How to capture high quality close-up and macro photos – tips and advice on depth of field, focus stacking, macro lighting, exposure, and selecting the right camera and lens gear.

Shooting close-ups doesn’t require special equipment; almost any camera and lens (including smartphones) can be used. But only true macro equipment can reproduce subjects at life size on the sensor.

This smartphone shot of a crucifix orchid flower demonstrates the capabilities of today’s mobile devices.

‘Macro’ vs ‘true macro’

The term ‘macro’ is often used very loosely in photography, with many people confusing it with taking close-ups. Technically, true macro photography requires the image on the sensor to be reproduced at ‘life size’ or greater; that is with at least a 1:1 reproduction ratio. (Images with a 2:1 or greater reproduction ratio also qualify as macro shots.) Anything else is simply a close-up shot.

True macro photography requires 1:1 (‘life size) or greater magnification. Canon EOS 70D camera with 100mm macro lens; 1/160 second at f/9, ISO2500. (Source: iStock by Camera House.)

There are also two sub-sets of macro photography: microphotography, which involves reproduction ratios of 20:1 or greater and photomicrography, which relies on a microscope. Both require special equipment that is beyond the scope of this guide.

Zoom lenses with ‘macro’ focusing seldom deliver better than half-life size magnification (a 1:2 ratio). Only true macro equipment can reproduce subjects at life size on the sensor.

Zoom lenses with ‘macro’ focusing can give you some great close-up shots; but they’re not true macro photos.

The right gear

True macro lenses have some useful characteristics that can make them worth including in your camera kit. As well as offering at least 1:1 magnification, they can also focus to infinity, making them useful for other types of shots.

Macro lenses also have flat fields, which result in good edge-to-edge sharpness, little or no distortion and few aberrations. Other lenses tend to have curved fields, which means the image can be much sharper in the centre than at the edges of the frame.

A flat field of view ensures details are captured equally across the image frame, as shown in this illustration. Sony Alpha 99 camera with 90mm macro lens; 10 second exposure at f/32; ISO 100. (Source: iStock by Camera House.)

Macro lenses aren’t always easy to use. Although close-up shooting can present challenges, these are magnified when you start taking macro photographs.

The first challenge is choosing the right focal length for the task. This depends on the size of the sensor in your camera, and it determines how much ‘working distance’ you have between the front of the lens and the nearest subject.

Longer focal lengths provide a greater working distance for a given magnification. (Note: you can find the minimum focusing distance and magnification ratio of each lens in its specifications.)

Spiders in their webs are relatively easy to photograph if your lens provides a good working distance. Canon EOS 40D camera with 105mm macro lens; 1/50 second at f/9, ISO 800.

To provide some typical examples: Canon’s RF 24mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM has a minimum focusing distance of 10 cm, which is very short. (It’s worth noting this lens is not a true macro lens as it only has a half life-size magnification capability.) In contrast, the RF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens (also from Canon) has a minimum focusing distance of 26 cm and can deliver 1.4x life size magnification, making it a true macro lens.

Because lenses with shorter focal lengths are usually smaller, lighter and more affordably priced, casual shooters may find a small and light macro lens is more convenient than a heavier, bulkier telephoto macro lens. Shorter focal lengths can work well for totally static subjects and subjects like close-ups of flowers and other plant parts, particularly when artificial lighting is being used.

Lenses with longer focal lengths give you greater flexibility to experiment with lighting. (Source: iStock by Camera House.)

Long working distances are vital when you’re photographing creatures that are easily ‘spooked’ like small animals and insects. They also make it easier to avoid casting shadows on subjects, regardless of whether you’re working in natural light or with add-on lighting. Focal lengths between 90mm and 150mm (or their 35mm equivalents) should provide a good balance between size and weight, price and working distance.

Depth of field presents the next challenge. The closer you get to the subject, the shallower the depth of field (the region of sharp focus). This can make it difficult – if not impossible – to obtain sharp focus across the subject.

Stopping down the lens aperture goes part of the way to solving this problem. But it also reduces the intensity of the light reaching the sensor, which requires you to shoot with slower shutter speeds. This makes blurring much more likely as a result of subject movement and/or camera shake.

This image shows the very shallow plane of focus that makes photographing even quite large insects like this dragonfly challenging, particularly when they are easily spooked. Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera with 100mm macro lens, 1/60 second at f/7.1, ISO 1000.

Putting the camera on a tripod can reduce the possibility of camera shake. But it won’t do anything to solve subject movement. Even with relatively static subjects like flowers, a slight breeze can cause enough blurring to ruin the shot; and when the subject is magnified, any blurring is magnified to the same degree.

Focus stacking

Many modern cameras include a focus stacking function that records a rapid series of shots at a relatively wide lens aperture but with changing focus distances. It relies on the camera’s built-in stabilisation plus the ability to process the shots in the camera, combining the sharpest areas in each of the shots into a single JPEG image.

Long working distances are vital when photographing small, active creatures. This image was created by photographer Chris McGinnis with an OM-1 camera and M.Zuiko 90mm f/3.5Macro IS PRO lens by stacking 16 frames with small focus adjustments. The effective focal length of this lens is 180 mm, thanks to the camera’s Micro Four Thirds format sensor.

The first cameras with in-camera focus stacking recorded a second or two of video using fast enough frame rates to reduce the chance the subject would move during the exposure sequence. The latest models have much faster image processors that can support stills capture at up to 40 fps (frames/ second), which ensures better results.

If your camera doesn’t have a focus stacking setting you can use a manual capture technique and take a sequence of exposures, changing the focus by a small amount as you move the focus point from the closest part of the subject to the furthest away. This technique only works with totally static subjects because you need time to make each focus adjustment.

The resulting stack of frames is combined in image editing software. You will probably need to consult the instructions to find out how to go about it since different programs use different settings. Some recent image editors can also stack raw files.

Success depends on your shooting technique and focusing precision. The camera should be tripod-mounted and the shutter should be triggered either via the self-timer or with a remote shutter release or a camera app.

Macro lighting

The closer you come to the subject, the more difficult it is to light it. Short working distances make it difficult to prevent your shadow falling across the subject. Longer focal lengths are easier to use.

Avoid shooting in bright sunlight, which can create harsh shadows. The best type of natural light for macro photography is a bright, overcast sky where the thin cloud diffuses the sunlight.

It’s easier to use available lighting for macro shots of flowers like this close-up of a grevillea, which was taken with a 100mm macro lens on a Canon EOS R5DS R camera. The very shallow depth of focus is due to the exposure being at 1/640 second at f/2.8 with ISO 100.

A sheet of white cardboard or crinkled foil can be used to reflect light into shadowed areas to even-up the lighting and it’s easy to cut it to shape for use in tight areas or curve it to direct the light where you want it. Both options work well with static subjects.

An adjustable desk lamp can also be used to add light when shooting indoor close-ups. Fluorescent and LED lights are the best to use since they produce less heat and their colour output is easily corrected by most cameras’ auto white balance settings.

Flash is much more challenging because you can’t gauge its effect until after the shot is taken. Some professional flashguns include LED modelling lamps to overcome this problem but they’re often large, bulky and complex as well as quite expensive.

A diffused flash shot taken with a 65mm macro lens on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera; 1/20 second exposure at f/9; ISO 800.

The main advantage of flash is it allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible, allowing you to ‘freeze’ subject movements. But it’s also likely to scare off easily-spooked subjects and can cause temporary blindness in nocturnal animals and birds.

Interchangeable-lens camera users can choose from a wide range of add-on lighting devices at their local camera store. These include ring flashes that fit around the lens to provide evenly-distributed light, twin-flash kits and pocket lights that can be used for directional light.

Normal flash diffusers are seldom suitable for macro work because they don’t increase the size of the light source so many photographers create their own diffusers to suit their existing gear. A web search should bring up plenty of information about suitable alternatives you can produce from tissue paper, foam sheets and tape.

Exposure tips

In most cases your camera’s auto exposure modes should deliver correctly-exposed shots – assuming your subject fills the frame. But it’s still wise to use one of the semi-automatic modes: Programmed auto exposure, Aperture-priority AE or Shutter-priority AE.

Aperture-priority AE provides useful control over depth of field and is essential for taking a manual sequence of shots for focus stacking. Programmed AE allows the camera to adjust apertures automatically – but it usually selects a relatively wide aperture. (Close-up modes always set the widest possible aperture.)

Spot metering on the flower and use of an aperture of f/4 with an effective focal length of 200mm isolated the subject from the background in this macro shot.

Select the spot or partial metering mode, where possible. If you’re using a modern macro lens on a modern camera body, the exposure system should adjust the aperture when it detects the light is changing. It should also be able to account for additional lighting and adjust for flash.

Useful links

Shooting close-ups

Macro lens use

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Nature Photography pocket guide

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House