Intro to Macro Photography

With so many advancements in camera technology, there are more and more options and possibilities for the macro photographer. From expensive lenses to fancy equipment to help maximize depth of field, macro photography is made easier every day. That being said, it is still an art form. One that requires a creative eye, a willingness to experiment, dedication, and practice, especially if you can’t afford the fancy equipment. So what does the amateur macro photographer do? Professional landscape photographer Tim Cooper explains macro photography and provides some useful tips to get started:

Shooting macro is not that different from normal, everyday photography.

During the lecture featured in the video above, Tim Cooper spoke for nearly two hours and provided a comprehensive and detailed presentation on the basics of macro, not to mention some pretty useful tips. The video is definitely worth a watch if you’re serious about macro photography, but for now, we’ll go over some of the highlights.

Ways to Focus the Lens Closer

1. Closeup Filters

  • A close up filter is basically a magnifying glass for your lens.
  • They’re inexpensive and light.
  • Your images will not be of the highest quality because you’re putting a very thick piece of glass in front of your lens, causing image degradation at the edges.
  • As long as you focus correctly, the center part of the image will be quite sharp, but the outside won’t be.
  • The greater magnification you want means you have to add more filters, stacking glass over glass, further diminishing the picture quality.

2. Extension Tubes

  • Extension tubes basically create a barrel to increase magnification.
  • They’re lightweight, come in a variety of sizes, and can be used with a variety of lenses.
  • Extension tubes are a little more expensive than closeup filters.
  • You get better focusing, but they are more time consuming to use.
  • They do not degrade the quality of the image through glass in front of the lens because the tubes are hollow.
  • There’s a lot of trial and error involved when you first start using these because you constantly have to move in and out and adjust/change/add more tubes to get the perfect focus.
  • Another downside is that when using the tubes, let’s say with a normal 50mm lens, since the lens is not manufactured for macro work, you get a slight curvature meaning you won’t get edge to edge sharpness.

3. Macro Lenses

  • A macro lens is the best choice if you are taking a lot of macro shots.
  • These will help you produce the best quality, but they’re more expensive.
  • Macro lenses are the most convenient.
  • The lens is manufactured to give you that flat field, providing edge to edge sharpness.

How to Choose a Lens

There are two things to consider when choosing a macro lens: Budget and Working Distance/Angle of View:

Working Distance

Working distance is the distance from the lens to the subject. There is typically no quality difference between shorter or longer macro lenses, but choosing the right one does depend on what you’re shooting.

With a 50mm macro lens, you have to be very close to your subject to fill the frame. But, the 50mm macro lens has a wider angle of view, so you’ll be picking up things in the background that you may not want. If you switch to a 200mm macro, you will need to move back, away from the subject, giving you a much narrower field of view and including less background.

adjusting depth of field

A 200mm macro lens provides a narrower field of view.

The trick to macro is the background’s appearance. How does the background play with the foreground?

A longer lens includes less background, this means it’s easier to control it. With a 50mm macro lens, you have a wider filed of view, more background so you have to move a lot more to change what’s in the background. With a 200mm, a subtle change in movement drastically changes what the camera sees in the background.


Subtle changes create different backgrounds.

changing background in macro

Moving just a little bit to the right completely changes the background without altering the look of the primary subject.

Magnification Ratios Explained

Cooper hates math. As do I. As do many of you, I’m sure. But, there is some sense in magnification ratios. Cooper explains them in a way that is easy to understand:

Magnification Ratio: the ratio of the real size of the object on the sensor to the real size of the object in real life.

1:1 Ratio — means it is exactly the same size.

1:2 Ration — the image on the sensor is half the size of the real thing.

magnification ratio

The image in the filmstrip is half the size as the real flower, meaning it has a 1:2 magnification ratio.

It’s important to know about magnification ratios when choosing a lens and deciding what method of closer focus you want to go with.

Two Types of Motion

  • Subject Motion (a bee flying) — to freeze subject motion, you need a fast shutter speed.
  • Camera Motion (you shaking the camera) — to eliminate camera shake, you need a tripod.

You’ll want to use a tripod because not only are you magnifying your subject, but also any little bit of movement that goes with it.  

Depth of Field

Depth of field is controlled by the following:

  • Distance to Subject — the closer you are to your subject, the less DOF you have.
  • Focal Length — a wide angle lens gives you a lot of DOF; a telephoto lens gives you very little DOF.
  • Aperture — a wide aperture gives you very little DOF; a small aperture gives you very deep DOF.
  • Focal Plane — when your camera back is at an angle and you focus at a certain point, the plane of focus will be at the same parallel angle as the rear of your camera.
plane of focus

Any small change in focal plane can degrade image sharpness.

While all of the above factors affect depth of field in both regular and macro photography, focal plane is more important in macro. It doesn’t affect the image too much when photographing normally, but in macro, because the depth of field is so narrow to begin with, any small change in the focal plane will really make a difference.

Tips for Maximum Depth of Field

Your Tripod is Your Friend!

A tripod will help you maximize DOF and eliminate camera shake. But, there’s no point in a tripod if you’re just going to push the shutter button and move the camera anyway, so you want to use the self timer or a cable release.

Proper Focusing

If you focus on one plane at f/2.8, only that plane will be sharp. But, as you start to stop down, the DOF will occur behind the subject and only a little bit before it. Cooper says you should focus 1/3 of the way into the frame, then stop down to get your entire subject sharp.

Focus Stacking

Take several shots with each shot focusing at a different distance. Then take all those shots and merge them in post production using software like Photoshop or Helicon Focus.

Minimum Depth of Field

If you don’t always want everything to be as sharp as possible, that’s okay too. A minimum depth of field can be fun and a refreshing change. Plus, you have the freedom to hand hold the camera while shooting and be more creative with your focusing.

You don’t always have to shoot exactly what the subject is — photograph your interpretation of it, how you were feeling at that moment.

“Move beyond what the subject is and just choose parts that you like and display it in any manner that you wish.”

creative macro photo

Being creative with minimum depth of field.

Composition Tips

  • Don’t place your subject in the middle.
  • Try shooting vertical and horizontal.
  • Watch your corners and edges for things that may pop up in the image.
  • Add a point of interest to your patterns and textures.
  • Backgrounds and foregrounds should enhance your subject.

Other Tips for Shooting Macro

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with different focusing points.
  • Try using umbrellas or reflectors to control the light by diffusing it or reflecting it.
  • Use an off-camera flash or invest in a ring flash to play with lighting.
  • Use a grid to focus the beam of light.
  • Try a rail focuser to control the distance to your subject.
  • Think outside the box and create your own background.

And, as with any type of photography, always experiment!

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  1. Lois Bryan says:

    I can’t believe it’s bug and flower season and I’ve yet to head out with my 105mm … I even treated myself to a ring flash which I have yet to take out of the box!! What is wrong with me?? Thanks very much for the shove … great article … !!! Tweeted!!

  2. Chris Dam Wichers says:

    Tim, great video!
    I was reading a book today about Macro Photography, but that was kind of boring.
    So browsing through the internet, I came across this website.
    And you explained in a very interesting way with good examples.
    Thanks, tomorrow I go out with a group of to make Macro photography, so now I am well prepared.

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