Photography Tutorial:

Tools and methods for taking Macro and close-focus pictures

Let's start by getting a few definitions out of the way. These are my definitions. Hey, it's my site so deal with it, hah! Macro or micro photography refers to taking pictures at life-size magnification or greater. This means that the size of an object in real life takes up the same area on the sensor in your camera. A 10mm x 10mm postage stamp takes up 10mm x 10mm on the sensor. This is represented as a ratio of the size on the sensor compared to the size in real life, so when they're exactly equal, this is shown as 1:1. If that same 10mm x 10mm postage stamp only takes up 5mm x 5mm area on the sensor, this is 1/2 life size and is shown as 1:2. I'm going to arbitrarily define "close-up" photography as magnification from quarter life size (1:4) down to life size (1:1).

There are many, many different ways to shoot close-up and macro (micro) pictures.

One of the earliest methods was to put a bellows between the camera body and a normal lens. This allows you to move the lens much further from the camera, greatly increasing the magnification factor.

This example shows that the bellows is mounted on a pair of focusing rails. The bottom set of rails moves the entire camera/bellows/lens assembly forward and backward for rough focusing. The top pair of rails allows extremely fine extension and contraction of the bellows itself for precise focusing.

This picture shows a focusing rail that allows precise positioning both forward / backward and side to side.

Bellows and focusing rails are fantastic tools for taking pictures of static, staged objects. They are the perfect tools for doing something called, "focus stacking". This is a process where you take a series of pictures starting with focusing on the closest point of the object. Successive shots focus further and further into the object, ending with the last shot whose focus includes the most distant portion of the object being photographed. Each picture shows a slice of sharp focus. With software, you then combine all the pictures into a single picture with the entire object in sharp focus.

Kev Vincent
Click here to go to his site
This guy is a master at using a focusing rail and focus stacking pictures. His site is one of the most colorful, beautiful sites on the 'net.

Extension tubes are like rigid, fixed thickness bellows. You can combine individual tubes to increase the distance you push out the lens.

Bellows and extension tubes take a normal lens, push it out further away from the camera and change the closest focusing point of the lens, increasing its magnification. They also prevent the lens from focusing at distance, so they are strictly for close-up and macro photography.

Another way to increase magnification is to use a teleconverter (TC).

This looks similar to an extension tube but actually has glass in it and acts as a magnifying lens for the image passing through the lens. Typical magnification values are 1.4, 1.7 and 2.0. They effectively change the focal length of a normal lens by the amount listed. If you use a 1.4 TC, this will cut the amount of light coming through the lens in half. The 1.7 TC cuts the light by 2/3. The 2.0 TC cuts the light by 3/4. What this means is that as the TC magnifies the image, you lose stops of light. A lens with a maximum F/stop of 2.8 with a 1.4 TC will only let through as much light as if the lens by itself were set to F/4. Use the 1.7 TC with this same lens and the maximum effective F/stop will be about F/4.8. Use the 2.0 TC and the maximum effective F/stop will be reduced to F/5.6. Because there is glass within the TC, this will also degrade the quality of the image. The greater the magnification, the greater the degradation. Typically, a 1.4 TC doesn't cost you too much quality, but the 1.7 and 2.0 usually will degrade the image quite a bit. There are exceptions to this, but in general I wouldn't go more than the 1.4 TC. The advantage of the TC is that you don't lose the ability to focus at distance. When used with a dedicated macro lens, you can either increase the magnification by the amount of the TC without changing the closest focusing distance or you can move further away from the subject (increase working distance) and still take a picture at 1:1.

While being a fantastic nature photographer, Ronnie Gaubert adds extention tubes to his 300mm lens and takes pictures you'd kill to call your own.

Ronnie Gaubert
Click here to go to his site

Another method for shooting extreme magnification is to use a lens reversing ring.

This device mounts directly to the camera in the place where you normally insert your lens. You then take a wide angle lens, reverse its alignment (rotate 180 degrees) and mount the lens to the lens reversing ring. Why use a wide angle lens?

A wide angle lens takes a wide view and squeezes it down to fit on your sensor.

If you reverse that lens, you're taking a narrow view and stretching it out, or magnifying it.

There's a guy on the 'net who's just sick with this technique. He reverses a Sigma 24mm lens on his camera. I don't remember if he adds extension tubes or not but looking at his pictures you will be absolutely stunned at what he can do.

Mark Dijstelberge
Click here to go to his site

One of the simplest ways to get into close-up photography is to purchase something called a close-up filter. This is a small lens that screws onto the end of your normal lens via the filter threads. I've seen some pretty amazing shots taken this way. If you're shooting Nikon or Canon, the 70-300mm VR (Nikon) or 70-300mm IS (Canon) lenses are just about perfect for putting on a close-up filter. If you go this route, make sure you buy quality. There are a lot of cheap versions out there and that's exactly what you'll get .. cheap results. Nikon used to make a 5T and 6T set of close-up filters for this purpose, but they've unfortunately been discontinued. Canon still makes the 250D and 500D close up filters that are reported to be excellent. All of these examples have two achromatic lens elements, which reduce chromatic aberrations. Those are the purple or cyan color fringes around the edges of items in your picture. Cheaper close-up filters have a single, simple magnifying lens. Pay a little more and buy quality.

And the last example here is what I actually use. That would be a dedicated macro lens. So what are the differences between a dedicated macro lens and a "normal" lens? A macro lens is designed from the beginning to focus very close for natural magnification. They still will focus to infinity, but are designed for shooting things much closer. A macro lens has a much finer focusing adjustment compared to a normal lens. It's like the difference between a bicycle in 5th gear compared to 1st gear. You have to pedal much more in 1st gear than 5th gear to make the rear wheel revolve one time. This gives much more precision on the focusing with a macro lens. It also means that even with a motor in the lens a macro lens will focus slower than a normal lens. The last difference to understand between macro lenses and other lenses is that manufacturers really concentrate on giving macro lenses a flat field of focus. The field of focus for a normal lens can have a slight curve for the "plane" of focus. With a macro lens, they make a concerted effort to ensure it is very, very flat.


Here are two 85mm lenses. The lens on the left is a Nikon 85mm F/1.8 normal lens. The minimum focus distance with this lens is about 3 feet. This means that measuring from the sensor to the closest point at which you can focus is about 3 feet. This gives a magnification factor of about 1:6.6. The lens on the right is a Nikon Micro Nikkor 85mm F/3.5. The minimum focus distance with this lens is 10.8 inches. This gives a magnification factor of 1:1.

Here's the lens I am currently using for my macro shots:

I REALLY like this lens. It's incredibly sharp, has a rock solid build and includes a very good integrated tripod collar if I ever want to mount it on a tripod.

So, now that you've got an idea of what's out there and what can be used to get close-up and macro shots I'll tell you what I do to take pictures out in my yard.

I shoot pretty simple. I shoot with a Nikon D300 camera and SB800 flash in the hot shoe. Most of the time I have the little diffuser screen in place. I shoot with the camera set to manual, use a single focus point, set the shutter speed between 1/200 and 1/320th of a second and the F/stop (usually) between F/11 and F/16. I have no flower gardens or flower beds around my house so I hunt down my subjects and shoot everything hand-held instead of on a tripod.

Method 1:
I started out a few years ago shooting macros with a Nikon D80 and Tamron 90mm F/2.8 and tried various methods of manual focus. The absolute worst method (for me) was trying to hold steady AND adjust the focus while trying to take the shot. If you're a masochist I highly recommend this method.

A far better method is to pre-set the focus distance (magnification) on the lens and leave it there. There are then basically two methods of getting the shot.

Method 2:
Adjust your position to get close to the same as the pre-set distance and then hold steady with tiny adjustments to your position forward and back for final focusing, all the time with your finger on the shutter release, ready to take the shot. Don't try to get to perfect focus, stop moving and then take the shot. It's better to be moving slightly front/back and guage the "timing" while moving. Kinda hard to explain, but if you're moving between just slightly too close and just slightly too far with anything close to a rythym, you will know pretty well within the cycle of motion when you're going to be at the focus point and time your release for that.

Method 3:
Adjust your position to get close to the same as the pre-set distance and then go juuuust past perfect focus (too close) and slowly pull back, snapping the shot as you pass through the focus point (while still slowly moving back). I found I got more keepers this way rather than by moving forward to take the shot.

I initially got close to 0% keepers with method 1, probably 15-20% with method 2 and 25-30% with method 3. By "keepers" I'm merely saying I hit the focus point at the time of the shot, not that the picture was worth a darn. The more you practice your preferred method, the more you'll increase that percentage rate.

If I had flowers available, I'd probably put the camera on a tripod, pre-focus on the flower that the insects seem to visit the most and wait for them to show up. Unfortunately, I'm not the most patient person on the planet so most likely I'd only wait so long before taking the camera in hand and go out hunting ..

I wanted more working distance than the Tamron gave me so I gave the Tamron to my father and purchased the Sigma 150mm F/2.8. The Sigma is longer and heavier. In my opinion it's sharper than the Tamron, but we're talking miniscule differences here. The main points are that it gives considerably greater working distance, has a focus-limiting switch and has a focusing motor built into the lens. Remember, working distance is the amount of space between the front of the lens and the object you are shooting.

The greater working distance means spooking the little critters less and makes it easier to use flash to light your subject. The focus-limiting switch means restricting the range of focus to the range at which you wish to shoot and the focusing motor in the lens means I now shoot with auto-focus. Yes, you heard right .. auto-focus.

A couple years ago, someone posted in the forums talking about using the AF-ON button on the back of the Nikon D300 camera and AF-C (constant focus) for more consistantly sharp pictures. I wish I could remember his name so I could give him credit. He wasn't talking about macro pictures but I figured why not give it a shot, so to speak. My keeper rate jumped to more than 50% using this method. It sounds more awkward than it is in actual use. You hold your right thumb on the AF-ON button to keep the lens in constant focusing mode with your finger resting on the shutter release. Watch your subject (critter) and wait until it gets into the position you're looking for and then take the shot. The constant focusing of the lens compensates for my slight movement back and forth, keeping the subject close to or dead on focus.

If you're new to DSLR's or new to macro photography, I'd suggest you start out with Method 3 shown above for a while. Getting good at holding the camera as steady as possible will pay off handsomely when you try to use autofocus for macro shots and in normal photography as well. Also, ignore the people telling you you CAN'T shoot macro hand-held and you CAN'T shoot macro and close-up using autofocus.

So that's it. That's the mechanics of how I take my macro shots of critters. If you're doing static subjects like flowers, jewelry, figurines, etc, put the camera on a tripod, use live-view to nail the focus and use a shutter release. If you are out and about hunting down moving critters, leave the tripod in the car and practice, practice, practice. You're shooting digital. All it costs you is a little time.

Now a few tips. As a beginner, I'd say you should keep that camera on a tripod and practice shooting flowers and plants. When out in a field of flowers, be selective. Examine the flowers to find a "perfect" example. Don't choose one that has defects, like this one does:

When setting up your shot, consider not only the flower but also the background. An interesting flower shot can be diminished by a messed up background (as in the shot above), whether that background is blurred out or not.

The more perpendicular you are to the flower, the more will be in focus (as seen in the photograph above). However, don't be limited by always shooting straight on. Interesting results can be obtained from shooting at an oblique angle.

In this next shot, aside from the crisp sharpness of the main subject and the final evaporating dewdrops, I really like the repeating angles blurred in the background. However, I think the picture would have been better without that bud in the bottom right corner.

Try not to succumb to what I call the "bullseye" syndrome. Don't place your flower dead center of the shot all the time. The "rule" of thirds works in closeup photography, too.

Include the entire flower. Don't cut off the head.

This shot would have been much better had I raised the angle slightly to include that last unopened bud at the top. I should also have set the field of view to eliminate the blurred purple flowers at the bottom. Unlike the background pink and purple flowers which contrast against the main subject, I find those at the bottom to be distracting as well as the blurred green stalk paralleling the main subject. They are not quite blurry enough and draw the eye away from the main subject.

Sometimes, the back of the flower is the most interesting shot.

Because you're on a tripod and shooting static objects, you can get in really close to see all those cool details.

Ok. Now that you've gotten a taste of shooting closeup and macro by shooting static subjects, let's move on to what's really fun .. critter shootin'!!

Pretty much the first thing you've got to do when shooting macro critter shots is to take the camera off the tripod. The depth of focus is so small and critters are almost constantly on the move, so it's extremely difficult to have a situation where you'll have time to set up the tripod, dial in the focus point and take the shot before they're already gone.

As I said up above, practice. Put something on the counter in the kitchen that has good tiny details, good contrast and some "depth". Use Method 3 from above to practice shooting your subject in this nice controlled environment. Pick out a specific feature on your subject to select as your focal point when taking your practice shots. By doing this you can really tell when you're nailing the focal plane as you examine your shots at 100% on your screen. By choosing a subject with depth, it's easier to tell when you're consistantly snapping your shot in front of or behind your intended focal point. Once you start feeling confident in your technique it's time to move out into the wild. By wild I mean your back yard, your garden, a local field or near a local pond.

I'd suggest you start by looking for critters that don't have wings. They are much easier to keep track of and afford multiple shot opportunities over a longer period of time. If you find a caterpillar, these are nearly perfect subjects. They move extremely slow, generally don't have "eyes" and are often quite colorful.

In the first picture, I tried to focus on the "face". In the second picture as I've said before (and will say over and over again) I tried to get as perpendicular as I could to the critter to maximize how much of it I get in focus. I was actually shooting one-handed here. I held the camera, lens and flash with my right hand and was using my left hand to twist th stem the caterpillar was on to bring its plane parallel with my sensor.

Now that you've dipped your feet into the world of macro photography, let's take the next step. Let's talk about critters with wings. Just about everywhere, the two most common critters with wings are flys (of one type or another) and bees (of one type or another). In my experience, flys are more skittish to your approach than bees. So long as you don't get near their nest or touch them, bees pretty much ignore you and just go about their work. However, I just read an online story about a swarm of 30,000 bees that killed two horses, some chickens and stung two people and their dog hundreds of times only about 35 miles from my home so always be aware of your surroundings and plan a path out. Now, I've never been stung by a bee or wasp and I have thousands of photo's where the front of my lens is less than a foot from them. I've got a dozen different species of bees photos and probably around 25 different species of wasp photos. I HAVE been bitten by various critters while out shooting. I got bit by something one time on the back of my leg, most likely a spider where the infection under the skin swelled up larger than a golf ball. Nasty, nasty getting rid of that one. So, be careful out there.

Ok, let's look at bees. Bees will seek out any flower, weed or flowering tree where they can find pollen, even the lowly dandylion.

Bees come in all sizes, from teeny tiny bees ..

to little metallic sweat bees ..

to 1/2 inch long honeybees ..

to jumbo-sized 1 3/4 inch long "bumblebees" ..

To shoot bees all you have to do is go out and find your average field. There are almost always some type of flowering weeds in a field. Just walk out in the field a bit, stop and slowly look around, looking for motion. You can almost always see some bees flying around. Follow them with your eyes to see where they are going, to see which type of plant they are visiting. You don't really need to be stealthy in your approach. Slowly walk over to the greatest concentration of that type of plant, examine the ground closely for spiders and ant hills and take a seat close to those selected plants. If there is no shade, select your spot so that the sun is "bee"hind you and off to the side a bit. "Bee" patient (ok, enough with the bee jokes). If there's enough light to shoot without a flash, that's great. If not then fire up that external flash and shoot away. As always, try to get perpendicular to the bee to get the most of it in focus. However, bees love to crawl all over the plant they're on trying to get as much pollen as they can so try to catch them as they're coming up over the back of the plant, directly facing you. You can frequently get them with their tongue sticking out. Look at the picture of the bumblebee right above. Here's a closer crop of that tongue:

Pretty cool, eh? This is still reduced a bit from 100%. You can get some interesting perspectives.

I always have a feeling of a charging bull when I look at this shot.

Moving on. How about those beautiful Dragonflys and Damselflys? Dragonflys and Damselflys make fantastic subjects to practice getting better at macro shots. Each is much larger than your camera's sensor. This means if you include the entire subject in your framing, you can take your picture from further away and have an increased depth of focus.

In this second shot, even though taken at an oblique angle, both eyes are in focus. This gives you an inkling of the increased depth of focus.

Approach Dragonflys and Damselflys initially from either directly in front of the critter, or from a slight angle but still from the front. I've found that as long as they can easily keep watching me, they will more likely hold their position. When I've approached from behind them, they tend to take off much quicker. When they land, then tend to stay as still as a statue. They are predators. When they land, they like to pick higher perches to sit and look for prey. They're very tolerant of the photographer moving (slowly!!) into shooting distance. If you DO spook them, freeze your position. Dragonflys tend to return to the exact same spot time after time. When they come back, continue moving in slowly and take your shot(s). They don't seem to spook very much when a flash goes off in their face, so many times you can get off multiple shots.

Once again, try to take your shots either directly from the front or from the side, perpendicular to the subject.

If you are out wandering around looking for subjects and find an interesting spider on its web, take some shots and then go get your tripod. Treat web spiders like a static subject and use that tripod.

Try to get perpendicular to the subject, if possible. This will get the maximum portion of your subject in focus.

Just as you try to do with portraits, focus on the eye(s).

If the critter doesn't have eyes, try to focus on the, um, face. Learn your subjects behaviors. When a wasp rotates on its perch to keep you directly in front of it, it's getting nervous. When a wasp doesn't have its wings folded along its back, but has them fluttering out at an angle, it's getting pissed.

Again, try to stay perpendicular to the subject and focus on the eyes (larger view).

Always keep your eyes open for other potential subjects to crawl into your view. In this first picture, I'd been shooting pictures of wasps and bees and in my peripheral view I noticed a small part of the bush waving slightly in the breeze. Only there WAS no breeze. Looking closer I found this little critter that secretes a glue-like substance that causes little pieces of stuff to stick to it and give it camouflage. When crawling around, it will occasionally rear up into the air and kind of wave around like a stick in the breeze.

Here, I was out front trying (unsuccessfully) to get a decent macro of a single ant. While looking around I found this exotic looking bug. Turns out it's the nymph form of the Green Lacewing fly. Again, notice how being perpendicular to the subject keeps most of it in sharp focus. This little guy was about 1/4 inch long (~6 mm).

In the insect world, there are almost always more than one insect in a given spot. Always look for interaction between the bugs.

Try to get interesting angles on your subject rather than always taking shots directly from the side.

Always be on the look out for subjects. I was walking towards my back door coming home from work and saw motion out of the side of my eye. Looking closer, I dropped the bag I was carrying, ran inside and grabbed my camera and flash and got off four shots before (s)he flew away.

Now I'm getting better and better at taking macro shots but you've got to realize that catching a sharp shot of a bumblebee in flight like this was much more luck than skill.

Get out early, especially in spring and fall. Insects are frequently very sluggish until the temperature heats up and you can quite often catch them sleeping or still warming up and get off a lot of shots before they disappear.

You don't always have to be at 1:1. With truly tiny critters you must be as close as possible to get any detail at all. With larger insects, back off a little. Every bit of extra distance adds to the depth of field and lessens the probability of spooking them.

So now you know all my tricks and tips. Remember, just like you I'm an amateur photographer. The only person you have to please with your shots is you. If you share them with others and they also enjoy them, that's icing on the cake. If you share your knowledge with others and help them improve, that's the whole meal. Share what you've learned with others or give them the address to this page. Pass on the info and we all benefit.

Good luck! Be sure to e-mail me and let me know if the tutorial helped you out and point me to some of your posted results ..