Macro Photography for Beginners

macro photography

French movie director Jean Luc Godard, also a pioneer of the new wave film movement of the last century, made a lofty statement when he claimed, "Photography is truth." Photo enthusiasts around the world will undoubtedly stand by this claim, with their expensive cameras in place. Why? For it is they who understand how a single moment in time can be captured forever, with both purity and vibrancy. This is especially true of macro photography, where an innocuous little object suddenly seems larger than life, and thus becomes delightfully intriguing.

This form of photography also has an endless possibility of subjects from everyday life. The insects in your backyard, a fallen rose petal, the dew collected on your kitchen window, your mom’s plain cutlery, a slice of lime–all seemingly mundane objects. Now view them through a special macro lens, and they instantly take on an extraordinary life of their own! In this blog, we will cover the fundamentals of macro photography, to kick-start the dreams of even the most elementary newbie.

What is Macro Photography?

close up photo of macro lens

Image source: Pixabay

Macro photography is essentially a form of the craft, where the subject is captured either at life-size, or at a larger size. It is also shot at a close distance to the subject and is hence referred to as “close-up photography.”

It Is All Very Magnificent

If there is one element that distinguishes this specialized craft from conventional photography, then it is this: magnification. Macro photography works with a magnification ratio of at least 1:1 or above (1.5:1, 2:1, etc.). To understand this, imagine that you are photographing your precocious 3-year-old child, who is roughly 3 feet tall (36 inches). You use your camera to shoot from a medium distance, so all 36 inches of him/her is captured within a 6-inch photo. Here, the magnification ratio is 6 inches (height of the photo), compared to 36 inches (height of the subject). This means that the photo is 6 times smaller than the actual subject.

In macro photography, the photo should be at least the same size as the subject (or larger). It is this enormous magnification (with a ratio of 1:1 or higher), which allows you to capture even the tiniest subject (1-inch or even less) with exhaustive detail. Now that is what you call true magnificence!

The Tool of the Trade

As an amateur, you may wonder why we cannot capture a large amount of magnified detail with ordinary photography. We could achieve the same result by zooming in and shooting from a shorter distance. However, the trick lies in the lens. With a conventional photo lens, there is a limit to the minimum distance from which you can comfortably shoot a subject. This is called "focus distance." To understand how this affects your images, consider this small experiment.

Let us say your subject is a 1-inch flower you found in your yard, and you want to capture the exquisite details of its tiny petals. Next, focus on this small subject with your conventional camera (digital or otherwise), and slowly move closer towards it. When you try this for yourself, you will find that at a particular distance, you began to lose focus of the flower. No amount of zoom can bring it back with perfect sharpness and clarity. In fact, the closer you get towards it, the more detail you will lose. This may sound contrary, but it is the primary reason a specialized macro lens is used for macro photography.

Closer Is Indeed Better

Today, a digital camera (SLR or otherwise) offers a fair amount of zoom, which they also call magnification. However, this magnification differs from the crystal-clear magnification that a macro lens offers. A macro lens allows you to shoot your subject from an exceedingly small distance. Unlike the conventional photo lens, this does not lead to a loss of focus or clarity. The better the quality of the macro lens, the shorter is the distance you can reach, with a higher quality of an image.

You should be very careful when choosing a camera lens exclusively for macro photography. It is only with a macro lens that closer is better–better focus, better control, and ultimately, a much better-quality image.

Getting Started With Macro Photography

There is good news and there is also not-so-good news. The good news is that you do not have to wait until you own a highly expensive piece of camera equipment to begin your tryst with macro photography. The not-so-good news is that if you become passionate about this craft and go professional, you may eventually need to seek that specialized (and expensive) macro lens. Until then, a decent quality digital camera (typically priced under $250) is enough to do the trick.

Explore the New World of the “Macro” Mode

Regardless of the camera you choose, nearly all of them offer a “macro” mode for shooting macro images. As an amateur newly exploring macro photography, this needs to become your most conversant and competent mode. This will help you understand the chemistry between other elements and settings of your camera and shoot your subjects at a close range.

For instance, you learn that the lens aperture needs to be the lowest in your camera (typically f/2.8 in a digital camera), to gain the maximum depth of field. This will ensure that your subjects do not lose sharpness or clarity, even when captured at a short distance.

Second, the focus distance of the conventional photo lens is much larger than a specialized macro lens. As a result, less light may enter your lens when you shoot your subject from a close distance. To overcome this shortcoming, explore the exposure setting in macro mode. Increasing this setting will allow for more light to enter your camera, so your images do not come out dark.

Finally, play with the setting related to shutter speed. When you manually increase the exposure, there is a chance for excess light to enter your lens (based on the background in which you shoot), thus blurring the final image. This too can be fixed by reducing the shutter speed, so the final image is neither too dark nor too light.

For Amateurs, Trust your Camera’s Setting

As you can see, it is all about getting the right chemistry between these camera settings: lens aperture, depth of field, focus distance, exposure, and shutter speed. Perhaps the most important setting is that of your own hand, which holds the camera. As long your hand stays steady, and at an adequate distance from the subject, there is less possibility of distorting your image.

Modern digital cameras also do a decent job of automating these settings, even in the macro mode. For your initial trysts with macro photography, you can use these default settings until you become comfortable enough to alter one setting at a time manually, hence understanding its effect on the final image.

Top 5 Tips for Beginners

DSLR camera placed on a wooden surface

Image source: Pixabay

All the suggestions provided above can help you with your initial research. Once you have explored your camera’s settings you will feel more confident in your ability to use the macro mode. Here are five straightforward tips for beginners, to get your introductory stint with macro photography just right.

1. Embrace All Things Digital

The digital world–from camera shooting to final photo editing–is a boon to every photographer. Embrace this boon. If you cannot capture your first few macro images with 100% clarity or precision (especially due to the limitations of your camera or lens), do not panic. There is still a lot you can do at the photo editing stage to enhance the final image quality. This will help you understand your camera’s settings and alignment better, so you shoot higher quality images.

Use the LCD screen before you capture your shot. In macro photography, this provides a far more accurate depiction of your final image, than the optical viewfinder.

2. Embrace All Things Technical

If you intend to improve your craft, become comfortable with the technical aspects of photography and its terminology. There is no way around it.

3. Depth of Field

One setting that can make a profound difference to your images with macro photography is the depth of field. (This is measured by the focal length, lens aperture, and focus distance.) If this is too deep, your main subject area will completely blend into the background, as both will be captured with comparable sharpness. If this is too shallow, your main subject will appear glaringly against a (blurred) background. When you get this right, it will create the perfect optical illusion of layering and 3 dimensions, thus highlighting the finer details of your macro photograph.

4. Daylight

Professionals universally agree that the best light for macro photography is daylight. However, you need to ensure that this natural lighting does not inadvertently throw an unwanted shadow on your subject. For this, it is handy to carry a strip of thin tissue paper. This can cover the subject from a distance, acting as a light filter, to set the stage for the perfect macro photograph.

5. Invest in a Macro Lens

If you are presently unable to invest in a macro lens–the best fit for macro photography–consider extension tubes, which can be connected to the default photo lens. These are less expensive but can help focus on your subject from a closer distance and produce a bigger image of your small subject.

Conclusion

close up photo of bugs face

Image source: Pexels

Macro photography is an immensely flexible art because it has enough to tempt the amateur as well as heighten the passion of a professional. However, the world is slowly tiring of mediocre macro images, especially if they are repetitive ones of the same old bugs, spiders, and other insects and flowers.

If there is one last suggestion we can give, it is to experiment bravely with your subjects. The beauty of macro photography does not lie in the subject itself, but in the finer details of the chosen subject. You find that if you dig deep enough with your (macro) lens, almost every ordinary subject (like a piece of cutlery or even a dust particle on the carpet) suddenly becomes intriguingly extraordinary. Perfect!

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