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Big pictures of little things

Macrophotographs reveal detail in small subjects.
Macrophotographs reveal detail in small subjects.

Macrophotography (or Macro Photography, and more correctly, Photomacrography) is the photography of very small things, or of close-up details of larger things, where the image is recorded in the subject’s size or larger than its actual size.

What is meant by an image in the "subject's size"?

The essence of macrophotography is the one-to-one relationship of your subject's actual size to the actual size of the image you capture.

To understand this, we must go back a few years to the era of film photography. A single frame in 35mm film has dimensions of 24 X 36 mm. When the tiny subject's size on the frame was the same size as the subject in real life, that was considered to be a macro-photograph.

But nowadays, most cameras are equipped with digital image sensors, not film, and those sensors do not typically have dimensions as large as 24 X 36 mm (although some do). So an image that fills the frame of a sensor that is relatively tiny, perhaps as small as 6 X 8 mm, should technically not be called a macrophotograph since the image it records is so much smaller. (See "Using 35mm SLR lenses on dSLR camera bodies" for an illustration comparing sensor size with 35mm film.)

The older definition now applies in a revised, updated sort of way, so that a small subject's picture that fills the frame of any camera's smaller-than-24 X 36mm-sensor is considered to be a macrophotograph.

The lenses of many cameras allow you to take macro photographs or "macrographs." Some lenses used on SLR (single lens reflex) cameras have macro capability while also serving as a normal or telephoto lens. A 35 mm SLR film camera or a dSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera’s specialized “macro lens,” as a photomacrography lens is often called, is generally expensive when compared with a less-sophisticated compact digital camera's standard lens that has built-in macro capability. (See “Macro lenses” below under the heading "Tools for macrophotography", and also in our “Lens selection” article.)

Digital cameras are, in many ways, suited to macrophotography. Quality dSLR cameras are ideal since they can be fitted with specialized macro lenses, designed specifically for close-up photography.

However, the macro features built into many digital cameras, including a lot of basic models, permit you to take remarkably close images of tiny subjects and sharp close-ups of larger subjects, revealing details that you would otherwise not be able to capture.

Let’s have a look at some of these features and how they are best put to use.


Your digital camera will have a button, dial, wheel selector or switch that you can activate to select its macro mode, allowing you to take macro pictures. Some cameras require you to open a menu in the viewfinder to select macro mode. And some have a second switch or setting to get even closer - really, really close - to your tiny subject - like an additional macro magnifier.

You may be wondering what actually happens when you select macro mode. A complex and exacting rearrangement of the elements of the lens takes place, resulting in a precise placement of them inside the lens that is best suited to close-up photography, allowing you to move your camera closer to the subject than normal. It's actually an amazing design achievement that is intended, even in fairly simple compact digital cameras, to provide simplicity-of-use for the macrophotographer.

Unfortunately, many (not all) compact digital cameras take the simplicity aspect too far, and prevent you from selecting the aperture or shutter speed you would like to use in macro mode. This restriction can prevent you from capturing the best possible macro image. You will see why when we discuss the importance of aperture size in photomacrography below.

dSLR cameras are not restricted in any way with regard to aperture or shutter speed selection - another reason why they are best suited to macrophotography.


A digital camera’s autofocus system will generally continue to work in macro mode, however autofocus doesn't always function that well in close-up photography. If you have the ability to switch to manual focusing, you will produce more consistently sharp macro images.

You must keep in mind that depth of field in macro photography is quite shallow, often fractions of an inch, and any change in your subject’s or your camera’s position could cause your camera to lose focus or to focus on a part of your subject that you may not wish to be as sharp as other parts. It is a good idea to review any shot you take immediately afterwards on your camera’s monitor to be sure that it shows a subject’s important features to be sharply in focus.

However, evaluating what is or isn’t in focus on your camera’s monitor can be hard to do since the screen is so small. Some camera's screens allow you to zoom in when viewing them, visually enlarging part of the image and making it a little easier to assess an image’s depth of field.

If your camera has continuous autofocus capability, macrophotography is a good time to put it to use to be sure that your subject remains in focus should you move the camera slightly or should the subject itself move.

Attaching your camera to a tripod will provide it with the stability needed to prevent camera movement, although it is often not convenient or even possible to use a standard tripod with many subjects, such as those located at or close to ground level. In such cases, you will probably need to steady your camera in another manner. Hand-holding is tricky to do at slow shutter speeds, but can work. Using a bean bag is an effective option.

Insects and arachnids are favorite.subjects for macrophotographers, whose images reveal fascinatinging detail and intricate patterns.
Insects and arachnids are favorite.subjects for macrophotographers, whose images reveal fascinatinging detail and intricate patterns.


One of the nice characteristics of macrophotography is how easy it is to create an image that has only a very small part of it in focus. Having a foreground and/or background that is blurry because it is out of focus can result in a classy, sometimes dreamy looking image that draws the viewer’s attention to a particular subject (or to the details of its features) because it is in focus, and softly blurs the rest of the scene.

But, the narrow zone of focus can also create problems. For example, you may find that most of your subject or its surroundings are not in focus when you want them to be. One of the first things you can do to correct the problem is, perhaps surprisingly, to switch out of macro mode to see if your subject comes completely into focus when shooting normally and zooming in, or bringing your camera closer. If, however, you find that you can't get the shot you want because you can't get close enough to fill the frame with your subject, you will need to shoot it in macro mode.

In macro mode, depth of field will be shallower. Make sure that the center of interest - that portion of the scene that you want to see sharply - is in focus or mostly in focus. Then, try refocusing on another aspect of your subject, one that may be slightly closer or further away. Gauge the effect on depth of field by reviewing your image on your screen. Take several shots while focusing on slightly different areas to provide you with a variety from which to choose the best one.

You can increase depth of field, causing more of your subject to be in focus, by using a smaller aperture (a higher ƒ-number). (See "APERTURE" below.) But, changing the aperture will affect exposure. You will need to either select a slower shutter speed or a higher sensitivity or film speed setting (ISO), or increase the amount of light falling on your subject.

The image on the left in the middle of a flower blossom was taken from a distance with a normal lens (i.e. not in macro mode). The image just below it is an enlargement of a portion of the upper flower image. You can see that everything is in focus. It has plenty of depth of field. This flower was also photographed with a macro lens, shown in the bottom image. Much of it is out of focus since depth of field is so shallow in a macrograph.

As a photographer who will be faced with subjects like this, it is up to you to decide which lens or which mode to use. Knowing the results that can be expected is a great help in reaching a decision.


If your camera has the ability to select aperture settings, it will likely do so in one of four modes – programmed auto (P), shutter-priority auto (S), aperture-priority auto (A) or manual (M) mode. You must be sure that the aperture you select will allow you to use a corresponding shutter speed that is fast enough to “freeze” any slight motion in either your subject or caused by camera movement. If you are concerned about such movement, then consider selecting a higher ISO sensitivity setting that will permit faster shutter speeds at the same aperture setting.

In aperture-priority mode (A), you select the aperture and the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed for proper exposure. You will be able to increase the depth of field by choosing a small aperture, thereby bringing more of your subject into acceptable focus than would be possible with a wider aperture.

However, the effective improvement may be minimal, since depth of field is so darned shallow in macrophotography, as shown by the upper image on the right. But it is safe to say that a macro image taken with a wide aperture of, say ƒ/4, will have noticeably less depth of field than a much smaller aperture such as ƒ/16. A good rule of thumb is to use an ƒ-stop no bigger than ƒ/16 so that your subject (or most of it) will be in focus. If much of your subject is not on the same plane that is in focus, you must decide how much of it will be in focus for an acceptable macro image. It is common practice in such a situation to concentrate on the subject's most important component, and to ensure that it is in focus. If an insect's legs are blurry but its head is sharply focused, that is better than the reverse.

You may also be able to take two or three pictures of the same subject from the same shooting angle, but with each picture focused differently so that a separate portion of the subject is in focus in each shot. Then, using an image-editing program like Adobe PhotoShop, you can combine the focused areas from each picture into one image in which your subject appears to be entirely in focus.

Using a small aperture will require you to increase exposure. There are a number of ways to do this to get more light to reach your sensor or film. You can:

  • select a slower shutter speed, which may require you to use a tripod to avoid camera shake.
  • increase your camera's sensitivity setting, its ISO, but image quality can suffer at too high an ISO setting.
  • or, you can increase the amount of light on your subject.
  • By adding sufficient light to the scene, you won't have to change the sensitivity setting, and will be able to keep the small aperture needed for good depth of field while using a reasonably fast shutter speed for proper exposure.

    How do you increase the amount of light falling on such a small subject?

    Providing adequate, even lighting on a tiny subject can be difficult, especially when your lens may be so close to it that it almost touches it. Switching to a longer macro lens with a focal length of 100 to 200 mm on your dSLR or SLR camera will let you move the camera and its lens away from the subject, leaving room for you to add light from an artificial source. A specialized close-up lighting assembly like Nikon's close-up lighting kit (seen on the right) or a ring flash that fits around the front of the lens can be the ideal accessory in such a situation, but they are also expensive options and not all camera systems offer or accept these accessories.

    A less expensive option is to use your camera's electronic flash to provide the needed light. You can do this when using a telephoto macro lens, a normal macro lens or when your camera is in macro mode. But, a flash that is attached to or built into a camera may be too high above the subject for its light to illuminate it. The answer is to remove the flash unit from the camera, if you have that capability (or to use a secondary flash unit) and connect it with a remote synch cord so you can hold the flash head off to the side while aiming it at your subject. In this manner, you can hold it closer to or further fom your subject to achieve the degree of lighting that is ideal and will provide proper exposure at your camera's shutter and aperture settings. Diffusing your camera's electronic flash will provide more even lighting for your subject, avoiding harsh contrast with its deep shadows and bright highlights. If you place a white card on the opposite side to the one at which the flash is aimed, it will reflect the flash's light, fully illuminating your subject.

    If you can't remove the flash unit from your camera and you don't have a second flash or a hot shoe or connector on your camera with which to fire a secondary flash, you may be able to bounce the light from your flash so that it illuminates the subject. Failing that, you can add extra illumination from a flashlight or a table lamp, but you will need to adjust your white balance to compensate for the different light temperature, since most artificial lighting sources not normally used in photography aren't balanced for the optimal lighting temperature (i.e. the temperature of daylight). (For information on what is meant by "light temperature," see Light and its color, particularly the last section at the bottom.)


    In macro mode, a digital camera’s zoom feature will still work. But, there is usually a focal length or a small range of focal lengths within which your camera will best take macro photographs. Your camera’s display may show the ideal focal length to use. If not, refer to your camera’s manual to learn the optimal focal length for macro work and then shoot all of your macro pictures at the zoom setting that is recommended.

    Once you know what focal length to use, then avoid the temptation to change it when you are attempting to bring a subject closer to or further from the camera. Move the camera instead, to properly frame your composition, bringing its lens closer or pulling it further away.


    Macro lenses, which are designed specifically for photomacrography but can also be used for general photography, are available from many camera manufacturers in different focal lengths, from 45 mm to 200 mm. Longer focal length lenses permit you to remain at a distance from your tiny subject while still capturing an extremely close-up image of it. Macro lenses typically have high quality optical properties, for both close-up and normal work. Some are capable of larger than life-size magnification, and other specialized macro lenses for SLR cameras have image stabilization or vibration reduction technology that is a big help in reducing camera shake when hand-holding, permitting you to use faster shutter speeds.

    Extension tubes or bellows fitted between a camera body and its lens will cause the lens to be further away from the camera's sensor or film plane, increasing magnification of the subject - effectively bringing you closer to it. They contain no lens elements themselves, and are simply hollow. Be aware, though, that exposure is affected when using extension tubes or a bellows. An image will be darker (under-exposed) if photographed at the same aperture you would use without the extenders. Exposing at an aperture setting of ƒ/11 with no extension tube or bellows, could require a change to, say, ƒ/4 with a bellows or tube, reducing depth of field.

    Extension tubes are made in fixed lengths. They are stiff and inflexible. (Think of a cylinder or a pipe.) The camera body and its lens are separated by a distance determined by the size of the tube you use. You can usually purchase extension tubes in packages of three, each of a different length, permitting seven different extension combinations. Tubes of different lengths can be stacked. Some tubes are designed for specific makes of camera, and are connected electronically with both the camera and the lens, permitting the normal contol of their functions, enabling you to compose, focus and meter at wide-open apertures. Nikon calls its extension tubes "extension rings" or "Auto-extension rings."

    A bellows is less sturdy, but more flexible since it is pleated (think of an accordian and its movable bellows), permitting you to continually adjust its length so you choose the distance between the lens and the camera body.

    The focal length of your lens determines the degree of magnification that will be provided by an extension tube or bellows.

    A close-up lens (often inaccurately called a "close-up filter") is a single element lens that is attached in front of your camera's lens, usually by screwing it into the filter thread. (Note that some higher quality close-up lenses are double element - i.e. made up of two lenses.) A close-up lens is another tool that permits close-up focusing. Using one is essentially like shooting through a magnifying glass. If your camera has a fixed lens, preventing you from using a bellows or tubes, a close up lens will allow you to capture macro photographs, but image quality is typically not as good, due to chromatic aberration and reduced sharpness. The maximum magnification is determined by the focal length of the camera's main lens. Close-up lenses will not affect exposure. When purchasing a close-up lens, check that its filter/attachment size is the right size to fit your lens.

    A reversing ring, sometimes called a "macro coupler," is used to reverse the way in which a lens attaches to your camera, turning the lens around so that light from a scene travels through it backwards. Nikon calls its reversing ring an "adapter ring." It converts the bayonet mount of reverse-mounted lenses to the 52 mm thread used for attaching filters. A reversing ring made to fit your SLR or dSLR camera and its lenses is an inexpensive way to use your camera for photomacrogaphy. Here is why it works. A normally attached lens focuses a large subject onto a small sensor or film frame. Reversing the lens causes small things to be projected onto what has become a relatively large sensor or film frame, enabling the taking of macro images.

    More information

    We recommend that you read our section on Photographing mushrooms for additional tips and hints on shooting small subjects.

    Much of the information there expands on the advice provided in this article and will be helpful in your macrophotography.

    You will also be able to pick up some handy tips to aid you in your macrophotography endeavors by visiting our section on Photographing insects and its sub-sections. You will find the sub-sections at the bottom of the Photographing insects page, on the left.

    To view these articles, click on the underlined headings in the paragraphs just above, or click on the links listed below, the ones entitled "Tips on photographing mushrooms" and "Photographing insects."

    Further helpful information can be found in our sections on insect and mushroom photography.
    Further helpful information can be found in our sections on insect and mushroom photography.
    Further information...

    Off-camera flash

    Softening the harsh light from a flash

    White balance

    Related topics...

    Tips on photographing mushrooms

    Photographing insects