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How to get started with Macro Photography

Macro Photography

How to get started with Macro Photography

Posted by: mannesty on Thu Nov 17, 2011 18:12   (9388 Reads)
Most photographers will come across the term macro or macro photography sooner or later.

This article explains the various ways of producing macro photographs using everything from very cheap, to sometimes very expensive equipment. As with most things in life, "you gets what you pays for", but it’s possible to produce stunning macro images for a reasonably low cost if you are prepared to improvise. Your childhood years watching Blue Peter may come in handy after all.

Starting out buying cheap equipment is OK, but if you get bitten by the bug (pun intended), you'll soon want better results and remember, the phrase “buy cheap, buy twice” is often true.
Definition, What is Macro-photography?

Macro photography is the making of images of your subject equal to or larger than life size. That is, recording images at the sensor or film at 1:1 magnification or greater, but less than 10:1 magnification. The making of images with magnification ratios larger than 10:1 is termed photomicrography and not microphotography as you might imagine. In practice, macro photography encompasses any close-up photography which shows the minute and sometimes beautiful detail of the tiny objects around us.


Many compact (point ‘n shoot) cameras will have a ‘macro’ setting. These, and bridge cameras with a similar setting, will most likely not produce true 1:1 or greater magnification images. Their ‘macro’ function normally enables focussing closer to the subject than you would be able to on their normal settings, as is the case with SLR lenses having a ‘macro’ setting. If you own an SLR camera, film or digital, you have access to a whole host of lenses and other accessories to help you achieve beautiful and stunning photographs.

Close-Up lenses (incl. Raynox).

Buying a set of close-up lenses which screw onto the front of your existing lens, or filters as they are sometimes erroneously called, is where many budding macro-photographers start. It's not long before they discover that the achievable image quality is not terribly good. In the days of rangefinder cameras which had no removable lens, close up lenses was the only option.

One exception that I use is a Raynox Macro Conversion lens. It has a pinch style fitting to facilitate fast attachment and removal from your existing lens’s filter thread. The DCR-250 Macro Conversion Lens is 8 dioptre (approx. 2:1 magnification) and is available from for around €60. When attached to any reasonable quality lens, it can produce stunning results. Close-up lenses need to be bought to suit the filter thread that matches your lens and can be an expensive option if you have even only two lenses with different sized filter threads. The Raynox DCR-250 Macro Conversion lens fits all filter thread sizes from 52mm – 67mm.

Extension Tubes & Bellows Attachments.

Extension tubes are probably the best investment you can make when starting out in macro photography. They are relatively cheap, and some real bargains can be found on various web auction sites. Extension tubes usually come in sets of three of differing lengths. Used singularly or in combination, you can add what is effectively a light-tight spacer between your camera and your lens, of from approx. 10mm to 70mm or so. These tubes have no glass in them, so image quality is not degraded in any way.
Bellows attachments are simply a variable length extension tube. Some bellows attachments also incorporate a macro-focussing rail. More about that when we discuss focus-stacking later.
Which type of extension tube should you buy?

Much confusion surrounds the purchasing of extension tubes due to their often misleading naming conventions. You might assume that a set of tubes with the word 'Auto' in their name would facilitate auto focus and/or auto aperture selection from the camera body. The term 'Auto' in this case almost certainly means that the tubes have auto diaphragm control. That is, if you put a manual lens on the front of your tube(s), the aperture will be stopped down to whatever aperture you have the lens set to. These tubes generally have no electrical contacts to convey lens or exposure data between modern lenses and the camera body which means that many of the ‘auto’ capabilities of the lens you’ve fitted will no longer function.

When looking for extension tubes, do your research to avoid wasting money on inferior or inappropriate gear. If in doubt, visit the internet forums or your local camera club and ask questions.

Reversing Adapter.

A very cheap introduction to macro photography that can produce amazing results is to reverse mount a 28mm or 50mm prime lens to your camera. As its name suggests, you'll need a reversing adapter which is simply a male body mount, like the one on your lenses, and a male screw thread to which you mount your lens in reverse via its filter thread. If you don’t have a suitable prime lens of either of these focal lengths, visit the auction sites where you can often find them selling for a few pounds. A manual focus, manual aperture lens will do perfectly. If you then combine your reversed lens with extension tubes or a bellows unit you can achieve some astounding magnifications. EG: My bellows and various extension tubes combined give me a total lens extension of about 250mm. With my 28mm lens mounted in reverse I achieve a magnification ratio of about 9:1. If I were to mount the Raynox DCR-250 (2:1) as well, I would expect a magnification ratio of at least 15:1 which is in the realms of photomicrography.

Lens Stacking.

As its name suggests, you can stack lenses together using an adapter known as a stacking ring which has two outward facing male screw threads to suit the filter threads of the lenses you intend to stack. For example, if you were to mount a 70-200mm zoom lens on your camera and set it at the 200mm end of its focal range, then reverse mount a 50mm lens to the front of it, you'd have a combination which would produce magnifications of approx. 4:1, that's 4 times life size.

Macro Lenses.

Once you've discovered the world of macro photography, you may want to progress to a dedicated macro lens and choosing one can present a challenge. It depends on your subject and a) how close you can get, or b) how far away you want to be. As mentioned previously, many zoom lenses are marked with a ’macro’ setting. These are not true macro lenses and are unlikely to achieve 1:1 magnifications. They simply move the internal elements around such that you can get a little closer to your subject at the expense of focussing at infinity. True macro lenses have a fixed focal length, referred to as prime lenses.

With static inanimate objects like flowers, coins, jewellery, stamps etc., distance from lens to subject is not an issue. Where stinging, poisonous, or potentially dangerous subjects are concerned, you'd best keep back.

Prime Macro lenses ranging in focal lengths of around 35mm to 200mm are available, if not from your cameras maker, third party lens producers like Sigma & Tamron. It is often said that there are no bad macro lenses because to perform well as a macro lens they need to use high quality glass and be engineered to a high standard.

Modern dedicated prime macro lenses achieve 1:1 (life size) magnification when focussed at their minimum focus distance (MFD) and the shorter focal length the lens is, the MFD is shorter which means you need to be closer to your subject for a 1:1 magnification image. Some examples of the MFD of various focal length lenses:-

Lens Minimum Focus Distance (MFD)
smc Pentax DA 35mm 1:2.8 Limited 0.14M
smc Pentax D-FA 50mm 1:2.8 0.20M
smc Pentax D-FA 100mm1:2.8 0.303M
Sigma EX DG 180mm 1:3.5 0.46M
smc Pentax FA* 200mm 1:4 IF&ED 0.51M

Some older prime macro lenses produce 1:2 (1/2 life size) images and have another close up lens which is screwed to the front of it to achieve 1:1 magnification. Shorter focal length lenses are fine for static subjects like flowers, but many bugs will have disappeared before you have time to focus and press the shutter if you need to get very close to them. Longer focal length lenses become a necessity when you come across one of the more wary or potentially harmful insects or animals.

When making your decision between buying manual focus (MF) or auto focus (AF) lenses, most macro photographers use MF even when they have AF macro lenses.

If you do eventually invest in a dedicated macro lens, you'll need those extension tubes or bellows again, because with the two together you can achieve even greater than life size magnifications.

A lens popular with macro-photographers using Canon equipment is their MP-E 65. It facilitates the setting of magnification ratios of up to 5:1, or 5x life size. It has a nominal focal length of 65mm and is essentially a reversed lens and adjustable extension tube in one neat but expensive package (around £800.00).

Lighting, the key to good macro images.

Now that your appetite for macro photography is suitably whetted, to get the best out of your new found branch of our hobby, you'll need lighting. There are plenty of flashes from which to choose, but which is best? Answer: All of them, but some have limitations, and others are much better for the job.

So you've got your camera with extension tubes or bellows and a great long lens stuck on the front. When you finally get to focus on your subject, you find it's only 3 centimetres or so from your lens. So what use is the flash sitting on your hot shoe? Answer: None whatsoever because your subject is in the shadow of your lens, until you add some type of light modifier or bracket arrangement to get the flash much further forward, and over your subject.

A hot-shoe mounted flash needs some kind of light tunnel, designs for which are plentiful on the internet, to transfer the light to your subject. Alternatively, you can move the flash to a bracket such that the flash is moved sufficiently far forward to be in front of or above your lens and therefore capable of illuminating your subject. This will require additional cabling or radio triggers between the flash and the camera and will vary with your chosen flash gun.

By far the most convenient and portable solution to macro lighting is a ring-flash. These are usually in two parts, joined by a cable. The control unit attaches to your hot-shoe and connects by cable to the flash head which is mounted to the front of your lens and essentially surrounds your subject with light, thus reducing the possibility of harsh shadows.
One criticism levelled against ring flashes is that they often produce images having no ‘modelling’. In other words, there are no shadows. Many modern macro ring flashes have the ability to adjust the light intensity from one side of the flash to the other to improve the modelling effect by producing shadows and making the image look more natural.
Ring flashes are an excellent lighting solution when taking images with a dedicated macro lens or other methods where you can maintain a reasonable distance from the flash to subject. When you start combining some of the methods I’ve described above, EG: using a reversed lens on the end of extension tubes and/or bellows, you’ll probably find that the flash head will become more of a hindrance than an asset due to the very much reduced distances between your gear and subject. Fitting a ring flash to the ‘wrong’ end of a reversed lens presents a separate challenge and requires another adaptor which you’ll probably have to make yourself.

Focus Stacking.

This is a very interesting technique that can produce some amazing images. Focus stacking involves taking many images at different focal points, then using special software to take the in-focus parts of each image to create a whole new image where everything is in focus.

These multiple images can be achieved hand-held if you have a very steady hand, or by using a tripod and refocussing the lens. The latter is not so successful because as you refocus a lens, its magnification can change very slightly. The best way to achieve the required images is by using a macro focussing rail which allows small movements of the camera backwards and forwards. Some rails can also be moved left & right as well. Automatic focussing systems using a linear stage and a device called StackShot ( ) are also available, but these are beyond the scope of this article.

When you have your stack of images you’ll then need to use software to 'knit' them all together:-
CombineZP (freeware)
Zerene Stacker (possibly the most widely used ‘paid for’ software) or
Helicon Focus
Adobe Photoshop CS4 or newer also has a focus stacking function

Field craft.

When you have the basic tools required to capture macro images you’ll probably start practicing on inanimate objects in the comfort of your home. Eventually you will probably want to search out more interesting live subjects. In time, your quest for weird insects to photograph will teach you more about the world we live in, the animals and insects we share it with and where to find them, and you’ll learn about how and when to best photograph them. Many insects are easier to photograph on a chill morning when they’ve had a cold night outside and haven’t warmed up yet for their day ahead.

Some macro photographers go as far as catching their subject and artificially chilling them in the fridge or freezer to slow them down and constructing a mini indoor studio with appropriate flora from the area where the insect was caught. Personally I think that irresponsible and unnecessary because it removes an animal from its natural habitat and damages plant life in the quest for an image. I think if a person’s photography and field craft skills are up to scratch, they should be able to get the shot without disturbing anything.

To see some stunning examples of macro photography (not mine), visit:-

Thomas Shahan’s site at

For more information about macro photography equipment and techniques visit Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel’s site at

Novoflex has a range of useful macro accessories at

Finally, when photographing insects or small animals, as in human portraiture if you get the eyes in focus, the image will look OK irrespective of whether or not the whole of the rest of the image is in focus. Out of focus (OOF) eyes generally make an image look odd.

I hope this introduction inspires you to explore the fascinating world of macro photography.

If you do, please don’t harm or damage any natural flora or fauna in the quest for a photo.

If you must remove an animal from its natural habitat to photograph it, please return it unharmed to where you found it.

You might be surprised at what you can find in your own garden.

Now all that remains is for you to go out and try some of the techniques I’ve described and be sure to show us your results.

Above all else, enjoy your macro photography. You will get frustrated at times by insects moving or disappearing altogether before you can press the shutter button, plants that won’t keep still even in a light breeze, and poor lighting conditions but persevere, it will be worth it.
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