Think small. Really, really small. That’s macro photography in a nutshell.
Cute ladybug close ups, details of the human eye, fine hairs on a bee, and pollen grains in a flower are all visible with macro photography. That is the allure of macro photography, you get to see this semi-invisible world that’s in right front of us every day.
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“Macro” photography is creating an image of a subject that is life sized or greater in magnification; it’s not just photos of small things. A “life size” image means that if your camera sensor is 1 inch and you have a 1 inch subject, that the subject or part of the subject would completely fill the frame. There are some technical aspects to sensor sizes and magnification, but we don’t need to go into those details.
What you need to know is macro photography can capture incredible details and that you can achieve this with your smartphone or DSLR using very inexpensive accessories. And bonus, you don’t even have to leave your house or yard to get amazing images!
The goal of this article will be to give you some pro tips for shooting macro, as well as a list of budget friendly accessories for both DSLR/mirrorless cameras and smartphones (iPhone and Android).
Let’s start with the “gear.”
You need your DSLR or mirrorless camera or a smartphone. Then you need one (or more) of the following types of accessories:
When purchasing any of these accessories, be sure to check carefully that they are the right size and fit for your device. If you need help, reach out to us! Or take a Macro class with us where you get to try some of this equipment first hand.
For smartphones, each of three items listed above basically do the same thing. They attach or clip on or slide over your phone’s camera and magnify the image – kind of like looking through a magnifying glass.
For about $15 you can get a small clip on lens or a band. For a bit more, you can get a lens case or set of clip on lenses that includes other types of lenses as well, such as wide angle or even telephoto. There are even some pricey, but excellent quality options like the Moment lens and case which will set you back about $150. There are so many options, I cannot possible discuss them all, but look at reviews and sample images from buyers and compare the magnification you will get with each lens (4x, 10x, 15x) as well as how close you have to get for the lens to work (usually a few centimeters to a few inches). Make sure you get a case or clip that is compatible with your phone model. In the case of macro “bands” they are universal and just stretch over the phone including in most situations the case, too. Clip on lenses may require you to take your camera out of the case and macro lens cases require you to swap phone cases completely.
The products below are some of the smartphone accessories used for many of the images in this post.
With a DSLR or mirrorless cameras, there are options that are simply magnifiers, like those for phones. These include macro close-up filters (diopters) which screw onto the end of the lens the way a UV or ND filter would. They come in magnifications of +1, +2, +4, +10, and can be stacked, for example a +10 and a +2 together. Another options is a clip-on or add-on “lens” such as the Raynox DCR-250. The advantage of a clip-on is that you can use it on different lenses of different sizes, whereas the filters have to be bought for each different lens size. We did a review of the Raynox DCR-250 on our YouTube channel if you want to learn more about that option. Filter sets cost around $20 and the Raynox is under $75 (a bit pricey, but still far less than the cost of a dedicated macro lens).
The disadvantage of any type of magnifying accessories, whether for smartphone or camera, is distortion. Because the glass on these items is curved, you can end up with a center area that is in focus, but everything else on all the edges is blurry. The higher the magnification, the more curved the glass will be, the more distortion you may experience. This is where reading the reviews and looking at the specs of the product will be important.
In the case of extension tubes, you can purchase sets with a variety of lengths which can be used alone or in combination. Some of the less expensive extension tubes cost around $15, but these will not give you autofocus controls. More expensive versions will give you autofocus functionality. Personally, I find myself using manual focus so much when shooting macro that I would not bother to invest in the more expensive versions. (We’ll cover that manual focus stuff more in a moment).
Reversing rings allow you to put your existing lenses onto the camera backwards which then gives you magnification; however, it opens the end of your lens to dust and moisture. It is effective and works well, but it’s not my favorite option to use with expensive lenses. You can get reversing rings for under $15.
So that covers the inexpensive gear. In the photos throughout this post I will indicate which type of accessory was used for each shot.
Now let’s cover subject matter.
It can be anything really. That’s part of the fun of macro, even your boring old carpet fibers look interesting under magnification. Your yard is probably overflowing with possible subjects. Flowers and insects are common subjects in this genre. Whenever you go out looking for bugs, it is important for you to slow down and stop moving. It is only when you are still that you begin to see all the tiny life in a small section of grass or leaves of a flowering plant. If bugs make you feel “buggy” then you can find things like feathers, shells/coral, water droplets, rocks, flowers, leaves, bark, mushrooms and fungi. Inside your house on a rainy day, fabric textures, foods (like strawberries), even eyes and skin can make great macro shots.
When you get in really close, your images begin to look like abstracts. You may not be able to tell what the “whole” object is because you are focused in on tiny details. This abstract look appeals to many photographers. Another reason your images may look abstract is because of the shallow depth of field that occurs in macro photography.
So how do we shoot effectively with macro’s shallow depth of field?
Macro photography has an extremely narrow plane of focus or what photographers call a shallow depth of field. This means that a bee’s eyes may be in focus while the rest of it is not. The depth of field may be as slim as a millimeter. The larger the magnification, the smaller the area of focus. While this makes focus a challenge, it also means you get a nice blurry background. Making sure your subject is in focus is the hardest part of macro photography. You may have to focus on only a small part of the subject. For example, one petal or the center of a flower may be in focus, but the rest is blurry. This can give images a surprisingly ethereal and abstract feel (which I personally love).
Keeping your movement to a minimum while taking the photo is crucial. Any movement at all, even breathing, will quickly send your subject out of focus and result in blur. A windy day is your nemesis. You need to have good proper handhold. A tripod might help, but often with macro you are down in the grass with the tiny things where tripods become a hindrance. Instead you can use a bean bag to rest the camera on, or use a 5 section monopod in its most closed position. It is easier to steady your shots with a smartphone since they weigh less and don’t have heavy lenses attached.
Since camera shake is an issue which causes lack of sharpness, using a remote or timer with your phone or DSLR can benefit your macro shots. It can also allow you to back away from skittish subjects after you get your tripod or beanbag and camera/phone set up. Camera shutter remotes are available for both phones and DSLRs. Some apps for smartphones include timers as well.
In my experience the best way to get good focus on a subject is to set the DSLR or mirrorless to manual focus (with smartphones this step is not necessary). Then I move myself away from the subject until it blurs, then I hold my breath and slowly move forward again until just the part I want in focus becomes crisp and that’s when I snap the shot. It may take 10, 30, or even 300 tries to get it right.
If your camera or smartphone has a “burst” mode (takes photos in rapid succession), this can be used to increase your chances of landing the focus. As you move in toward the subject press and hold your burst mode. Older cameras or phones may not have this feature, in which case, just take lots of photos! Burst mode can also be helpful if the subject is moving, like a bug or a flower in a slight breeze. Don’t be disappointed if you have a lot of “misses.”
Some photographers compensate for the narrow depth of field by “focus stacking” Focus stacking is like having a macro photography “super power.” To create a focus stack, multiple images are taken at different focus points along the subject then merged (or stitched) in an editing program. The resulting image is then focused throughout. It sounds more complicated than it really is. We have a YouTube video that demonstrates the process if you are interested. Some newer cameras even have this feature built into the camera. Focus stacking can be done with traditional DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, or with a smartphone.
To do focus stacking most effectively you would use a focus slider or rail. However, focus rails are usually used in the studio in controlled conditions and not lugged out on site or into the field. I have seen examples where photographers have done a focus stack handheld (no slider or rail) or with the help of focus stacking features built into their DSLRs. Using a burst shooting mode can make a handheld focus stack easier to accomplish.
It is very difficult to do a focus stack in the field because insects move, wind makes flowers move, etc. Unfortunately, that is why some photographers “recruit” insects to be their models and then they refrigerate them to slow them down before taking photos in studio setting. I personally, do not do this and I don't recommend it.
Stationary items can also be used for a focus stack, like this sleeping snail (below) who came to no harm. As described before, move away until the subject is just out of focus, then start moving slowly toward the subject and use burst shooting take a long sequence of images until the focus has moved beyond the subject.
The benefits of manual mode and manual focus.
If you have a smartphone that is newer, you probably have a pro mode that allows manual controls as an option. If your phone is an older model you may need to download an app like Moment or Halide to get more manual control. On your DSLR or mirrorless there are settings for the mode (usually a dial on top) and for lens focusing (autofocus and manual focus -- typically a switch on or near the lens or in the menu). You can consult your manufacturer’s manual if you aren’t sure how to make these adjustments.
Manual mode always allows you as the photographer more control over your images. Whether you are using a smartphone or camera, use your controls to set a fast shutter speed for macro photography. This will help eliminate motion blur from hands shaking, breathing, wind, or if the subject is moving. Set it at 1/250 or faster for smartphone and 1/500 or faster for DSLR/mirrorless (cameras with lenses attached are heavier and more prone to camera shake, especially at the magnification levels and shallow depth of field in macro photography).
Faster shutter means you may need to make adjustments to aperture (wider for more light) or ISO (higher for more light sensitivity) to get enough light for proper exposure. Manual control lets you decide which one you want to adjust, or allows you to adjust a little bit of both. The newest models of smartphones have excellent low light technology and shooting at fast shutter speeds is usually not an issue. You may find you don't need to make any adjustments at all other than the shutter speed.
Autofocus is not the preferred method for macro, but if that is what you are comfortable with, then be sure to set your DSLR or mirrorless camera’s Autofocus Mode to Single Shot and select a single autofocus point. Keep your subject under that point. If your smartphone or app allows you to select a focus point, select one point and then keep your subject under that point.
I usually find myself using manual focus when shooting macro on my DSLR. Some of my accessories do not allow for autofocus communication and most of the time the autofocus does too much "hunting" for focus or won't focus on the right part anyway. Among macro photographers, manual focus is very normal. When I use my smartphone, the camera usually focuses just fine with the macro attachments as long as I get the proper distance between my phone and the subject. As mentioned before, I take many, many shots so that at least one of them will have the focus nailed where I wanted it.
Use your camera’s focus aids. For example, on your DSLR or mirrorless camera, use your LCD screen and zoom in (or use picture in picture if available) to check your focus. Some cameras and phone apps will allow you to turn on Focus Peaking. This feature turns on colored lines or highlights that outline the areas with the sharpest focus. It can help you get crisp focus and also help you see what depth of field you are working with.
Small working distance is a challenge.
When taking macro photos you often have a small working distance. Working distance is the distance between the front edges of lens (whether camera or smartphone lens) to your subject. This can be a small distance of only centimeters. What this means is that you have to bring your camera and lens, or phone, very close to the subject. Sometimes this distance is so close it is almost touching the subject.
It is important to understand what the working distance measurement will be for any lens or magnification accessory you purchase. You can get this information in the specification section of the item’s description. Before you buy, determine what types of subjects you might want to photograph to help you decide what working distance you need and buy a lens or accessory that fits those parameters. For example, when taking macro photos of flowers you can use a lens with 3 cm working distance, but for photos of bees or dragonflies you need to be farther away or you will scare them off.
Lighting is a challenge.
Achieving proper lighting can be difficult in any type of photography, but macro has its own unique set of challenges. When your macro lens or attachment requires you to get close to the subject, you may find the camera, smartphone, or lens is so close that it is actually blocking the light. Or you may find on bright sunny days that direct sunlight creates terrible blown out highlights and harsh shadows. How do you find the right balance?
Let’s go back to shutter speed for a moment. You will need a fast shutter speed so you have to get your light from somewhere else. With a DSLR or mirrorless, you can open up the aperture, but since depth of field is already so shallow you may not get anything but a sliver of focus if you go wide open. You can raise the ISO, but that can add digital noise or “grain” to your images. When you are on a smartphone, the manual controls are limited and aperture is usually not an option, so your only choice would be to increase ISO. None of these are great solutions because they all require some compromise in the final image.
The better solution is to shoot macro outdoors on bright sunny days and fully block your subject with your body or your other hand. This way you get the best of both worlds. You have plenty of light but no harsh highlights and shadows.
Another great option is accessory lighting or small reflectors. There are many different options and styles available that are also budget friendly. If you think you will be crawling around under bushes and in darker areas you might want to consider a headlamp. You can buy one of these at a hardware store and use it with a smartphone or DSLR.
There are special lights that clip onto your phone or attach to the end of your DSLR or mirrorless camera lens. These lights can be continuous or flash and are commonly called macro ring flashes. These are not the same as the selfie ring lights used for video conference calls or vlogging, but they do have some similarities. As an example see our video on the Neewer 550D Ring Flash for macro (this cannot be used with the Raynox DCR-250 unless you hand hold it off camera).
There are also LED lights like the Ulanzi VL49 which can be used with smartphones or DSLR/mirrorless cameras. With a DSLR or mirrorless you can attach it to the camera’s hot shoe, hand hold it, or set it up where you need light. With smartphones you hand hold the light or place it where you need light (or if you have a small “rig” for your phone you can connect it to that). Of course, you don’t have to buy any special lights, you can just use a flashlight.
Whatever lighting product you buy make sure that it won’t get in the way of what you are shooting and that it is maneuverable so you can get light where you need it. Another simple option is to get some very small reflector panels. These are used to bounce light into areas that are dark or shadowed, or to even out light.
Demonstrating scale is a challenge.
No one can truly appreciate how “close” you are to a subject if they cannot even tell what the subject is.
When composing your image or cropping your image try to make sure at least one distinguishable or familiar element is clearly visible for context and reference. For example, on a bumble bee, a close up of the fuzzy abdomen with no other reference won’t look as impressive as a close up of part of the bee’s eye or wing. Some objects lose their form completely when shown close up. In these cases a series of images taking the viewer “in” to the subject can help both identify the subject and appreciate the tiny scale.
In the image below of a tiny flower, no one would know it was only 2-3mm in size based on the final image. For this reason, photographers sometimes include water droplets or insects of “known” size like ladybugs. You can easily add water droplets to your images using a spray bottle or medicine dropper. In some cases, the image is abstract enough that the scale or knowing the subject doesn’t really matter. The same can be true when the close up is obviously a magnification even when we don’t know exactly what it is.
Camera Apps that allow you to shoot in RAW.
For all types of photography, I recommend you shoot in RAW (or even better RAW + JPEG). RAW files allow greater ability to control or fix white balance/color temperature, color saturation, exposure, and more. There are camera apps for your smartphone that will allow you to take your photos and/or edit in RAW. Lightroom, Darkroom, VSCO, and Snapseed are a few examples.
On your DSLR or mirrorless, you have to change the file type in your settings. If you have the option of RAW + JPEG you can select that as well, then you get both file types.
To Zoom or Not to Zoom?
Don’t use the zoom on your smartphone for macro. Zooming will degrade your image quality in this case. Get close to the subject. With a DSLR or mirrorless, depending on which accessory you are using, you can use a zoom lens. Just be aware with long lenses, the zoom may affect your working distance and you may find that once your accessory is in place that your focus point is literally touching the lens. If that happens, decrease the zoom. For example if your 18-200mm won’t focus at 200mm because the lens is touching the subject, then back off to 100mm and try again.
Editing your macro photos.
There are lots of editing programs that will allow you to make edits for free. These programs are available for smartphones as apps, as well as software applications for your PC or Mac. Some apps we recommend are Lightroom Mobile, Snapseed, and Pixlr. Not all apps allow RAW editing so check carefully for which features are in the free versions (and check out our videos on Best Editing Apps and Best Graphic Design Apps).
All of the editing suggestions made here may not be possible in all programs or apps, or the feature may be known by slightly different names. Make sure the app you are using is “non-destructive” meaning the changes are made to a copy, thereby keeping your original file intact. That way you can always revert back to where you started.
When editing your macro photos, first correct your white balance/color temperature. This will remove any overall color cast in your photo. Many macro photos can be improved by warming up the color temperature.
Check the exposure of the image (use the histogram if available). Make sure your details are not lost in highlights or in the shadows. If they are, make adjustments until those details begin to reappear. In the adjustments sections of your software or app, considering “painting” more light on the subject if needed. If you choose to use a vignette, be subtle with it.
Most editing programs allow you to adjust hue, saturation, luminance, or vibrance. Luminance will bring up the intensity of the pixels (similar to the “lux” slider at the top of the editing screen on Instagram) and this can benefit your macro photos. Avoid strong colors and oversaturation of colors and don’t use filters or presets. These typically do not improve macro images.
When you use sharpening, don’t overdo it. Use the masking effect to make sure you are only sharping the edges of your subject and not globally sharpening everything. Sliding sharpening to 100% is never the right thing to do.
You can, of course, make other adjustments as you feel are necessary, just use moderation.
Finally, crop your image to emphasize the subject. You are already close, so there is no need to overdo this aspect of editing either. You can use the crop feature to get rid of any distractions or to place your subject off center for dramatic effect (along a rule of thirds line) or leave it centered to create symmetry.
Hopefully these tips will convince you to try macro and help improve your images. Macro doesn't have to be expensive. You can get started for less than $20 using your phone! Of course, once you begin macro you are likely to fall in love with it. If that happens, you may want to invest in a dedicated macro lens for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. These will provide better image quality overall, but they can be quite expensive too.
In the meantime, go explore the tiny world around you and when you share your images on social media, please be sure to tag us (Twitter @focusedcamera and Insta @_focusedcamera and #photofun). We'd love to see what you create!
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