Macro Photography: An Introduction

By Geoff Harris

Chameleon eye Madagascar

I'm Heather Angel and I have worked as a wildlife photographer and writer for several decades and now also teach wildlife and macro photography forMyPhotoSchool.

Devising the best way to take and light macro subjects, has always been a great passion of mine. In this my first article on Macro we will cover what equipment is needed for taking great macro images.

Macro photography strictly refers to images that are reproduced at life size (1:1) or more on the sensor. But more recent usage tends to refer to anything which appears larger than life size when reproduced.

All images here were taken either with true macro lenses or with a 50mm lens with bellows. With a 50mm prime lens, a screw on close-up lens will gain frame-filling shots of larger flowers such as a rose or this blue hibiscus taken inside a glasshouse.

A well-focused and clearly defined image is most useful as a visual ID aid. 1.12 Blue hibiscus

Different strength (quoted in dioptres) close-up lenses can be stacked to increase the magnification, but this is not advisable since it detracts from the quality of a prime lens.

A better way to increase the magnification is by inserting extension tubes between the lens and the camera so that details in the heart of the blue hibiscus are apparent.

Blue hibiscus Alyogyne huegelii Santa Cruz

Extension tubes are not tele-converters, but simply hollow tubes made in fixed lengths that are attached to the camera body at one end and to the lens at the other.

Auto tubes retain all the functions such as auto focus and TTL metering and allow a close crop into a flower to show detail. These curved petals on a prize glasshouse chrysanthemum reveal the deep red on top with the yellowish flush beneath.

Chrysanthemum at flower show China

A complete set of tubes gives a life-sized image (X1) on the sensor of a full frame DSLR with a 50mm lens.

This Narcissus flower was shot at life size using window light with a reflector fill, but is enlarged here. Unlike an ID shot, there is no need to include the whole flower in the frame for every shot.

The foreground flower was intentionally better lit than the out of focus flowers behind.

Detail of Narcissus flower at life size

A greater magnification can be gained by using extension tubes with a close-up lens, as in this shot, which is not pasta in tomato sauce, but the heart of a carnation flower taken larger than life size at a wide-open aperture.

This image is a creative Impressionist style rather than an educational record.


The main snag with extension tubes is that there is a step change each time one is added.

This is why macro enthusiasts opt for a true macro lens with a continuous focusing range up to X1 or life size.

This shot taken at 1/10 life-size (X0 .1) on the sensor shows one of many birds in a replica of an eighteenth century French tapestry.

Bird on replica of C18 French tapestry by d' Aubusson

Using the same lens, this shot was taken at life-size (X1) to include just the bird's head.

Only then does the detail of the threads become apparent as the magnification increases.

However, in isolation, the pose of the complete bird can no longer be appreciated and this tiny cameo has no artistic merit or impact.

Detail of replica of C18 French tapestry by d' Aubusson

Still greater magnifications are gained by using a concertinaed bellows extension (also inserted between the camera and the lens), which is adjustable.

To avoid camera shake, the set up needs to be completely rigid, so bellows are best used indoors.

A fully extended Nikon PB-4 unit shows the branching veins within a skeleton magnolia leaf at X3 magnification, backlit by flash.

Magnolia leaf skeleton

With bellows, you have to use a lens with an external manual aperture ring so the lens can be manually stopped down.

Any camera with a built-in handgrip needs an extension tube as a spacer to be mounted directly onto a bellows unit.

Here a PK12 tube has been inserted so a Nikon D3 camera can be used with bellows.

Nikon D3 connected to PB4 bellows via PK11A extension tube

Both extension tubes and bellows increase the distance light has to travel to reach the sensor, so an increase in exposure is necessary.

With auto tubes, TTL metering is retained so this is not a problem. With bellows, TTL is lost, but with a static subject and using digital, you have time to check the histogram. If flash is used as the prime light source, you will soon have a ballpark exposure for a given extension, which can then be tweaked.

The backlit stinging nettle stem reveals the spines that inject the irritating formic acid when touched.

Stinging nettle hairs

Macro lenses come in different focal lengths. A 50 or 60mm macro lens can be used for static subjects, but when taking a life-size shot the front of the lens is very close to subject.

This shot shows part of a printed lotus lily taken at 1:1 on a full frame (Nikon FX) sensor. The blue rectangle is the area gained with the same setting on the same lens with a cropped sensor on the Nikon DX format; with a magnification of X1.5 it covers a smaller area.

There are now macro lenses made specifically for DX cameras.

Detail of Lotus lily showing DX crop on FX format

Longer macro lenses, provide a greater working distance between the camera and the subject, which makes it easier to take insects as well as frogs, toads and lizards that have a tendency to fly or hop out of the frame if the camera is moved in too close too quickly.

This leaf-tailed gecko showing a threat posture was taken with a Nikon 70-180mm zoom macro lens. Now no longer made, good quality second-hand lenses are sometimes available from the link on the screen.

Leaf-tailed gecko threat posture

All the Nikon macro lenses are referred to as Micro-Nikkors and the 105mm is useful for taking both flowers and insects such as this small hoverfly lapping up pale blue pollen from a viper's bugloss stamen.

Notice how the front legs are grasping this stamen, while the back ones rest on others.

Two tiny Nikon Speedlights mounted on a ring around the lens helped to boost the available light.

Hoverfly feeding on pollen on viper's bugloss

Any macro lens can be used for inanimate objects such as fossils and rocks, although a 90 or 105mm macro will allow a reasonable camera to subject distance.

This ammonite was taken on the beach within the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site that runs along the Dorset and part of the east Devon coastline.

Jurassic ammonite fossil, Asteroceras, Charmouth, Dorset

We are now going to look at where to focus and how to focus.

When the camera is supported on a tripod at such an angle that the sensor plane is parallel with a flat subject, it is quite easy to get the whole frame in focus without stopping down to a small aperture.

So for this kiwi fruit slice, lit from behind, I checked the back of the camera was parallel with the fruit slice.

The original rectangular frame has been cropped to a square, to gain more impact for the black seeds.

Backlit slice of kiwi fruit on lightbox

It is possible to shoot a 3D subject with a wide-open aperture to give minimal depth of field to help highlight a small area.

This technique can create a more ethereal and dreamy effect as with this tightly cropped amaryllis flower where just the yellow stamens are in focus.

Such shots still have to be composed and a decision made about where to focus.

White Amaryllis flower showing floral parts

Shallow depth of field is currently much in vogue with food photography – although not strictly always macro shots.

When a date stuffed with pistachio nuts was placed on a plate on a windowsill so it could be lit with window light, shadows projected towards the camera.

Date stuffed with pistachio nuts no reflector

Here a piece of cooking foil was used as a fill on the side opposite the window.

This reduced the shadow areas in front of the date and the nuts.

By using the widest aperture, very little is in focus, but the date is still recognisable.

Have a look at recent cookery books to see the styles used there.

Date stuffed with pistachio nuts with foil reflector

Two shots of an iris illustrate extreme examples of how the depth of field is increased by stopping down the aperture.

This image was taken with the lens wide open focused on the tip of the bud, giving minimal depth of field so the yellow stripes on each of the three falls appear out of focus.

To control depth of field use either Manual mode or Aperture Priority mode.

Dutch iris with minimal fcous

By stopping the 105mm f/40 macro lens down to f/22 and refocusing on the base of the front yellow stripe, almost the entire flower comes into focus.

The focus is slightly soft on the tip of the bud, but because our eyes are drawn to the yellow stripes, it was important to get these sharp and our eyes rapidly pass over the purple bud in this frame.

Dutch iris with yellow stripes on falls all in fcous f/22

If you are handholding the camera and want to take an insect feeding on a flower, it is less likely to react to autofocus (AF) than to a hand suddenly being moved onto an outer focusing ring.

AF is fine providing you can quickly change the focus point away from the centre of the frame if the composition warrants it and this burnet moth feeding on a thistle was taken this way.

5 burnet moth feeding on a thistle in Dolomites

One way to speed up the recovery of a moving stem is to clamp it just outside the field of view, using a flexible armed Plamp (short for plant clamp).

The other end is clamped to either the tripod or a woody stem.

In this case, the small clasp is separating a single flowering stem from the rest of the plant.

Wimberley Plamp holds flower to one side of vine

Here is the shot of the isolated pendulous purple bellflower supported by a Plamp with a naturalistic out of focus backdrop.

Where to focus depends on whether you shoot with the largest aperture possible or stop down to gain more depth of field.

Whether you use autofocus (AF) or manual focus (MF) will depend on the weather and the subject.

If it is windy and the camera is on a tripod it may be better to wait until there is a lull and to use manual focus.

Purple bell flower Rhodochiton atrosanguineus

If you would like to learn more about macro Photography why not join me on my 4 week online Macro Master Photography Course

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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