It’s the first week of the month, which means it’s time for another Monthly Photo Challenge. This month’s challenge is to get close, real close, and shoot your best macro photo. In this article we’ll tell you what makes a macro photo, the gear that you’ll need to make one, and general tips to help you shoot the perfect macro shot.
I love macro photography, even if the most common subject that I seem to shoot in this way happens to be something I’m not too keen on getting close to – spiders and bees and other insects that sting. Still, what’s life without a little bit of mild terror? Some of my favorite photos I’ve ever made, in fact, involve insects. But don’t think that macro photos are limited to the world of bugs.
One of the the best things about a monthly photo challenge is that these suggestive prompts can force us to look at the world around us differently. Like many of the best types of photography, macro photos are often made to show us something we can’t see with the naked eye, or to help us see something ordinary in a way that we couldn’t with our plain old eyeballs. Flowers, animals, nature, food, manmade items, objects we use every day – these are all things that benefit from clever use of macro photography.
Once you’ve made your best macro photo, please share it with us here in our comments section via a link, or across social media. On Instagram, use the hashtag #CasualPhotophileMonthlyPhotoChallengeand tag us in your photos. We’d love to see them and we’ll share our favorites in our Instagram stories throughout the month. Interested readers can also share them on the Casual Photophile Facebook page, or our Film of the Month Club Facebook Group (if you’re a Film of the Month Club subscriber).
What is a Macro Photo?
Macro photography is the art of making a photograph in which the size of the subject in the photograph is recorded on the original recording media at life size or greater than life size. Therefore to make a true macro photo the subject recorded on an image sensor or negative must be equal in size, or larger than, the subject. Macro lenses therefore are traditionally and technically any lens that can reproduce a subject on the negative or image sensor at a true 1:1 ratio (this is called the reproduction ratio).
However it’s also acceptable to call a photo print or enlargement in which the subject appears larger than life size due to the process of enlarging the print, a macro photograph. In addition, it’s also generally accepted that lenses which can closely approach but not reach a true 1:1 ratio can be called macro lenses if they at least possess a large reproduction ratio. Again, this is because when enlarged, the final image does present the subject at life size or larger.
There are many ways to achieve reproducing a subject at such close-to-life-size or greater reproduction ratios. Macro bellows, dedicated macro lenses, reversal adapters, and close-up lens filters are all excellent tools specifically made to create close-up and macro photos. These all operate differently and come at varying costs – some very expensive, some dirt cheap.
Necessary Gear for Making Macro Photos
To make a macro photo you’ll need a camera, digital or film, the bigger the sensor or image area the better. That said, basically any film SLR camera from the 1960s to the 2000s will be capable of shooting macro photos. And any modern digital camera with interchangeable lenses will be capable of making macro photos these days. All of the major systems have macro lenses or accept accessories for creating macro shots.
Making macro photos with a film camera is a little harder than with digital. Macro photography requires a lot of light, and the low sensitivity of film compared with high ISO digital sensors can be limiting (don’t misunderstand me; making macro photos with film isn’t too hard and it’s extremely gratifying – just not as easy as with digital).
Next you’ll need one of the items we’ve just mentioned – a macro lens, close-up filters, a lens reversal adapter, or a set of macro bellows. We can break these items down by their pros and cons, and we’ve listed them in the table below from cheapest to most expensive. Choose your budget and then pick which option seems to offer the best value dependent on your needs.
Close Up Filters
The cheapest and easiest way to make macro photos, close-up filters are magnifying lens filters that screw onto the front of the ordinary lens you already own (the lead shot of this article was made with a 50mm Minolta lens and a +10 filter). Typical close-up filter sets come in +1, +2, +3 or +4 sets of three filters, and cost almost nothing. There also exist a number of “Professional” grade magnifying filters typically labeled +10. We sell close-up filter kits in our shop for about $10, and they work phenomenally (all of the macro shots of cameras and lenses that you see on this website are made with a basic close-up filter kit).
Another benefit to close-up filters is that they don’t diminish light entering the camera, like extension tubes and bellows do, which means it’s easy to shoot macro photos without a dedicated light source. And by stacking filters we’re able to continually increase magnification as we like. The downside to these is that they don’t produce the highest quality images, as they tend to increase chromatic aberration and decrease sharpness (and image quality degrades incrementally with each filter that we stack). Close-up filters are also sometimes called “macro filters,” and we’ve written an entire article dedicated to the use and value of these. Read it here.
Reversal Ring Adapters
Another way of using your ordinary lens as a macro lens is to use a reversal ring. Like close-up filters, reversal rings are inexpensive and screw onto the front of your normal lens. Once screwed on, the reversal ring allows the lens to be mounted onto the camera backwards (front element closest to the image sensor or film). This essentially reverses the reproduction ratio of the lens, creating a unit that can make images at sometimes 4:1 macro ratios (very, very large).
Extension Tubes and Bellows
Extension tubes and bellows are essentially devices used to hold the lens further away from the image plane (film or sensor) which decreases the minimum focus distance and allows the lens to get closer to the subject. Extension tubes come in various sizes to push the lens further and further away, which increases the effective magnification. The sizes are usually marked on the extension tube in millimeters.
Macro bellows do the same thing as extension tubes, but they allow the user to adjust the distance and control focus through knobs on the focus rail, which move the lens closer or further from the sensor or film. They’re more fragile than extension tubes, but allow for greater magnification.
Both extension tubes and bellows are fairly inexpensive. The major downside to both of these macro devices is that they significantly decrease the amount of light that reaches the film or sensor. Therefore it’s necessary to adjust exposure times and use longer exposures compared with filters, reversal rings, and dedicated macro lenses, or use additionally light sources to increase available light. Since macro photos tend to require fast shutter speeds to eliminate shake and blur, this loss of light poses a serious problem.
Dedicated Macro Lens
Dedicated macro lenses are lenses made specifically for macro photography. They are sophisticated optical devices that are purpose-built to create true macro photographs with the least amount of effort. They provide the cleanest images of any of the gear listed here, and are made to seamlessly work with macro lights and flashes. Most of them also allow infinity focusing, meaning that dedicated macro lenses can also be used as normal lenses, something none of the other methodologies allow without removing the macro components (filters, reversal rings, tubes and bellows).
Manufacturers over the years have made some truly legendary macro lenses. Minolta had the AF 100mm f/2.8, which was so good that Sony continued to make it for their DSLR users more than a decade after they purchased Minolta. There’s the Canon MP-E 65mm F/2.8 1-5X Macro, a legendary manual focus EOS lens that allows reproduction of a subject up to five times life size on a full-frame sensor. There’s the similarly impressive Minolta AF 3x-1x 1.7-2.8 Macro, a stunning assemblage of glass that shows just how nerdy Minolta engineers could be.
The downside to dedicated macro lenses, as you may have guessed, is that they’re far and away the most expensive option listed. The legendary lenses I just mentioned cost between $800-1,400 on the used market. And current mass-produced macro lenses are pricey too. The APS-C compatible 60mm macro lens from Canon (to pick one brand randomly) costs $350, while their 100mm L macro lens costs $700. Other brands’ macro lenses land in this same price point. For those who are looking for a dedicated macro lens at the lowest cost possible, try using legacy lenses. Nikon’s old, F-mount manual focus Micro-Nikkor’s are cheap and effective, and the same can be said for Minolta’s Macro Rokkors (if you’ve got a mirrorless camera to mount them to via adapters).
Tips for Great Macro Photography
Whichever gear you decide to use, general tips for making good macro photos remain consistent. Pick a subject that’s interesting to you, one that you’ll think will look interesting up close. After that, it’s all about light, settings, and timing.
The first thing you’ll notice when shooting macro photos is that the plane of focus is extremely small. As magnification increases the depth of field diminishes, meaning that we’ll need to stop our lens down significantly to achieve focus on extremely close subjects. F/8 is my maximum aperture when shooting macro, and I find myself often needing to stop down to F/16 just to get most of my tiny subject in focus. This, of course, means we need lots of light or a high-sensitivity sensor. It’s a tough balancing act, but one that we can win if we employ macro lights or flash units (any flash will work, though there are dedicated macro ring flashes that mount to the front of your lens and provide a nice, balanced light). It’s also advisable to use a diffuser to blend the harsh light of the flash into the existing natural light. Try to shoot outdoors on overcast days, as this also helps to mitigate harsh shadows.
If you’re shooting bugs, you’ll want to go out at a time when bugs are out but not yet active. Cool, summer mornings have proven to be very good times for me to catch insects out, but resting. Places with lots of foliage tend to be good for those looking to shoot butterflies or bees and other winged insects. Search for local botanical gardens or parks with lots of foliage and water features.
Next, get creative with it. Shoot from different angles, try balancing foreground and background elements to make good use of that shallow depth of field, and have fun. Macro photos already do well to show the world around us in a way that we don’t normally get to see it. So experiment a lot, and see what you can make.
Remember that we want to see your macro photos and that we’d love to highlight them in our Instagram stories throughout the month. Please share them with us here in our comments section via a link, or on Instagram using the hashtag #CasualPhotophileMonthlyPhotoChallenge. Interested readers can also share them on the Casual Photophile Facebook page, or our Film of the Month Club Facebook Group (if you’re a Film of the Month Club subscriber).
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