Getting Started With Macro Photography

The world of macro photography can become endless once you venture down that path. There are so many new textures, creatures, and plants to discover. You can quickly lose hours by photographing the miniature world, but how do you get started?

Lenses and Accessories

Macro photography is quite easy to get into and can range from relatively inexpensive to very expensive, depending on the gear you buy. To start, you need a dedicated macro lens. Close-up filters will not give you the same quality and magnification a dedicated macro lens will provide.

I'd recommend looking at the following lenses, but if you have any suggestions, please feel free to add them in the comments below.

Investing in a lens is just the start. While you can technically start shooting now, it's worthwhile to invest in a few accessories to help you down the line. For instance, one of those foldable diffusers is excellent, if you're shooting in bright sunlight. On the other hand, if you're struggling with light, it might be worthwhile to invest in a Speed light and use a piece of paper to diffuse the flash. 

The great thing about investing in a macro lens, such as the ones mentioned above, is that they serve a dual purpose. If you shoot macro photography and enjoy portrait photography, these lenses are perfect for either occasion. Most of the time, these lenses are prime lenses, and therefore, incredibly sharp from the center to the corners, making it ideal for portraits as well. I've shot most of my portraits, some landscapes, and commercial studio photos with a macro lens, and consider it one of my kit bags' sharpest lenses.

Planning Your Shoot

Planning your shoot, regardless of what genre of photography you're specializing in, is essential whether you're shooting rare spiders in the Amazon, or bees in your backyard. Some insects only come out of hiding during specific times of the day or year. Researching the area you're planning on visiting and knowing when the insects will come out, will help avoid disappointment, especially if you're traveling quite a distance to get there. 

Once you're ready to head off into the mountains (or your backyard), pack your bag and feel free to leave your tripod at home if you're planning on photographing moving insects. It's near-impossible to set up a tripod and try and shoot a bee hovering over a flower. The bee's movement is erratic and unpredictable and will end up frustrating you. Go handheld, and use manual focus to track your subject. It may take some practice, but you'll eventually get that shot. Once you do, it's quite rewarding! 

Shallow Depth of Field

Using a shallow depth of field such as f/2.8 will help with lighting and give you beautiful out of focus bokeh, but the pay off is a narrow plane of focus. If you focus on an object at f2/.8 using a 100mm macro lens, your plane of focus is a few millimeters and will make it quite difficult if you're shooting handheld. Using a stabilized lens, or built-in stabilization will help reduce any chance of camera shake. Switching to manual focus will be beneficial over autofocus as the camera can struggle to focus on small objects automatically. With manual focus, you have full control over what's in focus.

Shutter Speed

Let's say you're using a 100mm lens, a good rule of thumb to take the focal length and multiply it by two to get the minimum shutter speed you should be using when shooting handheld. If you're shooting on a 100mm, you should use a minimum shutter speed of 1/200 to avoid any motion blur. If you own a speedlight capable of shooting at high sync speed (HSS), consider increasing your shutter speed if you're shooting flying insects. The faster shutter speed will freeze their wings in action, and the results could be quite impressive. On the other hand, you can slow your shutter speed down to the minimum before you get camera shake. I've had beautiful motion blur from the insect's wings at around 1/250 when shooting on my 100mm f/2.8. It all comes down to a matter of preference and what you're trying to show in your image. 

Experiment and Have Fun

Photography is all about being creative and learning new things, and this genre of photography is one of the best ways to try new ways of shooting. Think of any exciting angles to capture your subject. Don't just stand above it and shoot down at a 45-degree angle, if it means getting your clothes full of mud to get a unique perspective, go for it! Shoot the insect from the side or the front, and if there's space, try getting a lower angle below your subject as it helps to emphasize it from the background.

Try to use your lens' focus ring as little as possible to avoid any camera shake and instead set an initial focus point and use your body to move back or forth as needed. One thing I see many photographers do (especially those new to macro photography) is to try and go as close to their subject as possible. While the results are often fantastic and you get to discover details previously hidden from the naked eye, try to observe your subject and its surroundings first. By all means, shoot the close-ups, but if you're shooting a magnificent spider spinning its dew-covered web in the early morning, it might be better to consider taking a step back and get some context in your photograph. Sometimes showing your subject in the natural environment is more effective than the close-up.

If you're curious to know more about macro photography, watch the video at the beginning of the article as it offers a few extra insights into what happens behind the scenes of a macro photography shoot. 

Do you have any macro photography tips or exciting experiences to share? I'd love to know your process behind shooting these types of images.

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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Good points, especially about going hand-held and getting a low angle. The best insect photos look like they were taken by another insect. :-)

Extension tubes aren't mentioned but IMHO they're a good alternative to a dedicated lens.

People new to macro often wonder what's really different about a macro lens, and how it compares to tubes and diopter attachments. The key is, it's all about minimum focus distance. I have a blog post that tries to clarify things:

Any thoughts on the Laowa 15mm wide angle macro lens? I'm actually considering this for my first macro lens. I know it's fully manual. From everything I've read about it it seems like a pretty good lens.

Hi Kyle, I think 15mm macro will be very very difficult to work with, requiring extremely short working distances. You could get a very unique view of course. But take into account the extremely shallow depth of field, and you won't get the background in focus. There is a reason that most macro lenses are 70mm++ Looking forward to see your images if you decide to go for 15mm.

Olympus 60mm f2.8