Macro Photography Tips

The art of photographing things extremely close-up is called macro photography. From flowers and insects, baby’s fingers and toes, to coins and collectables and everyday household items—macro photography uncovers a whole new world of photo possibilities.

Whether you’re shooting with a compact camera or a DSLR, there are settings, lenses, and other accessories to consider when capturing a close-up/macro image.

Compact cameras

In the world of compact cameras, the term “macro” refers to the camera’s ability to focus very closely on an object.
The Macro Mode exposure setting is denoted by a flower icon and is located either on the back of the camera, on the Mode Dial, or in the Scene settings.

Once selected, the flower icon appears on your LCD viewfinder. This allows you to focus and shoot closer to your subject than normal. For example, most compact camera’s minimum focusing distance is 30cm or 1 foot. The possible shooting range in Macro Mode is approximately 3cm, which translates to about one inch. That’s pretty close!

Quick Tip

Getting close-up magnifies more than your subject, it also increases the potential of image blur due to camera shake. To decrease the blur in your photos, stabilize your camera on a table or use a mini-tripod. To further ensure that your camera doesn’t move, use your camera’s self-timer feature and set it to 2 seconds.

Digital SLR cameras

Some DSLR camera models have a Mode Dial with a Macro Mode pre-set. This setting attempts to optimize your camera’s exposure parameters for a “macro” shot, but your ability to capture a close-up image is actually controlled by your lens choice. For example, if a Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens is attached to your DSLR, the minimum focusing distance to your subject is limited to 9.8″ (25 cm) and close-up/macro images will not be possible. If a dedicated macro lens is attached to your DSLR, like the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 macro lens you can use any exposure setting you desire and you can get closer to your subject with a minimum focusing distance of 7.8″ (20cm).

Technically speaking

What’s so special about a macro lens? Can’t you just use an 18-55mm lens and move it to within inches of whatever you’re shooting? Well, no. The problem is that a regular “non-macro” lens cannot focus at such a short distance (unless you use one of the accessories I mention below.)

True macro lenses allow a short focusing distance and can capture an object on the camera’s sensor at the same size as the actual object. This is called a 1:1 magnification ratio or reproduction ratio. To confuse matters somewhat, the term “macro” is also used loosely to describe close-up photography, which could include other magnification ratios. Check your lens to see if it says MACRO then consult your lens manual or check out online information for the magnification/reproduction ratio specs.

The Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 macro USM lens has a true macro magnification ratio of 1:1 and is designed to work with a camera with an APS-C sensor, such as the Canon EOS Rebel models.
The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Autofocus Lens will focus over the full range from infinity down to life size (1:1 reproduction ratio).

If you don’t have the budget for a macro lens, there are quite a few quick-fix options for achieving a higher magnification. Following are two of those options:

Diopters or close-up lenses

A bit like reading glasses, these lenses attach to the front of your lens just like a filter and allow a shorter focusing distance to your subject. They are easily attached and removed, and very portable. The optical power of the lens is measured in diopter, with +2 being weak and +10 being strong.

A close-up lens attached to the front of your camera lens (normal or macro) allows a shorter focusing distance to your subject.

Extension tubes

Extension tubes fit between the camera lens and body and contain no optical elements. The idea is to move the lens away from the sensor or film resulting in a closer focusing distance and greater magnification ratio.Take a look at the images of the lemons to see the difference an extension tube can make, even with a regular “kit” lens.

This Extension Tube fits between the camera body and lens and helps increase the magnification of your image.

© erin  manning
Captured with a Canon T4i set to Macro Mode using a “non-macro” Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Autofocus Lens.

© erin  manning
Captured with a Canon T4i set to Macro Mode using a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Autofocus Lens and the Canon Extension Tube EF 25 II. Notice how the extension tube allows me to focus closer to the lemons.

Photo techniques

Our eyes are drawn to the sharp areas of an image. When you’re very close to your subject Macro Mode creates a very shallow depth of field (that’s what’s in focus within a certain area) so you’ll need to decide what area you want to focus on. Otherwise, you’ll find that a lot is out of focus.

1. Experiment with tilting your camera back and forth, and move the camera closer and farther away from your subject. Keep your camera and the object you’re photographing parallel for the most detail. You’ll need to do this while pressing your finger halfway down on the shutter button to check the focus in your viewfinder.

© erin  manning
The beads were the focal point in this macro image. Captured with a Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Autofocus Lens.

2. Capture water droplets on your flower images by spraying water on the petals right before the shot.

© erin  manning
Captured with a Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Autofocus Lens.


3. Brighten up your scene with a professional reflector or use household items such as tin foil wrapped around a cookie sheet or a car dashboard reflector to reflect light into the shadows.


Now it’s time to grab your camera. Look around your kitchen, your backyard, and your garage for interesting things to capture. Explore and get creative! Once you see things close-up, you’ll be hooked on macro photography.