Step-by-Step Beginner’s Guide to Macro Photography

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Macro photography is an interesting undertaking because it allows you to snap a photo of a nearby object that in your daily life might go unnoticed. It also gives you the ability to have a degree of creative freedom that other genres might not allow; you can focus on one tiny aspect of one tiny piece of the world and blow it up to a huge print. You can photograph insects, flowers, or create abstract masterpieces by photographing everyday occurrences like water dripping from a faucet. The possibilities are endless!

For those of you that are just beginning to explore macro photography, this guide is for you! Let’s take a look at the steps required to find success in taking macro photos of subjects like flowers, slow-moving insects, and man-made objects.

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Step 1: Get the Gear

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For the clearest and sharpest macro shots, you’ll need to get the appropriate equipment. There are many options available, including extension tubes, bellows units, and reverse mounting a prime lens onto your DSLR. Each of these methods will allow you to take macro shots, but the results just don’t compare to those you get with a dedicated macro lens.

So, if you want to give yourself the best opportunity to get the highest-quality pictures, get a macro lens for your camera. Macro lenses are specifically designed for close focusing so the likelihood of getting a tack-sharp image is greatly increased. What’s more, you can pick up a quality used 50mm macro lens for between $150-$200. Of course, new macro lenses can be several thousands of dollars, so there’s something out there for just about every budget.

Once you have a macro lens, invest in a good tripod. You’ll be working with a minute depth of field in the macro world, and every change in the distance between your lens and the subject - even a few millimeters - can knock your subject out of focus. What’s more, hand holding your camera makes the image susceptible to camera shake, so attaching your camera to a tripod and using the camera’s timer function or a remote shutter release will ensure your images are nice and sharp.

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Lastly, a great image needs great light. In many situations, natural or ambient light will prove to be the most pleasing. You might invest in a diffuser and a reflector so you can manipulate the natural light by softening it (diffuser) or bouncing it (reflector) as you see fit. Many macro photographers, especially beginners, also use a continuous light source (one that is on at all times) when natural lighting isn’t enough. By using lighting that is on at all times, as opposed to light that’s fired intermittently like a flash, you can get a better feel for how the lighting impacts your compositions, which will make you a better macro photographer in the long run.

Step 2: Dial in the Settings

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Since depth of field is so important in macro work, you’ll need to use aperture priority mode, which is usually denoted as A or AV on the camera dial. Aperture priority mode allows you to establish the desired aperture, which in turn controls the depth of field, while the camera sets an appropriate shutter speed to get a well-exposed image. Remember that the larger the aperture, the greater the depth of field. Although depth of field in macro work may only be a few millimeters, the difference between what’s sharp at f/1.8 (a large aperture) and f/5.6 (a smaller aperture) could make or break your shot.

Try to use the lowest ISO value that you can in order to reduce digital noise. ISO 100 or 200 should suffice in broad daylight. ISO 400 should work well if it’s cloudy, and ISO 800 might be needed as the sun is setting. There will be some trial and error here; you’ll need to keep an eye on the quality of the exposures you’re getting. If your images are dark, you’ll need to boost the ISO, even if that means getting more noise.

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Lastly, turn on manual focusing as your camera’s autofocus system will most likely not be able to accurately determine the point of focus at such close range. Engage manual focusing and determine the point of focus yourself for the best results. When focusing, use your camera’s live view function (if so equipped). Using live view allows you to zoom in on the area you want in focus, giving you a greater ability to ensure that the desired area is indeed tack-sharp.

Step 3: Compose the Shot

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The first task you face when composing your shot is to take a good, hard look at your subject. Look for interesting details that you can highlight, such as the veins on a leaf or the pistils of a flower. Try composing the shot from different angles - up high, down low, from the left, and from the right.

Once you’ve determined what the point of emphasis will be for your shot, look around the frame to make sure nothing strange is happening, like random twigs entering the frame or other oddities that will detract from the final image. Also check your background. With such a small depth of field, it should be nicely blurred. However, you will still be able to see colors and textures. Just ensure that those colors and textures don’t distract the viewer’s eye and take attention away from the primary subject. As with focusing the shot, composing the shot will be much easier if you use live view.

Next, take a few test shots. Examine the resulting images for good focus, good light, and a good exposure. Make any changes that are necessary, such as using a diffuser if the lighting is too harsh or readjusting your focus if it’s a bit off. The key here is to be patient, be willing to spend some time making adjustments to your camera settings, lighting, and composition, and to take a lot of photos! The more time you spend trying to perfect the process, the better your results will be.

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