A Beginner's Guide to Macro Photography

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Every year, autumn inspires photographers to brave the dropping temperatures and capture the colorful changes of the landscapes around them. Yet there’s plenty more to explore with your camera during this incredible season. Just as lively as the wide, lush landscapes is the lesser-known world of macro photography. To get started, I want to discuss some entry-level tips and techniques so that you can capture gorgeous macro shots this fall season. So whether you’re new to the genre, or are looking to improve, these tips will help you in the beginning stages of macro photography.

Do I need a dedicated macro lens?

Macro lenses can be pricey so I would encourage you to first experiment with the genre to make sure it’s something you’re serious about mastering. You can use the ideas in this article, as well as your regular lenses, to start to learn the craft. Keep in mind, regular lenses will not allow you will to focus as close and the results won't be as sharp as if you had a dedicated macro lens. If you want the full experience, I suggest renting a macro lens for the weekend to give one a try. You can also experiment with common alternatives such as extension tubes, filters, reverse lenses, and double lenses prior to taking the full plunge with a macro lens.

All that said, the ideal answer to this question is yes. A dedicated macro lens will yield the best results. These lenses are specifically designed for taking close-up shots at true 1:1 magnification. Dedicated macro lenses have minimal focusing distances to help you get up-close and personal to your subject and fill your entire frame. The optics are also better on these lenses, helping prevent distortion with a flatter (planar) field.

Standard macro lenses offer 60mm - 105mm for their focal distance. These will allow you to be about a foot away from your subject and still capture 1:1 magnification. The next level of these lenses allow you to capture the image from further back at about 2 feet away. This can be helpful when photographing subjects like insects as you never want to disturb your subject. A bit of distance while capturing 1:1 magnification never hurts if you have timid subjects. These lenses start at 120mm and go up to 200mm.

Also, simply because you picked up a “macro” lens does not mean you are confined to using it only for macro photography. I love using my lens for a variety of situations. They can capture great portraits, the depth of field is incredible for intimate landscapes, and the sharpness is top notch which makes for great product photography.

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Does macro photography require a tripod?

Tripods can help, and I do try to use mine whenever possible. Macro photography requires a very specific focal point in your composition and a tripod will help you keep it that way. This will also allow you to capture as steady a shot as possible and avoid movement while shooting. If you have a subject that is moving, you can tweak your settings to shoot hand-held. I’d suggest bumping your ISO up and allowing more light to come in by using a wider aperture. Another good thing about dedicated macro lenses is that a lot of them are lightning fast, offering f / 2.8 to allow a lot of light into the lens. If you do shoot without a tripod, use your body for support by tucking your elbow into your chest to help keep a steady hand.

What do you suggest for aperture settings and focus?

Your aperture setting will control your depth of field. A large aperture is created with a small f-number which also equals a shallow depth of field. Between this and your focal point(s), your image will come to life. You will want to keep your most important details of your image in focus.

A shallow depth of field is a great way to make your subject stand out from the background and incorporate an artistic, natural flair to your images. When it comes to focusing, because the depth of field and focal points are so temperamental, you will want to manually focus when possible.

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Do you have tips for choosing subject matter?

There are a few things you want to be especially conscientious of with macro photography that can help take your shot to the next level. Watch for patterns, specifically in nature, they’re everywhere! Textures can also be very photogenic along with contrast and colors. Be on the lookout for things like rust, leaves, rot, old paints and tree barks. Also be cognizant of your background. Making small adjustments to your positioning may provide the perfect contrasting background, so beware of those opportunities for improvement.

Any other suggestions?

Let’s wrap this up with some final pointers. You will be getting very close to your subjects, but be sure you do not compromise your shot by inserting your own shadow into the frame. There are a few locations I suggest if you’re looking to get started. I enjoy going to the Botanical gardens in my area and also visiting gardens when I travel. They can present a slew of macro shooting opportunities. These, along with zoos, sometimes offer butterfly exhibits (which will likely be seasonal) that make for excellent locations for practice. The last suggestion I will make is to pull your camera out after a moderate rainfall. Even a foggy morning full of dew will work for this. You can get some wonderful shots capturing the dew and raindrops upon nature. Keep an eye out for leaves, flowers and spiderwebs for a few ideas. As a general rule of the genre, subjects you may not have thought about regularly capturing suddenly become a goldmine of macro shot possibilities.

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Mike Ince

Mike Ince