Getting Started with Macro Photography

Before we begin on our journey into the study of macro photography, let's go over a few things:

  1. You are capable of macro photography. This is one skill anyone can possess, from amateurs to professionals.
  2. Spare equipment is not necessary, but will certainly help. Built in macro modes will do just fine for casual photography.
  3. Knowing what macro photography is and how it works will help you take a much better picture. This applies to all techniques.
  4. It does not take a professional photographer to get a good macro shot (just to reiterate number one).

Ok, good start. Now, let's get cooking.

Macro photography is a simple skill to work on. It is an awesome technique that is not nearly as daunting as it appears either. The first thing I ever did when I received my Canon Rebel XTi was fiddle with the macro settings. I knew what it was but not quite sure on what it did. This first step helped me explore the camera and the space around me. It makes for some really interesting shots without too much fuss (or you can fuss, depending on the level of skill). Getting acquainted with the going-ons of macro photography will not only help you understand the settings and the best way to go about taking a good shot, it will make you a more rounded photographer.

So, what exactly is macro photography?

Let's use some imagery: Ever seen The Wizard of Oz? Of course you have. Remember how Munchkin Land was an entirely new place for Dorothy to visit because everything was in large scale, almost as if she shrank down to Munchkin size giving her a unique perspective on tiny scale details? That's macro photography.

Technically speaking, macro photography is defined as "close up photography". Not too scary now, is it? Macro is so easy that the majority of sub-compact digital cameras these days come with the setting right on the dial. The most complex part of macro photography is understanding what the numbers mean and how different lenses can affect the shot. A lens must be capable of focusing down to a 1:1 range to be true macro. All that really means is that a lens must keep a subject in focus at its true to life size once printed out. For example, a 1:1 ratio would mean that an abject that is 1mm in size would be projected onto the frame at a length of 1mm. There are external macro lenses produced today that are capable of zooming in and focusing on objects at a much larger ratio. Some photographers go a step above that and photograph through microscopes. Other options include diopter lenses and reverse rings and other things that won't be discussed in this particular article.

You are probably already familiar with macro photography. A simple search of the phrase yields hundreds of websites with examples of macro shots, ranging from Susan Manvelyan's Your Beautiful Eyes to Thomas Shehan's collection of Bugs in Pictures. There is so much detail in our lives that we miss on a daily basis simply because our own eyeballs have a limited range of focus in comparison to fabricated lenses. Technology:1 Nature: 0

Now that I know what it is, how do I use it?

The first step is to figure out whether or not your camera has a macro setting. Most compact cameras these days come equipped with the macro setting built in. For example, one of the most popular sub-compact cameras in the past two years is the Canon PowerShot SD940 IS and it comes built in with a Digital Macro setting, along with 19 other settings that people probably never use. That is the thing about digital cameras; you have to play with and use your camera to understand its full potential. So do that first. Generally speaking, the macro mode is denoted with a tiny flower (they assume you will be using your macro setting for tulips, I guess).

Image Courtesy of Canon U.S.A.

Next, sort out your aperture settings. Since you are working with an extremely small subject area, a large aperture setting will work best (remember, large aperture means the smallest number possible). You want the subject in question to be in focus. A large aperture will blur out the background, softening the surroundings and pulling all the attention on what is closest to the lens.

f/stop: 5.6 Shutter Speed: 1/500 ISO: 200

Focus is next in line. If the focus on your macro setting is automatic, you are at the mercy of the camera. You can manipulate the focus points best as you can by moving the subject around the frame in fractions of an inch to try to trip the auto focus. That is easier said than done. Sub-compact cameras are really user friendly but tend to do a lot of over-correcting assuming that the user is unsure of what they are doing. If you do in fact have manual focus control, then you are in luck. Changing the focus can make a real impact on the final shot. Play around with the focus points finding an interesting place to land. Do not always rely on the thing closest to the lens to be the most interesting. Framing the subject with surrounding elements can be a great way to get a bigger picture without taking away from what you are shooting. In the picture below, the flowers in focus are further away from the lens than the blurred flowers. The contrast creates a more interesting image without stealing focus. There is almost a voyeuristic approach to this photograph because of it.

f/stop: 5.0 Shutter Speed: 1/125 ISO: 400

Composition is one of the techniques any photographer should be most familiar with. Even when all settings are automatic and up to the camera, it is the photographer who composes and, in the long run, crafts the shot. When it comes to macro photography, this is most important. When you are getting every detail possible in a shot, it is essential to compose it to its fullest potential. A good rule of thumb is to use a neutral, uncluttered background. Whether this means using the blank sky, a bland wall or building your own light box for extreme macro photography, plain backgrounds work best. Keep in mind general rules of photography, such as the rule of thirds and horizontal/vertical line composition (take a look at Suzanne William's article on horizontal and vertical composition for a good starting off point). Macro photography does not mean you always have to zoom in on the most infinitesimally small object nearest your camera. It can also be a useful tool when you need the utmost clarity in a shot.
f/stop: 5.0 Shutter Speed: 1/80 ISO: 200

Lighting your shot, regardless of how close you are to the subject, can be difficult, cumbersome and frustrating. As a huge promoter of natural light (my argument stands that you are taking photographs at real time in real life situations so keep it that way), it will not always work with macro photography. When the flash it mounted so close to the lens, the lens is bound to get in the way creating some bizarre angular shadows all over the place. On top of that, because you are trying to capture every detail, nook and cranny, you need a good solid light source that does justice to the subject. The easiest solution to mounted flashes is to buy an extension cord, an external flash and a tripod. If you find that your flash is just too flashy, perhaps a light diffuser is in your future. You can buy a diffuser for an external flash or make one easily enough. (Keep in mind: you get what you pay for. There is a reason photography equipment costs more than a mortgage payment.) A flash reflector disperses your light across a wider area. Instead of the light zeroing in on your mini-subject, it highlights the whole space.

Don't let macro photography scare you. Use it as a tool to explore your space. Decide whether or not it is something worth investing in before you go out and spend $600 on a new macro lens. Have faith in your current equipment and your ability to take a good photo. Always play with settings and composition. That is the great thing about photography: you are in control of the final shot. Have fun with your camera and please refrain from smashing it on the ground when you can't quite capture the dew drop on the blade of grass near your mailbox in the morning. There will always be more dew.

Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant Personal Blog | Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree. She is currently a freelance writer and photographer. She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby.