When you observe the world from a macro perspective, there is more to see than one that many photographers initially imagine. Even simple things that we see in regular life can appear more interesting, like the fine detail of lashes on an open eye as they transform into single, long black strands of mascaraed hair; the dots on a ladybug become the size of a tack, and the red cover looks more like a candy than an insect; water droplets look like diamonds, and more. Macro forces your view to shift from the large to the very very small, and in that you open yourself up to an entirely new perspective.
Macro vs. Close-up Photography
Photographers routinely mix terminology when talking about photographing small objects. You’ll hear terms like close-up, macro, and even “micro.” How to sift through this? The most important differentiating factor is reproduction ratio — simply stated, what’s the magnification at a lens’ nearest focus distance?
Close-up is capturing small objects, but not so “close” that we approach life-size magnification. Many of today’s zoom lenses, for instance, can fill the frame with a subject like a typical playing card, or even a business card. This type of close-up capability can still be very effective in photographing small, everyday subjects. But a genuine macro lens can effectively get us even closer.
The photo industry has generally accepted that macro refers to shooting small objects at life-size or greater magnifications, although most authorities would include magnifications of half life-size to fall under that umbrella. We’ll discuss what the numbers mean in a moment, but a real-life example of life-size, macro imagery would be filling the frame with a subject the size of a US quarter coin, with a full-frame camera.
Understanding the Numbers
Camera makers and photographers alike use numbers to quantify “how close” we’re getting when we take close-up images of small subjects. To get a picture in your own mind and help clarify this, it can be very useful to keep the size of today’s digital image sensors in mind — because these numbers reference the size of the image, as it’s captured on an image sensor.
Full-frame sensor (example — Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EOS 6D camera, or traditional 35mm film SLR camera):
24x36mm (about 1 x 1.5 inches)
APS-C sensor (example — Canon EOS Rebel model, EOS 80D, or EOS 7D):
15x22.5mm (about 0.6 x 0.9 inches)
There are two very commonly-used sets of numbers, both of which describe the same thing, albeit a little differently:
Reproduction ratio describes how big your subject is being reproduced on your imaging sensor, vs. its size in real life. True macro photography is generally regarded as anything that has a reproduction ratio of at least 1:1 — sometimes called “life-size” — meaning that if an actual, real-life size flower you are photographing is one inch in diameter, it will be projected by the lens and fall upon your camera’s imaging sensor at the same size as its actual dimensions.
The first number in the ratio (usually 1) represents how big the object is, in real life. The second number represents how large it’s being reproduced on your camera’s imaging sensor. So if you take a picture of a butterfly and the magnification ratio is 1:4, the butterfly is being captured at 1/4 its actual size, on your imaging sensor. That’s still often pretty impressive close-up size, and many of today’s zoom lenses can focus about this close, when zoomed to their longest focal length.
Magnification expresses the reproduction ratio differently, as a fraction or the decimal result of what the fraction expresses. As in the image of the 10-dollar bill above, a 1:4 reproduction ratio is the same as saying it’s being captured at 1/4 its actual size on the camera’s imaging sensor, or it’s being captured at 0.25x. Here are a few quick examples of reproduction ratio, and corresponding magnification numbers:
- 1:10 — 1/10 life-size, or 0.1x magnification
- 1:4 — 1/4 life-size, or 0.25x magnification
- 1:2 — 1/2 life-size, or 0.5x magnification
- 1:1 — life-size, or 1x magnification
- 2:1 — twice life-size, or 2x magnification (scroll down to the picture of a fly on a flower, for an example of an image taken at 2x magnification)
Actual Macro Imagery
We mentioned it above, but it bears repeating: technically, for images of small subjects to be consider macro photos, the lens that captured them needs to deliver a magnification of 1x, or life-size; another way of saying this is a reproduction ratio of 1:1. Many users are content with describing images at 1/2 life-size (1:2, or 0.5x) as falling within the definition of “macro.” Our purpose here isn’t to try to redefine terms for the camera industry, but at least to be clear on terms in this article.
With most major camera makers, if you see a lens described as a macro lens, it usually will be able to focus close enough to give you magnifications up to life-size, or close to that, when set to their nearest focus distance.
Most true macro lenses not only have a focus distance scale (in feet and meters), but also display reproduction ratio when you’re focused relatively closely. On Canon-brand macro lenses, for instance, there’s a third set of yellow numbers on the distance scale, and these are the reproduction ratios at a given focus distance. If you’re set to a yellow “3” on the distance scale, for instance, the lens is reporting 1:3 reproduction ratio, or magnification of 1/3 life-size (0.33x).
Macro photography can even make the image appear several times bigger than it actually is in real life. For example, Canon offers a special macro lens called the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1~5x Macro Photo lens, which can capture subjects at magnifications up to 5x life-size (that’s a 5:1 magnification ratio!).
When the magnification ratio is less than 1:1 (1:2, 1:3, 1:5, for example) it is technically considered “close-up photography” instead of “macro photography,” and that will be discussed in detail momentarily.
When is Macro Really Not Macro?
Some zoom lenses have a special setting you can enter by twisting a ring on the lens, or by simply focusing to its nearest focus distance — and you may see this marked as a “macro mode” or just “macro.” In most cases, this is a bit of a misnomer… most conventional zoom lenses cannot provide the 1:1 or life-size magnification of small objects needed to rival what a true macro lens can produce.
You may also see a “Macro” setting on small point-and-shoot cameras and even some smartphones, that lets you focus in on details of a subject, or photograph something that is a small size. This is an example of close-up photography vs. true macro photography, because the camera or phone’s magnification ratio will rarely, if ever, be as high as 1:1 without the use of a macro lens.
The terms “close-up” photography and “macro” photography are often used interchangeably. As discussed above, however, true macro photography usually requires a specific macro lens. Canon makes a number of different macro lenses, all designed to get you to at least 1/2 life-size magnification, and in most cases, full life-size (1x, or 1:1).
Using a telephoto or zoom lens to focus close on small subjects, like flowers or even insects, almost always falls under the heading of close-up photography, not true “macro” photography. Close-up photography can be accomplished with many popular lenses — many of today’s zoom lenses, for example, can focus to magnifications of roughly 1:5 or 1:4. In fact, we actively encourage all photographers to work with their lenses at or near their minimum focus distances; the results can be remarkable.
But keep in mind: One reason true macro lenses excel is not only because they are able to focus closer and get magnifications up to life-size, but their optics are designed to deliver top-notch quality at close distances. A general-purpose zoom lens can sometimes approach close-up magnifications of a real macro lens, but their optics are normally optimized for best performance at distances a lot closer to infinity. This can often mean spectacular fine detail in small objects when they’re photographed with a true macro lens.
Getting Better Close-up and Macro Images
Focus and overall sharpness: Depth of field becomes very shallow at high magnifications. It is important to focus carefully in high magnification macro photography — even with a small subject like a flower, if you focus close, you often won’t get the entire flower sharp, front-to-back, even if you pre-set a small lens aperture like f/22.
Sharpness — consider using flash: If you’re shooting close-up and especially macro images using available light, obviously you can expect the greatest overall sharpness if you can use a solid tripod. Assuming there’s no subject movement, this can make small apertures like f/16 or f/22 practical for greater depth of field, without fear of camera movement at the resulting slow shutter speeds. When you are photographing moving subjects like insects, you won’t always have the freedom to use a tripod. Flash can often be the answer.
Flash can freeze nearly any form of subject and camera movement, if you shoot with flash at fairly fast shutter speeds. The added light can suddenly mean you can freely shoot at much smaller lens apertures than might otherwise be practical with natural light, so you gain sharpness potential in terms of depth of field… you’re no longer required to work at wide lens openings, just to maintain a safe hand-holdable shutter speed.
Simple flash-on-camera often won’t work well, however. Both built-in flashes and accessory Speedlites typically are designed to evenly illuminate subjects no closer than about 2 or 3 feet away (roughly 0.7~1m) from the camera. And, even if you work past this, the lighting tends to have a very flat, unflattering character.
Wireless flash, by simply using an accessory Speedlite with wireless “slave unit” capability, can change that. Even hand-holding a single flash unit off to one side, aiming it at your subject, and carefully holding the camera in your right hand can deliver good results with more natural-looking lighting. Most importantly, flash can allow you to easily shoot at those small apertures needed for sharpness, without resulting problems from camera shake.
Many recent Canon EOS DSLRs can use their built-in flash to act as a wireless triggering device, for Canon Speedlites off-camera.
Very briefly, in close-up and macro images, if you want flash to be the dominant source of light — like it is in the picture of the fly, immediately above — the easiest way to achieve that with Canon Speedlites is the following:
- Camera set to Manual (M) exposure mode; flash can remain on E-TTL for automatic flash exposure
- Pre-set a moderate ISO (perhaps 100 thru 400, in most cases, as a starting point)
- Dial-in a fast shutter speed — 1/125 up to your camera’s maximum sync speed for flash (1/200 or 1/250 with most EOS DSLRs)
- Dial-in a small lens aperture, for adequate depth of field (f/11 thru f/22 or so, in most cases)
Backgrounds will be dark, since this combination of settings reduces or completely blocks out ambient light. But it allows flash to light the scene, and minimizes any problem with subject movement or camera shake.
Getting serious? Step up to a macro flash unit: Conventional accessory Speedlites can be great for macro and close-up shots, once you get them off-camera via wireless flash technology. And that can be using the more common “optical” wireless E-TTL, such as when the built-in flash triggers the off camera flash(es), or the newer Canon radio-based (RT) wireless flash technology.
But the next step is to consider flashes designed specifically for macro work, with macro lenses. Canon currently makes two: the Macro Ring Lite, a circular flash which attaches to the front of most Canon-brand macro lenses, and the Macro Twin Lite, which has two moveable and independent flash heads, for lighting with a directional character.
Composition: Framing in composition of an image is just as important as selecting the right lens for the task, and when you practice macro or close-up photography the negative space is even more noticeable than in other images.
How you choose to place your subject inside of your frame is important, and deciding how much space to leave surrounding your subject will add or detract from the overall image.
If you are photographing water droplets on a long thin leaf, consider where in the image the drops will appear. Do they dominate the image? Or does the leaf play an equally important role?
Juxtaposition or two things placed closely together with a contrasting effect is a way to emphasize the subject of the photograph for your audience. If you are photographing that same long green leaf with water droplets, then juxtapose that leaf against the blue of the sky for a complimentary color scheme that will draw your viewer in.
The Rule of Thirds is a composition basic for an image and can help to create a sense of balance, interest, viewing ease and much more without making the image appear too static. Conversely, the Rule of Thirds helps to make an image have some complexity without chaos. The Rule of Thirds is a simple grid, dividing the image into nine equal parts across the plane that you can use as a guideline for your photographic composition.
The intersecting points on that grid, known as “power points” are just that: strong areas for compositional impact. If you are photographing an insect with your macro lens, try placing one of the eyes into a “power point” on the grid for maximum compositional impact in your image.
In macro and high magnification photography the background is often out of focus, appearing as a simple color or texture. Select complimentary or contrasting colors for your background to help emphasize your subject. If your subject is red, try placing it against a green background. Then take another image placing against an orange background and see the difference.
Because much of what you get with macro and high magnification photography is fine detail through shape, line and color, use this to your advantage when composing your shot. Make the image as graphic as you can. Observe your subject as a series of shapes, lines, triangles, squares and circles and start to compose your scene based on those characteristics. With close-up pattern details, try filling the entire frame of your image so that there are no gaps around the edges. Next, try showing the entire pattern with ample negative space.
Textures are everywhere and macro photography emphasizes texture more than any other photography form. Look for furry, shiny, wet, sharp, soft, fuzzy, and more.
Nature is filled with patterns of stripes, dots, circles, etc. Seek these out in your imagery.
Guide our subject’s eyes throughout the image. Place the main subject of interest at the end of the line where your subject’s eyes will rest. These lines can be diagonal, horizontal, vertical, curved, or an S-curve even. Look for them in your composition and use them to your advantage to create a dynamic image. Think of a curving pathway leading the viewer’s eyes into the distance of an image…you can use that same philosophy within your macro and high magnification shots, just on a very different scale.
Shifting your Perspective
There are additional techniques for making the subject of your image appear very large and very small, and these don’t require a macro lens.
Creating “monsters” in Hollywood movie magic is the best example of how a shifting perspective can really change the appearance of a subject. Rather than photographing or filming the monster character from straight on, many characters have been photographed from a low angle with a wide lens to distort features and make the appearance of the subject more “unreal.” This technique can be used in your photographs to add height to a subject, to make them seem more powerful, and even to add a bit of a scare. Add some additional up-lighting and you will have strong shadows that enhance distortion even more.
When photographing children and animals, if you change your perspective to their eye level, you will create an image that draws the viewer in. However, for the purposes of making something large and something small, you can photograph a child or a pet from the top of a ladder to enhance the height difference between you. This perspective of looking down on your subject will make them appear much smaller than they are in real life.
How, What, Why?
In all image creation it is important to ask yourself about the story you are trying to tell. Even a single image has a story, and even a macro image has something to say. To get to the root of this, ask yourself a few simple questions before you take an image: what, why, how?
- What story are you interested in telling?
- What is the subject of your image?
- How can you best photograph this subject to stand alone in the screen?
- How can you use macro or close-up photography to isolate your subject and show its details?
- Why does this subject speak to you?
- Why do you want to photograph this subject? Because you love it? It looks tasty? It makes you laugh? It makes you feel love? It is interesting? It makes you curious?
Use these questions to help you to think about your background, your props if any, your horizon line, your color scheme, and more.
Get inspired by:
- Water droplets
- Details on fabric
Take the 10-day Macro/High Magnification Challenge and have fun photographing these subjects and perspectives!
- 1. Macro image
- 2. High magnification image
- 3. Making something large seem small
- 4. Making something small seem large
- 5. Children from their perspective
- 6. Pets from their perspective
- 7. Monster image
- 8. Miniature image
- 9. From a ladder
- 10. Laying on the floor
Macro photography can be really exciting. Showing the details of life can turn something very regular into something dynamic. Details can even become fine art. Even if you don’t own a true macro lens, try taking advantage of the close-up power of the lenses you use now. It can have you looking at subjects in an entirely new way!