Macro tips I'd like to share

6 min read

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troypiggo's avatar
Update 25/1/08: Added some links at the bottom that may help.

Just thought I'd share some of the things I've learned about insect macro photography since taking it up in November 2007.  They're tips I've either read elsewhere and/or discovered on my own while shooting.  I'm talking about dSLR photography only.  If you would like anything further to add, or I've made a mistake somewhere, please let me know.

Macro photography is not like other styles of photography.  You are working extremely close to the subject and depth of field is very, very narrow because of this.  This adds a whole other dimension to your technique and gear.


True macro photography means 1:1 lifesize or bigger - that means that the subject captured on your film/sensor is its actual size.  This has nothing to do with what size you print it or see it on screen.


Macro lenses have a much smaller working distance and minimum focusing distance than normal lenses.  Most of them provide 1:1 only at that minimum focus distance.  One exception is Canon's MPE-65 which can provide 5:1 lifesize at its min focus distance without any attachments.

My Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens has a minimum focusing distance of just over 300mm.  Take away the length of the lens, that means the minimum working distance is about 150mm from the end of the lens.  Any further away than that, and the subject is not 1:1 any more, it may be 1:2 or 1:4 etc.

You will see lenses labelled as "macro" even though they don't achieve 1:1 lifesize.  You need to check before you buy.  Their definition of macro may mean it focuses closer than standard lenses.  Probably the best they're achieving is 1:4.

Camera Settings

For macro I always shoot in full Manual mode.  I always use flash, so exposure isn't that complicated with E-TTL flash systems.


I don't know about you, but I love seeing things up close.  Sometimes that means cropping images to make the subject appear bigger on screen.  You don't want noise or grain in your photos, so keep ISO 100 or 200.  Might consider increasing ISO if I want to bring out more of the background colour rather than black/dark colours.


Because you are working so close to the subject, depth of field is extremely narrow.  We're talking less than a millimetre if your aperture is f/2.8.  That's hard to focus on a living bug walking over a plant stem that is blowing in the breeze.

Close the aperture down to f/8 to f/16 to increase the depth of field to something a little more workable.  I usually have aperture set to f/11.  At min working distance this might give depth of field of a few millimetres.  Enough to get at least the head/eyes in focus.

Try to refrain from using apertures smaller than f/16 as diffraction softening can come into play.  That's where the image loses its sharpness.  I may write more of this in future when I do some testing one day.  It's something I've read about more than witnessing/testing, but seems to be a consensus on not using smaller than f/16.

Shutter Speed

Fast as possible.  For my camera and flash, 1/250s is the fastest shutter speed possible.  This maximum speed is a function of your flash and camera and it varies from model and manufacturer.  It may be 1/200s or thereabouts.  But the idea is that you want to stop the motion of moving bugs on swaying branches etc.


Lighting is very important with macro photography.  Because of the above combination of settings, typically ISO 100, f/11, 1/250s, you will need to use flash.  It should expose automatically, but you may need to play with flash exposure compensation +/- a little to get things just right.

With subjects so close, built-in flashes will probably give a shadow due to the end of the lens.  I have seen some ways around this with DIY diffusers that seem to give good results.  I'll post some links eventually.  But the ideal would be to get a flash unit, and get it off-camera.

I use a Canon 430EX Speedlight mounted on a flash bracket with off-camera shoe chord and a home-made diffuser.

The lighting and shadows from un-diffused flash is very harsh.  Diffusers soften the highlights and shadows nicely.


As I've mentioned several times above, your depth of field is very narrow.  Put your lens on manual focus.  My macro lens is very slow to autofocus and the bug has moved by the time the AF has finished hunting.

Find the rough focus by manually adjusting it, the physically move yourself backwards and forwards until the subject is in focus and shoot quick.  I usually move back until just the head/eyes in focus, then move forwards until the head or eyes are just leaving the depth of field, then move back half that distance to get most of the interesting part in focus.  Insects, as with human portraits, look better if the focus is on the eyes.

Focusing takes practice.

Other Tips

Other things I'd like to discuss/share later are more on diffusers, <a href="…>extension
tubes, teleconvertors, focus stacking, post-processing, when to best shoot, hunting bugs, composition...


Brian "LordV" Valentine - top of the list of macro photographers I admire.  He has also written some great tips on general macrophotography techniques, and more detailed tutorials on "DOF, Aperture and diffraction", "Focusing", "Focus Stacking", and "Lighting".

:iconphotosbykev: Photosbykev
dA Gallery Director of Animals, Plants, and Nature Photography.  Kev has a great Photography - Tips and Tricks journal entry.  I particularly like the section on Image Processing, which he also has a separate page on his personal website called Digital Workflow.

:iconhellfirediva: hellfirediva
dA Gallery Director of Macro Photography and Conceptual Photography.  She has some great definitions on what is macro, and she should know because she will re-categorise your photos if you put them in the wrong category.

:iconmacro-club: macro-club
:iconinsect-lovers-club: Insect-Lovers-Club
© 2008 - 2022 troypiggo
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otas32's avatar
Thank you for all this info!!!!
troypiggo's avatar
You're welcome :)

I've since learned a few more tricks, but haven't had the opportunity to write it up. Soon.
otas32's avatar
Cool! I'll try to stay tuned so I don't miss it!
belajarmotret's avatar
thanks for share :). I have to share mine too. I like macro shot, but I use prosummer cam with built in lens. So i just put a magnify glass in front of my camera lens. this is my setup with Canon S5iS [link] and this is the result [link]
troypiggo's avatar
Wow! Very neat setup and great results!

Thanks for the :+devwatch: and I really like your gallery!
hellfirediva's avatar
That is why we call him Hellfire-Kev ;p but shhhhhh

nice write up :)
troypiggo's avatar
Thanks. Anything you want me to add or link?
PonyAnarchy's avatar
Great tips! Really informative!
troypiggo's avatar
Thanks. Basic, but hopefully they help someone :)
Photosbykev's avatar
Useful guidance for macro work :)

Using flash as your main light source will cause the backgrounds to be dark especially if you shoot at 1/250sec all the time. It is well worth supporting your camera if possible, use a tripod, monopod or beanbag, and shooting at a lower shutter speed this will help balance the flash exposure of the foreground and ambient light on the background.
troypiggo's avatar
Thanks Kev. I know it's only very basic.

Good point about the dark bg. Personally I find it slower and more cumbersome using tripods etc for insects, mainly because I am not fast enough. I know one of my "heroes" of macro in another forum, Brian "LordV" Valentine, uses a beanpole and grips his camera and beanpole at the same time for stability. More for sharper shots than slower shutter speeds.

I'll amend the shutter speed section to mention this and the use of tripods etc to cater for a "larger" audience.
Photosbykev's avatar
I know LordV very well :) his work with focus stacking is awesome :)
troypiggo's avatar
Indeed. I frequent the POTN forums which is where I came across his work. I know he also uses Flickr, Fred Miranda, and Smugmug. He gets around. I have registered at FM but don't get the time for all forums.

I haven't attempted focus stacking yet. Still trying to get everything else right. I really like his lighting, which is probably why I use so much flash and rely on the diffusion etc. I don't mind the dark bg's occassionally, although I find the images where there are some bokeh leaves that the flash does catch look much better.

Thanks for your comments. I had a brief look through your gallery the other day, and just WOW. I think I could fav the whole thing. And your workflow tips are simple and concise, yet cover the process from camera to web. Very well done.
Photosbykev's avatar
I won one of the POTN contests last year :) , never did get the canvas print I won lol
troypiggo's avatar
Well now I'm gonna have to do a search and find the photo.

<clickety click />
Photosbykev's avatar
POTN Wildlife photographer of the year 2006 from memory lol
troypiggo's avatar
Well I suppose it's a little belated for congratulations, but I'll offer it anyway! I am having trouble searching for it at the moment, POTN's search engine sometimes is a little clunky. I'll find it. Thanks for taking the time to chat with a nooby like me :)
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butterfly36rs's avatar
Nice, easy to read journal! Not much that I didn't know, but interesting to see how others work. I never use flash, and I know I'm often fighting for light. I also almost always handhold, preferring to bend/crawl/lean and get all around my subject, even if it means dirty knees and awkward postures! My aperture is often around f/5.0 and my shutter speed around 80-125. I have a love/hate relationship with the challenges of getting a decent shot with such settings. And a love/hate relationship with the results as well. :giggle:

I still might consider getting tubes. I'm comfortable with what I'm doing, though not comfortable with submitting to the DA macro gallery. With tubes, I'd probably really enjoy the shots I'd get. I guess I'm a bit grumpy I didn't just invest in a more powerful macro lens in the first place. Oh well.
troypiggo's avatar
It's not about power. A 60mm macro lens achieves 1:1 lifesize at it's minimum focusing distance, and a 180mm macro lens achieves 1:1 lifesize at it's minimum focusing distance. It's just that the 180mm has slightly more working distance. A 60mm lens has about 100mm WD, 100mm lens 150mm WD, and 180mm lens around 250mm WD. Not huge difference.
butterfly36rs's avatar
Ohhh... And I love getting close. So I guess I'll hold off on an extension tube and work some more. I tend to focus a lot more on bokeh, composition, dof, and overall image rather than the actual ratio. I guess if I want to do more "true" macros that I'd be proud of submitting to the macro gallery, I'll have to be more aware of the ratio. Then again, that might mess up my joy for shooting... So maybe I'll just be more vigilant about uploading to macro gallery. So, do you feel any of my current images in my may-be-macro gallery [link] are true macros?
troypiggo's avatar
I reckon most of them there are macros but the looser definition. Hard to say if they're "true" macros because can't tell the scale of the subjects like pebbles on sand.

The Quiet Feet one I'd probably consider a miscat. Some of the shells/pebbles on sand are borderline by my definition.

The dewdrops, insects, close up leafs and flowers, seeds etc are all fine.
butterfly36rs's avatar
Yes, Quiet Feet is on my list to move. The shells and sand I need to take a closer look at. The pebbles are all small, but some are not THAT small!
suddy's avatar
These tips are so clearly written :) I think it can help a lot :nod:
troypiggo's avatar
That's the intention ;)
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