Up close and Personal – MACRO Photography Tips

This post is also published on PictureCorrect.com. You can find it here.

Whether you accept it or not, we all love MACRO photographs. I mean, who doesn’t like an intensely detailed bug or a flower on a silky creamy background? The first thing that we do after getting our hands on DSLR for the first time is to go to our backyard and start taking flower pictures. But in reality , MACRO photography is much more difficult as it seems to be. I do normally landscape and street photography but recently I decided to give a try to MACRO and found it to be much more challenging technically as compared to any other type of photography.

I just started it, so I am not an authority on it. But I just learned some stuff about it so I decided to write a blog post on it to keep everything in order so that I can start improving on top of it.

Like every picture, a macro has its aesthetic as well as technical aspects so first start with its aesthetic qualities because it’s easier to learn and it doesn’t require any extra gear/add-on.

Aesthetic Qualities

1. Simplicity IMG_8718

The Allium by Imran Zahid

Macro is all about one and only subject. Unlike landscape or street or any other type of photography, it doesn’t and shouldn’t have any layers or multiple points of interests. The image should be damn flat with all the attention leading towards the subject with minimum connection with background. When I am saying minimum connection I mean aesthetically background should not grab attention of viewers. It should be very simple. We can achieve this by either blurring it or using high contrast compositions which is what we call figure to ground relationship.

2. Details

IMG_8746
Apple by Imran Zahid

The ultimate goal of a macro shot is to show the unique and fantasy world that normally we cannot see with our naked eye. So choose your subjects wisely. Don’t select subjects that we used to observe normally in detail. Choose subjects and their angles that we are unaware of. Try to show the absolute level of detail that even if we look closely with our naked eye , we can’t. That’s where the MACRO photos actually shine. That’s why a lot of people are going towards insects and bugs as we don’t normally observe them so closely. As the saying goes , the devil is in the details. So , get extremely close to your subject and try to bring a completely new world to your viewers.

3. Composition

IMG_9240
The Fly by Imran Zahid

Just because there are minimal components in MACRO photograph, doesn’t make it less worthy for putting effort in composition. In fact, composition is extremely vital for the success of macro photos. Composition rules like golden ratio, rule of thirds, diagonals and leading lines were never so important before MACRO photography. It’s very important to create dynamic and fluent compositions or else chances are that even with immense amount of captured details, the photograph will still fall flat on its face. So utilize all those composition rules on macro to make it more interesting and eye catchy.

With all its simplicity, MACRO photography is not at all simple when it comes to technical aspects. Below are some of the technicalities you need to keep in mind while doing MACRO.

Technical Challenges and their solution

1. Limited Depth of Field

IMG_8447-3
Housefly by Imran Zahid

Normally when we do portraits or stock or street photography, we are doing everything in our power to create creamy bokeh and shallow depth of field. But when it comes to MACRO it’s the other way around. We are doing everything to get a few extra millimeters in focus so that we can capture details properly. Because we are focusing very closely (normally only a few inches) , depth of field is literally in millimeters. Now you can do a couple of things . You can go back a little , loose some details but get more focus or increase aperture. Both approaches have their own pros and cons. You can only increase aperture to a limit where diffraction don’t happen otherwise entire picture will be soft. Even if you increase aperture within limits, since it changes exposure, you need to either slow down shutter speed or increase ISO.YES, welcome to Hell of MACRO world. So it’s a whole trial and error procedure to see what’s acceptable for you in given condition.

2. Exposure / Lack of light

IMG_8667-4
The Bee by Imran Zahid

As mentioned above , you need to increase your aperture to your maximum limit if you want your tiny subject to be completely in focus. But with this approach , your exposure will be down by miles. Now in order to get proper exposure , you can do a few things.

  1. You can decrease shutter speed if possible (stationary subject)
  2. Increase ISO to acceptable limits
  3. Use some sort of flash

Best solution is a combination of all. Now a day camera ISO performance is pretty good , so you can go with this option safely. Flash with some modifiers are also cheap. Even popup flashes will work. I do all MACRO work with popup flash. It can produce decent results. Shutter speed cannot be changed in most of the situations but whenever its possible go for it too.

3. Noise Reduction

IMG_8544-3
Daisy Flower by Imran Zahid

Even after all these remedies, still you picture will have a lot of noise especially if you are using crop censor bodies like me. And since MACRO pictures are normally simple in composition with very plan/creamy backgrounds , the noise is very much visible. So, you might not came across this noise issue until now in other types of photography but you need to seriously know how to reduce noise in you photos now. Noise reduction and sharpening go side by side and I can point you to some of very good tutorials on it that really helped me overcome this.

How to do Noise Reduction in Lightroom

How to Properly Sharpen Images in Lightroom

The whole point of this section is not to De-motivate you but to actually prepare you to handle all these issues. They are not as big as it seems. But if you really like your photographs to be what you saw on internet , you need to work around these issues.

Conclusion

Macro photography is really fun. Even on those days where you feel dull and you don’t want to go outside for landscapes, street or any other type of photography. You can do macro in your backyard or even in your room. Its really fun. Its demanding but at the same time very rewarding as well. If budget is not your problem you can certainly go for following gear to help you in your tasks.

  1. Ring flashes for beautiful even lighting or even separate TTL flash for controlled lighting.
  2. Full frame body for better ISO performance.
  3. A good tripod with cable release for stationary subjects.
  4. Flash modifiers and backgrounds for creating some mood in your photos.

Even if you are on a budget, don’t let this hamper your spirit. You can do everything without all fancy gear. You just need to be patient and know have to how to work around these issues. The WORD here is persistence. Stick to your goal and you will eventually able to do it. You don’t even need a dedicated MACRO lens for it. If you are on a budget You can go on following route

  1. Instead of dedicated MACRO lens, go for reverse ring or extension tubes. A little difficult but much less costly than lenses.
  2. Instead of ring flashes , purchase popup flash modifiers. Very cheap in market.
  3. Learn thoroughly how to reduce noise and increase sharpness in light room/Photoshop.

That’s it. Happy hunting

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Nitin Khanna says:

    Great work and efforts. loved all the pictures and article too. Specially liked the picture with Apple ( Details ). Appreciate your work and efforts.

    Like

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