Make the most of macro this spring

By Geoff Harris

Talking to major camera retailers over the past few weeks it’s become clear that there has been an upsurge of interest in macro and close-up photography during the lockdown.

It’s not surprising: with people’s daily movement very limited over the last few months, the opportunity to take interesting close-ups in the garden is too good to miss, especially as we have been having such good weather recently. With this in mind here are some tips to make sure you get the best possible macro images, even when the lockdown starts to lift.

1) What gear do I need?

One of the biggest mistakes of less experienced macro photographers is to assume they can just get away with a cheaper zoom lens, or to get in close with a longer prime lens, such as an 85mm. The problem is that the ‘macro settings’ on a zoom lens are usually less than half life-size magnification. For proper macro images you need a 1:1 magnification ratio, which means buying a dedicated macro lens if you are serious about this genre. Focal lengths range from 50mm to 200mm, and a 5-60mm macro lens is ideal for everyday macro shootings. At the higher end of the price range, 150-200mm macro lenses are great for easily disturbed and fast moving subjects such as butterflies or dragonflies. Camera makers’s own brand macro lenses are one option, but Sigma, Tamron and Tokina lenses can be cheaper while offering comparable quality. Buying second-hand is a good option if you don’t intend to shoot macro that often, but it’s wise to buy from a reputable supplier such as MPB, London Camera Exchange, Park Cameras or Wex Photo Video, as they offer a warranty.

Sigma macro lens

2) Extender tubes

If money is tight, and you don’t want to cough up for a dedicated macro lens, consider buying an extension tube to use on a standard zoom lens. They fit between the rear mount of the lens and your camera’s body. This makes the lens focus more closely and gives a bigger image of a small subject. You can get some good results and extender tubes are a much cheaper solution, but they can be fiddly to use and you lose the infinity end of the focusing range.

Extender tube

3) Keep plants still

If you are more interested in plant and flower photography, you’ll have noticed how tricky it can be to keep the subject totally still in even the slightest breeze. An another reasonably priced accessory is the Wimberley Plamp. One end of the Plamp clamps to your tripod while the other holds the subject steady. Use the Plamp to stabilise windblown subjects, adjust the position or angle of your subject, or move obstructing foliage. You can also use the Plamp to hold reflectors and lens shades. While can you make your own basic version, the original is only about £45 so it’s a good investment which will last a lifetime.

Wimberley plamp

4) Aperture expertise

Macro photography will really test your knowledge of aperture and focussing, but don’t worry these basic skills are not really that testing. To focus the viewer’s full attention on the subject in your macro photography while blurring out the background, choose a very wide aperture such as f/2.8. This reduces the depth of field, giving you the desired effect and is a great way of lessening the disruptive effects of objects in the background if you can’t move them out of the way. At the end of the scale, you can keep everything in the frame in sharper focus by choosing a smaller aperture such as f/8 or f/9. While a conventional DSLR may require a much smaller aperture such as f/16, this will probably not be needed on the latest mirrorless devices.

Credit: Mandy Disher/CUPOTY

5) Focussing for macro

While you can use autofocus for macro, it may ‘hunt’ before it locks on to the exact spot you want to focus on. This will depend on a lot of things, such as your lens, your subject and the amount of available light. If you are struggling with autofocus, don’t be afraid to switch to manual focus. Many modern cameras, particularly mirrorless ones, offer ‘focus peaking’ which gives you a quick visual guide to which areas of the image are in focus when you switch to manual focussing. Your camera manual will give exact details, or check online, By focussing manually, you can be sure that the ‘sweet spot’ of your image is perfectly sharp. If your camera doesn’t offer focus peaking, you can use the Live View screen on the back to zoom in and check the areas you are focussing on manually for sharpness.

Credit: Petar Sabol/CUPOTY

6) Don’t forget about the composition

We mentioned blurring out the background as a great technique and if you look at the work of macro experts like Ross Hoddinott, the background is sometimes blurred out so much it’s a solid block of colour. Even if you don’t have Ross’s expensive gear, you can still blur out the background quite easily, but try to avoid any distractions – check all four corners of the frame before you shoot. Also consider where you place your subject in the frame: while you can plonk it dead centre, it might be more visually interesting to place it off to one side, whether you shoot in landscape or portrait format.

Credit: Henrik Spranz/CUPOTY

7) Check out the competition

Once you have taken a few macro images you are happy with, why not enter the Close-up Photographer of the Year competition? It’s relatively new and has some great prizes. You can also check out a lot of great macro images on the website, so there are tons of ideas here.

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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