Five photographers share their secrets to capturing macro images. Whether working with natural light or indoor settings, here’s their advice.
A macro lens can transform even the most mundane of items and ingredients into works of art. On a rainy day at her studio in Novi Sad, Višnja Šešum transformed water droplets on blushing hydrangea petals into glittering crystals.
On a food shoot, Paul S. Bartholomew once took the time to carefully sort through fine flakes of pyramid-shaped sea salt, photographing only the most beautiful specimens.
The Toronto-based photographer Jeff Wasserman has created psychedelic compositions using water droplets on the surface of an old CD.
Macro photography is all about experimentation, and while a studio setup offers more flexibility, you don’t need the priciest gear to create images that inspire. The pandemic years reminded us of the power of slowing down, noticing the details, trying new things, and making do with what we have.
With that in mind, we asked five outstanding photographers to tell us about their setups and approach to capturing tiny subjects. They’ve offered tips for every budget, whether it’s a full studio with monolights or a natural light setup that requires only a kitchen counter and window light.
Any DSLR or mirrorless camera will work, favorites among the photographers we interviewed include the Nikon D750 and Nikon D850, both DSLRs, the Fujifilm GFX 50SII, a medium format mirrorless camera, and the Leica Sl2, also mirrorless.
A camera with an electronic shutter will help reduce camera shake and vibration, so that’s another detail to consider.
You don’t necessarily need a dedicated macro lens to shoot macro photos. Another option is to experiment with extension tubes or reversing rings (the latter will permit you to mount your lens backward for a macro effect). Both are perfect for practicing.
But, if you’re in the market and have the budget for a macro lens, you have options. 105mm macro lenses from Sigma and Nikon are popular choices among the photographers we interviewed.
For getting even closer, the Minsk-based photographer Rodion Kovenkin pairs the FujiFilm GF 120mm F4 macro lens with MCEX-45G macro extension tubes, also from FujiFilm.
“It’s a sharp and crisp lens, and the high resolution of the Fujifilm GFX 50SII camera makes the images all the more stunning.”
Natural light photographers will also need a tripod for sharp images (remember to turn off image stabilization). Pair it with a remote shutter release.
“When you are shooting macro images, it’s important to have the camera extremely stable, especially if you are shooting available light,” Jeff Wasserman tells us. “You need to have a sturdy tripod and a good head for that tripod.
“Cheap heads or ball heads tend to sag after a while, and when your composition is measured in millimeters, this can cause you big headaches. You see a lot of shots ruined because of drifting ball heads and flimsy tripods. It is very difficult to control focus without having a rock-solid base.”
It’s worth investing in the best quality tripod you can afford, as it’ll last through years of wear and tear.
Also, not all ball heads are created equal. Paul S. Bartholomew recommends Arca Swiss ball heads, adding, “Some ball heads will shift when you tighten them down. These won’t, and this saves time with setups.”
“Macro lenses offer a very shallow depth of field, particularly at the closest focusing distances,” Višnja Šešum explains. “This can make it very difficult to get your subject in sharp focus. So, if I want my whole frame to be sharp, I need a large f-number—f16 at least.”
Stopping down your aperture will reduce the light coming into your lens, so if you’re working with natural light, you’ll need to compensate with a slower shutter speed and a tripod.
Šešum, who generally prefers natural light, sometimes uses shutter speeds of up to one second, which works well for stationary subjects.
Things get a little trickier if you’re shooting moving subjects.
“If you are shooting available light, you will need to figure out how slow a shutter speed you can use, without creating blur from wind and vibration,” Wasserman says. “Faster is better!”
After setting your shutter speed and aperture, go with the lowest possible ISO you can use while still properly exposing.
Larisa Hadžić, an artist based in Sarajevo, shoots exclusively in natural daylight, proving that you don’t always need an expensive setup to get stunning results. Natural window light works especially well with raw, natural ingredients, like the organic apples, fresh mushrooms, or winter chestnuts Hadzic has photographed.
At the same time, though, artificial light can offer more flexibility and options when it comes to shooting macro subjects, giving you more power and eliminating the need for a tripod.
“In macro photography, even the slightest movement can lead to soft-looking images, but strobe lighting freezes things perfectly,” Bartholomew tells us.
Šešum also recommends artificial light when you plan to move around and experiment with your angles. When opting for artificial light, she uses a relatively portable setup, combining a Godox AD200 pocket flash with an 80 x 120 softbox for diffusion.
In the studio, Wasserman and Bartholomew both prefer Profoto D2 monolights, plus reflectors and other modifiers.
“My most common setup is a small softbox shot through a Westcott diffusion panel,” Bartholomew says. “I also use bounce panels and love using v-flats of different sizes.”
Kovenkin also opts for Profoto lights, shaping that light to perfection with the Profoto Zoom Reflector. He’ll also add a frost diffusion filter for softening and contrast reduction.
“In my experience, this is the most controllable light setup, and it produces stunning colors,” he tells us.
That vibrant color is important when shooting confections such as banana-flavored cotton candy, spicy green wasabi popcorn, or caramel puffed cornballs.
Your setup will ultimately depend on how much space you have, so take that into consideration. An alternative to the D2 lights is the smaller, lighter Profoto B10X, which Bartholomew uses when shooting on location.
Pro Tips for Outstanding Macro Shots
Shoot in Live View
Autofocus will struggle with macro subjects, so stick to manual for more control. Hadžić also recommends working in live view so you can preview and make adjustments to your focus:
“Shooting in live view definitely makes focusing easier, and it works best if your camera is on a tripod.”
If you’re shooting tethered (this is best for studio setups, but can be done in the kitchen, with enough space), you have even more freedom to set exactly where you want your focus to be.
“Sometimes, I use a tethering cable connected with Capture One so I can arrange my scene in live view on my computer screen,” Šešum adds. “That technique is very helpful, especially when composing your frame.”
Hit That Depth of Field Preview Button
Hadžić also likes to preview her depth of field.
“The closer you are to the subject, the shallower the depth of field will be,” she says. “I like to use the depth of field preview button to see how much sharpness I’ll get before taking the picture.”
Try Focus Stacking
Kovenkin, Bartholomew, and Wasserman suggest using focus stacking when necessary, with Wasserman preferring to use Helicon Focus for processing.
This technique entails taking several images at different focusing distances (using a lens with manual focus), with some overlapping areas of sharpness, and then combining them in post-production.
License these images via Paul S. Bartholomew x2.
You can capture as many images as you want, from three to twenty. “I usually do about five focus points and stack them together,” Bartholomew says.
The reason to go this route is that if you stop your aperture down too much, you’ll end up with diffraction and degrade your image quality.
Wasserman admits, “Some lenses are quite sharp stopped down further, but this will require some testing.”
Use the ⅓ Rule
This handy rule offers a viable alternative if you’re not using the focusing stacking technique.
“I like to experiment with my primary point of focus to see where I get the most optimal results,” Bartholomew tells us. “A common rule is to focus 1/3rd into the area that needs focus. Using direct capture to a computer and zooming into details is a wonderful tool, if you have the conditions to do so.”
Simplify Your Composition
“One thing I notice is when there are too many details in a macro shot,” Hadžić says. “I’ve done this myself, but it can distract from the main subject. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try different textures, colors, and backgrounds. Play with light and shadow, but most important of all, remember to keep it simple.”
The old rules of composition apply, so pay special attention to where you place your subjects within the frame, where your shadows fall, and how your eye navigates the image.
With the right subject, even a simple flower or mushroom, you don’t need much extra.
License cover image via Jeff Wasserman.