It may seem daunting at first, but macro photography really isn’t so different from other kinds once you get a grasp of the basics. With these Top 12 Macro Photography tips you’ll be shooting great macro images in no time.
Why do people enjoy macro photography?
Macro photography is extreme close-up photography, using a 1:1 macro lens in order to produce images of the subject larger than life size, and this means you can see things that you couldn’t see with your own eyes, making it exciting and fun to do. The name ‘macro’ comes from lens manufacturers wanting to signify a lens that can make smaller objects appear larger.
Can you do macro photography with a phone?
You don’t always need expensive kit to photograph small subjects, so yes, you can shoot macro photos with your smartphone. These days, most smartphones have a macro mode, with the iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro being some stand-out smartphones for photography.
Check out the best camera phones for photography in 2023 for more.
How to shoot macro photos
We cover the different types of camera kit you need to take great macro photos, as well as give other solutions for macro photography if you don’t own a dedicated macro lens.
Pro photographer Colin Varndell offers his top 12 macro photography tips…
1. Choose the Best Lens
The focal length of macro lenses ranges from 50mm to 200mm. Although many zoom lenses boast a macro setting, these are usually less than half life-size magnification – true macro, however, begins with 1:1, with some lenses offering even more.
A 50-60mm lens is suitable for general macro photography work but if you want greater subject-to-lens distance a 100mm lens will give you this, but normally at a higher price.
A 90-105mm macro lens is a popular choice, with many companies offering a lens in this range (or equivalent). You can also look for macro lenses with built-in image stabilisation, as this can help keep your images sharp.
For creatures like butterflies and dragonflies, lens-to-subject distance becomes even more important, so your focal length needs to be greater/longer.
The 150-200mm lens range is the most expensive, but you will appreciate the extra power when stalking flighty subjects like this Gatekeeper butterfly (above). It’ll also give you even more distance from scary subjects like spiders!
Have a look at our guide to the best value macro lenses for help choosing a lens.
2. Make a Standard Zoom Focus Closer by Adding Tubes
Extension tubes fit between the rear mount of the lens and the camera body to make the lens focus closer and therefore produce a much bigger image of a small subject.
This image of a thick-legged flower beetle was shot with an 18-200mm zoom lens and a 20mm extension tube added. This is a much cheaper alternative than buying a macro lens, but extension tubes are fiddlier to use in the field.
Also, with an extension tube fitted you lose the infinity end of your focusing range. Add more tubes and this becomes increasingly more limited.
3. Add a Dioptre to Make a Lens Focus Closer
Close-up filters are single-element lenses that look like magnifying glasses.
These filters screw into the front element thread and can provide an inexpensive alternative to splashing out on a dedicated macro lens.
They come in a variety of strengths that are measured in dioptres.
Close-up filters are often available in sets of +1, +2 or +4 dioptre magnification.
Dioptres are also available to fit Cokin style square filter systems.
These can be your only option if you’re shooting with a compact camera or ultra-zoom camera, and by adding a dioptre you can achieve real close-up macro photography shots.
The golden ringed dragonfly shown here was shot on a Panasonic Lumix FZ30 ultra-zoom camera with a +3 dioptre added to the front element.
One thing to note, is that these do add additional glass to your camera, and this can have a negative effect on the image quality.
4. Use Apertures to Control Depth of Field
To get the most out of available depth of field, select a small aperture like f/16 or even f/22, although be aware of diffraction, particularly on smaller sensor cameras.
You will find that at half-life size the depth of field you can achieve at f/22 will be only around 15mm at best.
On the other hand, you may wish to go to the other extreme and show as little sharpness as possible by opening up to full aperture like f/2.8 or f/4.
One advantage of the latter option is that any out-of-focus highlights will show as circle-like bubbles that can look very attractive.
5. Blend Flash with Ambient
With more static subjects it can be fun to add a blip of flash just to liven up your macro photography.
In this composite shot of a sycamore leaf, both images were exposed for natural light; however, the image on the right was given a blip of off-camera fill-in flash and the shutter speed was increased by one stop in order to darken the background.
This has given a much more colourful image, which is particularly useful when shooting on grey cloudy days.
6. Use a ‘Third Hand’
A ‘third hand’ or ‘helping hand’ device is an essential macro photography accessory. It will enable you to support or position subjects just where you want them. In turn, it can also help to provide endless possibilities of positioning backgrounds.
This can be particularly useful as it frees up your hands for other things, such as using a reflector to add or direct additional light onto the subject to fill in shadows or boost the colour.
7. Fine-tune Macro Pattern Compositions
Although we can crop things using software later, it is best to fine-tune composition in-camera at the time of shooting as much as possible.
With close-up pattern details, ensure they fill the frame completely so that there are no gaps around the edges.
Alternatively, you can show the entire pattern with space all around it.
These two shots of the same fungus illustrate how these opposite approaches look in practice.
8. Point of Focus
It is essential to consider the actual point of focus when working close-up with tiny subjects. You can dramatically change the appearance by choosing where you focus.
These two shots of the same teasle head were both shot at the same maximum aperture, but the point of focus was changed by a couple of millimetres to produce an entirely different effect.
9. Check the LCD screen
Use your rear LCD screen to ensure you have got the shot you want before moving on. Look carefully at the corners to make sure there are no intrusions.
Tidy up any unwanted debris in the scene and make sure that your composition concentrates on your subject as intended. It’s also wise to carry a spare battery, as constantly reviewing shots will drain power.
If your camera has a tilting screen, this can be a great help when shooting small low-down objects as you can tilt your screen up to give a better view, without having to crawl on the ground so much.
After rain can be an excellent time to search for macro photography subjects when everything is dripping with droplets of rainwater.
Go in close to show how the raindrops act as miniature lenses, magnifying the veins in leaves.
11. Different Backgrounds
Add different coloured backgrounds to macro photography shots to change the look of the subject.
These four backgrounds were all natural subjects but shot deliberately out of focus. Grass was used, and tree foliage and a combination of bushes and sky.
They were printed to A3 on matt paper so there was less risk of reflection when placed behind the subject, especially if a mirror or flashgun was to be used to expose the image.
If you’re not shooting with your own background, it’s important to pay attention to what’s in the background of the image, and a subtle change to your camera position can make a big difference to how your image looks.
With small but lively subjects like butterflies, it can be difficult getting close enough to them for frame-filling macro photography shots.
Try stalking them later in the day, just as they are about to settle down for the night, as they will be calmer and move less, or see if there’s a local butterfly house where photography is allowed so you can practice your shots.
Bonus Tip 1 – Have a look at inspirational macro photographs!
If you’re looking for more inspiration on taking amazing macro photos, have a look at some of the fantastic macro photos in our round-up of the Top 20 Best Macro and Close-up Photos! Here you’ll find a wide range of create ideas and different views of the smallest of creatures, and plant life. Whether you’re photographing mushrooms, small plant detail, or creepy crawlies, there is something for everyone here.
For more advice on shooting creepy-crawlies, have a read of our macro photography tips for shooting insects – or check out our main macro photography hub to learn even more.
Bonus Tip 2 – Look around you for more macro subjects! (including Lego!)
We’ve covered lots of different subjects for macro photography, but if the weather is too cold and grey outside, or you just want to have some fun indoors, then look to small figures, figurines, and Lego for some inspiration! Why not recreate your favourite movie scene, or find the detail in the smallest of objects.
Read our guide to photographing miniatures, figurines and Lego!
Read our beginners how-to guide to macro photography for even more tips.
Dig in deeper to macro photography with our top macro flower photography tips and learn the key to revealing intricate details of tiny subjects with macro photography lighting tips.