Five Tips for Shooting Better Macro Photography

Five Tips for Shooting Better Macro Photography

As a macro photographer, I commonly get asked questions about shooting fast-moving live subjects, as well as how I create my compositions. Many elements come into play when creating these images, and so, I would like to discuss a few macro photography tips, including some that often get overlooked.

1. Lighting

One of the most important yet overlooked aspects of macro photography is properly lighting your subject, and well-diffused light is the key. If you just buy a flash unit and pop it on your camera and call it a day, you are really undermining the potential outcome of your images. You will often see harsh and bright reflections in the eyes of the insect and hot spots or overexposed areas on your subject. To have a soft and diffused light, you will have to modify your flash with a custom diffuser that you can make yourself, or you can buy a readymade one online. Here is a super easy tutorial for a simple diffuser you can attach to your lens: 

2. Composition

Most people would think that the subject you are trying to shoot is the most important part of the image. I agree that it is important, but just as important is the overall composition of the image, with the subject being the main focal point of the narrative the image is trying to convey. Before you rush into shooting your subject, try to imagine how you would like your scene to look. Will this be a close portrait of the face of an insect, or do you want to feature the whole insect with a beautiful background surrounding it to add some color and bokeh? When I shoot in the studio, I often plan ideas in my head and visualize a scene. I may add plants or flowers to demonstrate how big the subject is in comparison to its surroundings, or I may simply just want to use the plant as a prop for the insect and to beautifully stage the scene. This brings me up to the third point. 

White Boxer Mantis on a flower - Photo by Liza Rock

Photograph by Liza Rock

3. Background

Too often as photographers, we focus on the subject and totally forget that the background is there and waiting to be a part of the overall composition as well. As you shoot your subject, whether it be a flower or a spider jumping around, pay attention to what is behind it. Change your position lower or higher or left and right to shift what elements show in your viewfinder behind the subject. The less busy the background is, the more focus will be on the subject, which is what you want. You can also adjust the aperture and see how that changes your background elements. The larger the aperture, the creamier your background will be, but also remember that less of the subject will be in focus. It can be a fine balance to achieve a sharp subject with a lovely creamy background to separate it from its background. 

Butterfly Duo on Leaf - Photograph by Liza Rock

Photograph by Liza Rock

4. Focus

Just like portrait photography, you want to make sure that the face of a live insect is the sharpest point in your photo. Best practice would be to try and focus on the eyes as your main focus area, as you certainly don’t want a closeup that has the eyes out of focus. Of course, if you are trying to photograph a specific detail, such as the beautiful abdomen of a spider, your focal point would be there.

With most live subjects, I recommend shooting with manual focus. Instead of rotating the focus ring, you can move your camera back and forth to get different focal points. This is an excellent practice if you later decide that you want to do some focus stacking to create a larger depth of field in your macro closeups. 

Jumping Spider Portrait - Photograph by Liza Rock

Photograph by Liza Rock

5. Tripod

To use or not to use? Many photographers will tell you to always have your tripod with you when shooting macro photography. What if I tell you that the opposite is true in most cases? If I’m outdoors trying to shoot a flying wasp, a butterfly, a ladybug running on a flower, or even a flower moving in the wind, I most certainly don’t want that tripod acting as dead weight and restricting my movements as I try to keep up with the moving subject. Instead, I rely on my flash to be able to freeze the action as well as my handheld technique.

I would say that 99% of my macro photography does not use a tripod. I love the freedom and control I have over the camera without it. Handling your camera in your hands gives you the experience of how to better control it, reduce shake, and be ready if you decide to one day try your hand at focus stacking. 

Wasp on a branch - Photograph by Liza Rock

Photography by Liza Rock

I hope that these five tips will help inspire you to go out and shoot some macro photography. I would love to hear from you. What tips do you have that can help someone new to the macro world or even someone that just needs a boost for getting that better photo?

I invite you to put my tips to use by entering the wonderful new Luminar Bug Photography Awards on Photocrowd. They are offering a variety of great prizes worth around $25,000.

If you want to learn more about macro photography, check out the "Mastering Macro Photography" tutorial by Andres Moline in the Fstoppers store.

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5 Comments

Troy Straub's picture

Great tips from one of the best macro photographers out there.

A tip I'll add is shot a bit wide and crop. Especially when shooting live subjects outdoors in wind. Too many times I've had nice shots ruined because I cut off part of my subject or just got them too close to the edge. Also shooting wide will give more depth of field I will often trade a little resolution for more depth of field.

Liza Rock's picture

Thank you for the compliment! I agree and it is always nice to have some space around your subject even if to give you more freedom with the composition in post later. Great points!

Nitin Chandra's picture

Totally agree with the tripod and flash part.
Most people do not get the importance of the flash...Have a small video where I explain this...

https://youtu.be/cYI3pzpCEEw

John Ellingson's picture

I agree about the tripod, but 90% of my macro shots are done with a monopod and a gimbal head with all controls loose. This does offer a degree of stability that gives me a much higher keeper ratio than handholding does.

Liza Rock's picture

Yes, monopods can often be more useful than tripods. Thanks for your input.