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I’ve been asked a couple of times to do a tutorial on macro photography, and I’ve given a few "quick and dirty" explanations on various forums. But it’s easier to write about it formally in an article and just point someone to a link. So here goes :)

Disclaimer: I am not the last word, nor in my humble opinion is anyone the last word, on any photographic discipline! There are many different ways to take a photo, and I really don’t think that any technique is inherently wrong -just different. In this article I’m going to explain how I shoot macro and hopefully there will be something that you can use. The important thing to remember is that my technique was developed based on my experience with a camera -and the things that I do may be detrimental to you! So take my techniques, experiment with them, and adapt them to your own style of shooting. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to have a certain piece of equipment for a particular type of photography -think outside the box! If I listened to the conventional wisdom concerning macro photography I’d be chasing fast moving insects with a camera on a tripod and only have a handful of usable images...

In this article I’m only going to cover using a flash as the primary light source. In another article I’ll go over using natural light with the flash as fill.

Now let’s get into the nuts and bolts of shooting macro :)

When I’m shooting at life size I usually have my camera set to manual mode, F11 for the aperture, 1/250 of a second for the shutter, and the ISO set to 100. At those settings I’m shooting a full two stops below the ambient exposure for the scene –and that’s on a bright sunny day. So the flash is going to be my primary light source and if it doesn’t fire then the scene will be completely black -and that’s a good thing since I want to use the short duration of the flash to freeze motion.

Even though the shutter is open for 1/250 of a second there isn’t enough natural light (ambient) to be registered by the camera’s sensor. The photo receptors (or the photo sensitive grains in film) act like buckets for photons: If the buckets don’t get full enough you’ll get an under exposed image and if they get too full the scene will be over exposed. So the flash becomes a “virtual shutter” since it’s the only light that is registered by the camera. Remember that the intensity of the light from your flash does not change from exposure to exposure, but the flash duration does. One of the tricks to getting sharp hand held macro images is to get that virtual shutter as fast as possible and the easiest way to do that is to get the flash as close to the subject as possible. Flash duration increases with the distance from the flash to the subject, so increasing the distance between the flash and the subject will cause more glare and decrease your ability to freeze motion.

You can use any flash to shoot macro, you don’t have to use a dedicated macro flash unit. I think that it’s easier to use a macro flash though and if you take a lot of macro photos then getting one is a good investment. The MR-14EX ring flash is easy to use right out of the box –just remember to set the ratio control to make one flash head brighter than the other so your images won’t look “flat” (I’ve used from a 2:1 to a 4:1 ratio). I currently use the MT-24EX without ratio control (I place the flash heads on the flash mount at a 90 degree angle to each other to get dynamic lighting) and I diffused the heads with a set of Gary Fong Puffer diffusers –amazing what you can do with a hot glue gun ;)

Why hand held?

I shoot a lot of fast moving insects –critters that just won’t sit still long enough for me to set up a tripod. Plus a tripod, at best, will only eliminate my movement but it can’t stop the subject. So I diffuse my flash and get it as close as possible to what I’m photographing and I rely on the short duration of the light from the flash to freeze all the motion in the scene. I do look for ways to brace myself and the camera, and I look for subjects that will put me at an advantage (I never shoot anything that’s above eye level).

I think one of the big misconceptions with using a flash for macro photography is that no matter what the duration of the flash is it will always be fast enough to freeze motion -and I’m convinced that it just isn’t true. The amount of information in a macro scene is a lot higher than a shot of the beach at sunset so small movements, of less than a pixel or two, during the exposure of a macro shot can result in a blurred image. It won’t look like motion blur, you’ll think that you missed the focus or that diffraction was a problem.

One of the other big misconceptions is that you have to use a tripod for macro photography. Even if the critters didn’t move, the wind blowing across the legs of the tripod or the mirror slapping up into the mirror chamber when you take a photo could cause enough vibration to ruin an image. I can get just as much stability with resting my elbow on my knee as I can with a tripod –and the “knee pod” is a lot faster to set up and take down ;)

I often get asked how I get so much depth of field in my photos. There isn’t any magic to it really, it’s just technique. Don’t be afraid to stop the lens down. Diffraction can be a problem, but it’s a minor player in effecting overall image quality –nailing the focus, keeping the flash duration low, and bracing yourself are far more important. I shoot at F11 with an MPE-65mm macro lens all the way up to 5x and I’ll take the lens all the way to F14 if I have to. I avoid F16 above 2x with the MPE-65mm because I think the lens performs poorly at F16 at high magnification (but I don’t think the problem is diffraction). Sometimes getting more depth in a scene is more important that getting an image that’s razor sharp…

Remember that the plane of sharp focus is perpendicular to your lens and although it’s flat it has some “thickness” to it. If you move in toward a critter until its eyes are in focus, and then press the shutter release, then the plane of sharp focus starts at the eyes and ends somewhere between the critter and your lens –possibly out in the middle of nowhere in an area that you don’t need it! Often I move in toward an insect until the eyes are in focus and I keep moving in until they go out of focus again, and then I move away from it until the eyes are sharp and then take the shot. That way the area of sharp focus starts at the critter’s eyes and extends into its body where I need the extra detail…

Look for “magic angles”. Since the plane of sharp focus is perpendicular to the lens you can lay it over your subject so that it covers the critter like a blanket. You can make a scene look like there is more depth of field than what is really there. If you are shooting an insect from the side it’s a good idea to make sure the lens is perpendicular to the plane of its body so that the entire length of critter is in sharp focus –but it’s not necessary to do it all the time. You can use a shallow depth of field to draw the viewer’s attention to a particular area in a scene, so going for maximum depth of field all the time might be a mistake..

I take multiple frames of each composition and I refocus for each frame. Sometimes what looks good in the viewfinder doesn’t look good when I see it on my computer but as long as I refocus for every shot I’m sure to get at least one frame that has the area of sharp where I want it. I focus the lens by moving my body –there is no focus ring on the MPE-65. When I’m shooting with Canon’s 100mm macro I sometimes use the focus ring as a course adjustment and use my body for the fine tuning.

I always shoot RAW because of the JPG compression penalty: When you take an image in high quality JPG mode the camera is compressing the data, and since JPG is a “lossy” form of compression data is thrown out to make the file smaller than a RAW image. I’m going to have to edit the shot even if I nail the exposure, since I can never get away from dust spots showing up in an image no matter how often I clean the sensor in my camera. After getting rid of the dust and doing the other minor post processing I’d have to save the file as a JPG and even more information gets tossed out during the compression. But by shooting in RAW I only pay the JPG compression penalty one time –when I save my RAW file edits. The end result is sharp images without having to use Unsharp Mask.

Last but not least no matter how you shoot macro have fun! Find ways to make taking high magnification images enjoyable for you and you’ll keep doing it… :)
A tutorial on how I shoot macro.
Add a Comment:
 
:iconxs-deviant:
xs-deviant Featured By Owner May 12, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
See thanks to snomanda who pointed me to these manuals I now picked up this flash freezing thing. Promise the next Ant Emoji Ant Emoji I will send you will be in the spotlight :-)
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:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 12, 2016  Hobbyist Photographer
:)
Reply
:iconbguthrie:
bguthrie Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2013
Very good of you to put out the tutorial, and great images. Your techniques obviously work very well for you. 

Your technical explanations of flash duration is flawed; its not distance but intensity that dictates duration. A dimmer flash exposure is a shorter exposure. Additionally, where you set your focal plane dictates the centre of focus, not the back of it. Hold down your DOF preview button to see it in action.

Keep up the great work, and thanks for sharing!
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
Actually my explanation is correct: The intensity of the light that a flash produces is constant. But what does change from one exposure to anothet is the length of time the flash fires, and getting your flash closer to the subject will give you a shorter burst of light and make it easier to freeze motion. 
Reply
:iconstingray2469:
StingRay2469 Featured By Owner Apr 2, 2011
Awesome tutorial. FYI Outdoor Photographer April 2011, has another great article on macro's
Reply
:iconvvneagleone:
vvneagleone Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2011  Hobbyist Photographer
Best macro tutorial I've ever read.
Reply
:iconcauterizesetsfire:
CauterizeSetsFire Featured By Owner Sep 26, 2010   General Artist
Thanks i can wait to try it out! Great information! ;)
Reply
:icong3ckko:
g3ckko Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2010   Photographer
Okay mate this helped me a lot mate. Thanks. I had some good results with the MPE but not always. This read helps a lot.

[link]

I only increased the contrast slightly :)
Reply
:iconbloknayrb:
bloknayrb Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2010  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Interesting read, thanks for the tips! Due to my limited budget I'm currently using a lens reversal ring to shoot macro and I have no control over my lens aperture. Do you think it would work to cut a hole in a piece of cardboard and mount it over the front-facing part of the lens, or would that only result in vignetting?
Reply
:iconliz-in-backobourke:
Liz-in-BackoBourke Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2010
WOW! will expeiiment, and thanks. I always wondered how to start
Reply
:iconcomet166:
comet166 Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2010
thank you for sharing, great to get new information, can't wait to try it out. [link]
Reply
:iconfloggersg:
floggerSG Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks for the writeup. Changed the way I shoot w/ my flash and ghetto softbox, I like the results!

[link]
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:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
I get a "file not found" error when I click on the link :(
Reply
:iconfloggersg:
floggerSG Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Uh oh. Try... [link]
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Excellent image!
Reply
:iconfloggersg:
floggerSG Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks! The whole underexpose thing, and custom flash settings were key :)
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Happy to help :)
Reply
:iconkeldererik:
keldererik Featured By Owner Apr 12, 2010   Digital Artist
Would you recommend the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM above the EF-S 60mm Macro? Maybe it's a stupid question since the first is L-glass. I'm just wondering if it's worth the extra money.
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:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
I'd actually recommend the EF-S 60mm. [link]
Reply
:iconramography:
Ramography Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Wow, what a really detailed tutorial..i salute for putting such effort into this masterpiece..Thank you :)
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks for the feedback!
Reply
:iconchromatoast:
ChromaToast Featured By Owner Mar 25, 2010
Thank you for the interesting tutorial. I love macros. Thinking of trying a few myself. This will surely help. :clap:
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 27, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Thank you!
Reply
:iconchromatoast:
ChromaToast Featured By Owner May 27, 2010
:)
Reply
:icondepshado:
depshado Featured By Owner Aug 25, 2009
thank you for sharing your experience I am very grateful and will use this technique soon!
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Glad to help!
Reply
:iconvond00m:
VonD00m Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2009
nice tutorial, gave me some good insight haha
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Jun 21, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Glad to help :)
Reply
:iconkjherstin:
Kjherstin Featured By Owner May 14, 2009
Very well written. Thank you
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 14, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks!
Reply
:iconoxygenbomb:
oxygenbomb Featured By Owner May 10, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks =D
I dont really have a camera capable of doing everything you talked about, but you still gave me a lot of useful tips :)
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner May 11, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks for the feedback!
Reply
:iconoxygenbomb:
oxygenbomb Featured By Owner May 11, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
:)
Reply
:iconwasp2:
wasp2 Featured By Owner Mar 1, 2009  Student Photographer
very helpful.
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks 8-)
Reply
:iconcecilyandreuartwork:
CecilyAndreuArtwork Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
I intend to acquire a SLR camera (Canon 40D or Nikon D300) for my next learning curve. I liked Nikon’s convenient long-range 18-200mm lens, but I noticed most Macro photos are done with a Canon Macro lens. :frustrated:
I wonder whether a close-up photo taken with a general lens can be qualified as a Macro photo, or do I have to acquire a Nikon Micro/Cannon Macro lens to do Macro photography? Your input is most appreciated!
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
No, a closeup photo taken with a standard lens would not be a macro photo. You could reverse a standard lens onto a camera, or reverse one lens onto another. But in the long run it's easier just to buy a real macro lens.

IMHO if you want to get into macro and you're on a budget then a Canon Xti + an EF-S 60mm macro lens makes an excellent combination...
Reply
:iconcecilyandreuartwork:
CecilyAndreuArtwork Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Are [link] and [link] (winner of a Macro contest) taken with a compact camera, for example, technically not Macro, but just closeup pictures?
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:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
You can take a macro photo with a lot of the newer fixed lens cameras -but that's not the question that you originally asked me. You asked me about a DSLR and a standard lens...

The first image is not a macro photo -here's a similar species at 1x [link]

The second is a macro photo.
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:iconcecilyandreuartwork:
CecilyAndreuArtwork Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Would you advise me whether this one of mine ([link]) under Macro mode of my compact a closeup or macro? Thanks so much for your time.
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:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
No. Think of it this way: At life size an object that is just 36mm (a little over an inch) long is going to completely fill the frame.
Reply
:iconcecilyandreuartwork:
CecilyAndreuArtwork Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Yeah, you can tell that I was quite confused with the definition of a Macro photo. Thanks for pointing out my mix-ups. Would you say those newer fixed lens cameras could produce excellent Macro pictures in comparison to a DSLR?
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Not a chance: The fixed lens cameras have small, very noisy, sensors. You'll get more depth of field with them due to the wide angle lenses that they have, but there is a significant loss of image quality and detail. If a fixed lens camera could produce an image even close to my MPE-65mm macro lens then I'd use it...
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:iconcecilyandreuartwork:
CecilyAndreuArtwork Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
I thought so too. It was just my wishful thinking that modern high tech could produce a camera that is compact and has high picture quality at the same time. Thanks a million. :worship:
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:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Anytime :)
Reply
:iconcecilyandreuartwork:
CecilyAndreuArtwork Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Thank you for your advice!

Would Canon D40 and EF-S 60mm macro be an excellent combo too, in addition to an EF 28-135mm lens? Because D40 was rated for having excellent picture quality, but Xti was not rated in the Consumer Report. Also, is additional flash required for Macro? To purchase cost-effectively is more of my aim than budgeted. Thank you for your patience.
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Yes to the first question -the 40D is the camera that I'm currently using.

You will probably need a flash, but you can use a standard camera flash -you just need to get it off of the camera and onto a bracket.
Reply
:iconcleverdarkelve:
cleverdarkelve Featured By Owner Dec 12, 2008   Photographer
Thank you for your take on it! This has been helpful :hug:
Reply
:icondalantech:
dalantech Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2008  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks for the feedback!
Reply
:iconbellalleb-stock:
bellalleb-stock Featured By Owner Oct 26, 2008  Hobbyist Photographer
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