A Photographer’s Guide to Macro Lens Photography

A Photographer’s Guide to Macro Lens Photography

If you’ve seen extreme close-up images of plants, animals, and insects that seem almost impossible to catch, you’ve enjoyed macro photography. With the right macro lens, you can get even closer to your subject and reveal details that are almost invisible to the naked eye. With the right macro lens and basic knowledge in our in-depth guide, you’ll be a pro at macro photography in no time.

What is Macro Photography?

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Macro photography is extreme close-up photography, typically of small objects and living things. It allows you to make tiny objects, like bugs, appear larger than life.

Macro photography uses specialized lenses that are designed to focus on objects far closer than you can with a standard lens. Because of the extreme magnification, it’s frequently used with very small subjects like flowers or insects.

Some macro photographers will also create abstract images by taking macro shots of larger objects, filling the frame with a fraction of the item or creating a field of texture.

What is Magnification?

Magnification is the relationship between the size of the subject’s projection on the camera sensor and its size in reality. In order for a lens (or the image it produces) to be considered truly macro, there is a specific magnification that it has to achieve. The image projected onto the sensor must be at least the same size that it is in real life.

In other words, if your camera has a full frame sensor that is 36mm x 24mm and you take a picture of an item that is 36mm x 24mm, it must fill up the entire frame.

Most lenses that are labeled macro (or micro by Nikon) will achieve this full 1:1 reproduction, while some will only achieve a 1:2 magnification, or half of its true life-size.

How to Shoot Macro Photography

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A standard camera lens can’t focus closely enough to produce macro images on its own. If you’re wanting to try macro photography, there are a few tips to follow.

Macro Lenses

The best solution for shooting macro is a dedicated macro lens. A macro lens is designed to focus extremely close, but also to be incredibly sharp at its closest focusing distance. Most macro lenses are prime lenses, which typically offer better performance than zoom lenses in their price range.

Most macro lenses will behave like any other lens when you’re not using macro capabilities. A 100mm macro will behave like any other 100mm lens when focusing at longer distances. In fact, a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens can also be a fantastic portrait lens if you don’t need super wide apertures like f/1.4 or f/1.2.

Extension Tubes

An extension tube is a hollow tube that fits between the camera body and lens. By moving the lens farther away from the sensor, you can focus on objects closer than you would normally be able to. Extension tubes do not introduce any new optical elements, so they have virtually no effect on the image quality. Because they are so simple, they are very affordable and a cost-effective solution.

It’s good to keep in mind that some extension tubes don’t relay the electrical signals between your camera and lens, losing the ability to change aperture or autofocus. If your lens is not sharp at its minimum focusing distance, the additional magnification you get with the extension tube will exacerbate those problems.

Finally, extension tubes change the range of distances your lens will be able to focus. You’ll lose the ability to focus to infinity and in some cases might end up with the minimum focus distance being inside of the lens. Minimum focusing distance is measured from the surface of the sensor (or the focal plane mark on the camera body), not from the surface of the lens. Messing with a lens’ length by using a tube can introduce a minimum focusing distance that’s much shorter than what the lens can accommodate.

Close-Up (Macro) Filters

A close-up filter is a screw-on filter that attaches to the front of another lens to increase the magnification. They work in much the same way as using a handheld magnifying glass.

However, because they are altering the light coming to the sensor, you do need to be concerned about the quality of the filter and whether or not it will degrade your image quality. You can find very inexpensive close-up filters, but these will generally be fairly low quality and will limit your final results.

Close-up filters are generally the least desirable option for macro photography, but they can work. Try to find the highest quality filters possible to minimize the loss in image quality.

Focal Lengths

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There is a wide range of focal lengths that have macro versions available. Perhaps the most common focal lengths will be between 90mm and 105mm, though macro lenses in the 180mm-200mm range are also common. There are also shorter macro lenses, often around 50mm to 60mm.

Because the macro designation has a specific magnification definition, there should not be significant differences in the images created by macro lenses of different focal lengths. The biggest difference between macro focal lengths is how far away the lens should be for maximum magnification. Shorter lenses need to be closer while longer lenses need to be farther away.

Because of this, you might choose a specific focal length based on the subject and your shooting environment. If you’re shooting insects that could fly away if you get too close, you may want a longer lens. If you’re shooting a non-living subject, try a shorter lens that doesn’t require you to back up.

Depth of Field

butterfly

One of the biggest challenges with macro photography is managing the depth of field. The depth of field when taking a macro photo is razor thin, often no more than a few millimeters deep. You need to make some decisions on how to get your image in focus.

In most cases, you’re going to want to stop down your aperture fairly significantly. Most lenses are sharpest around f/8 – f/11. As long as you are able to get a good exposure at those apertures, you shouldn’t go wider for a macro shot. Consider using an even smaller aperture and accepting the tradeoff of some softness as a result of diffraction from tiny apertures.

If your subject doesn’t move, you can try focus stacking to blend multiple exposures and achieve sharpness from the front to the back of the image. Of course, if you’re shooting something like moving insects this will be nearly impossible. Some cameras are starting to include automatic focus stacking features, including the Nikon D850 and the Fuji X-T3.

Lastly, you can embrace the depth of field. If the most important part of the image is parallel to your camera, you will have a sharp subject in front of an out of focus background.

Best Camera for Macro Photography

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Macro photography is more about the lens you use than the camera.

Since the goal of macro photography is magnification, high-resolution sensors give you the freedom to crop more heavily. You can exaggerate the part of the image you’re already magnifying. Cameras like the Canon 5Ds (50.4mp), Nikon D850 (45.7mp), and Sony a7R III (42.4mp) can give you the most cropping power.

Similarly, cameras with crop sensors increase the apparent magnification of your images. The Canon 7D II, Nikon D500, and Sony a77II are good options for APS-C format cameras.

Because you’ll use a small aperture when shooting macro, consider choosing a camera that performs better in low light. This is helpful if you’re unable to use flash with your subjects. For example, the Canon 1D X Mark II, Nikon D5, and Sony a7S II are great low-light cameras.

Best Lens for Macro Photography

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While different cameras offer benefits for macro photography, the most important part will always be the lens. Choosing the best macro lens for your camera mount will help take your macro photography to the next level.

Some great macro lens options include:

BrandAvailable MountLensMagnification RatioMinimum Focus Distance
CanonCanon EFCanon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro USM1:111.8"
Canon EFCanon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM1:118.8"
NikonNikon FNikon 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR Micro1:112"
Nikon FNikon 200mm f/4D AF Micro ED1:119"
SonySony E Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 G OSS Macro1:111"
Sony ASony 100mm f/2.8 A Mount Macro1:114.4"
FujiFuji XFuji XF 80mm f/2.8 OIS Macro1:19.84"
Fuji GFuji GF 120mm f/4 OIS Macro1:217.76"
OlympusMicro Four ThirdsOlympus 60mm f/2.81:17.48"
PanasonicMicro Four ThirdsPanasonic Leica 45mm f/2.8 Macro 90mm5.91"

If you’ve been wanting to get into shooting macro photography, what are you waiting for? With macro lenses for almost any interchangeable lens camera, your options are endless to get started.

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