Macro photography is becoming a popular choice because of the photographer’s ability to bring an entirely new world to the human eye. Nature macro photography gives the imagination access to incredible details and a beauty that is unconventional in modern photography.
If you’re just starting as a macro photographer, then the best advice is to pay attention to all of the details. This guide is meant to show you how how to capture the beauty of this minuscule world through technique, tips, and a crash course on making the most of your camera settings.
What Exactly is Nature Macro Photography?
Considering the word macro is thrown around a lot, it can be easy to confuse terms. Macro nature photography is about taking extreme close-ups of small subjects. The first images to come to mind include bugs, flowers, water, and seeds.
As long as the image has been magnified to where it fills the camera frame or sensor, it can generally be considered a macro shot; However, there is a little more to it than just filling your frame, as magnification plays an important role with your camera sensor.
The definition is strict so as not to confuse it with a close-up photo. You may often hear photographers call their close-up images macro when in fact, they do not meet the definition.
Every macro photography course talks about the image needing to be magnified until it is life-size.
Traditionally, this would mean the subject is the same size as the sensor. Considering the small size of a camera sensor (up to 36mm across for a traditional DSLR), this would seem way too small for any subject.
To simplify things, there is a calculation involving ratios that determines if it’s a macro image or not. Instead of using the term “life size”, it is referred to as 1:1 magnification. For half life size images, the ratio would be 1:2 magnification, and so on.
If you’re wondering how you can get some of the images you see online, well, the secret is hidden in the lenses. Depending on the camera body, a good macro lens will let you get up close and personal with any subject.
What Kinds of Lenses Do You Need?
DSLR and mirrorless cameras can take advantage of lenses that provide enough magnification to get up nice and close. The distance these lenses can work at is expressed in their focal length.
Having a longer focal length means you don’t have to be as close to the subject, potentially scaring it away or having your lens blocking any crucial light.
The focal length determines the distance between the lens and the image sensor in your camera. Ideally, the longer the focal length, the better in macro photography, where 105-200mm is the sweet spot, as you’ll be able to capture all of the detail at a farther distance.
Usually, the longer the focal length, the most expensive the lens, so keep that in mind before looking to purchase one.
Specialized Macro Lenses
The majority of macro shots are done with a lens that can provide 1:1 magnification. Some of the lower-end ones will produce a 1:2 magnification, which you really shouldn’t go beyond.
On the other side of the spectrum, some lenses provide up to 5:1 magnification, a significant boost to how close you can get.
The focusing distance on these lenses can be as little as 0.16m which allows you to get right up close and personal with the subject.
If you have a subject that moves around a lot (like an insect), then a longer focusing distance can give you the edge since a camera shake on a macro lens can make it difficult to capture.
These lenses are great for macro and close-up photography as long as you don’t get any closer than the minimum focus point distance.
The nice thing is that a telephoto lens has a long focal length which helps compress the background of a subject, often looking for a blurred background.
A good telephoto lens with a focusing distance of 1m-2m is powerful and ideal for bugs and flowers as you can get nice and close to your subject. Remember to use a tripod, as any movement can cause motion blur in your final photo.
Innovative companies on the market have created lens adaptors that can screw onto the ends of your existing lens to give it a higher magnification. This is a great option if you’re just starting and don’t want to drop the money on an expensive macro lens.
As you begin to outgrow the adaptor, you can then focus on purchasing a high-quality macro lens, as that is the best way to capture a macro photograph.
That being said, a lens adaptor can still produce some incredible shots and is lighter on the wallet than new macro lenses, making them appealing to budget-friendly photographers.
What Camera Type is Better For Macro?
Nature macro photography relies heavily on the lens and techniques to get high-quality images, but in this instance, the camera type may also have an impact on the macro shots you’ll be taking.
Keep in mind that you’ll still be able to take excellent macro shots without the fancy great, and a lot of these are finer details for someone who wants to maximize their macro photography potential.
DSLR or Mirrorless?
While both of these camera types can take great macro photography, there are some advantages to using either, and it can impact your shots depending on the style.
The main idea is to get a camera that lets you use the best macro lenses. You’ll want to be able to snap the image and have as little lag as possible while maintaining a sharp focus.
DSLR cameras are still one of the best types for taking macro photos as they present a faster shutter to capture speeds. This was mainly due to mirrorless cameras having an electronic viewfinder that could produce a small amount of lag before the image was captured.
That being said, technology has improved in the mirrorless camera sector, and you’ll find many of them good competition for awesome macro camera capabilities.
Focus peaking is where your mirrorless camera will tell you what part of the subject is in focus by projecting an overlay through your viewfinder. It is a handy tool that easily outlines where your camera will be focusing when shooting the photo.
Mirrorless cameras also have a cool feature where you can look at the photos you just took through the viewfinder, allowing you to keep your eye on the subject without having to pull away as you would with a DSLR camera.
Cropped-sensor or Full-Frame?
The balance between sharpness and the highest magnification is the end goal of macro photography. Even if you have a full-frame DSLR, there is a chance that a cropped sensor like an APS-C might perform better based on the pixel density.
A large image sensor might have the megapixel power behind it, but the pixel density might be lacking. Pixel density determines the amount of detail that can be found in your shot.
This idea is generally counterintuitive to other genres of photography where megapixels are king. Think about it this way, if you crop a full frame image to get the subject close enough, you’ll lose enough of the pixel information that a cropped sensor seems to retain more of the data.
Using a Tripod vs. Handheld in Nature Macro Photography
Keeping your camera steady is integral to the success of using your macro lens properly. When you’re shooting a subject so close, you’ll find that tiny movements will cause a loss of sharpness.
While it is possible to get great macro images from handheld photography, it is usually recommended that you have a tripod available for maximum stability. Try and get a tripod that has a ball head that can swivel in all directions for multiple-angle opportunities.
Additionally, find a tripod with a reversible head stern, which will allow you to flip the camera so that it is secured underneath your tripod instead of above it.
This lets you get the camera as close as possible to the subject without resorting to shooting in handheld mode.
Ideal Camera Settings for Macro Nature Photography
Camera settings can vary for macro photography, so it’s important to use the following settings as a guideline instead of gospel. The idea behind getting great macro images is to push as much light as possible through the lens while maintaining a shallow depth of field.
Remembering this ensures you capture your subject with the highest magnification and maximum detail.
Shallow depth of field is important in macro photography, so it’s important that your lens has a big aperture. Your lens can only focus on one plane, so be sure to have your camera parallel to the subject. This ensures that all of the big parts of your photo (the subject primarily) will be in pin-sharp focus.
Aperture priority is perfect for macro photography as opposed to manual mode since you just set the depth of field you want, and the camera will make the other settings balanced for correct exposure.
Shutter speeds take a backseat for the most part when it comes to macro photography. Ideally, you want to balance out the shutter speed so that the exposure is correct, and that’s it. If the subject moves quite a bit, then you may want to have a fast shutter speed so that motion blur isn’t prominent.
Considering macro photographers generally use a tripod with their camera, the shutter speed doesn’t have as much impact on the final shot.
If you have your camera set to aperture priority, the camera will handle the shutter speed for you while you focus on the depth of field.
Autofocus or Manual Focus
Single-point autofocus is your best bet for the best image quality. This will focus on one point in the image, usually getting the entire subject in focus while creating a blurred background. If the focus is off, you can always move the point around until it sharpens the part of the image you want.
Additionally, focus stacking is a function where you can get your camera to take different images with different focal points in each. This most common method is to take a photo with the foreground in focus, followed by one for the midground, and then a final one for the background.
You can then merge these images in post-processing to achieve maximum sharpness since you have the data from three photographs to work with.
Programmable Focus Buttons
Subjects that move constantly can be difficult to get focus on and take a photo as your camera shutter button also acts as the autofocus function. Most cameras can move the focus function to another button.
Cameras can have either an AF-ON button or other programmable buttons such as AE-L/AF-L. Using this allows you to utilize the continuous autofocus feature while keeping the shutter button separate.
For maximum image quality, you want to shoot at the lowest ISO for your camera. This might be tricky in some situations. Many modern cameras are great for taking photos with low noise at high ISOs, all the way up to ISO 3200.
Something else you can do is shoot the images during times of the day when light is abundant. The early morning sun is perfect as the light sheds itself on all the little details of the small objects you photograph.
Shooting in low lighting is possible if you were to fire off a flash, but that may scare your subject if it is an insect. Something like a ring flash can provide incredible illumination for flowers and other tiny subjects.
Nature Macro Photography Tips
Macro nature photography is a specialized niche that goes beyond the simple macro mode that cameras come with. Here are a few tricks to get you started taking incredible macro photos.
1. The trick is in the lighting
When capturing detail, the more light involved, the better. If your subject has lighting in the background (sunlight or lamplight) or a bright background, then the wide aperture will create a bokeh effect as the reflected light is out of focus.
2. Use a dark background if you can’t focus
A dark background makes it easier for your camera to focus on the subject. Just make sure you bounce light off your subject so that it doesn’t come out dark as well. Flowers on a dark grass background in lower light situations can make for an interesting moody shot.
3. Check for sharpness
Always zoom in on your viewfinder to ensure that your subject is in focus. Many times photographers will take a glance, think the digital photo is okay, and then realize that the subject is out of focus.
You should now be equipped with a solid foundation that can get you out and take your first macro images. As long as you keep your exposure balanced and your motion blur to a minimum, your shots should come out crisp.
Utilizing tools such as a tripod and different focusing techniques gives photographers the upper hand when they’re out in the field. Try different angles and variations on shots to get the most out of your subject.