Macro Photography: A beginner's guide

A caterpillar feeding on a leaf or the jagged edges of a broken pencil, at first, might not seem too interesting. But on closer inspection, by getting right up close, we can see things we’ve never seen before — the delicate hairs along the caterpillar’s back running adjacent to the veins in the leaf, or the tiny little fragmented splinters guarding the lead of the pencil. Macro photography allows us to enter a different world, one we rarely get to see otherwise.

“Macro photography is a popular genre of photography, not only because it’s so accessible, but also (if done correctly) because it can yield some fascinating results. ”

However, it isn’t always easy, which is why I thought I’d put together some useful tips for you to try next time you’re wanting to get out and shoot.

Macro photography idea, Close up nails & lips shot by Karl Taylor
© Karl Taylor

What is macro photography?

Macro photography is a close-up examination of small subjects — anything from insects in your back garden, to the colorful, chaotic inside of a pepper.

It is the magnification of an object to at least it’s actual size relative to your recording medium. That simply means that whatever you’re photographing should be at a 1:1 ratio.

“At 1:1, the image recorded to the sensor, when shot at the closest focussing distance, will be the same size as the subject.”

But it isn’t simply a case of grabbing your camera, finding an object and getting as close as you can. You often have to be able to work in tricky light situations at a shallow depth of field. So, if you want to get really great macro shots here’s a few simple things to consider.

Macro Photography Equipment

Camera Lenses

Lenses are one of the most important (if not the most important) pieces of kit for macro photography and macro lenses, as the name suggests, are what you should be using for the job.

They’re available in a range of focal lengths, offer 1:1 or more magnification and are specifically designed to allow for close focussing distances. This, the focal length, is an important consideration when doing this type of photography because it determines how close you can get to a subject.

For example, when shooting with a 100mm lens you’ll be twice the distance from your subject than if you were using a 50mm lens.

“You might think that getting closer is better for this type of work, but this isn’t always the case for macro shots.”

Close-up photo of watch mechanism by Karl Taylor
Product image by Karl Taylor

Getting closer means, if you’re photographing something like insects, your proximity might frighten the subject away. It also means you may block what available light you have and your shadow might interfere with the shot. Macro lenses range anywhere from 50mm to 200mm, so if you’re just starting out, a 100mm might be a good option as it offers a convenient middle ground that can work well in a range of different conditions.

“Macro lenses are, undoubtedly, the best lenses for the job, but they come at a price — literally.”

If you’re on a tight budget, many telephoto lenses offer a macro setting, although they can’t quite compete with the real thing. At best, they are usually only able to produce 1:3 magnification and are unable to produce the quality of a true macro lens.

However, there are a few ways you can work around this. Extension tubes are a cheaper alternative that allow you to produce some outstanding results. In the video below I test various lenses and show how well they perform for macro photography.

Macro Photography Settings

Once you’ve got your equipment sorted, it’s down to you own creativity as to how your images look. But, if you’re wanting to create truly amazing results you have no other option than to shoot in manual mode.

Your aperture will determine your depth of field, and although you might think a shallower depth of field is better, it’s important to consider the fact that you’ll generally be working quite close to your subject. The closer you are to a subject, the greater your magnification, and it is this magnification that influences your depth of field. The greater the magnification, the shallower the depth of field.

Make sure to test a few different settings — f5.6 may work in some situations, but in others it might not give you quite enough depth of field. Sometimes you’ll need to go to f16 to get sufficient detail. It’s all about experimenting and seeing what you like.

If you’re working with fast moving subjects, remember that your aperture should allow for you to obtain a fast enough shutter speed that you’ll be able to freeze the motion.

    Close up shot of Harris Hawk by Karl Taylor
    © Karl Taylor

    If you’re struggling to balance your aperture and shutter speed remember you can adjust your ISO settings  to compensate, but beware of noise creeping into your image.

    You should also shoot in manual focus. When shooting at shallow depth of field your camera can sometimes struggle to focus on the exact spot you want it to. Just 1mm can make a major difference when you’re working with a shallow depth of field at high magnification.

    By switching to manual focus you have full control of where your focus is. Once you’ve set your focus point, you simply have to slowly move your body backwards of forwards to move your focus.

    If you’re photographing a stationary object I recommend using a tripod as this will allow for the greatest control as it eliminates any movement. Shooting handheld means there’s the possibility that you’ll accidentally move, and, as I’ve mentioned, even the slightest movement will throw your shot out of focus.

    Don’t try and turn the focus ring to focus while you’re shooting, you simply won’t be able to find your focus point in time if you’re photographing moving objects. The extra movement will also create shake, which, if you’re working at a slower shutter speed, could ruin your image.

      Macro photography of kiwi by Karl Taylor
      © Karl Taylor

      Composing your shot

      Just because you’re photographing up close doesn’t mean all the basic rules of composition no longer apply.

      One of the common mistakes by many amateur photographers is to shoot downwards, as they see the object. Look for unusual angles. By getting beneath the subject you can incorporate an added element of interest by making the subject seem larger than it really is or gain a perspective of what it is like to live in that animal’s world. Many DSLRs nowadays have a flip out screen — this allows you to get your camera in unusual positions without you having to get on the ground, for example.

      Another common mistake, which can happen if you don’t apply the rule of thirds, is that you don’t incorporate enough lead room. Ideally, if you’re photographing insects or animals, there should be extra space in the direction of where the subject is looking. Not allowing enough lead room can result in an awkward looking image that is unbalanced.

      “It’s easy to get caught up in getting close up to your subject and forget about composition, but you really should make the time to determine the angles, backgrounds and lines to incorporate in your image.”

      In this Macro Photography At Home video I do a macro shot of some kiwi. You can see how I’ve applied many of the techniques discussed above (and show you some useful techniques if you’re shooting abstracts indoors).

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        1. Hi Karl. I have a Canon 7D and I am considering which macro lens to purchase. I have seen in your videos that you have used both the Canon MP E 65 macro f2/8 and the Canon 100 f2/8 L. Are you able to advise me as to which is the “better” lens. I am a new member and just starting out so would like to be able to photograph a range of macro subjects and your thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance.


          1. Hi Suzy, the 100mm 2.8 will serve you much better for most macro work and general photography such as food, product and even portrait. The MPE65 is very specialist and only for super close up work such as insects, flowers. I hope this helps, all the best Karl.

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