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Macro photography

Macro photography is the art of taking extremely enlarged photos of small objects. There's a technical definition of what macro photography is, but if you've seen the big photos of bugs where you can see every little hair on the insect or super closeups of food where the texture of the food looks like a web of caverns, it was probably a macro photo. 

I bought a 105mm macro art lens a month or two ago and I take it out to play with it now and then. In particular, there's no way to get photos of flowers and insects, you know? 

But macro photography is *hard!* A tripod or some other support is a must. And the depth of field is more like the depth of a piece of paper.  Focus stacking would be nice, but alas, I am a Sony photographer and Sony does not offer built in focus stacking. You have to do it by hand or use after market accessories. 

Anybody out there got some good macro photo tips or some good examples? The difficulty of it is making it more and more attractive to me. But in particular . . . any tips for dealing with wind blowing your subject around? Tips apart from patience, I mean?


6 Replies

right now I'm using a sony A6500, my go to lens, while I'm backpacking is a sony 18-135mm, when I need to do extreme close ups, usually in the backyard with bugs and plants I've been using a  MOVO extension tube which came in a 10/16/21mm set.

for processing using adobe lightroom classic and photoshop elements, and  a set of topaz labs stuff (gigapixel, denoise, and sharpen)

getting into astro-photography, but for me, just means the milky way.  using several star stacking free programs, not impressed.

probably would help to get a star-tracker so I can do longer exposures/lower iso and no star trails

REI Member Since 1979

IMO I don’t understand why you consider macro so difficult. First I never use a tripod. I use a Nikon AW 130 point and shoot. Just set to macro and fire away. Getting the little critters to stand still or scaring them off is more an issue than wind. 3756B1C7-F8A9-422B-9B59-569F8AD2383D.jpeg105D8E1C-BC15-4A55-AE83-A697CABE46FE.jpeg617EB566-1BBD-4944-A345-64E34A29EBC8.jpegB021D766-05E7-47DE-97E3-AF1796D75A04.jpeg


Well . . . my purpose in posting was that I hoped to start a conversation because I thought it was a topic that might be of interest to people. If you really want to know what makes it difficult, I'm happy to go into that though. It does get a little technical.

The first thing to know is that  true macro photography is a little more than just being really close to your subject. The technical definition involves a minimum 1:1 magnification or more of the subject as it hits the image sensor. The way it works is you get the real-life size image on your sensor. Then you put it on a computer screen or elsewhere that is larger than the sensor in your camera. Suddenly, presto, you've got this much larger-than-life image. Most lenses aren't capable of achieving that. The 18-135 that was mentioned, for example, has a maximum magnification ratio of 0.29, so the subject is a little more than 1/4 of its life size. Extension tubes, like @Philreedshikes mentions, can be used to enlarge that more and help get up to macro size. 

This creates some technical issues when it comes to shooting your image. Perhaps the biggest issue is depth of field. Basically, when you focus on an image, everything is in focus from a point near you to a point further away. For example, look at this portrait I took of someone during the pandemic: Portrait illustrating shallow depth of fieldPortrait illustrating shallow depth of field

Notice how her face is tack sharp while the guy behind her, the lights, and the reflection in the mirror are all blurry? That's because the depth of field is fairly shallow. Photographers do this on purpose. One reason is to make sure the subject stands out from the background. Other customers in the restaurant, the lighting, and the windows were all background. I wanted viewers to look at her.

When we do macro photography the depth of field gets much, much, much thinner. Why? Because longer focal length and closer distances to the subject make for shallower depths of field. You can end up with the head of a bee in focus, but not its tail, for example. So, look at this example taken earlier this week while I was playing with my macro lens because the subjects I hoped to photograph were no shows (that's how it is with animals!). This is a straight-out-of-camera image with no photoshop, lightroom, or anything else done to it.

Macro flower photoMacro flower photo

On the one hand, you have an extreme level of detail. But notice how even parts of the flower I was photographing are starting to fall out of focus. The middle of the flower is sharp as a tack. But the back of it and the front of it are both starting to get very soft. That's a single small flower and at an aperture of f/11, which creates a fairly significant depth of field in a normal photo. Because of the difficulty I had with the focus, I would not consider this to be a successful or good photo. 

There are ways to deal with this issue. One way is called being really, really careful and taking your time. Another is to use a technique called focus stacking where you take repeated images of the same subject with the focus in different places. Then you combine those images into one using software so that you create a single image with everything in focus.

The other issue that this creates is a about hand shaking. No ones hand is perfectly steady. Even regular bodily functions like breathing or our pulse create minor shaking in our hands. So does pushing the shutter button on a camera, by the way. When you're dealing with these magnifications, they don't just magnify the detail. They also magnify the shaking and that causes further blurring. Same thing happens with wind.

That same issue, among others, also makes it very difficult for autofocus to work on macro images. Probably around 90% of them are shot with manual focus.

There are ways to deal with this too. Fast shutter speeds, for one. Or people will sometimes setup on a tripod and then trigger the camera remotely so as to avoid having to push the shutter button. I have a cell phone app that allows me to do this, for example. And, of course, image stabilization helps too. 

Getting back to your posting, I'm afraid the answer to why you are finding it so much simpler and easier is simple, but probably not the answer you want to hear. It's because your images are truly lovely, but you're not actually shooting macro images. 

A lot of manufacturers put a button on their camera or lens labelled "macro mode." It's a way of indicating to people that you can use that mode to focus on very nearby subjects, but it's not the same as true macro photography. This is especially common with point-and-shoot cameras like, for example, your Nikon Coolpix AW130.

You can tell that you did not shoot true macro photos by looking at the images you posted. For example, there's no way that anything close to a 1:1 image of that crab was captured on your sensor because you have a 1/2.5 inch sensor. Notice how the last one is distorted to where the spider almost seems to be on a curved web? That's what happens when you do super closeup images on a wide angle lens. 

As far as keeping animals from running away, I don't find that part so difficult. I just setup. Then I stand very still. When the insect lands where I want it to, I click the shutter. Easy peasy.



Sorry,  I seem to have offended you. I guess Nikon mislabeled my camera where it says macro. Your way too technical for me. In the old film days I shot a lot of underwater shots with a Nikonos lll so I am quite familiar with extension tubes. You seem to be quite the self proclaimed expert. Let’s see some examples. Your incorrect about the crab shot. The little fellow came strolling through our campsite. Set the camera on macro and placed it aprox 3-4” on the ground in front of him and waited for him to peek out. Again sorry I got you so upset.  

you lost me at " The way it works is you get the real-life size image on your sensor", does that mean the subject has to be smaller than the sensor? like, an half-inch or smaller?

REI Member Since 1979

When I first got interested in macro photography, that idea of a life size image threw me for a loop too and I finally needed a diagram to visualize it. This article here goes into more detail about the differences among close-up vs macro vs micro photography and includes the same sort of diagram that helped me.

But basically, yes, it does mean that a subject would be no larger than the size of the sensor itself. Otherwise you could not get a life size image on the sensor.

What size image that is depends on the sensor size. If your camera has a small sensor like @Flipperfla‘s 1/2.3 sensor size, then the sensor size is actually 6.17mm x 4.56mm that will mean very small subjects around a half inch in size on the diagonal. You mentioned having a Sony a6500, which has an APS-C sensor, which is 23.5mm x 15.6mm so true macro photography would be no larger than that size. I have several cameras, but the one I used on both the sample images I posted was an A7R III, which uses a full frame sensor, which measures 35.9mm x 24 mm. Medium format and large format would be even larger sensors. 

I find diagrams like the one on this link to be helpful in visualizing how different sensor sizes compare in terms of their physical sizes.

But yes, macro photography means very small subjects. That whole issue of getting a 1:1 minimum magnification does put some limits on subject size. In fact if you read the fine print on a lot of lenses/cameras that have a macro mode or that are marketed for close-up photography, they will frequently say that they are capable of macro-like images instead of claiming to produce true macro images. For example, I remember noticing that in the description of this lens:

The manufacturer says, “At the 75mm telephoto end, the 0.39m (15.3 in) MOD provides an image magnification of 1:4, allowing close-up shooting with a pleasantly blurred background similar to a macro lens.” “MOD” stands for minimum object difference, so this lens can focus on an object up to 15.3 inches away at its telephoto end.

Hope that helps clarify!