Macro photography for beginners
Our tips for taking great close-up photos with any camera
In this article: Our guide to close-up and macro photography...
- Which camera to use
- Using a macro lens
- What to do when you don't have a macro lens
- Best subjects for macro photography
- Tips for sharper photos
- Macro photography lighting tips
...along with some examples of macro photography.
As a longtime photography enthusiast, I’ve shot many landscapes and portraits, and for years, I wanted to try macro photography. I wanted to see tiny water droplets on a flower bud and get a close-up view of the multiple colors of my cat’s fur. But for a while, I thought buying a macro lens for my camera was the only way to get good close-up photos.
For a casual photographer, the cost of additional lenses can be hard to justify — I didn’t want to buy one and later decide macro photography wasn’t for me. But once I started looking into other close-up photography methods, I realized I already had a few tools I could use with my camera, and that there were even ways to do it with my phone camera.
What’s the best camera for macro photography?
You can use just about any kind of camera out there, even a simple point-and-shoot or a phone camera. A lot of point-and-shoot cameras have a macro mode for close-ups. DSLR and mirrorless cameras use interchangeable lenses. This versatility makes it easier to photograph different subjects at varying distances.
If you’re interested in mirrorless cameras and don’t know where to start, take a look at our Best mirrorless cameras for 2023. Or, if you would rather stick with a DSLR, our DSLR buying guide will get you on your way.
Enter the smartphone. In recent years, the camera phone has become a respectable entry-level tool, and a plethora of third-party accessories are available to enhance the photography of small objects.
I’ve used my cellphone to take close-up shots of insects, coins, flowers, leaves, and cats. In some cases, the digital zoom did a great job in capturing detail. If I really wanted to zoom in, though, I used digital zoom along with a clip-on magnifying lens.
Digital zoom vs optical zoom
Digital zoom is a feature of cellphone and point-and-shoot cameras that takes the image on your camera’s sensor and crops it to make your subject appear larger. This can be a convenient way to get a closer shot, but the in-camera cropping sacrifices some resolution and detail. Depending on what you want to do with your final image, you may not even notice a difference.
This raindrop hanging from the branch of a thorny bush was taken with maximum digital zoom on a handheld iPhone 12. It's not as "crisp" as it would be with a camera, zoom lens, and tripod, but it's still respectable — note the trees within the raindrop!
If you’re posting your photos to social media, digital zoom is fine. But a poster-sized enlargement, for example, may not be as sharp and clear as you like. If you’re planning on enlarging your photos for display purposes, especially at larger sizes, you might want to consider optical zoom.
Optical zoom uses a physical zoom lens (or multiple lenses, in the case of some smartphones) to get you closer to your subject without any loss of image quality. Some point-and-shoot cameras have impressive optical zoom specs and use digital zoom as a fallback if you want to get even closer. For the most extreme close-ups, look for a point-and-shoot camera with 10X optical zoom or higher.
What is a macro lens?
A macro lens reproduces an image at life size, or slightly smaller — a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio. Where most lenses have a curved focus field, a macro lens has a flat focus field, so you get every bit of your image in focus, from edge to edge.
Usually, a macro lens has a very short focal length, so you won’t get a lot of depth. So, when shooting with a macro lens, you need to get close to your subject, often within a foot or less. All these factors combine to allow you to reproduce a small item, or the small areas of a larger item. You'll capture a lot of details you may miss otherwise.
No macro, no problem!
If you want to dip your toe into close-up photography without a big financial commitment, there are some things you can try with your existing camera or cellphone. I experimented with my DSLR and lenses I already own, along with my iPhone 12.
Add-on lens filters
Close-up lens filters are small, inexpensive magnifying lenses that attach to the front of a camera lens. Lens filters for interchangeable-lens cameras screw onto your existing lens. Also, there are clip-on filters for cellphones. Add-on filters are made of lower-quality glass than your camera’s lens (and some are even made of plastic!), so there may be some degradation to your image quality — or even some interesting distortion effects. But they’re an inexpensive way to experiment.
I used lens filters on both my DSLR and my phone. I was pleased with the results. They weren't dramatic, but I definitely got more detail than I could get with the lens alone. Photos of flowers turned out especially well in both cases. However, my phone worked better with my cat, probably since it's easier to catch her "on the fly" with a smaller device — barely out of kittenhood, she's here, then gone in a blink!
Interestingly, I noticed distortion with my phone and a clip-on lens when I photographed a quarter on a wood plank. The grain of the wood got a bit of a reverse fish-eye lens effect near the edges of the photo.
Use an existing lens from your photo tool bag
If you’ve been using a telephoto lens to capture faraway subjects, you have a nice tool at your disposal. You can photograph small subjects in respectable detail, like flowers and insects. One benefit of this method is that you get a lovely background blur that makes your subject “pop”! Also, working at a distance allows you to keep your subject at ease. You don’t want to scare away the star of your photo!
An existing wide-angle lens can be useful. It seems counterintuitive, but it can work! For pet portraits, a little wide-angle distortion can be a cute effect for those “nose boop” pics. You can also use a wide-angle lens to create a lovely photo of a single flower with a vast landscape in the background. To take these pics, get close, as close as you can.
An uncommon solution — the reverse macro ring
If you’re comfortable using manual settings on an interchangeable-lens camera, you can repurpose a lens you already own for close-up photography with a reverse macro ring. It’s a simple, inexpensive piece that screws onto the front of your lens and lets you mount the lens backwards onto the camera body, resulting in significant magnification.
You don’t lose any image quality like you would with a close-up lens filter, since you’re just flipping an existing lens with a reverse macro ring. But you will lose autofocus and aperture control capabilities. If you do decide to try this method, picking up an aperture control ring for the back of your lens will make it a lot easier to dial in your exposure settings.
What are the best subjects for macro photography?
Small hobby objects like stamps, coins, or figurines are options for close-up photography. Coins are great, due to the artistry that goes into the engravings on something like a U.S. state quarter.
Photographing flowers and other plants reveals details like leaf veins, pollen, and color variations. If you’re lucky, you may capture a friendly pollinator, which brings us to the next subject….
Bugs! Capturing an insect like a bee or a butterfly on a flower adds an extra layer of charm to your photograph. However, you may opt to photograph another type of creepy-crawly, such as a spider, revealing nightmare fuel of multiple hairy legs.
Animals are a favorite subject, and using close-up photography makes the intricacies of fur and feathers truly magical. However, make sure you’re not stressing the animal by being too close. Minimize your flash use; it can scare the animal or cause red eye. For more information on photographing pets, check out 10 tips for awesome pet photos
Tips for sharper macro photos
My number one camera accessory recommendation is a tripod. Small details in a close-up photo are more revealing of an unstable camera than a landscape photo. No matter how steady your hands, camera shake happens. You can have everything perfectly focused, but if there is camera shake, your photo will be fuzzy, lacking detail. Also, if you’re using manual focus, you need the extra stability.
If you don’t have a tripod, try to use a stable surface like a stool or table. If you must hold the camera, stabilize yourself. Brace yourself against something, hold your elbows against your sides, breathe out and shoot before breathing back in. You don’t want to lose the details of your subject from an errant sneeze!
Pressing a camera’s shutter button can cause also camera shake, leading to blurry images. A remote gives you hands-free shutter control. You can buy wired or wireless remotes for some cameras. Many camera brands have apps that let you use your phone as a remote. Bluetooth enabled remotes are available for smartphones. If you don’t have a remote, use a steady table and take advantage of the self-timer function on your camera.
Macro photography lighting tips
A clear light source is a must. I prefer indirect, natural light with flash as a backup. A flash can wash out small details if you use it at full power. Sometimes, a small LED, rather than a flash, can be helpful. For an artistic effect, a flash off-camera and to the side is useful to bring areas of light and dark into sharp relief.
If you can’t adjust your flash from full power, use a diffuser. This could be as simple as a light-colored curtain on a window, or a handkerchief over a flash — no need to buy a professional soft box or reflector. With natural light, you may need to use a long shutter speed, so a tripod or stable surface is mandatory.
Get out there and shoot!
Close-up photography doesn’t have to involve expensive, elaborate set-ups. There are easy workarounds and inexpensive accessories to help you capture great macro photos with the tools you already have. I'm hooked on macro, and I plan to invest in a macro lens soon.
Remember, subjects for your photography are all around you, in your pocket, in your garden, or even purring in your lap!
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