How can I take really great macro photography?
That’s the question I have asked myself when I have seen amazing macro photos online. Macro photography is an entirely different world of photography and it can open up some incredible things you don’t even know exist. This is part of the appeal for me. You also don’t need to go far to find these other worlds, or have an incredible garden to find things of interest to photograph.
You may not have the flowers in your garden, but even if that is the case, you can go to horticultural gardens and National Trust locations to find interesting flowers and the insects they attract. Ideal for great macro photography opportunities.
Macro photography lenses
Personally I own a Canon 100mm image stabilised macro lens and also a Canon MP E Macro 65mm 1-5x macro lens. These are quite expensive lenses, but you don’t have to necessarily pay a lot to take macro photos.
When I say 1:1, what I am talking about is the magnification factor. So for example if you took an ant and put it on the sensor of the camera (not recommended!), it would be 1:1 or actual size (no magnification) in relation to the image frame. If that ant was photographed at 2:1 it be would magnified on the sensor at twice the size. The larger of the two lenses I own goes up to 5:1, so I can (with difficulty) take a photo of a bug magnified to 5x its actual size. The downside is that the area of the image that is kept in focus becomes almost impossibly small (more on that later).
Many cheap lenses that tout themselves as ‘macro’ aren’t in reality true macro as they cannot project the image of the subject at 1:1 on the sensor. They are more ‘close up’ lenses I guess.
The focal length of a macro lens will affect your results too. You can buy macro lenses from wide to telephoto. However a wider focal length means you get a deeper area of focus (‘depth of field‘), but you have to move the lens physically closer to the subject for it to be in focus as a macro image. You also get more of the environment around the subject in the photo, when you might not want that. Long macro lenses like the Canon 180mm f3.5 macro lens allow you to stay further away from the nervous bug you are photographing, but the depth of the area in focus is shallower. They do however also allow you to include less of the surrounding background as they have more of a funnelled view.
There are many, many factors other than the brief details above, but maybe I won’t get bogged down into that just yet.
What are good macro subjects to photograph?
How about butterflies? I think most people when they first start doing some macro photography will go looking for a moth or a butterfly. They are pretty and they land on flowers. Perhaps not the most original of subject matter, but there is no doubt they do provide a good point of entry into macro photography.
The first stumbling blocks of macro photography
If butterflies, moths or dragonflies are what you first start pointing a macro lens at, you quickly find they don’t sit still for long and they can be hard to find.
A simple way around this is to visit a butterfly zoo. The photos below were taken at the Wye Valley Butterfly Zoo in Herefordshire. There was once one in Congresbury, but unfortunately that one closed. I have also visited one at the The National Botanic Garden of Wales. Given they can’t fly off further than the enclosure and they have plenty of food, it’s easy to get plenty of good shots in a butterfly zoo.
The second challenge is, you quickly find that even when you do find a willing subject, you can’t seem to get it all in focus. That’s where ‘depth of field‘ comes into play.
In the above photo, you can see the entire butterfly is in focus and the background is out of focus. This is brilliant, just what you want, at least for this photo.
This photo above has been taken at more of an angle. I’m pleased with how it turned out, but you can see how the point of focus is on the butterfly eye and everything goes quickly out of focus behind it, which in this case includes its wing. Depending on the aperture chosen and how close you are to the subject, will affect what is in and what is out of focus. At this point when looking through the camera viewfinder, you have to decide what looks ok being out of focus. With the above image the interest is the flower and the head of the butterfly, so I can afford to lose a bit of the wing (which looks a bit damaged anyway).
You can of course manipulate the depth of field to a certain extent, but the closer you get to the subject and the more magnification you use, the less using a small aperture will help you. Eventually the area you are able to keep in focus can be so shallow that even the act of breathing whilst holding the camera can throw your image out of focus. It’s at that point you either have to be very good at keeping still, or you use a tripod to stop the distance from the camera to your subject from changing. A single mm change in distance could be the difference between a good shot and a bad one!
This was a lucky find. Perhaps the wings are not in the best condition, but nonetheless an interesting photo. I deliberately made sure the two butterflies were perpendicular to the camera so that they fell nicely into the depth of field (you did read about how depth of field works from the link above right?). I am actually slightly off angle, as the head of the left butterfly isn’t quite as sharp, but sometimes you have to get a quick shot even if not perfect or you may not get anything at all if they fly off!
This photo is actually a heavy crop of the original, but if you get a good sharp and well lit photo with no signs of camera shake, then you can crop in and still get a good image. The pattern is made up almost a petal like structure which closely resembles pixels of a digital image – amazing!
At the butterfly zoo and it is the same with all I have been to; they leave out bananas as the butterflies love them. The bananas start to rot and the butterflies seem to suck up the juice through their own built in large straw! You can also see in the photo above a fruit fly perched on the banana skin on the right. Distinctive because of their bright red eyes.
I don’t think this is one of the two butterflies connected in the picture earlier, but its delicate wing structure is quite fascinating.
Again quite a heavily cropped macro photo. This butterfly almost seems to be covered in a powder which is its pattern. I think in actual fact it is probably very fine hairs like near its eyes and mouth. Those tongues (proboscis) of theirs really are very long so they can get the nectar deep inside the flower.
Another side on photo, which allows me to get the full pattern of this what I think is a moth. The butterflies and moths are not always in flight so if you don’t startle them, they quite happily pose for you.
Insect macro photography
More common, but harder to photograph are your common garden insects like bumble bees, honey bees, beetles and wasps. I say harder to photograph because people don’t say “busy little bees” for nothing!
How to take great macro photos of insects
There are a few tricks you can use to get good shots of bees and other fidgety insects, but even then it will take patience and skill.
- Take macro photos in full sunshine or very bright shade in order to get a fast shutter speed and freeze any motion by you or the subject.
- When you have enough light, you can then use a smaller aperture like f8 or f11. This will mean the background won’t be quite as blurry, but at least the insect is less likely to be blurry too!
- Set you camera to manual. As long as you get your exposure right to begin with, and the sun doesn’t suddenly go behind the clouds, the exposure of the photo will then be one less thing to worry about.
- If you can set your camera to continuously focus on the moving insect, then do that, manual focus is very difficult on a moving subject.
- If you are not using a tripod and your lens or camera body has a stabilisation function, use it.
- Use the middle focus point in the viewfinder. It’s not great composition, but usually the middle focus points are the most accurate. You will likely crop the image for a more pleasing composition later anyway.
- Always focus on the eye of the insect.
- If you can, get down to the same level of the insect, overhead photos usually don’t look as good, but you may not always have time to properly position yourself.
- Be patient and take lots of photos. Expect to take 20 shots or more to get a handful of good ones.
I think this is a hover fly. I think the shape of it, it’s huge eyes and it’s striking pattern makes it a great subject.
It has this huge unfolding mouth that sucks up the nectar from the flowers it lands on. A bit gross really, but fascinating.
Here it is again, but with its shield bug friend.
I think this may also be a hover fly, but a different variety as it has different markings.
A closer up view. It somewhat resembles a Harrier Jump Jet in the way its body and wings are angled.
This hover fly is smaller that the others. Perhaps a baby one or a different variety I don’t know. Anyway it seems to be busy cleaning its face.
And now time to clean its backside.
Finally, time to clean its back legs.
Again a very similar wasp type creature, but this time mating. I think I was about to hang washing out at the time I saw this and I knew if I didn’t drop everything and go and get the camera, I would miss my opportunity! Sure enough they didn’t hang around for long, but it was just long enough to get a handful of shots. I took a few and then thought maybe I would go and get my flash. By the time I had come back, they had gone.
In my garden I have a cherry tree and it has extrafloral nectaries, which are the little red dots this wasp is feeding on. Basically, the reason for a plant having these is to attract predatory insects that like the nectar. Then whilst there the insects will also eat and keep away insects harmful to the plant. Genius eh.
This little guy was probably only 5mm long. The surface of the leaf looks like a layer of glass on top of a green core.
This shield bug really interested me. It had so much detail and texture over its exoskeleton.
The shield bug also appeared to have a foldaway long mouth part as you can see from the above photo. It was a very bright sunny September day when I took this so you can see a lot of detail on the area in focus.
From pretty butterflies to miniature monsters!
Ok so thus far the photos above have all been taken on my Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro lens. This is a 1:1 lens, and with some practice is relatively easy to use. Some of the photos below have been taken on my Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x macro lens. Apart from the first few photos, none of the photos were taken at 5:1 though. All the images were hand held and only about 3:1, as it is virtually impossible to get anything decent at 5:1 handheld.
How to photograph very tiny insects
The photo below of an aphid, and what I can only assume is its young with it, was one of the first few photos I took with my 1-5x macro lens. I took this one at 5x, but even this photo is a bit of a crop as aphids are really tiny! You can see though that the tiny stems of the plant look like vast trunks at this scale, and they have hairs.
Notice the background is black. I think on this occasion I possibly wasn’t using the correct settings and had somewhat backed myself into a corner. However the background is black because the light from the flashguns is only illuminating the aphids. By the time the light reaches the background, the light is MUCH weaker and therefore does not illuminate anything else in the room apart from the other stem in the background that is relatively close.
If I were to take this photo again I would do the following:
- Set up the camera and lens on a tripod.
- Set ISO to 100.
- Set the aperture to something like f10 or greater to get as deep a depth to the focus as possible.
- Check the shutter speed based on the above.
- If the shutter speed is too slow for the moving insects, either use a high ISO to bump up the shutter speed, or use flash.
- If using flash, use the slowest shutter speed possible and balance the ambient light with the little extra light from the flash.
- Or bump up the shutter speed so that only the flash illuminates the subject and any (possibly ugly) ambient light is removed.
- The tripod isn’t completely there to avoid camera shake, but because the tiniest fraction of a mm of movement would mean the insects could go out of focus.
It looks like in the photo below I eliminated the ambient light, perhaps because the ambient light wasn’t very nice and didn’t give me the look I wanted.
I had to add some pretty aggressive sharpening to get this amount of detail. I still have a lot to learn about the best techniques. You can use a technique called ‘focus stacking’ but this isn’t something I yet understand fully to use effectively and improve my results.
I was using some Pocket Wizards to trigger my flash guns. It’s a wireless solution and I already owned them anyway so it made sense to use them. However I had nothing but trouble with my Pocket Wizards, they almost never worked reliably and I was sick to death of them failing on me and stressing me out when I needed them to work on important jobs. So I got rid of them in the end. Good riddance! I have much more reliable flash triggers now, as thankfully technology has improved (and got cheaper).
This was another early shot taken on my 5x macro lens. I actually found the wasp head already severed on my compost bin. So I simply stuck it on a pin in blue tac and then set up the camera on a tripod and used flash.
Back to hand held again, and these were taken in my garden. A few flowers in the garden and you get plenty of insects visiting to have their photo taken! The flower head this blue bottle fly is sitting on is only 3-4cm across, but using my larger macro lens at about 3x magnification makes the flower look huge.
What is incredibly fascinating are the pollen pods (see below). They seem to have these kind of like trap doors that gradually open and insects feast on the pollen like an all you can eat buffet! They end up covered in the stuff, which I guess is the idea as they then land on other flowers and pollinate them. The pods look a lot like the claw that holds a gem into place on a ring.
Recently I found this on a nectarine bush leaf in my garden. I couldn’t fathom what is was, but a friend suggested it was a ladybird larvae, and indeed it was. The spots make sense now. The ladybird larvae look like fearsome beasts before they metamorphose into this transitional state. They fix themselves firmly to a leaf until they hatch into fully formed ladybirds.
Not the greatest of backgrounds (my fence) but this huge dragonfly was just sitting there sunning itself, so it was an opportunity not to miss. I went inside to collect my camera, and then crept up slowly to the dragonfly. With eyes as big is that it’s not like the dragonfly isn’t going to see you coming, however they seem perfectly happy if you approach them slowly. Slowly moving around carefully I was able to get a number of good macro photos. As it was a very sunny day I was able to capture a lot of detail.
I didn’t really like the vertical nature of the photos, so some of the photos I simply turned around. Whilst I was taking photos of the dragonfly it began to clean itself. It is able to articulate its head at about 90° as it cleaned its huge eyes.
From a distance dragonflies are very elegant and beautiful insects. Close-up they are fearsome, scary monsters. I’m pretty sure all of those fine hairs over its body are there to sense anything close that it may prey on, or detect danger from anything that might see itself as the prey.
Macro photography doesn’t have to always be about insects of course. Simply the fine details of plants is beautiful in itself. It’s also not always necessary to get the entire subject in focus. This small bunch of flower-heads for example looks very attractive as a more abstract photo.
I don’t know the name of this fly but it was quite large, and I found the features of its face quite interesting.
I guess it must be dinnertime.
These are some of my early photos of bluebottles. I believe this was taken on more cloudy day, which means I am having to use a higher ISO, and therefore there is more grain in the photos.
You can see what a large difference some sunshine makes to the quality and colour of the photos of the same subject.
I took this image at a friend’s house in their garden, and as you can see there are berries in the photo. This is only taken on my 100mm lens, but the berries look like the size of oranges, and the caterpillar something you could strap to a wooden pole and sweep your patio with!
Here is another insect that is a big fan of the pollen that this flower-head was releasing. Clearly it likes this pollen because it is really diving in and chowing down!
It was at this time I began to use a flash even though it is a sunny day. The flash helps to illuminate some areas that are darker, and the diffuser that I’m using gives a more natural look.
When using a macro lens, the problem that you will encounter is that the flash is pointing at the wrong place. The flash will be pointing directly in front of the camera rather than down right in front of the lens which is very close to the subject. Even if I were able to point the flash directly at the subject, the flash would give a very harsh light and a hard edge to the shadows. This is why a suitable diffuser is needed to soften the light and help scatter it.
This is a new diffuser gadget I’ve been testing with macro photos like those above. It was bought cheaply from eBay and I was quite excited to test it out. It is very much like a regular large reflector, as it pops open into this shape. The only downside that I found is that it doesn’t hold on very well to my lens. In order to fix this problem I’ve had to resort to using gaffer tape, although this is not an ideal solution. Also if I wanted to change the magnification of the lens that I’m using, it would mean that it would get in the way of the lens retracting into the barrel.
Notice how in this photo the white petal is acting as a very effective reflector that is illuminating the underside of this insect.
the trouble with using a small aperture is that as you can see in the photo, any dust on the camera sensor shows up. Even a well looked after camera will attract dust. Although my camera is probably overdue a sensor clean.
I guess I should really find some much prettier mating insects to take macro photos of. I hardly think bluebottles are everyone’s favourite insect!
Again this was one of those times where I wasn’t looking for something to photograph, I was just walking around my garden and I saw something. Of course in this instance it’s not like these spiders are suddenly going to fly away like other insects. The above photo was taken with my Canon 100mm lens, but these spiders are extremely tiny and I wanted to see as much detail as I could. The 100mm lens however was not suitable for this.
Switching over to the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x macro lens I was able to get much closer macro photos and see more detail of these tiny baby spiders. There was a problem though. The spiders were suspended in of course a web and sitting on leaves. And these leaves and the web were all swaying gently in the wind, not to mention the spiders crawling around all the time. The problem was the spiders would go in and out of focus; but I guess it didn’t really matter, because even though the spiders were moving about, there would always be at least some of them in focus. I think I probably didn’t use more than three times magnification for the above photo, because otherwise the depth of field was too shallow.
Further reading on Macro Photography
• Thomas Shahan is a master of macro photography, and despite usually using some cobbled together collection of lenses and basic flash diffusers, he gets incredible striking, colourful macro photos, go check him out. He also has a YouTube channel.
• You can also read Anisha Singh’s ‘Complete Guide to Macro Photography’ here.
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