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Macro Photography: The Ultimate Guide to Amazing Macro Photos

Do you want to capture stunning macro photography every single time you take out your camera?

You can.

In fact, it’s not difficult to take amazing macro photos.

You just have to know a few tips and tricks–the tips and tricks that the professionals macro photographers use all the time.

That’s what this article is about.

Because I’m going to tell you everything you need to know if you want to become a master macro photographer.

First, I’ll explain the precise definition of macro photography, and I’ll show you the different macro photography subjects you can shoot.

Then I’ll tell you about the best macro photography gear–the gear that will ensure you’re able to get those gorgeous macro images that you’ve always wanted.

Finally, I’ll give you a whole bunch of practical macro photography tips. The kind that the professionals use regularly. They’ll be your macro photography bread and butter. And if you apply them in your own photography, you’re basically guaranteed to produce a portfolio of amazing macro images.

Are you ready to become a master of macro photography?

Let’s get started.

What is Macro Photography?

First things first:

What actually is macro photography?

Technically speaking, macro photography involves taking photos at high magnifications–magnifications so high that your subject appears the same size on the camera sensor as it does in real life.

But that’s an overly technical definition, and one that you shouldn’t be too concerned about.

Instead, I prefer this definition of macro photography:

Taking photos of small things from up close.

That’s it.

So if you photograph flowers from up close, that’s macro photography.

If you photograph tree bark from up close, that’s macro photography.

Here’s a list of the most common macro photography subjects (though note that pretty much anything can work as a macro subject, as long as you’re willing to get close):

  • Flowers
  • Dragonflies
  • Leaves
  • Ice
  • Leafy plants
  • Water droplets
  • Shells
  • Sand
  • Rocks
  • Butterflies
  • Spiders
  • Spiderwebs
  • Dandelion seedheads

Note that I’ll be using my non-technical definition of macro photography throughout this article. So whenever I refer to macro photography, I’m just talking about taking close-up photos of small things.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to discover the gear you need to take amazing macro photos:

Macro Photography Gear: How to Choose the Best Camera, Lens, and Accessories

Macro photography doesn’t require ultra-specialized equipment.

But if you’re looking to capture amazing macro photos, your gear choice is important. You need to be able to get close to your subject–which means you need equipment that will let you reach a decent level of magnification.

You also need to stabilize your camera, especially when shooting at small apertures (more on that later). So most macro photographers like to use a tripod in the field.

In this section, I’ll tell you all about the gear you need to produce beautiful macros, starting with:

The Best Camera for Macro Photography

If you want to capture amazing macro photos, an interchangeable lens camera is the way to go.

An interchangeable lens camera allows you to use multiple lenses–including a macro lens, which I discuss in the next section. Modern interchangeable lens cameras are also highly durable, offer powerful autofocus, and produce extremely high-quality, high-resolution images.

In other words, an interchangeable lens camera will give you the potential for professional-quality photos.

Now, there are two types of interchangeable lens cameras you should consider for macro photography:

DSLRs.

And mirrorless cameras.

Both of these options will work fine. Note that DSLRs are part of the ‘old guard’; they’re being phased out by most manufacturers and replaced with mirrorless cameras.

For macro photography, mirrorless has one main advantage: The technology often uses electronic viewfinders (rather than optical viewfinders). This allows you to use various useful features, such as focus peaking (where the viewfinder highlights the area of the photo in focus), and accurate image previewing (where the viewfinder automatically displays the scene as it will appear once you’ve taken the photo).

Mirrorless cameras are also smaller and lighter, which makes them ideal for photographers who do a lot of traveling or a lot of trekking in the field.

On the other hand, DSLRs have an excellent lineup of macro lenses, one that is currently superior to mirrorless system lenses. But the gap is closing, and certain mirrorless manufacturers (i.e., Canon and Nikon) sell adapters that let you use DSLR lenses on mirrorless bodies.

To sum up:

You can choose either a mirrorless camera body or a DSLR. Whichever option you pick, the image quality will be stellar–so don’t stress too much over the decision. Plenty of professional macro photographers use DSLRs, and plenty of professionals use mirrorless.

Related Post: Best Cameras for Nature Photography

Where equipment becomes more crucial, however, is with regard to lenses:

The Best Lens for Macro Photography

A macro photography lens has one key purpose:

Getting you close to your subject so you can take beautiful detail shots.

Now, you can do this in a few ways.

First, you can use a standard lens–for instance, a lens in the 50mm range, or a lens from 70-200mm. And you can mount a close-up filter to the end of the lens, which basically acts as a magnifying glass and allows you to take close-up photos.

The main benefit of this approach is its convenience and price: You don’t have to purchase an additional lens, and a close-up filter set generally costs less than $100 USD.

Unfortunately, the filter approach comes with serious drawbacks.

Here’s the most important:

The image quality just isn’t good. No matter your filters, they won’t get you photos on a level with a dedicated macro lens.

So I recommend avoiding close-up filters.

The next option is using extension tubes.

These are essentially tubes that go between your camera and your lens, and they ensure your lens is able to focus at close distances.

Like close-up filters, the main benefit is the price: You don’t have to spend on another lens.

However, extension tubes do have some issues:

First, extension tubes decrease the working distance between camera and subject. In other words, an extension tube makes it so you’re just inches away from your subject. This can result in the lens casting a shadow on your subject or even coming in contact with it.

Plus, most lenses aren’t made to maximize sharpness at their closest focusing distances. This means that a lens with an extension tube will rarely be as sharp as a dedicated macro lens when focusing up close.

Which brings me to the best option for macro photographers, the one that I highly recommend:

A dedicated macro lens.

A dedicated macro lens will allow you to focus extremely close to your subject–so close that you’ll see details you’ve never seen before, and a whole new world will open up before your eyes.

A dedicated macro lens is also made to be sharp at high magnifications. In fact, macro lenses tend to be some of the sharpest lenses in lens lineups. Even the budget macro lenses offer stellar sharpness and beautiful background blur.

Now, if you’re going to go with a dedicated macro lens, I suggest you make sure the lens gives you up to 1:1 magnifications (in other words, it’s a true macro lens).

I also suggest you choose a focal length of at least 90mm. While there are macro lenses in the 40mm-65mm focal length range, they have tiny working distances and give subpar backgrounds.

Note that if you want to photograph subjects that move (e.g., butterflies) you’re going to want a longer macro lens, because longer macro lenses have the longest working distances between the end of the lens and the subject. So a 150mm lens, a 180mm lens, or even a 200mm macro lens is ideal for insect macro photography.

As for specific macro lens recommendations:

If you’re a Canon user, I suggest the Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro lens, which offers amazing image quality at a decent price. For those who require a longer lens, the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 is a good option.

If you’re a Nikon user, you should check out the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR, which does a great job and is a common favorite. If you’re looking for a longer lens, the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 (that I recommended above) should serve you well.

Also, if you’re looking for a budget macro lens, I recommend the old Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro or the Sigma 105mm macro–both of which provide great image quality at a bargain price.

Related Post: Best Nikon Tele Macro Lenses (9 Top Picks)

The Best Macro Photography Accessories

If you want to be an amazing macro photographer, there are actually no accessories that you absolutely need. You can capture gorgeous macro photos with just a camera and a lens.

In fact, I mostly just work with my camera and dedicated macro lens. I don’t use a tripod and I don’t use any additional accessories.

However, for the macro photographers who want to capture photos that are sharp throughout the frame (that is, sharp from front to back), as opposed to sharp at only one point in the photo, a tripod is a must-have.

Unfortunately, good tripods often cost a lot of money–even as much as a lens. And you can’t really skimp on a tripod. If you buy a low-quality tripod in the hopes of saving money, the tripod will shake and your shots will be soft. And you’ll be forced to purchase another, more expensive tripod, which will make you wish you started out with the higher-quality tripod in the first place!

Now, the best macro photography tripods offer a lot of flexibility. You want to be able to get extremely low to the ground and move your camera into all sorts of weird angles, because that’s how you’ll get the best macro photos.

I shot the shot below from nearly flat against the ground; most tripods wouldn’t be able to handle that angle.

That’s why I recommend the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB 100 Aluminum tripod as a number one option for macro photographers. It has a reversible center column, one that will let you get into many difficult angles, and it’s fairly stable.

For ultra-serious macro photographers who want the most stable option out there, the Gitzo GT3533S is an amazing, professional-quality option. But it costs an arm and a leg, and I don’t recommend purchasing it unless you absolutely need the durability, the stability, and the lightweight legs.

As for additional macro photography accessories that can be useful:

If you plan to use a tripod frequently, I recommend grabbing a remote shutter release. This is an inexpensive item, but one that will let you trip the shutter without pressing the shutter button, and therefore cut down on camera shake.

If you need precise focusing capabilities–in other words, you need to make tiny adjustments to your point of focus–you might be interested in a macro focusing rail. This will allow you to focus on your subject with extreme precision, though you’ll need to mount it to a tripod for it to work.

Here’s the bottom line:

You don’t need any accessories to capture stunning macro photos.

But you should at least consider purchasing a tripod, especially if you prefer photos that are sharp throughout. And a macro focusing rail and a remote shutter release are two additional accessories that you should look at.

Related Post: The Top 10 Best Ring Lights for Studio and Macro Photography (in 2019)

Macro Photography Basics: How to Capture Amazing Macro Photos, Consistently

Now that you know all about the best gear for macro photography, it’s time to talk about the exciting stuff:

How to actually create amazing macro photos.

Now, amazing macro photography really comes from a combination of three things:

Good camera settings.

Good light.

And good composition.

If you can master these three things, you’re guaranteed some amazing macro photos.

So let’s get going, starting with choosing your camera settings for macro photography:

The Best Settings for Macro Photography

When it comes to macro photography, you’re going to want to think about two main camera settings:

Shutter speed and aperture.

Shutter Speed

Your shutter speed is the length of time your camera sensor is exposed to the light when you take a photo. And the longer your shutter speed, the greater the likelihood that you’ll introduce blur into your shot.

Also, longer shutter speeds let in more light–therefore making the overall photo brighter.

So your goal should be to use the fastest shutter speed that you can get away with, given the ambient light levels you have to work with. In other words, use a fast shutter speed, but don’t make the photo too dark.

In general, you’re going to want to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/160 and above. The higher your level of magnification, the more blur you introduce (because the high magnifications increase the effect of camera shake).

Now, you can change your camera shutter speed using the dials on your camera, but you’ll first want to make sure you’re shooting in Manual mode (check your camera manual if you’re struggling to find these options).

Aperture

The aperture is a hole in the lens that controls the photo’s sharpness.

The narrower the aperture, the more of your photo that will be sharp. So a photo with an ultra-wide aperture looks like this:

And a photo with an ultra-narrow aperture looks like this:

Notice the difference in terms of sharpness? Both photos are tack-sharp in at least one part of the frame. But the photo with the narrow aperture is sharp throughout the frame, from front to back, whereas the photo with the wide aperture is only sharp at one small point.

You can control the aperture with your camera dials. An aperture with low f-numbers (f/2.8, f/4) is very wide, whereas an aperture with high f-numbers (f/16, f/22) is very narrow.

Now, the wider your aperture, the more light your lens lets in, and the brighter your overall photo. So you can use a wide aperture to offset a fast shutter speed. If you need a shutter speed of around 1/200s but the photo keeps turning out dark, you can widen your aperture to f/2.8, and watch as the image turns out brighter.

But here’s the important thing to consider:

You must use the aperture as an artistic choice.

If you want to create soft-focus, flowing photos, you need to use a wide aperture, one in the area of f/2.8 to f/4. This will give you a lovely style, just like this:

On the other hand, if you want to capture intimate images that are sharp throughout, you should choose a narrow aperture, one in the area of f/16:

But bear in mind that the narrower your aperture, the darker the photo will turn out. You’ll have to offset this darkness with a longer shutter speed, which comes with its own problems (i.e., camera shake). So if you decide to use a narrow aperture, you’ll likely need a tripod.

Either way, you have the potential to capture amazing images.

Just experiment and see which look you enjoy most!

Related Post: Wide vs. Narrow Aperture: 10 Examples and Camera Settings

The Best Light for Macro Photography

Once you know how to deal with your camera settings, it’s time to consider light–which is absolutely key to capturing amazing macro photos.

There are four kinds of light you should be aware of, and they’ll all give you different looks and effects in your macro photography:

  • Bright sunlight
  • Golden-hour light
  • Cloudy light
  • Shaded light

Bright Sunlight

Bright sunlight occurs toward the middle of the day when there’s no cloud cover.

It’s ultra-hard light and it’ll make your photos look extremely contrast-heavy, plus it’ll create conditions that are tough to expose.

So avoid bright sunlight whenever you can.

Instead, if you want to work on sunny days, you should stick to golden-hour light:

Golden-Hour Light

If you photograph exclusively during golden-hour light, your photos will look incredible.

Seriously.

Because golden-hour light is simply gorgeous.

Now, golden-hour light occurs on clear days, during the first two hours of the morning and the last two hours of the afternoon. The sun is low in the sky and so the light it produces is warm and soft, which is perfect for macro photography.

When you’re working during the golden hours, you should pay attention to the direction of the light.

You see, if the light is coming from behind you and falling onto the front of your subject, then you’re working with frontlight. Frontlight is great for emphasizing the overall subject and creating a nice, even exposure.

If the light is coming from the side of the subject, then it’s sidelight. Sidelight is good for creating more cinematic, dramatic images.

And if the light is coming from behind the subject, then it’s backlight. Backlight is one of my favorite types of light, because of the look it gives: golden, powerful, and all-around stunning. In fact, I recommend you use backlight whenever you get the chance, because it can really take your macro photography to the next level.

(If you like the backlit look, I recommend using the broken backlighting technique, where you find a subject that’s backlit, but the light source is broken by an object, such as a tree. This will give you especially beautiful background blur.)

In general, frontlight is a go-to for macro photography. It’ll do a great job of lighting your subject, and will help you get a nice, easy exposure.

Shaded Light

Sometimes, it’s sunny, but your subject is in the shade.

And that’s completely okay–as long as you’re working during the golden hours.

Afternoon shade just doesn’t work. It gives your subjects an unpleasant, flat look that you definitely want to avoid.

But golden-hour shade looks gorgeous. It helps bring out colors and works especially well when using the sun-shade technique, in which you ensure your subject is in the shade, but the background is full of golden light. The sun-shade technique results in photos like this:

Neat, right? So you don’t have to be afraid of shaded light. However, shade will be darker than golden-hour lighting, so you will need to widen your aperture or use a slower shutter speed to capture a perfect exposure.

Cloudy Light

Cloudy light is avoided by most photographers because it’s boring; it doesn’t give ultra-dramatic results, and it can make your photos feel a bit flat.

But here’s the thing about cloudy light:

It’s actually really amazing for macro photography. You just have to give it a chance.

You see, cloudy light is wonderfully soft, which helps emphasize small details. The soft light also brings out colors (so cloudy light is amazing for flower photos and photos of abstract, colorful objects).

In fact, I recommend you get out to shoot whenever it’s cloudy. You’ll capture some lovely, soft images!

Related Post: Natural Light Photography Tips

The Best Compositions for Macro Photography

If you want to capture stunning macro photos, your camera settings are essential.

And the lighting is essential, too.

But composition is critical, as well. Without a beautiful composition to complement your stunning light, your macro photos will fall flat.

So in this section, I’m going to give you a series of ultra-practical composition tips. They’re basically guaranteed to jumpstart your macro compositional abilities, and they’ll instantly improve your macro photography.

Find a Simple Background for the Best Macro Photos

Macro composition starts with a beautiful background.

And the best backgrounds are extremely simple.

They’re one color. They’re uniform. They don’t include anything that might distract the viewer.

For instance, here’s an example of a great background:

Notice how there’s nothing that draws the eye?

That’s what you want to achieve.

If you want to increase the uniformity of your backdrop, you should try to blur it as much as you can. This is done in two main ways.

First, you should use a wide aperture, one around f/2.8 or f/4. A wide aperture will give the background a beautiful blurred effect. I used a wide aperture to create the background effect in the photo below:

Second, you should increase the distance between your subject and background as much as possible. The larger the distance, the more blurry your background will become. In practice, this often means getting low to the ground and moving around your subject until you’ve found a distant background.

So follow these tricks, and you’re bound to capture some stunning macro backgrounds.

Related Post: A Review of the Nikon AF Micro-NIKKOR 200mm f/4D IF-ED Lens

Choose a Simple Subject That Stands Out

Now that you know how to create amazing backgrounds, let’s talk about finding the perfect subject.

The subject should be the point of focus in your photo–the anchor point, the thing that draws the eye. So you want it to stand out, and you want it to be simple.

To make your subject stand out, try to find something that contrasts with the background. For instance, you can choose a light-colored flower against a dark background. Or you can choose a red plant against a green background.

I also recommend you ensure there’s a point of sharpness on your subject. You want your subject to draw the eye, and you can’t do that without emphasizing a part of the subject.

Look at this photo:

Do you see how there’s a sharp area among a sea of softness? You at least need some sharp material in every photo.

(It can often help to use manual focus when trying to choose a point of sharpness. Manual focus will allow you to carefully select the plane of focus.)

To keep your subject simple, make sure you eliminate all distractions. Avoid having a second subject behind the first or off to the side. And remove as much as you can from the frame when creating the composition.

In macro photography, simple is almost always best.

Position Your Subject Using the Rule of Thirds and Leading Lines

Here’s your final set of composition tips:

For the best macro photos, you need to position your subject carefully. And there’s two ways I recommend doing it.

First, always consider the rule of thirds when placing your subject within the frame.

The rule of thirds states that the best photos have an off-center subject–one that falls a third of the way into the photo. In fact, the rule of thirds comes with a nice set of gridlines:

So whenever you’re composing your photos, try to get the main elements to fall along those gridlines.

And try to get your main subject to fall at the intersection of two gridlines, known as power points. This will draw attention to the subject and will keep the viewer focused.

As for leading lines:

They’re essentially lines that lead the viewer into your photo. They direct the viewer into the frame and, in the best compositions, toward the main subject.

Now, you can use anything as leading lines. Flower stems tend to work well, which is why you can leave a bit of stem in the photo to direct the viewer. Flower petals work as leading lines, too, especially when you want to lead the viewer straight to the flower center.

This photo uses leaf twigs as leading lines:

So just keep an eye out for leading lines, and you’ll do just fine.

The Ultimate Guide to Macro Photography: Next Steps

Now that you’ve finished this guide, you’re well on your way to capturing stunning macro photos.

Just remember:

Think about settings.

Think about light.

And think about composition.

If you can do that, your images will be stunning.

So get out and start shooting! Amazing images await.

How do I capture amazing macro photography?

To capture amazing macro photography, I recommend you focus on three main items: light, composition, and basic camera settings. If you can shoot in good light, if you can position your subject well, and if you can choose camera settings that will give you a proper exposure, then you’ll be capturing beautiful macro photos in no time.

Do I need a macro lens to do macro photography?

You don’t need a dedicated macro lens for macro photography. If you want to take close-up photos, you have a few options: close-up filters, extension tubes, lenses that focus fairly close, and dedicated macro lenses. Dedicated macro lenses are generally your best option, but they cost more than the other options. However, close-up filters and extension tubes hurt the image quality and have a poor working distance; you should be aware of these drawbacks before purchasing them.

What is the best lens for macro photography?

The best lens for macro photography depends on your needs. If you’re looking for a lens that works both for macro and as a walkaround option, you’ll like a short macro lens. If you want to shoot flowers and other stationary subjects, a macro lens of 90-110mm is a good choice. I recommend the Canon 100mm f/2.8L, the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR if you can afford them; they offer stellar image-quality (for a price). Otherwise, the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 OS is a great budget option, as is any of the Tamron 90mm macro lenses.

Do I need a tripod to do macro photography?

No, you do not need a tripod for macro photography. However, if you want photos that are sharp throughout (rather than photos with a soft-focus look), you’ll need a tripod so you can achieve a deep depth of field.

What is the best light for macro photography?

There are a few good types of light for macro photography. I recommend shooting on cloudy days, because you can use the soft light to bring out colors. Golden-hour is another great type of light, as it’ll give you a stunning golden wash. However, I suggest avoiding harsh midday lighting at all costs. It will give you harsh, contrast-heavy photos that just don’t look good.

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