Macro photography for beginners: The ultimate guide

First published:
October 12, 2020
February 12, 2024

Macro photography for beginners: The ultimate guide

First published:
October 12, 2020
February 12, 2024

Cover image by Jaymes Dempsey

If you’re looking to get started in capturing stunning macro photos, then you’ve come to the right place

In this article, you’re going to discover everything you need to get started with macro photography. We’re going to share with you all sorts of macro photography tips and tricks -including our favourite camera setups, the camera settings you absolutely need to know, and the lighting secrets of the pros.

Then let’s dive right in...

Macro image of a flower with a very shallow depth of field

What is macro photography?

First things first: What actually is macro photography? It’s the photography of all things small.

So macro photography includes images of flowers, like this:

Macro image of a flower with a very shallow depth of field

As well as images of plants:

Macro image of a green and white plant

And other details, such as this tree bark:

Close up image of tree bark

Note that a key aspect of macro photography is getting up close. If you’re going to photograph a flower, you can’t shoot it from fifty feet away; instead, you’ll need to get your camera right up close to the petals. Make sense?

Now, technically speaking, a true macro photo shows the subject (e.g., a flower) as life-size or larger on your camera sensor. But for most macro photographers, this definition is too confusing, too complex, and too limiting.

Which is why we recommend thinking about macro photography as we’ve laid it out above: As the photography of small things!

Macro shot of a flower against a yellow background

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Macro photography equipment: how to get started

Here’s a common misconception about macro photography: in order to capture great shots, you must have a fancy camera, an expensive lens, and a sturdy tripod. But this simply isn’t true.

In fact, there are plenty of ways to capture beautiful macro photos without spending much money at all. Let’s take a look at the different types of gear for macro photography, as well as their strengths and weaknesses:

Use the camera you have

If you’re a complete macro photography beginner, then this is a great place to start: with the camera (and lenses) you already own. It doesn’t matter if you have a DSLR, a mirrorless camera, a point-and-shoot camera, or a smartphone. As long as you have a device that takes a picture, then you can capture stunning macro photos. 

Most people don’t know this, but modern cameras and lenses allow you to get surprisingly close to your subject. In fact, grab your camera and test it out right now. Find a small subject and get progressively closer, taking photos all the way. You’ll undoubtedly be able to create a very detailed shot. 

For instance, this image was captured with a standard 50mm lens and no special accessories:

Macro shot of autumnal leaves

In fact, starting with the equipment that you already own is a really great idea, for one key reason: it helps you get in the macro photography mindset.

Because a big part of creating stunning macro photos isn’t your equipment. It’s about recognising the beauty of small things, and about picking out small subjects that make for interesting photos. Once you’ve done a bit of macro photography, you may find yourself wanting to get even closer to your subjects. At which point you’ll probably want to consider one of the options discussed in the next section.

The next step: reverse adapters, close-up filters, or extension tubes

If you’re looking to capture higher-magnification shots of small subjects, then you’ll want to purchase some extra equipment. Because while most cameras can get you close, they can’t get you extremely close; for instance, you can’t capture an image like this using a standard camera setup:

Extreme macro shot of a purple plant

The flower is just too small (it was only a few centimetres in height!). That’s when macro accessories become important.

Now, in terms of cameras, at this point you’ll want to make sure you have either a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. Fortunately, there are plenty of low-cost options on the market, especially if you’re willing to buy used (which we highly recommend).

You’ll also want to make sure you have a lens (pretty much any kit lens will do the trick). Once you have a camera and lens, here are your options:

First, you can purchase a reverse adapter, which allows you to reverse-mount your lens onto your camera - and will give you a high-magnification image. Reverse adapters are extremely cheap, and they’re a good way to get started capturing ultra-close macro images.

On the other hand, reverse adapters come with some serious drawbacks; for one, you lose all control over your lens, which means that you generally cannot select an aperture (which is very important, and we discuss more in a later section!). Reverse adapters also expose the back of your lens to the outside world, which increases risk of damage.

Second, you can grab a set of close-up filters, which screw onto the front of your lens and magnify your subject. This is also a cheap method of getting macro photos, but the image quality isn’t great, which is why we’d recommend going for your third option: extension tubes. 

Extension tubes mount onto your camera and give you a magnification boost; you use them with your existing lenses and they provide zero drop in image quality. The main drawback is a loss of light, but that’s the price you have to pay for high-quality macro images. (If you do decide to purchase extension tubes, you’ll probably want to grab the kind with electrical contacts, because these allow you to adjust your aperture via the camera.)

Work with a dedicated macro lens for the highest-quality photos

We’ve talked about some inexpensive ways of getting closer to your subject. But if you’re looking for the absolute best image quality and the most flexibility when shooting, you’ll need to grab a dedicated macro lens.

These lenses are designed specifically to get you close to your subject, and pretty much all of them offer fantastic image quality. Unfortunately, they can be a bit expensive, which is why we recommend you make sure that macro photography is right for you before going all-in and purchasing a dedicated macro lens. 

Once you are ready to pick a dedicated macro lens, make sure you look at those that offer true (1:1) macro magnifications; this is an easy way to ensure that the lens will get you ultra-close to your subject. This image was taken with a true macro lens:

Ethereal macro shot of a red plant

Honestly, most of the macro lenses out there are fantastic and will offer pro-level image quality, so don’t worry too much about macro lens choice.

What camera settings should you use?

Now that you’re familiar with the best equipment for macro photography, it’s time to get into the fun stuff: creating gorgeous macro images! It all starts with the proper camera settings.

- Keep your shutter speed fast to avoid blur

Macro photography is about capturing tiny details. Which means that you’re going to want to keep your photos as sharp as possible. How do you do this? You use a fast shutter speed!

Now, shutter speeds are generally written in fractions of a second, like this: 1/100s, 1/250s, 1/500s, etc. And the smaller the fraction, the faster the shutter speed.

So when you’re heading out to capture macro photos, check your camera settings. You should see a shutter speed option; adjust this until it is reading a value of at least 1/160s, though we’d really recommend you go higher, if possible. You see, when you magnify your subject, you also magnify both camera and subject movement. Which means that macro photography is especially prone to blur. That’s why you need a shutter speed of at least 1/160s for a good chance of getting sharp shots. And if you can, push this to a shutter speed of 1/250s and beyond.

When shooting a high magnification close up like this one, we don’t recommend dropping your shutter speed below 1/160s:

(You might be wondering: Why can’t you just crank your shutter speed up all the way to 1/4000s or 1/8000s? The higher your shutter speed, the less light your camera captures, and the darker your image will appear. So you have to strike a careful balance between shutter speed and the level of darkness.)

Here’s the bottom line: if you want stunning macro photos, you need to keep the details crisp. So pay attention to your shutter speed and keep it fast to avoid blur.

- Carefully choose an aperture for artistic effect

Aperture is another key camera setting that you must consider as a macro photographer. It refers to a diaphragm present in pretty much all lenses that widens or narrows to let in more or less light. Now, aperture is represented in terms of f-numbers, like this: f/2.8, f/4, f/8, etc.

The smaller the f-number, the wider the aperture, which means that an aperture of f/2.8 is very wide (and lets in lots of light), whereas an aperture of f/8 is relatively narrow (and lets in very little light).

Aperture matters for two key reasons. First, by widening the aperture, you can offset a loss of light due to a fast shutter speed. So if you’re shooting a macro photo that’s looking too dark, you can always widen the aperture to make it bright again. Second, aperture affects the amount of the photo that is in focus. The wider the aperture, the less of the image that’s rendered sharp.

Look at this image:

Extreme close up macro shot of a flower with a focus on the petal

Do you see how most of the shot is blurry? That’s because a wide aperture was used.

And look at this image: it’s sharp throughout, thanks to a narrow aperture. 

Full frame closeup of a flower

Now, neither a wide aperture or a narrow aperture is necessarily better than the other. It all depends on the type of image you’re looking to create. 

A wide aperture is generally good for artistic, ethereal images:

Macro shot of a flower with a shallow depth of field

Whereas a narrow aperture produces crisper, more grounded shots:

Overhead view of autumnal leaves

- Use manual focus when possible

Here’s the final macro photography setting that you should use: manual focus.

Not all lenses have this option, but many do, and it’s hugely helpful for macro photography. You see, as you get closer to your subject, your camera’s autofocus system will start to struggle. Eventually, it will fail to acquire proper focus on your subject. 

That’s where manual focus comes in. This setting (which is usually activated via a switch on your lens) will let you set your point of focus by way of the focus ring on your lens barrel. It’s very easy to use; you simply twist the ring one way to focus closer, and twist it the other way to focus farther away. And it’ll let you quickly acquire focus on your subject, even at high magnifications.

We almost always recommend using manual focus when shooting macro; it’s the only way you can nail focus on the edges of small subjects, like this:

Extreme macro shot of a daisy

Macro photography lighting: the basics

You know about macro photography equipment. And you know about macro photography camera settings. Which brings me to the final key ingredient for beautiful macro photos: light.

Macro shot of a flower in bright light

Honestly, if we had to name the factor that matters most in macro photography, we’d have to go with light. It really is that important! So here are a few lighting secrets that you can use to take your macro photos to the next level:

- Avoid sunny midday

Beginner photographers are often tempted to photograph when the sun is high in the sky and the light is bright. But this is a bad idea. You see, sunny midday lighting is far too harsh. It casts strong shadows that will prevent your subjects from looking their best. 

Which is why you should avoid sunny midday light at all costs.

- Shoot when the light is soft

Instead of shooting when the weather is bright and sunny, we recommend getting out when the light is soft. Here’s an easy way to guarantee soft light: shoot on heavily overcast days. 

Clouds act as giant diffusers, which give soft, even, flattering light that looks great in macro photography. Plus, cloudy light helps amplify colours, so if you’re shooting flowers or fall foliage, you’ll end up with wonderfully-saturated images. Here’s a shot that was taken on a cloudy day:

Intimate floral macro shot with purple background

This one was taken on a cloudy day, as well:

Vibrant macro of a flower

Do you see how strong the colours are? That’s thanks to an overcast sky! You also have another option for soft light: you can shoot when the sun is low in the sky, around sunrise or sunset. 

During these times (known as the Golden Hour), the light becomes more feathered and warm, so that you lose the harsh midday shadows and instead get a lovely effect, like this:

Macro of a red flower

Backlight is your friend

If you photograph when the sun is low in the sky, you’ll need to pay attention to the direction of the light. Ask yourself: does the light come from behind you and hit your subject directly? Does it come from off to the side? Or does it come from behind your subject?

Because here’s the thing: technically, all different lighting directions work for macro photography. But a favourite lighting direction is backlight, which comes from directly behind your subject.

Macro of a pink flower against a white background

Specifically, we love using something called the broken backlighting technique. It’ll get you shots just like these:

Etereal macro sho of a blue flower

Here's how it works:

Position yourself so that the sun is low in the sky and is coming from behind your subject. Get down low, so that the sun is either in the frame or just outside it. And make sure that the sun is partially blocked by leaves or tree branches. The sunlight will be broken by the leaves/branches, which will result in a spectacular background, especially if you make sure to dial in a wide aperture.

You may have to try several different angles to achieve the best results, but it’ll be worth it in the end!

Macro of a flower

Next steps

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be well on your way to capturing stunning macro shots. Because you know about key equipment for macro photography. 
You know about key camera settings for sharp, artistic images. And you know how to use light to really take your macro photos to the next level.

So all that’s left… to get out and start shooting!

Macro of a flower

All images from Jaymes Dempsey.

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