Monday, 10 March 2008

Macro Photography Tips

A Beginners Guide to Macro Photography
Welcome to my Macro Photography for Beginners website. I decided to write this basic guide for amateur and novice macro photographers because there are far too many very complicated books and websites on this subject. In my opinion beginners do not want complicated; they want some simple information to get them started and improve their photography technique. If you are someone who enjoys the art of macro photography and want to improve your technique then naturally as you advance you will want to learn more about the subject of photography. If you are starting out from scratch or having disappointing results from your set up then you have arrived at the right place. It is my intention to write a very basic photography guide for all the essential elements required to improve your macro photography written in a way that makes it easy to understand.

Firstly what is Macro Photography?
True macro is defined by the ratio 1:1 and above which means the subject is life size (or larger) in the frame and on the film or sensor of your camera. Strictly speaking anything below 1:1 is considered close-up work. On a modern lens built for a digital SLR this will be indicated on the lens itself.

My Method of Madness!
I am an amateur macro photographer myself and have been experimenting with macro photography for a number of years now. I have been interested in nature and wildlife photography for a long time. I prefer to provide the information and show examples of how I got the results. It is optional if you want to copy my example but this site is not intended as a “how to” site because frankly, there are too many of those already. I will describe some of my pages as tutorials to make site navigation easier. Photography is about “expressing yourself” which can not be done by copying someone wholesale. It is a proven scientific fact that people learn and remember more from “doing” rather than from “reading” but just this once, please put the camera down for a minute and continue reading my website! I will be using a four year old Canon 300D (AKA Rebel XT, Kiss) and a Sigma 150mm 1:2:8 macro DG HSM lens. The only additional equipment that I will use initially is a Benbo Trekker tripod (and head) and a remote switch (cable variety). I am using this older camera because I have one lying around and to show that it is not always the brand new swanky camera that gets the best results. At present I will not be using any flash guns, ring flash or twin flash systems. This is because I know that as a beginner you may not have bought a flash yet. So initially we will only work with ambient light(natural) and artificial lighting. Later on, I will introduce some kind off-camera flash into the mix so that the difference it makes can be compared and discussed.

News Flash (get it!) Kenro has just released a ring flash on to the UK market at rrp £128.00 I am fairly sure this is the lowest priced ring flash available. At present I have not read any reviews of this new product.

Macro is difficult without a tripod but you can use other methods to steady the camera. Mono-pods and beanbags are good ways to do this if you are determined to do macro photography without a tripod. Tripods can be expensive but I would recommend getting one as they are very versatile. It is worth paying for a good one because the cheaper tripods often wobble, will not take the weight of a big lens and have a tendency to break. This could cause expensive damage to your camera equipment. When attempting insect or other wildlife shots there is not always enough time to get a tripod set up. Hand-holding is very difficult, I would not recommend this for long exposures or high magnifications, but it can be done under the right conditions. If you do not have a remote switch you can use the camera’s self timer feature instead. OK, I think that is everything required to do some basic macro photography!

Budget Macro
There are lots of ways to get involved with macro photography without spending heaps of cash. If buying a dedicated macro lens is too extravagant or you only want to take macro shots occasionally, you may be interested in getting some extension tubes. Extension tubes connect between your camera and lens’ allowing you to take acceptable close up shots. This is probably the best alternative to buying a dedicated macro lens because you make use of your existing camera equipment. I will discuss extension tubes and bellows in another post. It is possible to reverse a lens but this is not something that I have done. Reversing a lens involves adapting a lens so that it operates back to front on the camera making it into a makeshift macro lens. I have seen excellent results from bridge cameras fitted with macro attachments. Many compact cameras come with macro features and can be used to get adequate images.

Sensor Cleaning
Bridge and compact cameras may have their limitations, but they do have one big advantage over digital SLR. Swapping lenses on a digital SLR camera can lead to dust getting into the sensor compartment. This shows up more with the smaller apertures used for macro. No matter how carefully you look after your camera and equipment there will come a time when the sensor requires attention. This can be done by sending the camera away to be serviced or if you are brave (or mad) enough you can clean the sensor yourself. Be warned, damage the sensor and the camera becomes an expensive paper weight. One problem with using my old camera for this websites example shots and tutorials is that the camera sensor is filthy. I have taken great care to keep my camera and lenses clean over the years but dust has gradually found its way in. I have never attempted to clean the sensor on a digital SLR camera until now. I will obviously have to write this up on here when I get around to doing the job. Talk about added pressure!

Update: You can find out how I got on with sensor cleaning here.

Glossary of Terms
Hopefully my writing style will make it easy for beginners and amateur photographers to understand without referring to a dictionary too often. I will do my best to explain everything as clearly as possible. Most of the terms will be self explanatory and as back up if it does all get too complicated I will publish a full glossary of terms.

Getting Started - Help and Tips
If you are already set up and want to get started I will provide some quick help and tips. In my next couple of post I will explain “depth of field” and “aperture”. When you first pick up your camera it can be quite a daunting task, a modern camera is covered in buttons, dials and knobs. Knowing what to press and when to press it is going to vastly improve your skills. First you need to locate Aperture Priority mode. This is intended for DSLR users, but anyone can have a go with macro. Some of the best nature pictures I have seen lately were taken using bridge and compact cameras. In the main it is the person behind the camera that counts. The equipment is not important but it can help you to set up quickly and take better macro pictures consistently. The fact is you could take 100 very good macro shots handheld whilst someone else takes 10 excellent shots using a tripod. Who has the best set of images? In most cases you miss a lot opportunities using a tripod but you get sharper images. It all depends on you, the photographer and what it is that you wish to achieve. Once you have experienced the difficulties of working outdoors you can appreciate great insect and plant photography much more. All wildlife photography is difficult and takes a great deal of patience. Sometimes it can take hours, days, months, or years to capture the image you want. The buzz from getting a great shot makes it all worthwhile in the end. One great shot is worth more than a 1000 average images.

  1. Use Aperture Priority or mode. indicated Av on Canon or A on Nikon
  2. Use a tripod or any other acceptable method to steady the camera and have a go without a tripod. Compare the results.
  3. Switch to Manual focus and practice focussing manually. When you get the image sharp in the frame depress the shutter half way and the camera will beep if you are in focus. Just the same as when auto-focus is switched on.
  4. Use a box/tent/windbreak to protect your subject from the elements when working outdoors.
  5. Keep your camera clean, free of dirt, dust and grease. (sand and grit can cause a lot of damage to your camera equipment)
  6. Keep your camera dry. You should use your camera in the rain but always protect the camera body and lens from water.
  7. Use a remote switch (or the self timer) to reduce camera shake.
  8. Try different aperture settings for your subject.
  9. Try and fit your subject in the frame even if you have to trade some magnification.
  10. It’s better to attempt a shot and fail that not to try at all. Practice, practice and practice but most of all, enjoy your yourself.

Do not worry if the results are still not brilliant at this stage. Just get used to setting up your camera and equipment. The images are likely to be poor at full magnification until we introduce some flash techniques. In the meantime try and get some acceptable macro shots using natural sunlight. You can use deflectors (anything big and shiny) to reflect more light onto your subject. I think that I will leave it here for now. That is quite a lot to digest.

Coming Next
In my next post I plan to explain in simple terms (and illustrations) all about aperture and how important it is to macro photography. Macro is probably the most difficult type of photography to use outdoors. The slightest movement of camera or subject will ruin your macro shots. Therefore the key is to find a way of keeping the camera and subject still. Photographers usually develop their own methods of getting good results over time. Remember that we are talking about macro in general terms inclusive of close-up. This means not strictly 1:1 which is equivalent to life size. Macro beyond 1:1 can get very difficult and therefore is not really the domain of the beginner. In addition this type of extreme magnification is most often used for medical or dental photography. Nature and wildlife photography is most often done at close-up range to get the entire subject sharp in the frame whilst retaining some background. Do not be afraid to trade magnification for a better Composition.

Macro Photography Tips
This is just my introduction page. In my future posts I will be writing introductory tutorials on how to improve your technique using basic photography equipment. I will look into every aspect of close up and macro photography. In future posts I will address the following subjects Depth of Field, Shutter Speed, Aperture, Exposure, f numbers/stops, tripods and heads, monopods, bean bags, filters, flash guns, twin flash, ring flash, camera settings and set up, soft-box and tents, bellows, extension tubes, focussing rails and anything else deemed to be relevant. I will outline all this information in a plain and understandable format. In addition I am going to provide example photographs and images to illustrate my posts. If you feel I have missed something or not covered something properly, let me know by email or in the comments box and I will cover it in my next or subsequent post. Thank you for reading my Macro Photography for Beginners website.

Marvin Africa

If you enjoyed this article about macro photography tips why not read some of my photography articles on: Aperture Depth of Field Shutter Speed Exposure Composition


Vishvas Trikutkar said...

Really a nice post. I think its best for me who is really beginner for MACRO Photography. Liked it. I liked your writing style simple and easy to understand.

If you have time you can take a look at my photostream at

I recently completed my project365 and after doing it i realized that I Love close ups/Macro shots more than anything else so I decided to invest into it more and bought Canon 100mm F2.8L IS USM lens and looking forward to do MACRO phtography seriously.

Loved your blog on this i think i will follow it now on ....


Celeste said...

Thank you so much for typing this post up. Just like you said, very simple and easy to absorb for a beginner photographer like myself. Love your blog and definitely will refer to it.


Marvin Africa said...

Hello Vishvas,
Thank you for your feedback about my website. I am currently moving all the content to a dot com website/blog. If you want to follow my progress please keep an eye out for the link for the new site - it is still under construction at the moment. In the long term it will be a better resource with more images and good old fashioned diagrams (maybe?)

It is always great to find a new macro enthusiast. Good luck.

Marvin Africa

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Celeste, Typing it up is the easy part, formatting it in blogspot is the hard part. This is part of my decision to move to a hosted dot com website. I'm not really sure how to move all the content so this site will soon become an empty vessel. Like the The Mary Celeste

Please make sure that you find my new website (which is now under construction. There is a link in my last post

Marvin Africa said...

). This is the missing bracket