Macro Photography Tricks for Beginners: Focus Stacking and More

Macro Photography Tricks for Beginners: Focus Stacking and More

There are a lot of great ‘getting started’ tips for macro photography that you can find in a simple Google search: “use a tripod”, “stop down your aperture”, “shoot in bright light to maintain a low ISO setting”, the list goes on. With all types of photography come less-than-perfect scenarios where you must think quickly and creatively to achieve expected results. Whether you are just discovering the acute world of macro photography or have faced its challenges and need some convincing to try again, we have put together a list of hacks that you may not find in the generalist guides.

When should you use a macro-specific lens? Most are not only for photographing bugs and flowers (although this is a popular way to explore this lens type). Macro lenses are also great for portraits, wedding details, product shots, food blogs, and, yes, even landscapes!20140210-DSC_0650

Macro lenses can also be used in abstract photography for their inherent nature to isolate a subject from its more identifiable self, thus giving it new meaning. Why is this good for you? It puts the power in your hands to create works of art similar to (and certainly more affordable than) what you have gazed upon at local art galleries, art festivals, (or even at IKEA for that matter).

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Now that you know the wide variety of ways you could potentially use a macro lens, here’s is what we would suggest once you have one in your hands:

Typical Tip #1 – You really should use a tripod to stabilize the camera. Macro lenses have the potential to carry some weight on them, especially the Canon 100mm, Nikon 105mm, and especially the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 Macro and Nikon 200mm. A tripod will be extremely helpful to help stabilize the weight and avoid knocking your subject out of its narrow depth of field by accidental hand/arm shake.

Alternative Hack – If you don’t have a tripod, adjust your settings so that you aren’t shooting at any slower of a shutter speed than 1/400th  of a second to avoid camera shake ruining all your frames. Next, try steadying yourself by leaning against a solid structure, tucking your elbows by your side, and exhaling while simultaneously relaxing your shoulders, then click!

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Typical Tip #2 – Check all angles before you settling on your composition.  Moving around your subject will allow you to choose on the best vantage point or angle. A running theme in macro photography is that small movements make a world of difference, whether it’s that you are picking up a new highlight previously unseen or getting your subject more or less on the same focal plane.

Alternative Hack – Take several test shots that focus less on producing a winning image and instead are a study of light, color, and depth of field. Don’t take more than one image in that particular camera position, instead orbit around the subject to compare and contrast your P.O.V. until you come across something you love. You can always change positions later but you will be doing yourself a service to do this exercise beforehand to avoid shooting too long in a composure you like less than your last frame.

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Typical Tip #3 – Find your best background. Because of the extreme shallow depth of field created by macro lenses, your background will play a huge role in the mood of the image. Since mostly everything will be a blur of colors, it is up to you to decide how you want that color to interact with the subject.

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Alternative Hack – Look for a complimentary color to your subject to make it pop off the page or the same color as your subject for an interesting monotone look. If what you have to work with is limited, consider bringing in a background of your own and simply prop it behind your subject for more control.

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Typical Tip #4 – Use manual focus. Autofocus works by identifying contrast and when working with such a narrow depths of field, that contrast is less easy for your lens to identify and causes an effect called focus-hunting. To shoot in manual mode, turn the focus ring first until everything is out of focus and then, with intention, turn it the opposite direction until the area you want appears sharp and clear.

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Alternative Hack – If you are hand holding, focus on your subject and then try physically moving yourself and/or the camera forward and back from your subject to make the final micro adjustments just before you depress the shutter. This method works better than the clunky focus ring when attempting to get your subject in focus when shooting at f/5.6 or lower.

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Typical Tip #5 – Close Down Your Aperture to get a workable depth of field. In macro photography, depth of field is measured in millimeters. Your DOF becomes exponentially shallow when you are using one of the wider apertures. Shooting at f/8 or f/11 on a macro lens will yield the look of f/2.8 on a standard lens.

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Alternative Hack – If you aren’t on a tripod and not working with a lot of available light, instead of bumping your ISO and degrading the crispness of your image, take a series of 5-7 images that you can later use a Photoshops focus stacking action on to merge your frames and increase the DOF in post production. This is a great option on wedding days when you are multi tasking many types of shots and don’t have the luxury or room of taking out a tripod for one shot.

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Typical Tip #5 – Use Live View Mode to nail focus. If you are on a tripod when setting focus, you can turn on the Live View LCD screen and zoom in 100% into the part of the image you would like sharp to check that your focus is razor sharp in the area you want.

Alternative Hack – If what you are focusing on optically is different from what is in focus in the preview, check that your diopter is calibrated to your eyesight as well as adjust the front-and-back focus of your camera. Learn more about how to do that here.

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Typical Tip #7 – Avoid getting in your own light. If you are shooting with light that you can’t control, depending on where you are standing you can actually cast a shadow into your scene. If you are intensely focused on shooting and having trouble with your exposure, check that you aren’t hindering your light’s power.

Alternative Hack – If you are having issues with harsh contrast or hot spots when shooting in bright sunlight, cast a shadow into your scene using your body to mask out the bright light source and make it a more even light.

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To summarize, macro lenses aren’t as specific and limiting as you may have thought and is certainly a good work-horse lens to have in your kit. If you are planning on taking macro photography seriously, it’s best to use a tripod which will better ensure tack-sharp images. Investigate your camera’s shooting modes for tools to help you identify concrete focus on the intended portion of your subject. Remember, there is always more than one way to accomplish your vision. When you face a road block, remember to calm your mind, take a deep breath, and know that macro photography is a lot like mediation; there must be a willingness to experiment outside your comfort zone, practiced patience, and have a dedication to learning.

Learn more about Macro Photography:

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Cortigiano is a food, lifestyle, and event photographer with a contemporary aesthetic. She received an undergraduate degree in photography at Drexel University and has gone on to work as a freelance photographer and teaching artist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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