Maximize Sharp Detail in Macro Photography

In close-up or macro photography, some subjects (or scenes) work best when photographed with a great depth of field, while others work best when photographed with a shallow depth of field.

When you wish to reveal as much detail in a subject or scene as possible, a great depth of field is ideal. The smaller your aperture is, the greater your depth of field will be. In this figure, the background was an interesting part of the scene, so it was photographed at f/22 to maximize depth of field.

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100mm, 1/15, f/22, 400

A lens provides the optimum sharpness when used with an f/stop from the middle of its range. The lens’ smallest aperture (such as f/22) produces the greatest depth of field, but the lens will produce sharper results at f/8 or f/11. When maximizing your depth of field, understand that you’ll be increasing how much of the scene is in focus but sacrificing the quality of sharpness in your image.

Here is a list of scenarios in which you’d be likely to use a small aperture to maximize depth of field in an image:

  • When photographing a product, you generally need to show the entire subject in sharp focus, so that potential customers can see the details of the item they’re considering to buy.

  • If the background details in a scene are important to your message, you want to show detail in them. A great depth of field will enable you to capture the subject in sharp focus while also revealing informative details in the background.

  • When photographing multiple subjects, the best way to ensure they’re all in focus is to use a great depth of field.

  • In macro conditions such as a 1:1 magnification ratio or greater, your depth of field tends to become very shallow. The greater your level of magnification is, the shallower your depth of field becomes. Sometimes you need to use a small aperture just to show a moderate level of sharp detail in a scene.

Macro and close-up photography naturally produce images with shallow depth of fields because of the closeness of your camera to the subject and the level of magnification associated with this genre. Therefore, you’ll often be forced to use very small apertures that let in very low levels of light to obtain results with high levels of sharp focus.

Here are some things to consider when your aperture is closed down (when you have a small aperture setting):

  • Keep your shutter speed in mind. Shooting with a small aperture setting can increase your exposure time. To avoid blur, keep an eye on your shutter speed (especially when using the aperture priority mode) to ensure it’s not too slow for your subject.

  • Use your tripod. Using a small aperture can cause your shutter speed to be too slow for handholding the camera. Use a tripod to steady your shot.

  • Seek well-lit scenes. Because small apertures provide a small opening for light to enter through a lens, low-light scenarios present difficulties. Seek scenarios with bright conditions or use artificial lighting when necessary.

  • Boost your ISO. If you can’t increase the level of light in a scene, raise your ISO to increase the sensitivity of your camera’s digital sensor. Keep in mind that this also increases the amount of noise (digital artifacts similar to film grain) your images will have.

    Newer and higher-quality cameras enable you to shoot at extremely high ISO ratings (such as 1600 to 3200) without encountering a great deal of noise. If you’re shooting with an older or lower-quality camera, try using the camera’s noise-reduction feature (if it has one) or reducing noise in postproduction.

If you know you’ll be making postproduction enhancements to your images, shoot in RAW mode rather than JPG. Doing so fills your images with more information (or detail) and makes them easier to process on the computer without losing quality.

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