6 skills to learn before you try macro photography

There are no new rules to learn for macro, just remember everything you already know applies twice over. Camera shake will be magnified, light loss will be doubled, and your depth of field reduced down to fractions of a millimetre. Here's a reminder of the 8 skills you need before you get started.

1. Light

You'll need more than you think.

Light falloff: You're focussing closer to your subject than normal, so you lose a lot of available light because it falls outside the sensor. This blog post explains it with diagrams if you want to understand the physics.

Camera shadow: You may be so close that your camera lens casts a shadow over your subject.

The solution:

a) Add more light to the subject. For even lighting that avoids lens shadows, use a specialist ring flash that attaches to the front of the lens.

b) Use a longer shutter speed to use the light you have. Set up on a tripod to avoid camera shake. This doesn't work if the subject is moving, even slightly.

2. Background

You don't see much of the background in macro shots, but don't forget about it all together. It will blur out of recognition, so be aware of what happens to highlights and splashes of red.

Use a lightbox for an easy backlit, clean background:

3. Composition

Don't forget all your basic rules of composition, just because you're getting in close. Bad composition will be exaggerated, and it's hard to visualise what the final image will look like with such a shallow depth of field. Check your LCD often.

4. Focus point

Your depth of field reduces the closer you get to your subject. Any mistakes in focus will be the first thing anyone notices, and there is nothing at all you can do to save a photograph where the subject is not crisply in focus.

These are some of the one hundred and thirty four bee photos I took recently, of which ONE (the header for this post) was acceptably in focus. 134.

The solution:

a) Use manual focus, and move the camera for minor adjustments.

b) If your subject isn't moving it's easier. To be sure of getting at least one good image, if you're not working on a tripod, use the continuous shooting method. Set your drive to continuous shooting, and then when you take your photograph leave your finger on the shutter and rock backwards or forwards a tiny amount as the 7 or 8 shots fire off.

c) If you're on a tripod and your subject isn't moving, you have no excuses. Get set up, take some test shots, and adjust everything until you're spot on.

d) A bigger depth of field (smaller aperture) will increase your chances of getting something in focus.

5. Understand aperture

You can't shoot macro and not understand how the aperture works, what depth of field is, and how the two are related.

need a refresher?

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Shoot on either aperture priority or manual mode, and don't be surprised when your image preview goes very dark if you are using small apertures. See light falloff above.

6. Camera shake

You really can't hand hold a camera when you're shooting at magnifications of more than 1x. The slightest, tiniest movement will show in the final image. You need the camera to be locked down tight, and all vibrations eliminated.

a) Use a tripod.

b) Use a cable release (or the self timer, if you don't have one).

c) Turn off image stabilisation on your lens.

d) Use mirror lockup if you're not using a mirrorless camera.

If you're using a DSLR, there's a mirror between the lens and the sensor which flips up every time you take a photo. When you're shooting macro, even this mechanical action is enough to cause enough vibration to spoil your image. Find out how to use the mirror lockup on your camera, and use it. On my Canon it's Custom function 12.