Complete Macro Photography Tutorial for Beginners


Macro photography is highly rewarding,
but it’s not an easy genre. Now, I’m sure that you could make that same
argument for any type of photography – but at the moment, I’m not. I’m only talking
about macro. This is a type of photography where you go out in hot,
humid conditions specifically in search of bugs. Or in search of flowers, or
lizards, or whatever it is you photograph. And, once you’ve found them, you need to
focus so precisely that your one-millimeter depth of field is perfectly
on your subject’s eye, or is at the perfect spot on a flower petal. You might
not even have the width of a hair for your margin of error. And, on top of that,
you’re magnifying your subject so much that you magnify camera shake as well. So,
clearly, picking the right camera settings is not easy. And I’ll explain
what all of these different considerations are in a minute, but first
let’s start with some basic terminology. There’s really two terms that I think
anyone should know for macro photography, and those are working distance and
magnification. We’ll start with the easy one, which is working distance. Right now,
in my hand I’ve got a 105mm macro lens, and I’ve turned its focus
ring to the closest focus position. When I do that, the subject that’s in focus is
about this far away from the lens. Now, the working distance is the physical
distance between the front of the lens and the subject. Now if you’ve got a
longer macro lens, something like a 200mm, then you can stand farther
from your subject while keeping it the same size in your photo. This means that
you’ve got a bigger working distance. However, keep in mind that working
distance also depends on the actual length of the lens that you’re using – not
focal length, but the lens’s physical construction. The easiest example is if
you put a lens hood on this lens. You obviously haven’t changed the focal
length, but you did reduce your working distance. So, for macro photography, you’ll
almost always want a large working distance. It’s why I recommend a 100mm macro lens or longer to most photographers. Otherwise, you just get too
close to your subject, and you might scare it away or even just block the
light. All right, term number two is magnification. And this has to do with
how big your subject is on your camera sensor versus how big the subject is in
the real world. And the simplest case is when you’re at one-to-one magnification. This just means that the subject’s size on your camera sensor is equal to its size
in the real world. So here is a roughly accurate full-frame sensor, 36
millimeters across. If I lay this 30 millimeter ring on top of the camera
sensor, you can see that it’s almost covering it. And imagine taking a photo
right now. The ring will fill almost the entire frame. Now, I did this, and here’s
what it looked like. And it’s pretty magnified. If I focused instead at one-to-two
magnification, that ring wouldn’t take up nearly as much space. And so on. I could
do one-to-four magnification, and then one-to-ten magnification. And now it’s pretty
clear that we’re not even doing macro photography at all. Also, I’ve only been
using a full-frame sensor at this point, but it doesn’t actually matter what
sensor size you use. Say that I’ve got a larger sensor, like medium format. In this
case, one to one magnification still means that the ring is the same size in
the real world as its projection on the camera sensor, even though it takes up a
smaller percentage of the frame. Now, when you’re picking a macro lens, I strongly
recommend getting something with at least one-to-one magnification. You’ll
see some lenses that claim to be macro even though they’re only one-to-two
magnification, or maybe even less. On the flip side, some lenses are more than one-to-one magnification. They might be two- to-one or even more. Now, this means that
the subject is twice as big on your sensor as it is in the real world. And
these are more specialized lenses, but depending on the subjects that you shoot,
they might be very useful. So, you understand the basic terminology. You
know which type of macro lenses I recommend. Now let’s talk about two of
the biggest challenges in macro photography, and those are getting enough
light and getting enough depth of field. Going into macro photography, it’s
important to know that higher magnification decreases your depth of
field. There’s no way around it. If you’re at one-to-one, only a small part of your
subject will be completely sharp, and the rest will be out of focus. So, what do you
do about it? Well, the simplest answer is don’t use super high magnifications – but
that’s also a really bad answer. There’s tons of amazing subjects that
are so small that you need to shoot at one-to-one magnification in order to
capture them properly. But there is still a bit of truth in that statement. If
you’re just starting out in macro photography, it will be easier if you
work with slightly larger subjects – something like dragonflies or flowers.
You can actually photograph them in much the same way that you would shoot a
regular, non-macro photo. Now, you might still have some depth of field issues,
but they won’t be nearly as bad. But what about when you *do* want to shoot at one-to-one? Well, in that case, my recommendation is to use a really narrow
aperture. I tend to shoot my macro photos at f/16 or f/22. And that basically
solves the depth of field problem, but it creates some other problems. Most
importantly, you cut down on a tremendous amount of light at these apertures. Now,
add that to the fact that you’re already very close to your subject, so you’re
blocking a lot of natural light. And chances are you’re shooting at fast
shutter speeds to minimize camera shake, which darkens your photos even more! So,
to get bright enough photos, there are a few solutions. Option one is just to use
a wide aperture instead of a narrow one, and then deal with the fact that your
depth of field will be almost invisible. This can actually work really well if
your goal is a photo that’s mostly out- of-focus blur. For example, I took this
photo focused at one-to-one with my lens’s widest aperture, and I like how it
looks. But that’s clearly not a workable approach most of the time, because you’ll
often want more detail than this on your subject. Another option, then, is to shoot
something called a focus stack. This is when you take multiple photos of the
same subject, each focused slightly farther back than the one before it.
Then, in Photoshop or some other software, combine the sharpest
part of each photo into a single image. Now, the big problem with this approach
is that you pretty much need to do it from a tripod, and your subject can’t be
moving. So it’s great if you’re shooting in a studio, but it’s often impossible in
the field. Instead, the best option for a lot of photographers is to continue
using a really narrow aperture, but just use a flash as well. When you have a
flash that’s so close to your subject, it actually outshines daylight. And, that
way, you can shoot at even f/22 and still get a bright enough photo. But you can’t
solve one problem without creating another, and in this case your flash has
to output very beautiful light, or it’s not worth it. You don’t want your subject
to have ugly shadows and bright specular highlights. It just won’t look good. So, to
get nice light, you need to then diffuse your flash. Now, you can buy a little
pop-up diffuser for ten dollars online, and the link to the one that I recommend
is below. Or you can do what I do and make your own out of cardboard and
plastic. Either way, doesn’t matter. The key is that you need to experiment with
what looks good. All right, now that you’ve got the basics of depth of field
and lighting, let’s talk about the specific camera settings you should use
for macro photography. No generalizations; I’m going to give you exact exposure
values that I recommend for different types of macro work. First up is aperture. Now, let’s assume
that you’re shooting one-to-one macro, and you’re using a flash. Really, at this
point, your goal is to get enough depth of field without using an aperture
that’s too narrow. You’ll want to avoid f/32, f/45, and anything more than that,
because those apertures start to become fairly blurry. And that’s because of
something called diffraction – not the topic of this video, but I did include a
link below to our Photography Life article on the subject. So, what exact aperture should you use? Well, you want a lot of depth of field, and you want to
avoid blur from diffraction. Now, ignore Canon cameras for a minute, because they
actually calculate f-stop a bit differently from everyone else. Other
than them, a good balance is somewhere from f/16 to f/22. But that’s with a
full-frame camera. If you have an aps-c camera like Nikon DX, that recommendation
becomes f/10 to f/14. Or, if you use a Micro Four Thirds camera, that
recommendation is f/8 to f/11. They all give you the same depth of field. The
difference with Canon, though, is a bit confusing. I won’t get into the technical
details, but basically you want to cut all these numbers in half. And that’s
because aperture in general behaves a bit differently at high magnification.
And all the other brands take this into account. Canon does not. Now, it’s a little
bit annoying, but here’s the formula. I’m gonna leave it up for a moment. If you
don’t believe me, read the manuals for Canon’s own macro lenses. They say the
exact same thing. All it really means is that you need to be more careful about
your aperture if you’re a Canon shooter, because you might be effectively
shooting at a smaller aperture than what the camera says. So, the good news, all the
other settings are so much easier. Your shutter speed, for example, should stay
exactly at your flash sync speed, usually 1/200th of a second, maybe 1/250th. And after that is your actual flash power. Now, this one should
generally hover around 1/3 to 1/4 power.
You don’t want it to be too high, because then your flash will recharge slowly and
you’ll have to wait a few seconds between taking photos. For now, set it
manually to one fourth power. We’ll go back in a minute and make flash
automatic, but not quite yet. And then the last setting
is ISO. This is when you actually want to start taking sample photos of a
real-world object. I recommend just a normal leaf focused at one-to-one
magnification. Take photos as you ramp up your ISO, and give your flash time to
recharge between shots. Then, stop taking pictures when you get one that’s
properly exposed. Now, say this happens at ISO 400. Then you would set that ISO, 400,
on your camera, and not change it. Lastly, go back and turn your flash to automatic.
Now the flash will change its own power based on how reflective your subject is,
but even though it’s in automatic mode, you know that it will hover around that
1/4 power mark because of what we did earlier. Now, you still might need to
adjust your flash compensation if it’s consistently taking photos that are too
dark or too bright, but that’s really all that it takes. Your camera settings are
now perfect for one-to-one macro photography. Although, of course, you
should experiment with these numbers and make sure that they work for you. And
again, if you’re shooting something farther away like a flower, you have so
much more flexibility. In that case, I recommend an easier approach. Just use
your lens’s widest aperture, or something close. Maybe f/4. Pick a shutter speed
that you can handhold safely, like 1/250th of a second. And then set your ISO
to whatever value gives you a good exposure. You can even turn on Auto ISO.
This is what I tend to do at this point. There’s no need for a flash if you have
enough light. Just photograph it like you’d capture any other subject. And that
wraps up camera settings! Next is focusing, which is more difficult than in
some other types of photography, but not as hard as you might think. The first thing to know about focusing
in macro photography is that your camera’s autofocus system probably can’t
keep up. Again, this is only true with high magnification photography. You’re
probably fine if you’re photographing flowers. But when you’re at one-to-two
magnification, or one-to-one magnification, focusing can be really
tricky. Even at f/22, your depth of field is so thin that you almost have to time
your photos between heartbeats. So here’s the best method. Focus manually to
whatever magnification you want. I usually go as far as my lens can:
one-to-one. Make sure that all your camera settings are right, and then look
through your viewfinder if your camera has one. Get close to your subject and
start to frame your photo. Slowly rock forward and backward until the right
spot on your subject is in focus. It’s absolutely not a perfect method, but it’s
the best that I’ve found. With enough practice, you can even track focus on a
moving subject, like in this photo that I took of a bug walking across a flower. Of
course, if your subject isn’t moving, by all means use a tripod. You can focus
automatically or manually at that point with good results. But that’s just not
practical for a lot of subjects. Lastly, I’ll note that it’s so much easier to
take macro photos when it’s not windy outside. Focusing can be a nightmare in
windy conditions, and even a light breeze is a huge factor in macro photography.
And that’s it! I hope that you learned something from this video.
Macro photography is all about practice, so go out, put these techniques to the
test. Take some good photos even in your own backyard.
Also, just briefly, this is the first video in a weekly series that we’re
starting at Photography Life. Now, we’ve had a YouTube channel for forever, but we
haven’t really posted much to it, so I would appreciate your feedback. If you
liked something, didn’t like something, please leave a comment below. I will take
it into account for future videos. And if you’re excited about this new series, I
hope that you subscribe! This is Spencer Cox with Photography Life, and I will see
you next week!

100 Replies to “Complete Macro Photography Tutorial for Beginners

  1. I bought this lens, but I seems that isn't f/2.8 in the whole focus field, is it common?
    If I turn the focus ring the diagram close.
    Please help me!

  2. I am new to macro photography. I found your video most helpful. Not knowing how to save it, is there a way I can get it, or down load it? I would like to be able to review it.

  3. As I understand you take single shots not continuous bursts. I just don't see how it's possible to get a shot in focus that way. I use high speed shooting and focus peaking and hope one ends up in focus. It seems like it would take dozens of individual shots to get one on focus. Am I correct in thinking that you take one image at a time? By the way great tutorial

  4. Enjoyed your videos. I am new to macro but not photography. I am retired and can't afford a true macro lens. I have 2 lenses I am considering for macro, canon 18-55 mm (kit lens) and a canon 28-105 mm. Which would you suggest? I also have 3 extension tube.

  5. As a beginner, I have watched so many videos on here! Your is by far the best I have seen! Held my attention while your information is easy to comprehend, you have an excellent speaking voice! Thank you!!!! I hope to watch all of your videos after seeing this one!

  6. Best video lesson about the subject I have watched to date. Short, to the point, info was very clear and couldn't look away from the info. Video quality was real good too. Great job, thanks.

  7. Very informative, I thank you!
    I’m a little confused about the settings at the end of the video tho. Were the settings also for Canon? I lost you after the Canon thing lol

  8. Your can do projection of information enthuses me as beginner to learn and understand this subject. Thank you very much sir.

  9. Wow, I sure did learn something, thanks. I’m new to macro and still a little rusty. Thanks for the help

  10. Break it down to bear basics is what its all about. No filler or fluff. I hit pause when I needed to get my head around a juicy fact, otherwise, not too fast, not too slow. Relearning all I already knew, with a fresh new perspective. Thanks.

  11. Working distance isnt measured from the front of the lens. It is measured from the front of your camera's sensor. In the side of the camera body up on the outside of the viewfinder, there is a circle with a line thru it. That is the sensor line marking the front of the sensor. That is where your working distance measures from to your subject.

  12. Thank you. Learnt a lot about the aperture settings of the cameras. Will be experimenting with them. I also ordered a sigma 105mm f2.8 looking at the reviews and its longer focal length. Hope it will do some good.

  13. Great video !! I’m into macro and you explained clearly. Thank you so much !! Looking forward to more !!

  14. What the hell!? That guy literally even has exactly the same thought process as I had with basically every point in the video???

  15. Very clear and concise, and without all the silly stuff everyone feels compelled to add to their videos, a very nice change of pace to be sure. But what about thread-on magnification lenses, versus stand-alone macro lenses versus extension tubes?

  16. thank you for this video! I have a Canon 100mm Macro and have been struggling lately. Can't wait for tomorrow so I can practice everything I just learned

  17. Thank you for the share and your training. I was already subscribed, now I also clicked the Bell Icon. Excellent job

  18. A super video your presentation was easy to follow and this subject is one I am going to try once I get a macro lens well done

  19. Great info, id love some help. So ive never been into photography, but i have a tonnn of pets, small ones too. The smallest ones i have are Thai Micro Crabs. Each crab at LARGEST is 0.4 inches (1cm or less). This means my camera would have to accurately photo a 1cm crab, and its arms. Also it has "pom poms" on each claw, which are hairs that catch algae, itd neat to see those very well too. I also have crested geckos, fish, snails, other larger crabs, bugs, inverts, coral, anenomes, etc. So, all i really know is the info i got from you and a few other videos. I have a budget of around $500, im willing to go a bit higher but id much prefer not to. Can you please help me pick out a great choice of camera for taking photos of the .4 inch crabs? It doesnt need to be a big kit, nor have a ton of tripods or anything. The ability to take videos would be a HUGE bonus, but isnt 100% necessary. Doesnt need to be huge, id prefer smaller. SD, USB, or bluetooth, doesnt matter for me which way it stores. Sorry for the long question, but itd be a Giant help to me if you could point me in the right direction!

  20. Your video is really well done. You speack at the right speed (even for a French like me), and the explanations are well organised. Thanks !

  21. Nicely done on the balance of camera settings and relaxed delivery. It was like listening to a friend explain something he's really into.

  22. Thanks for the great tutorial on macro photography. How do you eliminate your own reflections on a glossy subject (ie. glossy nail)?

  23. Great tutorial! I appreciated the "why" behind the suggestions, not just "do it this way because everyone likes my photos and I do it that way." Even though I've watched many other macro tutorials, I like this one for expert insights and clear explanations.

  24. As others have said, this is an excellent video. Spencer presents in a clear, articulate manner and makes the subject totally understandable. Thank you!

  25. great info, but which setting do you generally recommend for shooting jewelry using 100mm micro lens in a strobe light setting? F?

  26. Great video. Which Nikon 105 do you use? I have a Z50 and was thinking of getting a 105. I have to be so close with my Micro 40mm.

  27. Excellent presentation skill & setting. I'm picking up on the subject especially the tricks & your recommendations. Thank you Spencer & don't forget to state your name in the description below. It took me a while to figure out. look forward to see your future video.

  28. Great video! I love macro. You don't necessarily have to go outside. You would be surprised at how many cool photos you can get from objects around your home. I am starting water drop photography

  29. Hi Spencer, I like your presentations. I am very new in macro and recently I purchased a Laowa 100mm 2:1 and it is really nice BUT… too long and heavy for long days at the garden and for this reason I am thinking of selling and buy a smaller one perhaps 60 mm (same brand ) which I've seen others using it and produce nice photos. The question is this lens has been designed for APS-C cameras and it will cause some vigneting if shooting infinite which I wouldn't. Could you give me your thoughts on the 100mm vs 60mm please? Kind regards Clem

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