How to Take a Macro Photo with Your Digital SLR Camera

Your dSLR can be used to take macro photos. Macro photos tend to evoke “oohs” and “aahs" from people because they give you a vantage point you don’t normally see. Small bugs become huge. Hidden details become visible. The mundane becomes magical.

Shoot at close ranges

Macro lenses can focus on objects much closer than standard zoom or prime lenses. Depending on the lens you're using, you may be able to position yourself a few inches (or fewer) from your subject.

Light and using the viewfinder can sometimes be problems when this close. If you can't see what's happening through your viewfinder, switch to Live view. This will also help if you manually focus. This photo was taken in a studio setting, so there were lots of bright lights shining from several angles.

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Depth of field

When you move this close to your subjects, you realize that aperture isn't the only factor that affects depth of field. At these ranges, the depth of field will shrink, regardless of what setting you choose. Keep in mind that the settings you’re used to won’t produce the same results. In general, when shooting macros or close-up work, you will work with apertures set to f/16 or smaller.

This increases the depth of field enough so that subjects are reasonably sharp. The depth of field is still small, however. When it's a problem, you can rely on positioning to manage depth of field. Rather than shoot at an angle, you can flatten your angle so that what you’re interested in is on the same plane.

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Working with very shallow depths of field can make focusing difficult. Move the camera until the scene looks best, then take the photo.

Shooting handheld (with a flash)

You can set up a base camp and mount your camera on a tripod to shoot flowers, but bugs move. They flit here and there. Going handheld is always an option.

The image of the fly is sharp, colorful, and in focus. If you look carefully, you can see a reflection in the fly's body segments. The brighter spots are from the flash. The external flash helped light the scene. The aperture is set to f/11 as a compromise between having a decent depth of field and needing more light.

Even with those changes, the shutter speed was a paltry 1/60 second. Thankfully, the macro lens had vibration reduction.

Exposure can sometimes be a problem when you stop down (set a smaller aperture).

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Maximize shutter speed

If you’re shooting bugs, you have to handle movement. If you’re shooting either inanimate or slow-moving objects, tracking, framing, and focusing get easier. For this, the camera was stopped down to f/22 to maximize the depth of field and the shutter speed increased to 1/400 second. This kept most of the beetle in focus and froze his movement.

To make up for the lost light, the ISO was increased to 1600. The morning light was very strong, so there was no need for a flash.

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Controlled conditions

When you’re working inside your studio, you have much more control over your setup and lighting.

When you’re in the studio, mount your camera on a tripod to ensure stability. This also lets you make the shutter speed as slow as you need.

Relax your angle of view

Not all macros need to be microscopic wonders. Depending on the lens you're working with and the distance you are from your subject, you may shoot something that’s more or less a close-up.

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Extension tubes

Extension tubes are simply that. They extend the lens away from the camera by a certain amount to increase the reproduction ratio of the lens. Using extension tubes isn’t as simple as increasing the lens’s focal length. That's what teleconverters do. It also isn’t like putting a magnifying glass up to the lens. That's what diopters do.

Extension tubes increase the magnification ratio by physically moving the camera closer to the subject. It is magnified more because the subject appears larger to the camera. When you move closer to something, it gets bigger. One cost of using an extension tube is that it limits how far you can focus.

Most sets come with three different size tubes. This set has a 12mm, 20mm, and 36mm. You can mix and match them to create different magnification ratios. For example, if you use the 12 and 36mm tubes with a 50mm lens, the magnification ratio is just over 1.0 if the focus is set to half a meter.

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Oddly enough, one consequence of how the magnification ratio is calculated is that the magnification factor decreases as you increase the focal length of your lens. In other words, if you use the same extension tube with a 35mm lens and then a 50mm lens, the 35mm photo will have a greater magnification ratio when you compare them to each other.

Use shorter lenses to get greater magnification ratios when paired with extension tubes.

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Diopters

If you don't want the hassle of putting extension tubes between your lens and the camera, try screwing in one or more diopters. They have upsides in spades:

  • They work on any lens you have.

  • They won’t mess with your shooting modes, autofocus, or other camera features that rely on communicating with the lens (unlike teleconverters and extension tubes).

  • They can be mixed and matched to increase the amount of magnification.

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As you can see, diopters do contain optical elements. The glass is very important. Take care of them by always keeping them in a protective case and cleaning them regularly. Cheaper filters will degrade your photos more than a high-quality set.

This shot is individual wires from a cable. At this magnification, you see not only each wire very clearly, but how the copper was distorted when the wire was cut.

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