One thing I love about photography is that it helps me see the world differently. I see beauty in the light, colors, and shapes around me. And with macro photography, an entirely new world has opened itself before my eyes! When I carry my macro lens, I’m on a hunt for the unseen: the tiny wonders that are hiding on the ground and in trees. I’ve even become fascinated with bees and watching them pollinate flowering plants. If you’re new to macro photography and curious about exploring this tiny world, I’ve put together some macro photography tips for beginners to help you get started.
Macro Photography Tips for Beginners
- Use a Macro Lens
- Focus with Intent
- Be Aware of Your Surroundings
- Use a Tripod…Sometimes
- Pay Attention to Lighting
- Make Your Images Shine with Post-Processing
Tip #1: Use a Macro Lens
Let’s kick off our list of macro photography tips for beginners with a note on gear. If you want to practice true macro photography, you’ll need a macro lens. You can position a macro (also called micro) lens extremely close to your subject, focusing on very small details. All lenses have a minimum focal distance, which limits how close the lens can be to an object while keeping it in focus. This is why most standard lenses will struggle if you try to auto-focus on something that’s too close to the camera.
The most common (and preferred) macro lens will have a 1:1 ratio, meaning the object is the same size in real life as it is on your sensor while being photographed. This allows you to get very close to small items and create true macro images. However, some macro lenses at 1:2 or higher magnification still offer great results. I’ve created some spectacular close-up images using my Fujinon 60mm 1:2 macro lens.
If you want to get extremely close or photograph something very tiny, a super macro lens is a good fit. One lens I own is the Mitakon 20mm ƒ/2 4.5X Super Macro Lens, which offers 4.5:1 magnification. This means the object I photograph is 4.5 times larger on my sensor than it is in real life! It’s definitely a specialty lens that requires intentional setup and is difficult to use handheld because of its extreme magnification.
Free Lensing for a Macro Effect
If you don’t own a macro lens but want to photograph something up close, one fun method is to remove your lens from your camera and turn it around so it’s inverted, with the front of the lens resting against the opening of the lens mount. You won’t be able to connect the lens to your camera in this position (unless you purchase a lens reversing ring), so you’ll need to hold the lens in place while creating your photo. This creates a unique blurred image with a small area in focus, similar to the effect you would get with a Lensbaby lens.
Of the macro photography tips for beginners included on this list, this tip falls somewhere in the middle in terms of difficulty. If you’d like to give this a try, make sure you’re cautious around your sensor (don’t touch it and reattach the lens as soon as you’re done). You’ll also likely need to go into your camera’s settings to allow the camera to take a photo without a lens (consult your camera’s user manual to locate this setting).
[Related Reading: Inspirational Macro Flower Photography Portraits + Tips]
Macro Photography Tips for Beginners #2: Focus with Intent
When you use a macro lens, you’re typically going to have a very narrow depth of field. This means that only a small portion of the image is in focus and the rest is blurry. This can look beautiful and is often desirable with macro images. However, you do want to make certain that the correct spot is in focus.
Choosing the correct focus can be a bit tricky with some subjects, while with others it will be quite obvious. Just like when photographing people, when photographing insects and bugs you want to make sure the eyes are in focus.
Check Your Previews
With other objects, it’s best to keep the frontmost part of the object in focus, as I do in many of my mushroom photographs. The best way to check and see if you have the best focus is to preview your image. Take a good look at it, zoom in on your camera, and see if the spot that’s in focus is the area your eye wants to look at first. If it’s not, then you’ll want to try again and change the focus to the area your eye wants to see first in the photograph.
Dial-In Your Aperture Setting
The settings you choose on your camera — particularly the aperture — will play a big part in determining how much of the scene is in focus. Because of the nature of macro photography, you’ll already have a lot of the image out of focus, so blurring the background won’t be difficult. Here are some general guidelines when choosing aperture settings for a macro photo:
- A wider aperture (such as ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4) will significantly blur the background and also some of the object, depending on how much depth the object takes up in the frame. This setting will also bring more light through the lens, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed (less chance of camera shake) and/or a lower ISO (resulting in a clearer image with less grain/noise).
- A smaller aperture (such as ƒ/8 or ƒ/11) will allow more of the object to be in focus, which can help if you’re unsure of the focal point or you want to make sure more of the subject is clear. This will lessen the light coming through the lens, which will require either a slower shutter speed (more chance of camera shake) and/or a higher ISO (more noise/grain in the photo).
Use Focus Stacking for More Depth
If you want to get into more advanced macro photography, you might want to consider focus stacking. This is a technique that requires a tripod and possibly macro rails, which allow you to fine-tune the camera position front, back, left, and right. In a nutshell, with focus stacking you photograph the same scene with the focus set to different parts of the image, then merge those images in post-processing. This leaves you with a macro photo that has a blurred background but much more of the object in focus.
Tip #3: Be Aware of Your Surroundings
The background of your macro photograph is almost as important as the subject itself. With macro photography, you’ll be featuring a small item or group of items in your frame, and a busy background can make it difficult for your subject to stand out. When I go hiking with the intention of photographing small subjects, I often bring with me a small 8×10-inch gray card that I can position in the background. This helps to simplify my photographs and keep out any unwanted hikers, power lines, and other objects.
Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid unwanted items that might be surrounding your object. A small hair or crumb might not be immediately visible to the naked eye, but once you magnify it with your camera, it will stick out like a sore thumb. When photographing nature, I also move small sticks and leaves out of the way, so long as they aren’t connected to the ground with roots or other natural means.
Tip #4: Use a Tripod…Sometimes
Tripods are an essential part of a photographer’s tool bag, and they can be helpful with macro images. When photographing up close, it can sometimes be difficult to focus on the spot you want while holding a camera in your hands; positioning the camera on a tripod ensures it won’t move around. It’s also essential to use a tripod for certain techniques, such as focus stacking, because you need to keep the camera perfectly still between frames.
However, while it might seem necessary to always use a tripod with macro photography, I find that a tripod can get in the way depending on what I’m photographing. I enjoy hiking and searching for mushrooms, and they’re often in odd spots along the trail. Positioning a standard tripod so that it’s perfectly lined up with what I want to photograph can take a lot of time, and sometimes it’s easier to get the shot handheld. Also, when photographing flying insects, it’s nearly impossible to work on a tripod. I’m constantly chasing, refocusing, and moving my camera and lens in order to get a well-composed and in-focus photograph.
Macro Photography Tips for Beginners #5: Pay Attention to Lighting
If you’re doing casual macro photography, such as with a handheld setup, the easiest method to light your scene is to find shade. A shady environment will ensure even light all around your subject, helping you avoid bright hot spots and dark shadows. If you’re photographing indoors, placing your setup near a window with the interior lights turned off is a good option. Just make sure there’s no direct light coming through the window. If you do have an area where you want to photograph but there’s too much bright light shining on your subject, you can use a diffusion panel or place a translucent sheet of white fabric in the path of the sun to soften the light. This will give you very bright but nicely shaded light for your photographs.
Tip #6: Make Your Images Shine with Post-Processing
After you’ve created your macro images, you’ll want them to look their best. Using LuminarAI, you’re able to bring out small details and make the colors pop. Tools such as StructureAI will enhance the area in focus and make your photos look sharper. The EnhanceAI tool automatically adjusts the contrast and light in a photo, making it pop. There are a ton of tools and features in LuminarAI, and they perform beautifully when working with macro photography.
I hope you enjoyed these macro photography tips for beginners. If you like how LuminarAI can help you present an up-close view of the world, go to www.skylum.com and use the discount code SLRLOUNGE to save $10 on the full purchase price. Then, start editing your own macro shots with incredible AI tools!
All images used with permission from author/photographer Nicole Young.