Do you want to discover the secrets of macro photography? Are you a beginner who wants to take macro photos like the pros?
Well, here’s your first macro photography secret:
Anybody can take stunning macro photos. Seriously.
Because there are a few tips and techniques that will have you shooting gorgeous macros, immediately.
Tips that I’m about to share with you in this article!
What Is Macro Photography?
First things first:
What actually is “macro photography”?
Well, here’s my macro photography definition:
Taking pictures of small things.
If you take a picture of a leaf, it’s macro photography. If you take a picture of a flower, it’s macro photography. If you take a picture of an insect, it’s macro photography.
Yes, there is a more technical definition of macro photography. But frankly, I don’t care about it. Because that’s not what macro photography means to most people. And I want you to know the term as it’s commonly used, not the way a dictionary would put it!
(For those who are curious, the technical definition of macro photography is the photography of subjects that appear to be life size or greater on the camera sensor.)
Macro vs Micro Photography: What’s the Difference?
Here’s a common question:
What’s the difference between macro and micro photography?
And the answer?
There is none.
“Micro” is just the name that Nikon uses to refer to its close-focusing lenses. Whereas Canon (and Sigma, and Tamron, etc.) uses “Macro” to refer to these lenses.
Best Cameras for Macro Photography
If you’re a macro photography beginner, you’re going to need some basic equipment.
But don’t worry. Macro photography doesn’t have to break the bank.
First, you need a camera. There’s no way around that.
I recommend a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. Both of these cameras take interchangeable lenses–so you can purchase several lenses and switch them in and out.
Currently, the DSLR macro lens lineup is far superior to the mirrorless macro lens lineup. So I’d suggest purchasing a DSLR.
However, the gap between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras is closing fast, at least when it comes to macro lenses. If you can handle the reduced number of options, mirrorless is a fine option.
Fortunately, there are a number of inexpensive DSLR and mirrorless cameras that will get you incredible macro photos.
For instance, my backup camera body is a Canon 7D (and you can pick it up used for under 300 dollars). I’ve taken some of my favorite macro shots with that camera–even though it’s no longer even close to top-of-the-line.
If you’re struggling to choose, I’d go with one of the newer Canon or Nikon bodies:
- The Canon 6D
- The Canon T6i (a budget option)
- The Nikon D7200
- The Nikon D5300 (a budget option)
I wouldn’t spend too much time on this choice. You can capture amazing shots on basically any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera.
However, you do have to be careful when choosing a macro photography lens:
Best Lenses for Macro Photography
Now, there are actually a few ways of doing macro photography with your camera.
First, you can use a close-up filter.
Close-up filters attach onto the front of your camera lens, and allow you to take macro shots. They’re basically like a magnifying glass.
While close-up filters can be fun to play around with, I don’t recommend them for macro photography. They’re cheap, and it shows–the image quality is nowhere near what you’d get with a dedicated macro lens.
Second, you can use extension tubes.
These simply add distance between the lens and the camera sensor, effectively increasing the magnification. You can generally purchase them for cheaper than a dedicated macro lens (though you have to already have a lens to use them with).
While extension tubes can be a good way to test the macro photography waters, there are a few things you should know:
- Extension tubes decrease the working distance between your camera and your subject. That is, at high magnifications, your lens (with extension tubes) will be very close to your subject. Which means that extension tubes won’t work well for insect photography, where your subject can be easily scared off.
- Lenses are made to be especially sharp at certain sweet spots. Macro lenses are therefore designed to work extremely well at close-focusing distances. Whereas a lens with an extension tube won’t be constructed to shoot macro shots. Yes, the shots can still be good. But they won’t necessarily be dedicated-macro-lens good.
Which brings me to the third option:
A dedicated macro photography lens.
If you’re at all serious about learning macro photography, you should purchase a macro lens.
- Macro lenses (even the budget ones) are tack-sharp and offer superior image quality overall
- Macro lenses are flexible, allowing for easy focusing
- Macro lenses will give you true macro magnification. That means that you’ll be able to magnify your subjects much more easily than you can with a close-up filter or extension tubes
Now, there are two main types of macro lenses:
- Medium length macro lenses (in the 100mm range)
- Long macro lenses (in the 180mm range)
If you want to shoot flowers or inanimate objects, go with a macro lens in the 100mm focal length range.
If you want to shoot insects, choose a macro lens in the 180mm range. Because the longer the lens, the greater the distance between you and the insect.
Now, I’ve used quite a few macro lenses, and I’m happy to say that the image quality on all of them was outstanding. So it’s hard to go wrong.
But if you’re very serious about macro photography, I’d go with one of these lenses:
- The Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS
- The Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR
- The Canon 180mm f/3.5L
- The Sigma 150mm f/2.8 (for Nikon and for Canon)
And if you’re on a budget, then stick with either of these options:
- The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 (for Nikon and for Canon)
- The Tamron 90mm f/2.8 (for Nikon and for Canon)
The more expensive lenses offer a few extra features, such as image stabilization (which will allow you to take sharper handheld shots in low light), and weather sealing.
But no matter which of these lenses you choose, you’ll be able to capture some astonishingly good photos.
For a more in-depth look at the best macro photography lenses, check out these two articles:
Best Accessories for Macro Photography
So, you’ve chosen a camera. And you’ve chosen a lens.
But what accessories do you need?
The answer is…
It’s a bit unorthodox. But I’d urge you to start doing macro photography without a tripod.
A tripod will make you a lot less flexible as a photographer. And it’s easy to get fed up if you’re lugging your tripod all over the place.
Instead, I urge you to shoot handheld. Experiment with shots from many different angles. And appreciate the flexibility that handheld shooting brings.
If, after some time, you decide you want a tripod, go for it.
(I recommend the Alta Pro 263AB.)
But start out handheld.
Macro Photography for Beginners: Subject Choice
Once you have your macro photography gear, you’re ready to get out and shoot.
It’s time to choose a subject.
Now, there are three main groups of macro photography subjects:
- Insect macro photography
- Flower macro photography
- Inanimate object macro photography (e.g., coins, shells, feathers, water droplets)
All of these types of macro photography can be extremely rewarding.
But I recommend that beginners start with flower macro photography. This genre is very accessible–plus, flowers are truly stunning subjects. And the equipment is less costly.
(Remember, if you want to photograph insects, you need one of the longer, more expensive macro lenses.)
Therefore, the rest of this article uses flower macro photography examples. But the advice I give applies to pretty much any type of macro photography.
Which Flowers are Best for Macro Flower Photography?
This may seem like a strange question. After all, you may think that all macro subjects are equally interesting.
But the truth is, there are a few useful guidelines you can use to choose a macro photography subject. Guidelines that will ensure your pictures are much more likely to be stunning.
Here they are:
1. Choose a Brightly Colored Flower for the Best Photos
It’s simple advice, but it’s very useful:
Pick a brightly colored subject. You don’t want a bland flower. You want a brightly colored one.
After all, you want to stun your viewers, right? And a stunning subject makes for a more stunning photo.
2. Choose a Subject That has a Simple Shape
In macro photography, simplicity is key. This is especially true when choosing a subject.
You want a subject that has a simple shape. For instance, roses are a simple, circular shape. And tulips are a simple, rectangular shape.
(Both of these types of flowers are amazing for macro flower photography, by the way. Whenever you see them, get out your camera!)
Whereas flowers like hydrangeas are very complex. Hydrangeas have all sorts of things going on.
Does this mean it’s impossible to take a good hydrangea photo? Not at all.
But it’s a lot harder, because hydrangeas are so chaotic.
So stick to a simple subject, and you’ll do well, even at the start.
By the way…
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3. Choose a Clean, Undamaged Subject
It’s a common macro photography mistake:
Choosing a dirty subject, or a damaged subject.
And unfortunately, dirty and damaged subjects will ruin your macro shots.
That’s why it’s essential that you inspect your subject before photographing it. If there’s any dirt, brush it away. If there are any holes or wilting tips, choose another flower (or photograph the flower so that the holes or wilting bits aren’t visible).
Note: It is technically possible to capture beautiful photos of wilting flowers:
It’s just difficult. And you have to work to represent the decaying flower as something beautiful.
So I’d recommend you stick with fresh subjects, at least for now.
Macro Photography for Beginners: Settings
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras come with quite a few setting choices.
However, there are only a few things you need to know to get started with macro photography.
1. Use a Fast Shutter Speed When Photographing Moving Subjects
Shutter speed refers to the length of time you’re actually taking a picture for.
A fast shutter speed freezes motion.
A slow shutter speed lets any existing motion…become a blur:
That means that, if you’re photographing moving subjects, you need a fast shutter speed.
Otherwise, it’s okay to use a slower shutter speed (since your subject isn’t moving).
That’s why, if you’re photographing insects, I’d recommend you choose a fast shutter speed. Something in the area of 1/1000s on up.
(But if you’re photographing flowers, feel free to drop your shutter speed to something around 1/200s.)
2. Choose a Wide Aperture for a Soft-Focus Look and a Narrow Aperture for a Detailed Shot
The aperture is a hole in the middle of all your lenses. The wider the hole, the more light that’s let in.
Additionally, a wider hole (aperture) causes the background to be more blurry.
Whereas a narrow hole (aperture) causes the photo to be sharp throughout.
Now, apertures are referred to in terms of f-numbers (f/2.8, f/5.6, f/11, etc.).
If you want a photo with a gorgeous soft-focus look, choose a wide aperture–in the f/2.8 to f/5.6 range:
If you want a photo that’s sharp throughout, choose a narrow aperture–in the f/16 to f/22 range:
Macro Photography for Beginners: Lighting
You may be tempted to photograph flowers under the bright sun.
But I strongly recommend that you avoid this.
You see, the bright sun casts harsh sunlight. And it ultimately causes washed-out, unpleasant looking tones.
Instead, you should photograph flowers in two specific lighting conditions:
1. Photograph Flowers on Overcast Days
Clouds are great for capturing colorful macro photos.
Clouds act as a giant diffuser–they take the harsh light, and turn it all gorgeous and soft.
Which, in turn, helps colors to stand out:
2. Photograph Flowers During the Golden Hours
The “golden hours” are the early morning and late afternoon–the times just after sunrise and just before sunset.
During these times, the sun is low in the sky. And the light is a wonderful golden color.
This golden lighting is much softer than the light from mid-afternoon. You can capture some wonderful macro photography shots!
So get out when the sun is rising and setting.
You’ll be surprised by how much this little change improves your macro photography.
Macro Photography for Beginners: Composition
Composition refers to the arrangement of elements within a photograph.
And composition is one of the key aspects of macro photography.
A good composition will result in a good photo.
But a poor composition?
It will ruin an otherwise great shot.
So here are some composition tips to use in your macro photos:
1. Isolate Your Subject
The best macro photography compositions…
They feature one subject–that hits you right over the head.
And they feature nothing else.
Now, if you can ensure there are no distractions in your macro photos, you’re already on your way to capturing amazing shots.
Here’s what I advise:
As soon as you find a macro composition, take a moment. Look around the frame for anything distracting.
And if there are any distractions, get rid of them! Isolate your subject!
You can do this by changing the composition. Or you can physically remove the distractions (e.g., twigs, leaves) from the frame.
2. Position Your Subject Using the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a fundamental composition technique, one that goes back at least as far as the Renaissance masters.
The best composition is the one that places your subject a third of the way into the frame.
That is, you should pick out your main subject (the focal point of your shot).
And then position it a third from the sides of the frame.
The rule of thirds actually comes with a set of helpful gridlines:
Notice that all of the gridlines are positioned one-third of the way into the photo!
You can use these gridlines to position your subject. You should try to put your subject along one of the lines. And if you can, let your subject settle at one of the places where the lines intersect (called power points).
That will make for an especially stunning photo.
3. Include Negative Space
Negative space refers to empty space in a photo. The parts of the photo where nothing is going on.
And it’s important to include negative space in your macro photography compositions.
- Negative space emphasizes your subject. It causes the viewer’s eyes to go straight to the focal point of the photo.
- Negative space helps your subject breathe. That way, it creates a more pleasing photo, overall.
For both of these reasons, you should strive to include some negative space.
Incorporating white sky is a great way of adding negative space to the shot. But a nicely blurred background can also serve as negative space.
A Beginner’s Guide to Stunning Macro Photography: Next Steps
Now you should be able to get out and start shooting some gorgeous macro photos.
You know how to choose the perfect equipment.
You know how to choose the best subjects.
And you know how to work with light and composition.
But don’t stop there!
If you’re looking to keep taking your macro photos to new heights, I recommend you sign up for my email list, where I send all sorts of macro photography tips, tricks, and secrets that I don’t share on my blog.
I’ll also send you my eBook, free of charge:
Mastering Macro Photography: 10 Quick Tips for Stunning Macro Photos
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