The tiny world of macro: 8 quick tips to shoot small objects

Chad Verzosa

Macro photography, or the art of taking detailed, extreme close-ups of a subject, is one of the most exciting activities that photographers of all skill levels can try.

Photo by Carlos Quintero

Once you learn to light and compose for macro photography, it doesn’t take much to produce professional-looking shots with minimal equipment. With a few cost-friendly modifications, you can create incredible images with your camera or even your smartphone.

In this article, we'll cover eight simple tips to get you started in this exciting genre.

01. Get a good macro lens or modify what you have

Macro lenses come in a variety of focal lengths ranging from about 30mm all the way to 200mm. Your lens' focal length dictates how close you can get to your subject. For example, the focusing distance of a 100mm lens is about a foot, while 50mm gets you as close as eight inches. Longer focal lengths are perfect for photographing small insects that don’t like humans getting near them. On the other hand, shorter focal lengths are generally ideal for non-moving objects.

Photo by Andrea Riezzo

But if you don’t have a lot to spend on dedicated macro lenses, you can convert regular lenses using bellows or extension tubes that typically cost less than a hundred US dollars. Just like telescopes (but for small objects), these special attachments allow the light to travel farther and magnify the image in the process.

A reversed-mounted lens by Chad Verzosa

Another cheap alternative that many photographers use is reverse mounting. By using an adapter (also called macro coupler), any lens can be attached to the camera in reverse to achieve macro magnification.

However, since you have to install it backward, it also disables your equipment's autofocusing and metering capabilities. To retain the auto functions, you have the option to screw a reversed lens unto a regularly mounted lens using the coupler.

02. Control exposure

Before you start shooting, it would help to tweak your camera settings to maintain the quality of your photos.

First, adjust your ISO to increase or decrease your sensor's light sensitivity. Most devices may let you go up to 25,000 or more, but be aware that the image noise also becomes more evident as the value increases. To prevent this, select the lowest option to minimize noise. If you’re in a dark location, you can get away with raising it up to 800 without sacrificing too much of the image quality. However, try your best to keep it between 100 or 200 to guarantee smooth, grainless shots.

Photo by David Clode

Next, change the aperture somewhere between f/4 to f/8. If you open your lens too wide (such as f/1.8 or f/2.8), you’ll have difficulty focusing because the depth of field is shallow and everything would be in danger to end up blurry. On the other hand, if you select a smaller value (between f/11 to f/22), your background might become too distracting since everything becomes sharp.

Photo by Daniel Weiss

When it comes to shutter speed, start with 1/125 when shooting moving elements (such as insects) to avoid blurry images. For non-moving objects, especially in poor lighting conditions, feel free to use slower shutter speeds as long as you mount your camera on a tripod.

Photo by Paul Morris

03. Grab a few add-ons

Having the right accessories often is key to capturing beautiful macro photos. Even if you’re shooting with just a basic camera or a smartphone, you could end up with some amazing photos with the right equipment.

One great accessory to carry along when shooting, especially outdoors, is a mini tripod. It’s especially useful when you find yourself shooting in awkward or tight situations that make handheld shooting difficult. A smaller tripod will not only keep your camera stable but also allow you to keep the lens at the right angle.

Photo by Benjamin Balazs

When outdoors, bring an external flash or other portable light sources such as LED lamps and flashlights to supply additional light for dimly-lit areas. Meanwhile, softbox lights or diffused flash units will provide adequate illumination when shooting indoors. Use lights that you can easily manipulate to best capture the subject.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska

A plain background, especially if you’re shooting indoors, helps isolate your subject and emphasize its colors. Most photographers usually choose either black or white to create contrast and bring out the details of what they’re photographing.

Photo by Al Martin

Finally, use a “third hand” (small adjustable clamps) to hold your subject and keep it in place. It’s especially useful when the object you’re photographing can’t stand on its own (i.e., flowers with stems). Since it's posable, you can also adjust it any way you want.

Photo by Chad Verzosa

04. Mix natural and artificial lights

Don’t hesitate to use artificial light together with natural light to fill in dark and backlit areas. Doing so not only creates a more balanced exposure, but also adds dimension to the subject.

The easiest way is to set up an external flash unit near your subject. As mentioned before, you can also use other portable light sources to provide adequate exposure.

Photo by Krista McPhee

Feel free to move light sources around to achieve different effects. For instance, you can throw light in all directions to create a commercial look, or light it from one side to make it appear more natural, intimate, or even mysterious.

Photo by Al Martin

05. Experiment with different subjects

When most people think of macro photography, they often imagine images of small insects and plants, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited to shooting tiny flora and fauna. You can take pictures of virtually anything you find interesting.

Photo by Ryan McGuire

Think outside the box and look for unusual objects that most people haven’t seen extremely up close before. It could be anything from an adorable feature on your favorite pet to details on food such as donut sprinkles.

Photo by Carlo Verso

06. Be mindful of composition

Just because you’re shooting small things doesn’t mean you can ignore composition altogether. Whatever you’re photographing, remember to frame your subject well.

Photo by Demi Kwant

The rule of thirds is just as applicable in macro photography as other artistic disciplines. To help you compose your picture, turn on your camera screen’s grid lines (consult your camera manufacturer’s manual; every device uses different methods to enable this function). To create a visually balanced image, place your subject where the lines on the screen intersect.

Photo by Chad Verzosa

Another great technique is to let the subject dominate the picture by putting it in the middle of the frame. Although it doesn’t follow the rule of thirds, this strategy is especially effective as it helps the viewer's eyes go directly to the center. Most scientific macro photographs use this method because it's simple and isn’t distracting.

Photo by Shahzin Shajid

07. Fine tune focusing

Using autofocus for macro photography is nearly impossible, so it would be best to focus your lens manually. Once you disable the auto function, simply adjust the focus ring until your subject is clear.

Photo by Annelie Turner

However, due to the shallow depth of field, this in itself can be difficult to do. To check your focus, use the zoom-in button (the one with the magnifying glass icon) and examine if the area you selected is indeed sharp.

Photo by Shari Miller

In certain cases, the depth of field can be so shallow that only a section of your subject stays sharp. If you find yourself in this situation, you can either choose a smaller aperture or select a specific area that you want to be clear. For instance, if you’re shooting a butterfly, and only part of its body is in focus, you may have to decide whether you want to highlight the head or the wings. You can also look for exciting details or patterns that your viewers might want to see, and make those your focal point.

Photo by Jakob Owens

08. Play around with different backgrounds

Photo by Troy Jarrell

Due to the shallow depth of field in macro images, you might end up thinking that background isn’t that important. In reality, it contributes a lot to the photo because it adds to the visual narrative and the overall mood. Whether you’re shooting outdoors or indoors, always pay attention to what’s behind your subject.

Photo by Aaron Burden

If you want to make your image look realistic, choose natural environments. All the grass or flowers around you may not be sharp, but they add to the overall aura of the image. Just look at the picture of the bee below as an example:

Photo by Boris Smokrovic

The petals in the back may not be sharp, but they clue in the viewers that the insect is flying close to a flower.

Now, have you ever noticed why the backgrounds of extreme close-up shots of specimens in science magazines and books are black? As discussed before, plain backgrounds work well with macro photography.

Photo by Al Martin

If you want your viewers to focus on the details of your subjects, choose a black background. It’s usually the most ideal since its dark and not as distracting as other colors.

Macro photography may be a specialized genre, but unlike what many people think, it’s accessible even to regular enthusiasts. Although it seems intimidating at first, you’ll realize you don’t need that much to create a macro masterpiece. You don’t even have to go to exotic places to do it; there’s a strange, fascinating world waiting for you in your own backyard.