What is Macro Photography and How Do I Shoot It?

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What is macro photography?

Macro photography is one of those terms that is often misused. People tend to call anything shot close-up as macro, but technically, that is not accurate. Macro photography is close-up work with a lens made explicitly for a macro that shoots at a 1:1 magnification ratio. But, like many things, the reality is different, and most people don’t really care about the technical definition. If it is very close work, they call it macro. The only people that care are purists or photographers that specialize in that kind of work.

If you want to shoot true macro photography or specialize in close-in work, you need to invest in a good macro lens. These lenses will almost always have the word macro in the name, and if you look on the lens, it will say 1:1. You will pay more, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase as long as you stay with the same lens mount on your camera bodies. This lens will also ensure you of extra sharpness and more depth of field. For this reason, many macro lenses also make excellent portrait lenses.

Choose a good macro lens

The closest thing I have to an actual macro lens is my Fuji 35mm. This lens is an excellent lens and incredibly sharp but has a ratio of 1:2. The closest I can get is a little over a foot, but at 35mm, that’s pretty close. Plus, the large file size and lens sharpness mean I can crop in a lot and still have a great image. But imagine a 100mm lens with a minimum focus of a few inches. That’s very close!

The other factor in macro work is the depth of field. Many beginners shoot close-ups of flowers, and they are disappointed that most of the image is out of focus. This is because, at that close work, the total DOF in focus is measured in millimeters.

Even if you stop the lens down to f22, you just aren’t going to be able to get the entire flower in focus. For that reason, you need to decide the main subject and get that tack sharp, letting the rest of it go soft. The other option is focus stacking, but to be honest, if you can pull that off, you don’t need a beginner tutorial.

I mentioned stopping down to a small aperture for maximum DOF. The problem with this, of course, is it will slow your shutter speed exponentially. If you can shoot at f8 at 1/250th of a second, then f22 would be at 1/8th of a second; too slow for most cameras and lenses, handheld. However, for macro work or anything close-up, a tripod is a must. Not only will this keep the camera and lens still, but it also allows the careful composition required for macro.

If I am shooting macro in the studio, I will want to carefully compose the frame and zoom in to the maximum level to ensure the subject is tack sharp. I will then use a remote shutter release or the timer mechanism to ensure no camera shake.

Of course, none of that matters with flower photography in the field. I always joke that I can control the wind. If I want the wind to blow on a dead calm day, I focus on a flower. When I want to stop the wind, I focus on a flag. The reality is that an absolute dead calm day with zero wind is scarce. And at the focal distance that you are shooting flowers, the tiniest breeze will blur your image.

There are tricks to keep that from happening, from pieces of wire to things to block the wind, but ideally, you want a fast shutter speed which means a larger aperture. Like everything in photography, it’s a trade-off.

Practice your technique

So, what do you do if flower or insect photography is your passion? You need to practice. Get a white piece of poster board and lay it on a table by a window with good but indirect sunlight. Lay a coin on the board. Now get your closest lens, mount it on your camera, and set up your tripod. Don’t have a tripod? Get one. A tripod is more beneficial than the lens at this point.

Now, using your camera’s LCD, zoom in on the subject as far as you can and check the focus. Try focusing on the closest edge of the coin, then the central subject. Get yourself a depth of field chart and figure out what it would take to get the whole coin in focus. This will be a combination of many factors, including the size of the coin, distance from the lens to coin, the focal distance of the lens, and aperture.

The good news is shooting a stationary subject from a tripod eliminates shutter speed as a problem. Also, ISO becomes irrelevant. For those reasons, obtaining a tack-sharp image is possible but will require some practice. Spend as much time on that as you need to until it becomes second nature. Only then are you ready to venture outside and go live with your newly acquired macro knowledge.

A few tricks when things aren’t working

If you are not getting the results you want, you can use a couple of tricks. One, I touched on above. If you are shooting a large image, you can crop in a lot. That means you can pull way back from the subject to increase the focal distance. This alone will give you more depth of field.

Then, when you get the image on your computer, crop in tight. The other trick, which can be combined with that one, is to use a long zoom and back way off. This technique will increase the depth of field by a considerable amount. My 55-200 lens is incredibly sharp. With it, I could shoot from the other side of the room and then use cropping to create a ‘macro’ shot.

Learn how to use depth of field to your advantage and invest in some good glass. Then practice, practice, practice, and become a master of the macro.

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