Macro photography is one of the most addicting forms of photography. It allows you to check out some of nature’s coolest things in super close-up detail. But to do so, you’ll need some macro photography equipment.
When you first start, you’ll see all these amazing photos and think, “Wow, I want to shoot like that!” You then realize it’ll cost hundreds (or thousands) of dollars worth of equipment…
And that’s where I hope to come in. I’ve had experience with different types of equipment for macro photography and can help you know where to start when building your macro equipment collection.
1. Cameras for Macro Photography
You’ll hear that a proper macro lens is the most crucial piece of the puzzle for shooting macro photography. While this is true, another part of the equation is having a decent macro camera body. Regardless of your interest as an artist, scientist, or hobbyist – there are some things to consider.
Macro Camera Features to Consider
When I first started shooting macro, I looked online at close-up photos that blew my mind. I asked myself, how can I achieve that kind of shot? By reverse engineering how a macro photo is produced, I reached out to the photographer and got the low-down on what kind of camera, lens, and other techniques I’d need.
Macro camera design is important when determining how you’ll handle your camera. You don’t want to get a cumbersome camera. Anticipating what kind of conditions you’d use your macro camera in can help you gauge what kind of design is ideal for you. This kind of reverse engineering to determine macro photography gear can be helpful.
For example, if you’re planning on extended trekking through rugged terrain or shooting in extreme temperatures. Or you can imagine being in tight, hard-to-reach spots and like the idea of rotating an LED screen, even touching it to auto-focus and take photos. Those factors need to be considered. Take a look at some design points below and prioritize what macro camera fits the bill.
- Weather-sealed (splashproof)
- Screen size / resolution
- EVF (electronic viewfinder)
- Tilting viewfinder
- Dustproof / water resistant
- Hot/cold shoe
- Highest/lowest operating temperature
- Sensor size
- Focus points
- Maximum light sensitivity
- Sensor shift stabilization
- Continuous shooting at high resolution
- AF tracking
- Manual focus
- Touch autofocus
- Built-in HDR mode
- Two-stage shutter
- Manual ISO
- Battery life
- Battery power
Weighing up the Camera Options (in no particular order)
While the cameras listed below have older and newer models, these choices offer a starting point and hit all the marks regarding design, optics, and features that produce exceptional macro photos.
Affordability and Cellphoneography
If you’re still on the fence, before you spend money on specialized macro photography equipment, try using what you already have: your cell phone.
Before I got my personal equipment, I spent years using my Google Pixel 3 phone (cellphoneography) to capture close-up shots of insects, flowers, fungi, and all sorts of tiny hidden things in nature. It’s amazing what smartphones can capture, even with my older model.
Why Shooting Macro Photos with a Smartphone has its Advantages?
- It’s portable (fits in your pocket)
- You can get close to hard-to-reach spots (can shoot one-handed)
- Easy to practice composition and different angles
- Decent megapixels (~12MPs due to storage)
- Good aperture (some iPhones are between f/1.6 and f/2.0)
- Easy to edit photos
If you can perfect taking macro shots using just your phone, then you’re sure to take it to another level once you upgrade to a proper full-frame sensor DSLR or mirrorless camera.
2. Macro Lenses
The realm of macro photography takes us out of the terrestrial and into a world that can only be seen with a dedicated macro photography lens. Some photographers use a telephoto lens paired with a set of extension tubes, which act as a magnifying glass. While they can shoot close-up photography, to really get high image quality, a true macro lens is essential macro photography gear.
When I started with macro photography, I used an M. Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 lens. I asked the photographer who shot the cover photo for the Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi which lens she used. Dedicated macro lenses, in my opinion, should have a minimum aperture of f/2.8 with a minimum focusing distance based on the kind of subjects you’ll be shooting. Check if your camera body is also compatible with third-party macro lens brands and can handle interchangeable lenses.
Next is the size of the macro lens. Many macro photographers use macro lenses that have focal lengths ranging from 30mm to 200mm – meaning the smaller the mm, the closer you’d need to get to your subject. While there is a zoom lens, for macro purists, using a prime macro lens is preferred. Below are the 3 main kinds of dedicated macro lenses.
Short Focal Length (30mm to 60mm)
These lenses have very short focusing distances (10-13cm), are small in size, and are relatively affordable. Best for shooting stable subjects, but difficult to shoot finicky dragonflies or butterflies. This kind of lens will put your macro photography skills to the test.
Standard Macro Lens (90mm to 100mm)
These lenses are versatile and provide a minimum focus distance of around 15cm. You’d expect to pay more and the lens to be bigger and heavier. You can shoot insects and other shy subjects from a further distance away. This is also good for using a macro lens for more than just macro photos. At 100mm, you can take both close-ups and portrait shots.
Long Focal Length (over 150mm)
These lenses will be the most expensive and difficult to handle if you’re just starting with macro photography. The longer focal length increases the risk of motion blur, but this can be mitigated with a higher ISO or tripod.
There are many great macro lenses on the market, but some of the best include:
- Canon EF-S 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM
- Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8
- Canon RF 85mm f/2 Macro IS STM
- Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD
- Tokina atx-i 100mm F2.8 FF
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM
- Nikon AF-S 40mm f/2.8G
- Nikon AF-S DX 85mm f/3.5G VR
- Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED
- Nikon Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S
Sony / Leica Lenses
Olympus / Micro Four-Thirds Lenses
Many macro lenses allow you to capture incredibly detailed close-up shots, and each one has its own set of unique features that make it ideal for macro photography. Whether you’re shooting flowers, insects, or other small subjects, these macro lenses provide stunning image quality.
Provide support to your macro camera and lens with a tripod. A tripod will keep your camera steady and is excellent when you shoot outdoors and in manual mode, allowing you to take clear, sharp pictures. It also allows you to take long exposures without worrying about camera shake.
You want to prevent any subtle movements because these are magnified!
I prefer the short and portable Manfrotto brand tripods with a rotating ball-head. Because I’m closer to the ground, this tripod makes sense to me. But if you’re looking to get more of an angle and require height, then extendable legs are preferable.
Here are some considerations when choosing a tripod that’s right for you.
- Weight and stability – tripods are typically made of aluminum alloy or carbon fiber. You should also consider the weight of your macro camera and if your tripod comes with rubber and spiked feet for added stability.
- Flexibility – macro subjects can be in tricky spots and sometimes requires a bit of bush Pilates and imagination to set the scene. A tripod with a ball head makes it easy to rotate the camera to adjust angles. Some tripods have pan, tilt heads, and even a center column to take photos as close as possible to the ground or even upside down!
- Price – tripods can be expensive, but all exceptional macro photographers use them. If you’re just starting, it may be worth looking into smaller hand-held tripods, then upgrading to more flexible and extendable tripods.
Another thing macro photographers use for image stabilization is a beanbag. DIY macro bean bags are versatile and great to use out in the field. You can add filler like rice, lentils, buckwheat, or sand. In this case, the bigger and heavier, the better. Ensure the exterior repels water (heavy-duty cotton duck fabric works great). Put a patch of leather or rubber on the outside for camera grip. You can also hang the bean bag from the bottom of your tripod for extra stabilized weight.
5. Light Tent or Lightbox
The tent or box diffuses the light, which creates soft shadows and even lighting for the subject. This type of photography setup is often used for product photography, as it can make small objects look larger than life.
6. Extension Tubes
Whether you’re using a close up lens, have a dedicated macro lens, or just a regular lens, an extension tube can be used to increase magnification without switching lenses or moving closer to the subject. Extension tubes attach in between a camera and lens, giving you added magnification and allowing you to shoot macro photos of small objects such as insects. Extension tubes are an excellent addition to your macro setup.
They’re an incredibly useful photography tool that can enable you to create macro images without additional expense since they fit onto the end of your existing lens and convert it into a macro lens. The results can be stunning.
7. A Bellows Lens Mount
Bellows are a flexible accordion that expands the lens’s effective focal range when attached to the macro lens and camera. This kind of macro photography equipment works similarly to a telescope, but instead of expanding the area you can see at infinity, it enlarges the focus range for closer objects. There are multiple types of bellows mounts: 1:1 & variable magnification.
Because it is made of a flexible material, it is also referred to as a “flexure mount.” Bellows units typically include sliding fittings and tapered sleeves that permit extension from 1/4 inch to six inches (6 cm) or even more, with many stops along the way of different lengths.
There are many different types of bellows lens mounts on the market to achieve an exceptional depth of field, but some of the best ones for taking macro photography are the Fotodiox and Novoflex Bellows.
These products allow you to easily and quickly change the focus of your camera lens, which is essential for taking close-up photos and focus stacking. They also have various other features that make them ideal for macro photography, such as a built-in flash diffuser and a tripod mount.
8. External Lighting
The best kind of light for a macro photographer is natural light. The outdoors provides an overcast sky with thin clouds that diffuse sunlight and act as a giant softbox. An even, gentle light brings out texture and detail and renders color beautifully. But outdoor conditions aren’t always ideal, and some shots require external sources to get more light.
You won’t want any shadows in your shot, and you want even lighting for macro photos. Whether you’re using a tripod or not, the increase in shutter speed will ensure great image quality and sharp photos. That’s where external LED lights come in. They come in all shapes and sizes and produce different color wavelengths.
Some of the best external lights are:
- Light cubes (with shoe mount)
- Compact magnetic RGB LED tube light
- Dimmable color temperature panel light
- Portable pocket mini square light
- Ring light
9. Remote Control or Cable Release
A remote control is a general term used for a DSLR shutter release device. There is a catch. You don’t have to use your hands to press the shutter button. This macro photography equipment has been around for many years and has stayed the same. The remote control was developed to take better macro photographs across any brand of DSLR camera without touching the camera itself or its lens.
I remember how excited I became when I first bought the remote for my camera. It finally meant I could take pictures without touching the camera and jiggling it.
Some of the newer macro cameras have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and apps that offer wireless remote control capabilities.
10. Focusing Rail
The biggest issue with macro photography equipment is that you need a focusing rail to set the distances on your gear. These rails are unique and expensive, which may discourage people from buying them.
A macro focusing rail is a device that can make your macro photography easier and more precise than without one. It comes in two styles – the focusing rail and the focusing clamp. The first is a rail that can slide in and out. This way, you can focus on the object and then pull it closer to you, so there’s no hassle with moving backward and forwards.
11. Reversing Rings and Mounts
I challenge myself with odd setups that don’t fit “the norm” to produce good macro photos. One of these situations is shooting photos using lens reversal techniques.
This is where you mount your camera’s lens to the front (in reverse) and attach it to your camera’s body backward. The setup of this specific challenge is similar to an upside down and backward and requires reversing rings and mounts.
If you’re shooting a macro photography subject that either doesn’t move (like still life), or you have total control over the lighting, then there are definite benefits to using ring adapters. If not, then I’d definitely side with stopping down the aperture.
Other Macro Equipment and Accessories
It’s worth noting a few other items to consider for your macro camera gear setup. The more you get into macro photography, the closer you’ll inevitably want to get. To dig deeper requires increased magnification and can even mean looking into microscopes and snap-on lenses, like the Raynox DCR-250.
Shooting indoors requires space, and this is where a shooting table comes in handy. A folding table is ideal for product shooting and has interchangeable background colors (black and white).
Shooting indoors requires space, and this is where a photography shooting table comes in handy. This folding table is ideal for product shooting and has interchangeable background colors (black and white).
Focus stacking is all the rage, and it exponentially enhances your macro shots. The increased depth of field and clarity from using focus stacking software like Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker will take your shots to the next level.
Essential Equipment for Macro Photography – Takeaway
Macro photography is a great way to capture tiny details of the world but can come at a cost. Photography is notorious for being an expensive hobby, and with macro photography equipment, it can seem never-ending. I’m always adding gear to my wish list.
As a macro photographer, you’ll think of different ideas for macro photography, and you’ll inevitably add more gear to your arsenal. As you start with the three basic pieces of equipment: a camera body, dedicated macro lens, and tripod, your shots will not only inspire you but encourage you to experiment, tinker, and maybe even invent your own macro gear!