Macro photography has been around for a while, in fact, William Henry Walmsley defined the term photo-macrograph way back in 1899 (he also defined photo-micrograph but that’s a topic for another time). He originally went to school to study botany but had to drop out so that he could support his family. Eventually he found work in the field that he enjoyed by preparing slides of insects and plants for a number of scientists. Today, if you do a quick search for macro photography you’ll see that plants and insects are easily the favorite subjects of photographers – and with good reason. If we take the time to see these small objects magnified, it’s like a whole new world is revealed to us.
Strictly speaking, most of what we’ve come to think of as macro photography is more accurately called close up photography. See, the definition of a true macro image is that it has to be at least a 1:1 ratio in object size to the size media is is recorded. That is, the image that you record on your sensor (or film if you are old school) has to be at least life size. Don’t think of that in terms of the print, but the physical size of the sensor. Check out this amazing graphical representation of a penny and a digital sensor to help you understand.
Okay, so now that you have that little factoid stored away for some future trivia night, let’s get on to something a bit more practical: tips for close up photography (macro or otherwise).
If you are using a point and shoot type camera, you are likely limited to what you can achieve. Point and shoot cameras usually have a macro mode which allows you to focus closer than you can in the regular focusing mode. If you are using a digital SLR camera or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, then you can get the best results by using a dedicated macro lens. If you don’t have a macro lens, and you are very careful, you can also try this trick – take your lens off of your camera, turn it around, and hold it against your camera’s lens mount (be very careful not to scratch the lens!). You won’t have any of the automated features but your lens will now allow you to focus MUCH closer than when you have the lens on the right way. If you think that’s pretty cool, you can even buy inexpensive mount adapters so that you can attach the lens to your camera backwards.
Gear aside, there are two main considerations. First is that macro photography generally takes a lot of light. And second is that it has a VERY, VERY narrow depth of field (DOF) – like millimeter wide areas of sharp focus when you shoot with your lens wide open. If you decide to stop down your lens for a larger DOF, then you might get another few millimeters or (gasp) even a centimeter.
So I’m guessing you know where that’s leading, and you’re right – macro photography is usually best done with a tripod. The lighting is of course enough of a reason to use a tripod because you’ll want one to avoid camera shake but the bigger consideration is the depth of field. Using a tripod will also allow you to carefully frame your subject because a very little movement can change your composition drastically. A tripod will allow you to better study the composition to determine what should be in the frame and which part of the image should be in the sharpest focus.
So there you have it – macro photography in a nutshell. Let me know if you have any questions and happy shooting!