Fascinating and intriguing, tiny fauna and flora have been a constant source of inspiration in every art form, including photography. Capturing a minuscule world and bringing its secrets to light requires some technical know-how and, above all, a lot of calm and practice. Here are a few tips on how to best approach macro-photography.
Macro-photography versus close-up photography
The difference between macro-photography and close-up photography lies in their relationship to magnification. A macro photograph will have a minimum magnification of 1:1. The subject represented in the resulting image is thus at least its actual size. Using macro lenses with a higher magnification ratio makes it possible to enlarge the subject and see details invisible to the naked eye, which is generally the purpose of macro-photography. Close-up photography, on the other hand, consists in coming as close as possible to the subject in order to photograph it in its environment, without necessarily enlarging it. Close-up lenses work best at a minimal focus distance while offering little magnification.
Using a dedicated fixed focus lens
There are a number of fixed focus lenses dedicated to macro-photography. A macro lens will have a magnification ratio of 1:1 or higher. Macro lenses generally feature a long focal length, such as 60mm, 90mm, or even 150mm and up to 180mm. They are optimized for a short focus range, which means that the subject is photographed up close. Note that many fixed focus and zoom lenses labeled “macro” are in fact dedicated to close-up photography because their magnification ratio is lower than 1:1.
Relying on manual focus
In macro-photography, manual focus is key to obtaining sharp images of small subjects. Whether you’re working with animal or plant life, we recommend that you get comfortable using the manual focus ring of your lens. Take advantage of additional tools which will vary depending on your camera. Focus peaking and digital zoom, for example, facilitate manual focus.
Adjusting the depth of field
As in any other situation, you must vary the aperture in order to manage the background blur and better foreground the subject. This requires adjusting the depth of field.
The larger the aperture (e.g. f/1.8), the wider the diaphragm and the more light reaches the lens. The depth of field is then shallow, and the zone of focus is very small, and vice versa. At the same time, the longer the focal length (e.g. 180mm), the shallower the depth of field. Depending on the type of lens you are using you must thus adjust the aperture to obtain the desired background effect.
Pay attention, however, in macro-photography, not to limit the focal plane excessively with an overly shallow depth of field, because you won’t get enough detail. Apertures of f/8 and f/11 are recommended, although the choice depends on the desired outcome.
Accessorize your gear
There are a number of accessories that will enhance your macro-photography experience. A tripod is a must-have tool: it allows you to steady your camera as you get close to your subject. Make sure that your tripod can be set up at ground level.
In order to better light your subject, you can use external flashes, such as cobra flashes or ring flashes, which allow for more uniform lighting. To maximize the magnification of your lens, add a close-up filter.
You might also take advantage of lens extension tubes which will move the lens further from your camera and closer to the subject: the closer you focus, the larger your magnification.
Filters are another handy accessory: don’t hesitate to apply a variety of filters (UV, ND, etc.) to limit glare, reflections, and other distortions, to sharpen the image, and improve contrast.
If this is your first attempt at macro-photography, patience will be your best friend. The art of taking time, observing, and waiting are skills necessary to making beautiful photos. Macro-photography will also demand some trial and error before you get it right.
Macro-photography is a careful mix of technique, practice, and patience. With the right camera, dedicated equipment, and a few basic concepts, you will be at ease photographing small subjects such as insects. Practice and patience are key to getting acclimatized to the environment and photographing nature’s smallest creatures without fear.
By Céline Nebor