How to: Macro Photography

Using a macro lens can be a lot of fun. Not just useful for photographing things close-up, they’re often great portrait lenses too. But in this short how-to guide I’m going to concentrate on getting in close to your subject.

There are quite a few different brands of macro lenses but most work on pretty much the same principles. You might find some differences in the macro ratios; that is how magnified the subject will be when taken. 1:1 signifies that the subject will be life-sized on the sensor and this is the type I’m concentrating on. Your ratio might be different but this just means the subject may not be as magnified.

To start with, this is my macro lens. I use the Tamron 100mm f2.8 macro on my Nikon cameras as, while Tamrons aren’t quite as solid as Nikon lenses, I love their sharpness, and even though I use them professionally, I tend to baby my lenses so I know that I don’t have to worry too much about potential damage.

To start with, this is my macro lens. I use the Tamron 100mm f2.8 macro on my Nikon cameras as, while Tamrons aren’t quite as solid as Nikon lenses, I love their sharpness, and even though I use them professionally, I tend to baby my lenses so I know that I don’t have to worry too much about potential damage.

Focus Limiting

Generally somewhere on your lens will be a switch that ISN’T your focus switch. On my Tamron it says FULL/LIMIT (as you can see in the image), on the Canon 100mm it has two distance ranges, the IS version has FULL and 2 distance ranges and the Nikon 105mm has FULL and a distance range. Your lens may be different but you get the idea and hopefully you’ve found it. What these do is to tell the camera that you’re either using it normally and the autofocus will search for the focus point through the entire operating range, or by choosing LIMIT or the lowest of the distance ranges it lets it know you’re doing close up and so reduce the amount of hunting it may otherwise do.

Comparison showing the same subject photographed from the same distance but one with a crop sensor and the other full frame. Both images uncropped. I like that crop sensor cameras make you feel like you're getting that bit closer. All other images on here taken with the D300 because I wanted maximum closeup straight out of camera as I prefer to get my composition as right as possible in camera and so I feel the crop-sensor D300 allows me to get that right for these types of images.

Comparison showing the same subject photographed from the same distance but one with a crop sensor and the other full frame. Both images uncropped. I like that crop sensor cameras make you feel like you're getting that bit closer. All other images on here taken with the D300 because I wanted maximum closeup straight out of camera as I prefer to get my composition as right as possible in camera and so I feel the crop-sensor D300 allows me to get that right for these types of images.

Manual Focus

After saying all that, I find that I actually use manual focus for the most part when doing macro photography. Because I’m usually working at the closest possible distance to the lens I set my focus on the very closest it will focus, leave it there and then move my body to actually get my subject into focus. You’ll notice that it doesn’t take much to lose focus on the subject when you’re that close, the slightest breeze and your subject has moved! If you have the setup, a tripod is invaluable for these types of images if your subject is a static one and not flying around!

Spiderweb in log. Nikon D300 with Tamron 90mm macro. ISO400 1/160 @f4.5

Spiderweb in log. Nikon D300 with Tamron 90mm macro. ISO400 1/160 @f4.5

Exposure 101

As for exposure, you can find that close up work can often fool the meter if you’re working in auto or semi-auto. Now’s the time to learn a little bit of manual photography if your camera has a M setting. It’s incredibly easy and well worth learning!

When it’s metering, your camera is looking to create a neutral grey as output. This is its purpose and it will do it relentlessly. Which is fine if you’re shooting a grey bug on a grey background. However, take a closeup of a black fly on a green leaf and all of a sudden it’s overexposed. Why? Because the camera sees the green leaf as neutral grey, but the fly is black, so:

 grey + black = camera decides it needs to lighten things up to get an average grey

So what do we do? Easy-peasey! Grass, surprisingly, is very close to neutral grey in tone. If you’re somewhere outdoors, set the camera to M, aim the camera lens at a patch of grass in the same kind of light that your subject will be in and move your dials to get correct exposure. Hopefully you have a little knowledge of shutter speeds, apertures and ISO, but if not basics are the higher the shutter speed number the more you stop motion (and help with camera shake), the lower the aperture…e.g. f2.8 the less of the image will be focused, giving you that lovely out of focus backgrounds, but also restricting how much will be in focus so you have to focus VERY carefully. If you want the whole flower or insect in focus, move the aperture number up higher, say f8 or over. The good thing about digital is it doesn’t cost to play around and test these things for yourself.

Lots of green and perfect exposure from metering the green. Nikon D300 with Tamron 90mm macro. ISO 400 1/160 @f4.5

Lots of green and perfect exposure from metering the green. Nikon D300 with Tamron 90mm macro. ISO 400 1/160 @f4.5

Now if you’re not outside, or there’s no grass around, human skin is generally quite close to neutral grey. Hold your hand up with the palm facing you, meter from that and then OVEREXPOSE by about 1 or 2 stops depending on your skin tone. You might have to have a play around with this one, but it’s all fun and makes life so much easier (and people will look at you and wonder why your hand is so interesting when you do this at a job ;) )

So there we have it, that’s about the basics to close up photography. Now go out and play and have fun with it!

Any questions please ask below!

Cherry Blossom. Nikon D300 with Tamron 90mm macro lens. ISO 800 1/125 @f11

Cherry Blossom. Nikon D300 with Tamron 90mm macro lens. ISO 800 1/125 @f11

All text and images copyright Anjella Roessler Photography 2014.