Complete Macro Photography Tutorial'-

Macro photography is highly rewarding, but it’s not an easy genre. Now, I’m sure that you could make that same argument for any type of photography – but at the moment, I’m not. I’m only talking about macro. This is a type of photography where you go out in humid conditions specifically in search of bugs. Or in search of flowers, or lizards, or whatever it is your photograph. And, once you’ve found them, you need to focus so precisely that your one-millimeter depth of field is perfectly on your subject’s eye, or is it the perfect spot on a flower petal. You might not even have the width of a hair for your margin of error. And you’re magnifying your subject so much that you magnify camera shake as well. So, clearly, picking the right camera settings is difficult. And I’ll explain what these different considerations are in a minute, but first, let’s start with some basic terminology.

There are really two terms that I think anyone should know for macro photography, and those are working distance and magnification. We’ll start with the easy one, which is working distance. Right now, in my hand, I’ve got a 105mm macro lens, and I’ve turned its focus ring to the closest focus position. When I do that, the subject that’s in focus is about this far away from the lens. Now, the working distance is the physical distance between the front of the lens and the subject. Now if you’ve got a longer macro lens, something like 200mm, then you can stand farther from your subject while keeping it the same size in your photo. This means that you’ve got a bigger working distance. However, keep in mind that working distance also depends on the actual length of the lens that you’re using – not focal length, but the lens’s physical construction.

 The easiest example is if you put a lens hood on this lens. You obviously haven’t changed the focal length, but you reduced your working distance. So, for macro photography, you’ll almost always want a large working distance. It’s why I recommend a 100mm macro lens or longer to most photographers. Otherwise, you just get too close to your subject, and you might scare it away or even just block the light. All right, term number two is magnification. And this has to do with how big your subject is on your camera sensor versus how big the subject is in the actual world. And the simplest case is when you’re at one-to-one magnification. This just means that the subject’s size on your camera sensor is equal to its size in the actual world. So here is a roughly accurate full-frame sensor, 36millimeters across. If I lay this 30-millimeter ring on top of the camera sensor, you can see that it’s almost covering it. And imagine taking a photo right now.

They might be two-to-one or even more. Now, this means that the subject is twice as big on your sensor as it is in the actual world. And these are more specialized lenses, but depending on the subjects that you shoot, they might be very useful. So, you understand the basic terminology. You know which type of macro lenses I recommend. Now let’s talk about two of the biggest challenges in macrophotography, and those are getting enough light and getting enough depth of field. Going into macro photography, it’s important to know that higher magnification decreases your depth of field. There’s no way around it. If you’re at one-to-one, only a small part of your subject will be completely sharp, and the rest will be out of focus. So, what do you do about it? Well, the simplest answer is don’t use super high magnifications – but that’s also a terrible answer. There are tons of amazing subjects that are so small that you need to shoot at one-to-one magnification to capture them properly. But there is still a bit of truth in that statement.

 If you’re just starting out in macro photography, it will be easier if you work with slightly larger subjects – something like dragonflies or flowers. You can actually photograph them in much the same way that you would shoot a regular, non-macro photo. Now, you might still have some depth of field issues, but they won’t be nearly as bad. But what about when you *do* want to shoot at one-to-one? Well, in that case, my recommendation is to use a really narrow aperture. I shoot my macro photos at f/16 or f/22. And that basically solves the depth of field problem, but it creates some other problems. You cut down on a tremendous amount of light at these apertures. Now, add that to the fact that you’re already very close to your subject, so you’re blocking a lot of natural light. And chances are you’re shooting at fast shutter speeds to minimize camera shake, which darkens your photos even more! So, to get bright enough photos, there are a few solutions.

 Option one is just to use a wide aperture instead of a narrow one and then deal with the fact that your depth of field will be almost invisible. This can actually work really well if your goal is a photo that’s mostly an out-of-focus blur. For example, I took this photo-focused one-to-one with my lens’s widest aperture, and I like how it looks. But that’s clearly not a workable approach most of the time, because you’ll often want more detail than this on your subject. Another option is to shoot a focus stack. This is when you take multiple photos of the same subject, each focused slightly farther back than the one before it. Then, in Photoshop or some other software, combine the sharpest part of each photo into a single image. Now, the big problem with this approach is that you pretty much need to do it from a tripod, and your subject can’t be moving. So it’s great if you’re shooting in a studio, but it’s often impossible in the field. Instead, the best option for a lot of photographers is to continue using a really narrow aperture, but just use a flash as well. When you have a flash, that’s so close to your subject, it actually outshines daylight. And, that way, you can shoot at even f/22 and still get a bright enough photo. But you can’t solve one problem without creating another, and in this case, your flash has to output exquisite light, or it’s not worth it.


 You don’t want your subject to have ugly shadows and bright specular highlights. It just won’t look perfect. So, to get friendly light, you need then diffuse your flash. Now, you can buy a little pop-up diffuser for ten dollars online, and the link to the one that I recommend is below. Or you can do what I do and make your own out of cardboard and plastic. Either way, doesn’t matter. The key is that you need to experiment with what looks perfect. All right, now that you’ve got the basics of depth of field and lighting, let’s talk about the specific camera settings you should use for macro photography. No generalizations; I’m going to give you exact exposure values that I recommend for different macro work. First up is the aperture. Now, let’s assume that you’re shooting one-to-one macro, and you’re using a flash.

 Really, your goal is to get enough depth of field without using an aperture that’s too narrow. You’ll want to avoid f/32, f/45, and anything more than that because those apertures become fairly blurry. And that’s because of diffraction – not this video, but I included a link below to our Photography Life article on the subject. So, what exact aperture should you use? Well, you want a lot of depth of field, and you want to avoid blur from diffraction. Now, ignore Canon cameras for a minute, because they actually calculate f-stop different from everyone else. Other than them, a a perfect balance is somewhere from f/16 to f/22. But that’s with a full-frame camera. If you have an app-c camera like Nikon DX, that recommendation becomes f/10 to f/14. Or, if you use a Micro Four Thirds camera, that recommendation is f/8 to f/11. They all give you the same depth of field.

 You don’t want it to be too high, because then your flash will recharge slowly and you must wait a few seconds between taking photos. For now, set it manually to one-fourth power. We’ll go back in a minute and make flash, automatic, but not yet. And then the last setting is ISO. This is when you actually want to take sample photos of the real-world object. I recommend just a normal leaf focused on one-to-one magnification. Take photos as you ramp up your ISO and give your flash time tore charge between shots. Then stop taking pictures when you get one that’s properly exposed. Now, say this happens at ISO 400. Then you would set that ISO, 400, on your camera, and not change it. Last, go back and turn your flash to automatic.
 Now the flash will change its own power based on how reflective your subject is, but even though it’s in automatic mode, you know it will hover around that1/4 power mark because of what we did earlier. Now, you still might need to adjust your flash compensation if it’s consistently taking photos that are too dark or too bright, but that’s really all that it takes. Your camera settings are now perfect for one-to-one macro photography. Although, of course, experiment with these numbers and make sure that they work for you. And again, if you’re shooting something farther away like a flower, you have so much more flexibility. In that case, I recommend an easier approach. Just use your lens’s widest aperture, or something close. Maybe f/4. Pick a shutter speed you can handhold safely, like 1/250th of a second. And then set your ISO to whatever value gives you a a perfect exposure. You can even turn on Auto ISO.

 Get close to your subject and frame your photo. Slowly rock forward and backward until the right spot on your subject is in focus. It’s absolutely not a perfect method, but it’s the best that I’ve found. With enough practice, you can even track focus on a moving subject, like in this photo that I took off a bug walking across a flower. Of course, if your subject isn’t moving, by all means, use a tripod. You can focus automatically or manually at that point, with excellent results. But that’s just not practical for a lot of subjects. Lastly, I’ll note that it’s so much easier to take macro photos when it’s not windy outside. Focusing can be a nightmare in windy conditions, and even a light breeze is an enormous factor in macro photography. And that’s it! I hope you learned something from this video. Macro photography is all about practice, so go out, but these techniques to the test. Take some wonderful photos, even in your own backyard. Also, just briefly, this is the first video in a weekly series that we’re starting at Photography Life. Now, we’ve had a YouTube channel for forever, but we haven’t really posted much to it, so I would appreciate your feedback. If you liked something, didn’t like something, please leave a comment below. 

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