When we move in close, the camera reveals intricate details, fascinating patterns, and intense colors unseeable with the naked eye. Even the most ordinary subjects can be completely transformed through magnification.
Macro photography is incredibly fun and only requires a few pieces of specialized gear, some simple camera settings, and a desire for exploration. Here are six tips for macro photography that will help you capture every beautiful detail.
#1 Packing Your Gear for Close-Ups
My camera preference is the Nikon Z 9 paired with the Nikkor Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR macro lens. Those two pieces are my go-to for nearly everything because the results are simply stunning. There are occasional situations where I might choose my Nikon Z 7 II, but the Z 9 is getting a lot of use right now.
There are many ways to get close to a subject, but a macro lens is definitely the best way to get the highest quality results. If you already own a different lens, there are ways to get close to your subject simply by adding close-up filters or extension tubes. These attachments will add magnification to a regular lens so that you can focus much closer to your subjects.
My number one tip for macro photography is to use a tripod whenever possible. If you don’t have a tripod, be sure to choose a shutter speed that’s high enough where you feel comfortable hand-holding the camera. For me that would be 1/500th of a second or higher when working handheld. Lower shutter speeds increase the chance of a blurry image and a missed opportunity for a great picture.
A lens usually performs best right in the middle of its range, so when choosing an f/stop, the range between f/5.6 and 11 is generally a great choice. It gives you a little bit of depth of field, and it’s also where the lens usually delivers the greatest sharpness.
# 2 Photography Means Light
The word photography literally means “light writing” or “writing with light,” and that’s because of the impact light has on every photograph. Regardless of the subject, I always ask myself, “Where is the light coming from and how should I position the camera to take advantage of the light?” If the light needs a bit of enhancement, I’ll figure out what I can do as a photographer to add light or redirect the existing light.
There are many options when it comes to lighting, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be something as simple as taking a mirror with you and redirecting the light from the sun back into a flower from a different angle. Even a paper plate and some aluminum foil can instantly become a white reflector on one side and a silver reflector on the other. When dealing with harsh sunlight, if you cut a hole in a paper plate and then place a paper towel over the cut opening, you will instantly create a diffuser for nice, soft light. It’s a simple solution that will completely change the way your pictures look.
I’ll usually take a collection of Speedlights, mirrors, reflectors, and diffusers on location so that I can create any light—and any look. Even if it’s a foggy or overcast day, the right tools can help to control the light and make the image more interesting. And, it doesn’t have to be expensive! I’d always rather see photographers spend their money on cameras and lenses, because cutting corners on those items will show in the final image.
#3 Find your Focus
If you’re just beginning to explore macro photography, make it easy on yourself by choosing subjects that aren’t going to move too much. It’s much easier to work with still subjects before you try to move on to timing a moving object like a flower swaying in the breeze. At first, choose a stationary subject, such as a pinecone, interesting bark, or other outdoor textures that you see.
Autofocus is amazing, but there are some special techniques you can use for great results when you’re hand-holding in macro photography. The best technique is to first find the composition you like, then use autofocus for the initial focus on the subject, and then physically move the camera itself to find final focus and make your capture.
One camera setting I find very helpful is focus peaking. Focus peaking is a feature on Nikon mirrorless cameras that gives you a visual indication in your viewfinder when something is in perfect focus when using manual focus. It’s a powerful visual aid that is incredibly helpful in finding the exact area in the frame that you want to be sharp.
#4 Create an Interesting Composition with Your Distance
The closer you get to a subject, the more it will be magnified while the background fades into a diffused collection of tones. This continuous range of focus is just one of the benefits of working with a dedicated macro lens. For example, let’s say you were fortunate enough to find yourself in a field of sunflowers. Your frame can begin with the entire field, but as you move closer, a small group of sunflowers suddenly becomes your focus. Move even closer, and the center of a single sunflower or some its petals reveal the textures and hues only seen when moving in close.
The great thing about the two Nikkor Z macro lenses (Nikkor Z MC 50mm f/2.8 and Nikkor Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S), is that they allow you to focus from infinity to 1:1, or life-size, giving you the ability to capture anything from places to portraits to petunias.
#5 Give the Viewer More Visual Interest
I like viewers to look at everything I place in a composition, so I try to position my subjects in a way that gives the viewer more visual interest and draws them through the frame. That usually means positioning the subject off-center or using diagonal lines to pull their gaze through the image.
Another great tip is to always check all four corners as you’re composing your image. This is a great way to be certain that every element is making the image stronger. As photographers, we’re responsible for where we place our subjects, how we arrange the supporting pieces of the composition, and how it all blends together.
#6 Prepare for the Outdoor Elements
Here are some additional tips that help you to really focus on making great pictures:
Early morning dew is always a nice addition to flowers and greenery, but that same misty morning also makes everything wet. To keep my clothes and cameras dry, I usually bring along a waterproof tarp to spread over the wet ground. The tarp keeps me from making excuses about not wanting to lay on the wet ground to get the shot!
Another helpful addition to my kit is gardener knee pads. If I need to kneel, I can place the knee pad over the hardest rocks and gravel and stay there for as long as it takes to get the shot.
There isn’t really a “best time of day” for macro-photography because the natural world faces every direction. So, if you see a flower that’s pointing in a terrible direction relative to the light, you can always walk around and find another flower pointing in an even better direction. But if you come back in a couple of hours, the original flower that that was in unflattering light is likely now in perfect light. It’s a reminder that the natural world is always changing, constantly evolving, and in the process, producing new subjects for us to capture.
About Joey Terrill
Joey Terrill began his career as a photographer for the Los Angeles Times before moving to magazine and advertising photography for clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Nikon, Red Bull and Sports Illustrated.
His career has included a range of specialties including architecture and interior design, advertising and corporate photography, golf course landscapes, and editorial portraiture.
But it’s the rich potential within macro photography that has always been a fascination. Using a camera to magnify and explore has lead him to experiment with unusual subjects, various liquids, special camera techniques, and intricate lighting. His dedicated macro studio is designed to support the stability and precision essential to exploring new possibilities.
Joey teaches speaks at seminars including the PhotoPlus Expo, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, Popular Photography Mentor Series, Consumer Electronics Show, World in Focus, and Nikon School Online.