How to take great macro photographs

The term macro is a bit misleading. While the name implies that you’re going to take pictures of very big things, most people know that you’re actually shooting big images of very small things. However, even that definition is a little misleading, because true macro photographs are not actually enlargements of real-world objects. A true macro lens shoots 1:1. That is, it takes actual-size images. While that may be the technical definition, these days, macro covers any type of shooting where you’re up extremely close to a detail, or small object.

Here are some tips to remember when taking macro photos (Enter your best macro photographs into Macworld's macro photography contest):

Pick a camera

Digital point-and-shoots are great for macro shooting, because most have macro modes and lenses capable of extreme close-up. Some point-and-shoots can get as close as one or two centimeters from a subject. You'll also find that your iPhone does a very good job of shooting up close. If you’re using an SLR, and are serious about macro shooting, then you’ll want to invest in a macro lens. These are lenses specially engineered for macro shooting. Typically, they’re fairly large, even if they have a short focal length. A macro lens will be clearly designated as macro.

Depth of field will be extremely shallow

That is, the area that is in focus will not be very deep, which means that your point of focus will be critical. If you don’t focus specifically on the area that you want sharp, then it might very well end up out of focus, due to shallow depth of field. This can be particularly tricky if you’re trying to shoot something that’s moving, such as a flower on a windy day.

If you have the right controls, try going to a smaller aperture to get deeper depth of field. Note, though, that even at f8 or f11, you’ll still have very shallow depth of field.

If you have Photoshop CS5, and you’re shooting a still subject and have some time, you can shoot multiple shots, each focused to a different depth, and Photoshop can combine them into a single, final image with deep depth of field. Use the same PhotoMerge feature that you use for stitching panoramic images.

Understand your camera’s macro feature

Some point-and-shoots require you to be within a specific focal length before they can focus. Usually, this is in the middle of the camera’s zoom range. So, don’t think that you can go into macro mode, and then zoom in real far to get even closer. Odds are, you’ll have to be zoomed out a bit. (The macro mode is usually indicated by a flower icon on cameras.) Learn more about what a camera's macro mode really does.

Move rather than zoom

If you want a particular crop on your image, it will be easier to move the entire camera in and out than to try to make small, fine zoom adjustments, because even a tiny amount of zoom will result in a big change in your image. Also, if you’re finding your camera can’t lock focus, try pulling back a small amount.

Don’t take just one

Because focus can be difficult, take multiple shots of the same frame. This will give you a better chance of ending up with a shot that’s in focus, with the depth of field you want. Some point-and-shoots have a “best shot selector” feature, which automatically shoots a burst of images, selects the sharpest of the bunch, and then discards the rest.

Don’t block your light

One tricky thing about macro is that, once your camera’s in tight, you might cast a shadow on your subject. If you have Live View, you can probably get you and your camera into a position where you’re not casting a shadow. However, you may have to stand farther back and zoom in to completely eliminate your own shadow. You can try to combat shadows with flash, but this can be tricky because, up close, the flash can overexpose your scene and wash out all detail. If your camera has a flash exposure compensation control, you can try to reduce the brightness of the flash, or move the camera farther back to reduce the impact of the flash.

Make your own macro lens

If you’re using an SLR with a somewhat short lens (50mm, or even the kit lens that came with it) try turning the lens around and holding it against your camera body. This often makes for a good, cheap macro lens.

Experiment

Finally, remember that macro shooting is just like any other type of shooting, in that you need to think about shutter speed, and whether it’s fast enough for handheld shooting or whether you need a tripod. In addition, think of your tiny scene as a landscape, and work it just like you would a landscape shot. Move around, try different things, try multiple compositions of different types, experiment, explore—work your shot!

Share your images

If you think you have some good macro shots that you'd like to share, enter them into Macworld's macro photography photo contest for the chance to win cool prizes, such as the Pentax Option WG-1 GPS camera.

[Macworld senior contributor Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography, sixth edition (Cengage, 2011).]

[Photos: Christopher Breen]

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