but it is possible.

spiders are popular macro photography subjects

Camera Shake

Camera shake happens due to low shutter speed. Perhaps because of insufficient light, the shutter speed has been kept way too low, and this has resulted in a blurry picture. Try to boost the shutter speed a bit, maybe shoot when the light is brighter or introduce a little bit of artificial light in case it gets too dark due to the lighting issue, and voila, the problem would have been fixed.

High ISO

Although ISO is normally not considered factor in terms of blurriness, the problem comes because of the clarity. We often push the boundaries when we use a high ISO and under-exposing the subject. For example, raising ISOs above 640-800 in crop-frame sensors won’t leave you any usable sharp pixels. More so in macro photography, where you are dealing with low light, border-line shutter speed, and high ISO – all combining to compound the problems. A better idea would be to try to open a bit of aperture instead of letting all the images go to the trash-can.

Issue of Where to Focus

In a macro image, especially concerning an insect, unless you go for stacking, there will be large unfocused parts. What to do with it is a technical problem that requires technical or creative solutions. The first way is to shoot multiple images and stack them.

Handheld focus stacking thre exposures helped me get a bit more depth-of-field
Handheld focus stacking thre exposures helped me get a bit more depth-of-field

Focus Stacking

Photo-merging or stacking is a way of dealing with shallow depth of field. With focus stacking, you take multiple shots of different parts of your subject and merge then in post-processing. Consider it to be similar to panorama stitching, albeit this time, you are basically stitching the focused parts of the image while composition remains almost the same. There are so many things that can go wrong in multiple exposures. Let’s look at them one-by-one.

Missing Spots of Focus

When you are doing it hand-held, you have chances of missing spots of subject where the focus hasn’t been achieved. It is extremely hard and requires tonnes of practice to be able to get consistent results.

The fix: use a macro rail or a stacking rail, and move ahead consistently (moving ahead is more comfortable than moving back). Check the first image properly and then move ahead to make sure that the image is perfect.

Some of the subjects are going to be extremely difficult. These are fast subjects and they will move before you get the tripod and macro rail into position. Your best chance is to do a hand-held focus stack with a larger depth-of-field.

It does take a lot of hard practice, but it will eventually pay off when you get it right.

Creative Focus

While going creative and using only one exposure instead of stacking, you have to be really creative but also follow some form of the rules. You can’t simply keep any part in focus. If you have the right part of the subject in focus, the rest blurs out beautifully, creating a story out of its own. Usually, while shooting insects, we have only one option (unless going really creative). We focus the eyes, and the rest of the story forms automatically. Unless, of course, we have some action going on, like the legs of the ants picking something to eat. In that case, you can focus there. The issue here comes from uncertainty. But if you follow the eyes or the interest point, you can get through easily.

focusing on the signs or details on a subject can be better than focusing on the edge in macro photography.
Image by Samuele Schirò from Pixabay

For inanimate subjects, it is even more tricky. The idea, there, becomes to not focus on the edges. Focusing on edges will make the background also in focus while most of the other side of the frame will be blurred. Going for the center point to focus is a nice way, while there are also other ways like focusing on some sign, some emblem, or a number in case of the coin, etc.

Want to learn more about macro photography?

Check out our other Macro Photography Tutorials

Concluding words

Macro Photography is another word for issues. However, when you learn what macro photography is all about and the common pitfalls it becomes very rewarding with a wide range of creative macro subjects you can capture. You need to have photography skills and its technicalities in your reflexes to be really able to ace this form. Not being afraid of challenges is important because macro photography is one of those genres of photography that is going to take your photography forward owing to the various checks and balances in place while trying to get a decent picture.

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