Introduction to Macro Photography – Part 1

I wanted to start the year off with this tutorial because I truly enjoy macro photography. When I purchased my first digital camera, one of my main criteria was it’s macro capabilities. Then, when I purchased my Nikon D70 kit, the next lens I bought was my Sigma 105mm macro. There’s an intimacy with this style of photography that I find calming… zen-like. Getting up close to your subject and viewing all its details makes me appreciate the small wonders all around. Seeing light up close makes me understand it better. I also find that my other senses are amplified when shooting macro. I’m so focused on the present moment that I can feel the slightest breeze on my skin, the most hushed of sounds. Shooting all styles of photography is a privilege for me but it seems to be that more true with macro photography.

In this 3-part tutorial, I hope to pass along not just my technical knowledge but also my passion for macro photography. Here’s what we’ll be looking at in Part 1:

  • What is macro photography?
  • Lenses and extension tubes
  • Keeping your camera steady

After reading part 1, check out Part 2 where we cover:

  • 6 Indoor lighting setups
  • 4 Outdoor lighting setups

And in Part 3, we’ll look at:

  • Popular macro shooting themes
  • Macro Composition


What is Macro Photography?

To put it simply, macro photography is close-up photography. There are various schools of thought on when a photo becomes a macro (when it’s close enough) but most have agreed to disagree on the exact details of this grey area. 😉 They have agreed though that when an image projected on the camera sensor is relatively the same size as your subject this is defined as macro photography. We give this term a 1:1 magnification ratio.

Lenses & Extension Tubes

If you own a point and shoot digital camera, you’ll most certainly have a macro mode which is usually represented by a flower icon. Switching to this mode will allow you to get up close and personal.

As for DSLR owners, you’ll have a few options available to you depending on your tastes and budget.

Nikkor 105mm macro VR (image Nikon USA)

The most obvious are macro lenses. Most standard macro lenses give you up to 1:1 magnification ratio. Macro lenses are fixed lenses (without zoom) like the Canon 100mm. Don’t be fooled by some zoom lenses advertising “macro” in the title or description. These are not true macro lenses. Most only have a magnification ratio of 1:3. Not the 1:1 ratio we’re looking for.

Canon 60mm macro (image Canon USA)

Which macro lens to get will depend on what type of macro photography you do. If you love shooting shy and nervous bugs, you’ll want to be as far away from your subject as possible so a Nikkor 200mm or a Canon 180mm might be your first choice. If you’re not too worried about getting in close then you could go with a 50mm or 60mm. Here’s a list of the most popular macro lenses:

Nikkor 60mm f2.8 Nikkor 105mm f2.8 Nikkor 200mm f4
Canon 60mm f2.8 Canon 100mm f2.8 Canon 180mm f3.5
Sigma 50mm f2.8 Sigma 105mm f2.8 Sigma 180mm f3.5
Tamron 90mm f2.8 Tamron 180mm f3.5
Tokina 35mm f2.8 Tokina 100mm f2.8
Sony 50mm f2.8 Sony 100mm f2.8
Pentax 50mm f2.8 Pentax 100mm f2.8
Zuiko (Olympus) 50mm f2


Extension Tubes would be another option if you don’t have a macro lens. Wikipedia has a great definition of extension tubes: “An extension tube is an accessory for cameras with interchangeable lenses, used primarily for macro photography. The tube contains no optical elements; its sole purpose is to move the lens farther from the film or digital sensor. The farther away the lens is, the closer the focus, the greater the magnification, and also the greater the loss of light (requiring a longer exposure time). Lenses classically focus closer than infinity by moving all optical elements farther from the film or sensor; an extension tube simply extends this movement.

Simply put, the extension tubes are designed to enable a lens to focus closer than its normal minimum focusing distance. Depending on which lens you use them on, you can get up to 1:1 magnification ratio. Lenses with a closer focusing distance will give the best results.

Nikon offers the PK-11A, PK-12 and PK-13 and Canon has the EF-12 and the EF-25.

Now, if you want to get even closer than a 1:1 ratio, you could reverse a standard fast lens like a 50mm f1.8 onto your macro lens. I did a guest post on “Super Macro Photography” over at DigitalPhotographySchool not too long ago. Have a look! 🙂

Keeping Your Camera Steady

When shooting macro images, you’ll need to prevent camera shake by keeping your camera as steady as possible. Here are 4 suggestions for keeping your photos nice and sharp.

1- Tripod: If you don’t have one already, run out the door and get one. No kidding… go now…. don’t laugh… go! 😉 It’ll be the best accessory you’ve ever purchased.

2- Remote Trigger: Even if you have a tripod, the simple act of pressing your camera trigger might cause your camera to move a little bit. This can have 2 negative effects: camera blur and the loss of your composition. Remember that when shooting macro, the slightest movement can change your initial framing. The solution is to get a remote trigger. Generally, you can get inexpensive ones (wired) or expensive ones (wireless).

Nikon ML-3 and the Canon LC-5

If you’re shooting Nikon, your wired option is the MC-30 for $55 and the wireless choices are the ML-L3 (for , D40, D60, D70, D80 and D90 only) at $17 or the ML-3 (for all models) at $170. I own all 3… go figure! For Canons, the wireless choices are the RC-1 at $25 and the LC-5 at $430. The wired options are the RS-80N3 for $50 and the TC-80N3 for $140.

3- Self Timer: If you don’t owner a remote trigger, your other alternative is to use your camera’s self timer. It’s usually used to take self portraits but it’s also a great technique to reduce camera shake due to pressing the shutter button. I would suggest at least 5 seconds.

4- Mirror Lock-up (MLU): You might be wondering what mirror lock-up is and I think it’s important for me to explain it so that you can know when to use it.

Image courtesy of Photozone

Looking at the image above, you can see that the mirror’s function is to “bounce” the light up to the view finder so that you can see what your lens sees. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up to let the light hit the camera’s sensor and falls back into position when the shutter closes. Check this out to see it in slow motion! Now, when the mirror flips up it creates a slight camera shake. Looking at the slow motion video, you’ll notice how the mirror makes a bit of a bounce at the top, that’s what shakes your camera.

To prevent that shake, most DSLRs have a function called mirror lock-up (MLU). What this does is that it lets you raise your mirror before you press the shutter thus avoiding the MLU camera shake. Make sure you compose your shot before setting up your MLU because once the mirror is up, you won’t see a thing.

If you combine these 4 suggestions, your camera with be solid as a rock and your images will be super sharp.

Here are some great books from the YPS bookshelf.

If you don’t want to miss Part 2 & 3, add YPS to your RSS or get automatic email updates!

12 responses on "Introduction to Macro Photography - Part 1"

  1. Very nice and useful post!
    As well as previous poster, Mark, I am fed up with commercial and wedding shootings and need to go into something interesting and captivative as macro photography!
    Your article helped, simplified some moments for e.
    Thank you!

  2. I’m wedding photographer and just looking for an escape from the day to day photography and with the winter months decided to have a look at macro (which I know nothing about). This has been a really helpful read so now I have to decide if I want to use one of my dSLRs or the Canon SX1 and some sort of extra lens, the latter is cheaper that is for sure so might be a good starting point.

  3. I have to admit all your effort to share your technical knowledge of photography as a very kind and generous aspect of teaching photography skill to the readers. This is my first time browsing your Yanik’s Photo School and I am very impressed and gratefull.

  4. I use Tamron 90/2.8 and I enjoy it. this is really true – macro photography is very calming, like meditation

  5. your tutorials are great! as an amateur i was looking for a place where a pro gives good practical advice and doesn’t emphasis equipment, thank you!

  6. I will take your rss feed, it’s surely great sites for noob like me,thx

  7. I wanted to comment and thank the author, good stuff

  8. this session is very helpful to me…as a beginner in macro photography and expecting more valuable sessions

    thank you

  9. @ Udi

    you’re right about some P&S giving superb macro images.

    I’ve never heard of macro bellows. look cool! I found this link on it for anyone interested:

  10. Yanik,
    This is a great intro. MLU and remote are the macro photographer’s best friends. One more option of keeping steady and accurate focus is using macro bellows, it;s kinda like tripod on rails.
    Also, I would ad a few P&S to the Macro gear list, since the sensor size is soooo small, they are giving excellent macro ratios

  11. Just a note of appreciation for your effort in creating these tutorials. I am grateful for all the helpful links you provide and amazed at the time it must take to do this. This is one of the most informative site I have found on the Internet and you present your knowledge in ‘easy to understand’ methods. Love the Macro post since I just acquired my first macro lens (Tamron 90mm) with a used camera I purchased (Canon 20D). Your links on the subject really, really help.
    Just wanted to say thanks again, teri

  12. I have the Canon 60mm f/2.8 and I’m practically in love with it. I’d recommend this lens as a first purchase (it was for me) since it is mega sharp, fast, great for macro and will also give you very nice portraits!

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