Macro photography, it allows you to explore and share worlds you never knew existed, but it’s often viewed as complicated and somewhat overwhelming – filled with magnification ratios, extension tubes, focusing rails – but macro photography doesn’t need to be so daunting and it can be quite a lot of fun.
So, in this video I’m going to cover the basics so you can get started and enjoy macro photography. To start things off it is important to understand a few key pieces of terminology related to all photography – but even more important when working with macro. and the first of which and probably the most important is magnification. Now, the magnification of a lens is expressed as a ratio – and the best way I can explain magnification ratio is that it’s the ratio between a subjects actual size, its physical dimensions – and the size that said subject is projected onto your camera’s sensor. For example – let’s say you’re photographing a Pacific chorus frog. Not too big, ten by twelve millimeters. and you’re using a lens with a magnification ratio of 1:5 and you’re shooting with a full-frame sensor, So, twenty-four by thirty-six millimeters.
With that 1:5 ratio. the frogs projection on the sensor is two point six millimeters in width. Not exactly big. So, if you increase the ratio – 1:3 the frog’s projection grows to four millimeters in width. Increasing the ratio again – 1:2 the projection grows to six millimeters in width. And at 1:1 the frog’s projection becomes life-size. So, it is ten by twelve millimeters in real life and when projected onto that sensor it is ten by twelve millimeters. So, this 1:1 or life-size ratio, it’s important – because technically speaking any ratio smaller – is not macro. Moving forward. Increasing the ratio again – 2:1 the frog starts growing, or its projection starts growing. It becomes twenty millimeters when projected on that sensor. At 3:1 it becomes thirty-six millimeters in width. That covers the entire width of the full-frame sensor. At 4:1 – gets even bigger And at 5:1 the frog’s projection covers the entire frame.
Hopefully this gives you a good understanding of what magnification ratios are all about. The next thing you’ll want a firm understanding of and something that plays a very large part of macro photography – is minimum focusing distance. And although a lot is described in the wording. It is something very frequently misunderstood. Yes it is the minimum distance required for a lens to focus properly. but it’s not referring to the distance between a subject and the end of a lens.
But rather the distance between a subject and your camera’s focal plane – and your camera’s focal plane is marked by a little circle with an intersecting vertical line and this indicates the position directly in front of your camera’s sensor. Now, we have a 70-200mm lens and it’s minimum focusing distance is 150 centimeters or roughly 59 inches – regardless of the focal length. So if we line this up with the camera’s focal plane. 59 inches stretches out of frame – and ends up way over here. And not exactly close and not exactly a powerful option for macro photos. So, instead using a macro lens – a 100 mm macro lens. With a minimum focusing distance of 30 centimeters or 11.8 inches, conveniently the length of a ruler. Lining it up once more. Clearly, you can get your lens a lot closer to a subject and when combined with a high magnification ratio it clearly illustrates how powerful of a tool – a macro lens can be.
The final important piece of terminology is depth of field. And hopefully depth of field is something you’re already somewhat familiar with, but because it’s something I talk about quite a bit throughout this video – it’s worth reviewing quickly. Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and the furthest points of an image where objects are acceptably in focus – or sharp. So, imagine depth of field as a three-dimensional box. Everything inside the box is in focus and the size of the box is determined by your lens’s aperture – plus one or two other variables that I’ll touch on in a minute. So, with a small aperture that’s a high f-stop – you have a large depth of field.
The box is quite large and a lot of your images in focus, but this requires a lot of light. So, with a large aperture, that’s a small f-stop you have a very shallow depth of field. There’s not a lot of your image infocus and this allows in a lot more light. Without question the biggest challenge you’ll be facing when capturing macro photos – is not having a large enough depth of field. this is especially true when using large magnification ratios, when the depth of field essentially becomes a sliver. There are two factors contributing to this depth of field dilemma. First: long focal lengths inherently have a small or a shallow depth of field and wide focal lengths have a large depth of field. Second: depth of field becomes larger when focusing on a subject at a considerable distance from your focal plane – and then depth of field becomes smaller when focusing at or near the lens’s minimum focusing distance. To clearly illustrate how depth of field is impacted by focal length and focusing distance, I have two lenses here.
A 35 mm and a 100 mm. Both have the same minimum focusing distance of 30 centimeters. Using an aperture of f/2.8 the 35 mm lens at its minimum focusing distance has a depth of field of 11 millimeters. Whereas, the 100 mm lens at the same minimum focusing distance and with the same aperture of f/2.8 has a depth of field of one millimeter. Maintaining the f/2.8 aperture, but doubling the focusing distance to 60 centimeters. The 35 mm lens now has a depth of field of 47 millimeters, but the 100 mm lens still only has a depth of field of 5.1 millimeters. The difference in depth of field between these two lenses hopefully shows you just how challenging it can be to create macro images with the majority of a subject in focus.. You may now also be questioning if long focal lengths produce a small depth of fields – why don’t macro lenses use wide focal lengths? Well, a macro lens with a long focal length , moves the minimum focusing distance further from the end of the lens while maintaining that 1:1 magnification ratio – and this creates a large working distance and that can be rather beneficial.
If you’re trying to photograph an insect that is easily startled – you don’t have to be as close – there’s less of a chance that that insect will fly away – or crawl away. If you’re photographing something that is potentially harmful to yourself – you don’t have to be as close and put yourself at risk. Not being as close to a subject also reduces the chances that you or your camera shadow’s will obscure any important and valuable ambient light. Because depth of field is so small when focusing on subjects close to the focal plane – macro photography is heavily reliant on small apertures to produce a large depth of field, and that requires a whole lot of light. There are two basic means of delivering this necessary light, and they essentially divide macro photography into two distinct shooting styles.
What I would consider the first basic shooting style of macro photography is handheld shooting – and this is the most flexible option. You can recompose your composition as quickly as you can move your camera in your hands. It’s ideal for following flight in insects around your backyard or through the undergrowth of a forest. However, without the stability of a tripod you need to be using faster shutter speeds, which require even more light.
Meaning you’re going to be adding light and using higher ISO’s. and one challenge of adding on-camera light is – macro lenses end up very close to the subject and often the on-camera light is eclipsed by the end of the lens and no light actually hits your subject. And that isn’t to say an on-camera light can’t be made to reach right in front of your lens. There are quite a few do it yourself options out there to create a macro light snoot and although many of them look rather janky the results are quite clear. Ideally though you’d be using a proper macro ring light or dedicated lens mounted macro lights and those work perfectly for running around and keeping both of your hands on your camera.
Yours definitely doesn’t need the breakfast cereal and cracker box construction. This is simply to show you the difference moving light in front of the lens can make. So, this first photo is with the super posh homemade light modifier slash snoot – and the second photo is with just the on-camera light. If you decide to do some handheld shooting focusing becomes a bit tricky to say the least. Because depth of fields are so small at close focusing distances – autofocus is not usually a practical option and even manual focus requires a bit of practice. I find it best to set your lens at a predetermined focusing distance and then slowly move yourself back and forth until the subject appears in focus. So, in this example I’ve got the lens set to its minimum focusing distance – so, I get that one-to-one magnification ratio and then looking a little tipsy as I do so I will rock back and forth until this spider is exactly in focus.
And those extra frames are just to guarantee that at least one of those shots has the focus exactly where I want it. If you’re not photographing a moving subject and you don’t need to quickly or frequently change the composition – put your camera on a tripod. This is what I would consider the second basic shooting style of macro photography. And the most significant benefit of using a tripod for macro work, like all photography – it enables you to use him considerably slow shutter speeds while relying on natural light.
In turn this gives you a chance to use a small aperture giving you that big depth of field you’re after. Another advantage of the tripod – you can be a bit more creative with the positioning of external light should you choose to add any. And best of all, you no longer look like a drunken sailor when it comes time to focus. Instead enable live view – relying on auto or manual focus, but to double check magnify the image as many times as possible and use manual focus to make minut changes until the focus is exactly where you want it. When you’re happy with the focus – fire off your frames.
Another great benefit of using a tripod, it allows you to use focusing rails and focusing rails allow you to maintain a magnification ratio but move the camera further or closer to your subject. Whether by using a tripod and long exposure or by placing a flash mere centimeters from your subject. With seemingly infinite light, you may be inclined to use your lenses smallest aperture to create the biggest depth of field possible. And this line of thinking isn’t incorrect. However, you will quickly encounter the negative impact of diffraction. Diffraction occurs when light passes through a small opening and then bends around the exiting corners – taking it away from its original path just slightly. To illustrate this more clearly pretend that the nozzle of this spray bottle is a lens aperture. The water inside is light and this piece of paper is a sensor.
Now, if I have the aperture / nozzle wide open, let’s call this f/1.4 the light passes through the aperture making contact with the sensor in a clean defined point. However, stop down the nozzle / aperture, let’s call this f/22.0 and the light now passes through the aperture making contact with the sensor in a messy non-uniformed sense – and this greatly reduces the sharpness of an image. Now, diffraction takes hold at differing apertures with different lenses. Some lenses may see noticeable diffraction at f/16.0 while others may retain sharpness all the way to f/22.0 For example I have my Canon 100 mm lens here and you can see that photos remain sharp from f/2.8 all the way to f/16.0 at which point diffraction begins to appear – and beyond f/22.0 I wouldn’t consider those photos usable.
When you’re adding lights to a macro composition you should make every effort to diffuse your light. It’s really surprising how many insects have a glossy carapace or reflective eyes and how many plants have a waxy semi-reflective leaf or petal to them. Personally I use a proper softbox. It does the job just great, but there are plenty of do it yourself options out there – that work just as well. I’ve tried tracing paper – one of my personal favorites is the transparent plastic that milk jugs are made out of – that works quite well. Now, I have a water droplet on this salal leaf here – and a water droplet is a pretty extreme example of something reflective, but it’s going to demonstrate the difference between a bare light and a diffused light – perfectly. So, the first photo I’m taking with a bare light. Right away I can see there are tiny little white rectangles within the water droplet and that is the reflection of the bear flash head. So, moving to the diffused light.
Right away I can see that those white rectangles in the water droplet are gone and the light is a lot more pleasing overall. One thing to remember when diffusing your light is to increase the tower output just a little bit to compensate for the light lost by the diffusion. At this point it’s worth emphasizing that anyone with a sound technical understanding can produce a macro photo that’s in focus, but it takes creativity, experimentation and ultimately failure to create macro photos that are truly engaging. There is little point in me listing off compositional theories, but suffice to say that macro photography it doesn’t differ compositionally than any other photographic genre. If you’re just starting to explore the world of macro, I would suggest you pay attention to two things: perspective and backgrounds. Consider how perspective influences how scale is perceived. If you photograph a subject from above it will look small but if you get down to its level – it will look and feel larger-than-life.
Granted many macro subjects are close to the ground and getting down to their level can be a bit tricky. But if you pull it off successfully, the awkward yoga positions are worth the while. Backgrounds are often completely forgotten about – and often you’re putting so much light on a subject that the background is underexposed and completely black. Some people don’t mind the look of the black background, but try adding a bit of light and texture to the background – just to see if it improves your composition. When you’re composing a macro photo try to remember that your depth of field is linear. So, if your subject happens to be flat or at all straight – try to keep your focal plane parallel to the subjects length. In this example I have a fern frond here and you can currently see how the edges of the frond are not in focus – but if I move the camera’s focal plane to become parallel with the frond: the depth of field now encompasses the entire fern frond from edge to edge and it’s all in focus.
It’s not the very last thing, but I’ve left the subject of gear towards the end of this video because, macro photography only requires two things: a camera, and most importantly a macro lens. a flash and a tripod are helpful, but by no means are they a necessity. If you’re just starting out your first macro lens – it shouldn’t be anything overly extravagant. Most manufacturers offer 50 mm macro lenses that can produce a one-to-one magnification ratio – and a 50 mm focal length will give you a slightly larger depth of field than a macro lens with a longer focal length and that’s helpful when you’re learning. An alternative you may be considering right now is a combination lens – a telephoto zoom lens that claims to have macro capabilities. Don’t fall for the marketing. Remember if it doesn’t have a one-to-one magnification ratio – it’s not a macro lens.
Extension tubes may seem like an inexpensive alternative for jumping into the world of macro. but the light they take away – is usually more frustration than benefit. In regards to cameras there is no one camera type that is better suited for macro photography. However sensor size does impact how macro photos are captured. With a full-frame sensor you can push your ISO is relatively high while using a small aperture, but its depth of field is comparatively small.
Whereas, an APS-C sensor has a slightly larger depth of field and it’s crop effectively increases magnification ratios of a macro lens. And a micro 4/3 sensor takes things even further. It has a fair-sized depth of field right out of the gates and once again is crop factor increases magnification ratios – and then there’s diffraction. Just as diffraction becomes apparent at differing apertures with different lenses – diffraction becomes visible with different sensor sizes. With that micro 4/3 sensor diffraction may become noticeable at f/8 or f/11 Whereas, an APS-C sensor may retain detail to around f/16 and with a full-frame sensor diffraction doesn’t usually become noticeable until f/22. Finally, there’s resolution. If you plan on pursuing macro photography intently you should look for a high resolution sensor, because in the world of macro detail is king. The last thing to talk about is something I feel needs to be talked about more frequently and more openly – and that is the matter of ethics.
Just because a macro subject is small enough to pick up and position exactly as desired – Doesn’t mean you should do so. Would you capture a fox to bring home just a photograph in a studio setting? Would you put a cheetah in a refrigerator so that it moves more slowly? Would you glue a bear’s paw to a tree so that it stayed put? Would you spray a cougar with water to create interesting reflections? These ideas that seem ridiculous when thinking about large animals. But many macro photographers go to extreme lengths just to get that perfect photo – and they often harm their small subjects. And it shouldn’t stop with the subjects either, as a macro photographer you should be respecting your subjects environment – their habitat. Would you cut down trees that were a distracting foreground element when photographing a moose? Then why do so many macro photographers bring scissors to cut down grass and foliage that may be obscuring that perfect butterfly photo. As a macro photographer I implore you to show these small subjects the same respect you would give to any other megafauna.
With that I’ll wrap things up. If you’ve liked this video – click like. If you have a comment, a suggestion – you just want to say hi – put it down below. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next time..