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The Basics of Macro Photography

As a photographer, one of the things I strive to do is to show a part of my world that others would have simply overlooked. This may be in the form of creative lighting or composition that focuses on a unique perspective or maybe some creative editing. One of the ways I venture out into the world to find a unique thing to share is by exploring the amazing world that is right under our noses just by zooming in really close and taking a fresh look.

First of all, let’s define the term “Macro Photography.” The first thing that I want to point out is that this is a sub-specialty of photography that does NOT require the use of a macro lens! Macro lenses are certainly designed specifically for macro photography, and they are a wonderful tool. But it’s very important to understand that not all photos you take with a macro lens will be macro photography, and not all macro photographs are taken with macro lenses.

What is macro photography? Macro photography is the practice of photographing small objects in a way that renders them larger than life size. One way to express this has to do with magnification. I would argue that in order to be a macro photograph, the subject needs at the very least to be at a 1:1 ratio to its actual size.

This ratio can be a bit tricky to grasp at first, so let’s use the example of photographing an object or person that is one meter long. On the sensor inside your camera, when your image is captured, let’s just say that the size of that object is rendered as a 1cm object in the frame of your camera sensor. That object has then been photographed at 1:100 magnification. In that illustration, the object is 100 times larger in real life than in your photograph. In order for a photography to be truly considered macro, you need to get that ratio all the way down to 1:1. So in reality, you have to be looking at images that are no larger than your camera’s sensor. In a full-frame camera, that’s roughly the size of a 35mm frame on film. If you have a crop sensor or a micro 4:3 camera, the sensors are even smaller, so the maximum size of a 1:1 object will be smaller.

The next thing we need to unpack a bit is the notion of minimum focusing distance. If you have the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens your minimum focusing distance is .45 meters, which translates to 17.72 inches. The maximum magnification on this lens is .15x. This is due to the fact that you can’t get any closer than 17.72 inches to your subject. Minimum focal distance and maximum magnification are statistics that are almost always listed in the specifications of a lens. You don’t need to become a mathematician, you can simply look up what these numbers are for each given lens.

Let’s compare two lenses with fairly similar focal lengths. I’m going to select two lenses from my own inventory, so I can illustrate this live and in person when presenting this to students and enthusiasts. I have a Sigma 85mm 1.4 Art lens, and I also have the Canon 100mm 2.8L macro lens. These lenses have very similar focal lengths, 85mm vs. 100mm; but they behave in VERY different ways, because one is a macro lens, and the other is not.

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art

Focal length: 85mm

Minimum Focus Distance: 33.46”

Maximum Magnification: 0.12x

Canon 100mm f/2.8 L Macro

Focal length: 100mm

Minimum Focus Distance: 12”

Maximum Magnification: 1.0

These are two amazing lenses. But it’s very easy to see that the lens that is specifically designed for macro work allows a vastly higher native magnification than the one that not.

So is a macro lens necessary? …Absolutely not!

Extension Tubes

One of the most affordable ways to begin exploring macro photography is the use of extension tubes. I’m a Canon shooter, and there are two Canon brand tubes available, 12mm and 25mm. I own the 25mm Canon, and have used it for quite a while. However, I have also just received a set of three Kenko extension tubes. Their set of three includes 12mm, 20mm and 36mm. This set of three sells for roughly half the price of the two Canon tubes. Personally, I would highly recommend that Kenko trio for someone interested in delving into some macro or near-macro photography. Tubes can be stacked to create a wide assortments of lengths. With the Canon set, you will have 12mm, 25mm and 27mm if you combine the two. With the Kenko set, you will have 12mm, 20mm, 32mm, 36mm, 48mm, 56mm and 68mm. That's a huge assortment of options!

An extension tube attaches between your camera body and your lens. It moves your lens farther away from your sensor, which adjusts your minimum focusing distance, and the ratio of the original image vs. the copy that is focused onto your sensor inside your camera. The longer the extension, the more magnification you will have. While you will keep your auto-focus capabilities, the AF speed may slow down a bit with the introduction of an extension tube. Another slightly negative effect is that there will be a bit less light reaching your sensor as you extend the length.

Since there are no optical elements in an extension tube, it makes perfect sense to save yourself some cash, and opt for the Kenko set of three, instead of the Canon branded pair. You will literally spend half the money, and get three tubes instead of two. As a Canon shooter, I’m not as intimately familiar with the line-up of other brands, but a quick search online returned a number of results for Nikon extension tubes. In their case as well, the price is dramatically higher than the Kenko tubes. A set of three Kenko appears to sell for roughly $124, while each individual offering from Nikon sells in the $90 range.

The most important thing you will want to ensure when looking at extension tubes is that they have the pin connectors to transfer Auto Focus and exposure reading/aperture control information. As long as those metal contacts are in place, and it is the correct mount for your camera and lens, you are in good shape!

Here is a link to the Kenko tubes, which I highly recommend to photographers as their very first means to start exploring macro photography.

Macro Filters

There is an option available for macro photography that I feel it is very important to mention, although I don’t personally have any experience with a single one of these items. Essentially it’s a magnifying glass filter that screws onto your lens. These are generally very inexpensive. I have never used one of these filters, and there is a reason why. I have a very major problem placing inexpensive glass in front of my extremely high-quality lenses. I generally use lenses that cost anywhere from $800 on the low end, up to $2500 each. So in my mind, when I’m investing that kind of money in good glass, it is just silly to put optically inferior products in front of my front lens element. Where the extension tubes have zero glass in them, they are just literally a tube with electrical contacts, the macro filter is a glass lens that you screw onto your lens.

Now I wouldn’t mention a technique that is worthless. Are macro filters usable? Absolutely. In general, they come in various magnification levels. You screw them on to the front thread of your lens, and the image is magnified.

Since I have never used one, I am not going to expound on them any further, but to simply state that they exist, they are inexpensive, and for some folks, it might be the thing that entices you to try macro photography. If this idea resonates with you, by all means, research the right one for your lens, and check one out! Just a warning, you need to make sure that your filter is the proper size for your lens. Somewhere on your lens, probably near the front element, you will see a size in millimeters. It may be 67mm or 77mm or 52mm… whatever that size is, that is the size filter you need to order. Another hint for finding your filter size is to check the back of your lens cap. It will almost always have the size on the back side of the cap.

Reversing Rings

Another option for macro photography is a device that allows you to mount your lens backwards. The part that was previously the front element gets mounted to your camera body via this reversing ring device, and then you are actually using the end that used to mount to your camera body as your front element. I have again had very minimal experience with this. I did a review of a very expensive version of this quite a while ago. The product was made by Novoflex, and it was about $450. Honestly, I couldn’t get it to work well at all! I found it frustrating, unreliable and most importantly, I felt like it was risky to have my rear-most lens exposed to the elements. The front element of your lens probably has a very special coating to help it resist fingerprints, to clean easily, and to avoid scratching. The part of the lens that is supposed to be out of the elements traditionally doesn’t have this coating. It also allows your rear element to get dirty and dusty, and then you flip it around to mount normally, and introduce that dirt and dust directly to the interior of your camera body. For me, I just wasn’t keen on risking any of that. It absolutely does give you great magnification, and it avoids introducing cheap glass into your setup, but it involves some risk. Most of these devices also do not facilitate a way to maintain auto-focus or any electronics capabilities of your lenses.


A bellows can be inserted between your lens and camera body, and will essentially work like an expandable extension tube. The farther you extend the bellows, the closer your front element must be to your subject, the more magnification you get, and the more light-loss you incur. Here again, is a product that I do not use in my regular macro workflow, but I have used one for the purposes of writing a review. The one that I used was a specialty bellows by Novoflex, which is made to keep all of the electronic communication active between the lens and the camera.

There are a couple of reasons why I would not go this route. First, is the cost. The list price on that Novoflex bellows is over $1000. That’s obviously more than the cost of most macro specific lenses. Second, even though the contacts are maintained, since there is so much light loss involved, you generally lose auto focus anyway. It’s pretty silly to pay that amount of money in order to have electronic communication that will essentially be rendered useless, anyway. And the third reason is probably extremely silly, but the only time I have ever broken a lens in my life, is when I was testing these bellows. By the time the lens was extended to full distance from my camera body, the center of gravity had shifted enough that my camera tipped forward. It was on a table-top tripod, not a big huge sturdy tripod, and the lip of the lens hit the table I was working on. That one little slip cost me about $250.00 to repair my broken lens mount.

It’s certainly not reasonable to think that everyone would be as clumsy as I am, but for my own decision making process, that one experience was enough.

Depth of Field and Aperture

Regardless of the method that you use to achieve macro or near-macro magnification, you will have to contend with the fact that your focal plane will become extremely small. When you start working with this tiny world, you will need to either accept this minute depth of field, or overcome it with a technique called focus stacking. I’ll discuss that a bit more in depth in a moment.

The first thing you will want to do is reset what might be in your mind as a ‘good’ aperture setting. I am a portrait photographer. When I shoot portraits, sometimes I like to use f/1.4. In macro work, that would result in an acceptable focus range of just the thinnest sliver. Everything in front or behind that sliver of focused material, everything would be completely blurred out. When you start exploring macro photography, you need to close down your aperture. I would suggest maybe looking at f/16 or even pushing it a tiny bit smaller than that, depending on the quality of your lens.

Are you not familiar or comfortable with aperture? Check out this article by fellow member of the Photographers Cooperative, Aaron Taylor, on Aperture.

Some lenses will allow you to close down to outrageously tiny settings (f/32, etc.) The down side to those tiny apertures are that you tend to get more diffraction as a result. I’m not going to jump down the rabbit hole of diffraction in this article, but let’s just leave it at this: extremely small apertures cause increasingly more diffraction, and that is a bad thing. If you are interested in learning more about diffraction, you can google the term, and as soon as you find a discussion about bending light rays, you have found what you are looking for! But for us, today – it’s bad.

So circling back to my main point here, you don’t want to shoot wide open, you want an aperture setting on the smaller side. I use f/16. That will give you the biggest slice of in-focus image possible. Sometimes, however, you may still find that the tiny bit of the frame that is in focus is just not enough. In that case, it’s time to talk about the idea of focus stacking.

Here is a great article from Aaron Taylor on Depth of Field.

Focus Stacking

If you have ever seen a macro image of a bug’s eyes, or a flower, or anything else that has a bit of depth to it, and the entire image is razor sharp, it’s highly likely that you are looking at a stacked series of images. When you are looking at three dimensional objects, and the points closest to the camera and farthest from the camera are all super-sharp and in focus, the photographer has probably taken multiple images, focused on different parts of the subject, then merged them together in a software program of some sort.

Here is another one of those areas where you could jump down a major rabbit hole, in terms of the different software that is available to achieve focus stacking. Personally, I use Adobe Photoshop. We are all on different steps of the photographic journey, and I am pretty confident that if I continue to delve into macro more deeply, I will start to explore the other software options for focus stacking. But, for the initial dive into the topic, it was just simplest to use the tool that I already had. The actual process of doing a focus-stacked image isn’t all that hard!

First, you don’t take a single image, you take many. I personally like using a device called a focusing rail. The focusing rail has a little dial, and it will move your entire camera toward or away from your image, in the tiniest little increments. When I am working on a focus stack, I like to attain focus on the part of the subject that is closest to my lens first, then I leave my camera alone. I take my first shot, then I turn the knob on the focusing rail ever-so-slightly. I take shot number 2, then repeat this process over and over again, until I am focused on the most distant part of the subject. Depending on the overall size of your subject, this may be 5 or 6 images, or it might be 50 images.

My workflow is to then import the photos into Adobe Lightroom. I make whatever color or other adjustments on frame number 1, then I sync across to all of the images, so they are all exactly the same. I select all of the images that are going to be part of my focus stack, then I right click on them, and choose the option “Open as Layers in Photoshop”. This will open up Photoshop, and it will probably take a minute or two to get everything all imported. Once all of your images are showing as separate layers in Photoshop, you go to the Edit menu, and select “Auto-Align Layers.” This tells photoshop to go in and line up all of your photos exactly with each other. Once that function is completed, I crop out any excess that is not cleanly part of the auto-aligned result. Then, I go into the edit menu, and select “Auto Blend Layers.” That tells photoshop to use its best judgement to pick the sharpest parts of each image, and use those. It creates masks to hide the blurrier parts.

Sometimes Photoshop is less than perfect at this operation. Usually it’s very good, but I have had a few experiences where I have had to go in and manually adjust those masks. That can get to be a little bit tedious, but you can take a brush, and by going to each individual mask, you would paint with white (white reveals!) to expose something that was inadvertently hidden. And likewise, if an out-of-focus section is revealed, you want to conceal it by finding that layer, and painting in black on the mask. PRO TIP: Make sure you are painting on the mask, not on the actual image! Painting with black on the image itself would be like painting with a black paintbrush on your photo. Not the desired effect! You want to black out the mask.

The image above is a stack of 12 different images, so that the entire flower is in focus.

Focusing Rail Options

I personally shoot with the Novoflex Castel-Q focusing rails. It’s not just one rail, but two, so you have complete control of both the X and Y axis when composing your shot. This set-up also includes an L bracket, and a Panorama head, so it’s essentially the “BMW” of focusing rail options. I reviewed them for an article a couple of years back, and purchased the demo units after my review. I love them! However, the price may be a bit of a sticking point for someone that is just beginning to explore macro photography, coming in at $775 list price, and usually selling around $650.

For someone just getting their feet wet, I highly recommend either the Oben MFR4-5 Macro Focusing Rail. These are much more affordable at just $119.95.

Macro Lenses

First of all, one of the most important things to mention about most macro lenses is that they are not limited to only that use case. On the Canon side of things, there are four macro lenses available, and three of those four are also fine for general use. One of them is a specialty lens that will not serve in any other capacity.

This is the macro lens that I own and use as my main macro lens. I use it for ring shots for my wedding work, and also use it for my artistic macro work that I do just for pure enjoyment. It is also a fine portrait lens! The 100mm focal length is a pretty flattering one for portraits, and the lens focuses extremely quickly, and also has Image Stabilization. It’s a 5-star lens in my opinion.

There is also a non-L version of this same lens. Folks who own that non-L version are very fond of it, but I would be lying if I gave my own opinion – I have never shot that lens.

I haven’t used this lens, and it might not be quite the powerhouse portrait lens as the 100mm 2.8, but it’s definitely a lens that you could use for other purposes at that 180mm focal length. At f/3.5 it’s not going to gather quite as much light as the 2.8, either. These are the two main reasons I ruled it out when I was getting a macro lens. The one distinct advantage that it does offer is that at 180mm focal length, it will be a greater zoom factor.

This spider was smaller than a flea, photographed with the MP-E 65mm

This is an incredibly specialized lens. In a sense, it has the extension tube feature built right in to the lens, in the form of a telescoping tube that you activate by twisting the main ‘zoom’ ring. This lens doesn’t have auto-focus, and in fact, it doesn’t even have manual focus! You attain focus by moving the front element closer/farther from the subject. This is not a lens for a beginner. That being said, it does offer up to 5x magnification, which is a very dramatic amount of zoom capability. I rented this lens once to give it a try, and I found it fascinating. If I were going to make macro my main specialty, I would own one, without a doubt. It is a very specific tool for a very specific job, and it is specifically tailored to macro photographers.

Summing Things Up

Ultimately, just like any other sub-genre of photography, you can delve into macro photography in a cursory way, or you can immerse yourself in this genre to the extent that it becomes your entire body of work as a photographer. For the hobbyist who has a passing curiosity, you can very affordably use your existing lenses, and some extension tubes to create some truly rewarding results. For the specialist, there is an entire world of gear, software, techniques and knowledge that will keep you busy for as long as you remain interested in the tiny world around you.

For me, one of the most gratifying parts of macro photography is to produce a look at the world that the average person simply never has the opportunity to see for themselves. If you are in the same flower garden as 200 other people, they will not have seen what your camera captured, if shooting macro. That yields some fascinating photographers, and a wonderful opportunity to create work that others will be very interested in exploring.


Mark is a professional photographer working in the eastern United States. He is based in suburban Philadelphia, but shoots regularly in New York and eastern North Carolina, as well. Specializing in wedding & portrait photography, he is particularly a obsessed with capturing special events, moments and emotions.

In July, 2018, he is teaming up with Connor Hibbs to offer a special 3-day workshop in portraiture at the 155th annual Gettysburg re-enactments. If you are interested in Portrait Lighting, and action portraiture, you can learn more about that opportunity here.

In Fall of 2018, he will be presenting a hands-on gear show through the Pennsylvania Center for Photography. Details about that opportunity will be available as the date gets closer!

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