Technically “macro” photography refers to photographically reproducing very small items at life size or larger. So in a macro photograph of a dime, the size of the dime in the negative, transparency or on the sensor is at least the size of dime in real life. However, the term “macro photography” tends to get used in a looser sense to mean very close-up photography and is generally understood that way. A “macro” setting on a normal zoom lens rarely gives you 1:1 or larger in your final image. Let’s just take it to mean extremely close-up photography. Macro photography is often used to give us an insight into nature that the eye doesn’t normally see. A macro photo of a butterfly, a lady bug, the inside of a rose and all those weird and wonderful little critters that the macro lenses of National Geographic photographers have brought to us through the years. It is also used for technical, scientific, jewelry and many other subjects.
Many current and recent digital camera lenses, both SLR zooms and fixed lens cameras, have what they refer to as a “macro” capability. You can shoot very close-up so your (small) subject fills the frame. Many photographers are happy with this and shoot close-ups of flowers and bees and insects and all sorts of interesting things. If you want “true macro” which enables you to shoot 1:1 or larger, then you need a macro lens. This is typically a fixed focus lens with a focal length of 50mm, 80mm or up to perhaps 110mm. Usually the 50mm macro is cheaper than the longer ones and the quality just as good, with the additional benefit of wider depth of field and often a wider maximum aperture than the longer macro lenses. The advantages of the longer macro lenses, (say 100mm, for example) is that you can be further away from your subject and still fill the frame (kinder on the knees and the back).
With point-and-shoot type cameras with fixed lenses, you can often get a close-up lens that screws into the front of the lens on the camera and enables you to get closer to your subject and get a larger photo of small or tiny subjects.
Depth of field is usually very narrow when you are shooting macro and are very close to your subject. You have to decide whether to focus on the pistils and stamens of the flower or the edge of the nearest petal, for example. The wider the aperture, the narrower the depth of field. Sharpness is often critical. This is a combination of a low ISO setting, fast enough shutter speed to stop any motion, small enough aperture to result in adequate depth of field.
Often the best way to get the exact focus that you want is to frame the subject the way you want it, focus on the point you want to be the center of focus and leave it set and then move your head and camera slightly back and forward all the time watching the point you want in focus and shooting when it is in focus. Often manual focus works better than autofocus for this kind of shooting as the autofocus may be unable to cope with the change in focus if you or the subject move. Of course if the subject is still and you can use a tripod you will get the best results. Often in macro photography this is not the case and a tripod just doesn’t work.
We can go into lighting for macro in a different article. If you can use flash and get a natural looking shot, you overcome the problems of depth of field and camera motion or subject motion. You can’t, however, correct an out-of-focus photograph. Since it is so easy to have your photo slightly out of focus or focused on the wrong point, for any important macro shot it is worth shooting several frames to make sure that you have one of them in good focus.
Macro photography is not difficult and opens up a whole new world of subject matter, fascinating, colorful and intriguing.
David © Phillips is a professional writer and photographer living in Seattle, WA. You can find out more about him and his work at www.dcpcom.com. Photograph(s) in this article are © David C Phillips, All Rights Reserved.