The 1-to-1 Relationship: Getting Closer to Your Subjects Through Macro Photography

By Paul Nguyen

I was recently asked to give a talk to the New Hampshire Professional Photographers Association about macro and close-up photography, which led me to think about how to simplify this topic into something that photographers of all levels could get into on a casual level.

So we’re not talking about going crazy with macro and letting it dominate your life (and your camera bag), but just incorporating it into your already eclectic, all-over-the-place photo hobby.

If you’re feeling a little bored of taking the same pictures all the time, getting up close and personal with your subject can get your creative juices flowing once again, and give you the one thing all photographers are really looking for: An excuse to buy more gear.

Sooo if we’re taking close-ups of really small things, why is it called “macro” and not “micro”?

The word macro means large in scale. So in macro photography, your subject appears larger than life when printed out or shown on your computer screen. This type of photography is done with a lens that can get really close to your subject and still maintain sharp focus. The subject appears large because you are getting so close to it, not because it is somehow artificially “enlarging” the subject.


The Macro Difference

An “ordinary” 300mm telephoto lens brings distant subjects closer, but can’t get close enough to small subjects without going out of focus.

An “ordinary” 300mm telephoto lens brings distant subjects closer, but can’t get close enough to small subjects without going out of focus.

On the other hand, a 100mm macro can get inches away and still produce sharp focus.

On the other hand, a 100mm macro can get inches away and still produce sharp focus.

“True” macro photography is done with a lens with a 1:1 reproduction ratio or greater. This means that the subject appears the same on the sensor as it does in real life. When the photo is printed at normal sizes, that’s when the subject appears larger than life.

The difference between 1:1 and 1:2 reproduction ratio

Reproduction ratio.jpg

You may have seen zoom lenses that have the word “macro” printed at one end of the zoom range. These lenses can accomplish only 1:4 reproduction ratio or thereabouts, so they won’t be able to magnify subjects as much, so they are not true macro lenses despite the name.

Some macro lenses can go up to 5:1 reproduction ratio, or 5x magnification, making small subjects appear very large and close. But these lenses are specialized and extremely difficult to use.

So a true macro lens is always a prime (fixed-focal length) lens, not a zoom, and has a 1:1 or greater reproduction ratio. But the choice to invest in a macro lens doesn’t just end there. Just like selecting any of your camera gear, there’s a strong danger of paralysis by over-analysis, so hopefully I can demystify this for you.

Macro lenses come in different focal lengths, such as 50mm and 100mm, just as regular lenses do. Both the 50mm and 100mm true macro lens will have a 1:1 reproduction ratio. So the difference between the perspectives that each will produce comes from the working distance - how close you need to get to the subject to accomplish the maximum magnification.

The result of using a short focal length macro lens, such as 25mm or 50mm, and needing to get right up to the subject, is that it will produce a wider, more rounded perspective than a telephoto macro lens, such as 100mm, which lets you stand a bit further back, and produces a flatter, more compressed perspective. The rounded look of a wide angle macro resembles what you would take with your smartphone camera.

A 100mm macro lens has a longer working distance and produces a flatter look…

A 100mm macro lens has a longer working distance and produces a flatter look…

…while a 25mm macro lens with the same reproduction ratio has a closer working distance and produces a rounded look.

…while a 25mm macro lens with the same reproduction ratio has a closer working distance and produces a rounded look.

The working distance of your lens also affects what type of subject your macro lens is best suited for. A 50mm macro lens would be better for stationary subjects such as flowers, whereas a 100mm would be the sensible choice for insects and other subjects that would get scared away if you get too close.

A 50mm macro is perfect for stationary subjects…

A 50mm macro is perfect for stationary subjects…

…but a subject that’s easily frightened needs the longer working distance of a 105mm macro lens.

…but a subject that’s easily frightened needs the longer working distance of a 105mm macro lens.

The side-effects of shooting up close

When you work at such short distances, depth of field is greatly reduced. This means that even if you use a high aperture number, you will have blur behind and in front of your subject. So you need to be really careful with your focus, and understand that a subject that is not flat will have some part that is blurry.

Autofocus tends to be useless when everything is this close, so it’s better to just set your camera to manual focus. And rather than turning the lens barrel to focus precisely, I find it easier to just hold my breath and move my whole body back and forth until my subject looks sharp and then immediately snap the picture.

Camera shake and subject movement are also amplified when working at close range. Using a tripod really helps to neutralize your own shakiness, and you will want to make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze your subject’s movements, if you are photographing living insects, or plants that are blowing around in the breeze.

Knob-Twiddling Time

If I’m shooting macro casually, I prefer to set my exposure mode to Aperture Priority, and set my f-stop based on how much depth of field I need. Remember that you’ll need to set your f-numbers higher than you’d expect, because depth of field is so reduced at these close-up distances. I set my ISO depending on how much light I have available, remembering that if I’m shooting handheld, I have to set my ISO higher than I would for shooting at normal distances, because of how much my subject and camera movement is exaggerated at close range, and how I may be casting shade on my subject just by looming right over it. Your resulting shutter speed needs to be fast enough to freeze all motion, and this will of course depend on how shaky you are, and if your subject is mobile. It’s best to try out a few combinations of f-stop and ISO,  take a few test shots, and then evaluate whether your shutter speed was fast enough for your circumstances. If not, you would have to raise your ISO, shoot at a lower f-number, or both. You will probably find that in most situations, shooting on a tripod will really help you out with eliminating your camera shake, and being able to shoot at lower ISO, with higher f-numbers and longer shutter speeds.

Composition Considerations

Gentle, even lighting is important for preserving all the details of your tiny subjects, so be sure to diffuse the light somehow, put your subject in the shade, or wait for an overcast day.

Gentle, even lighting is important for preserving all the details of your tiny subjects, so be sure to diffuse the light somehow, put your subject in the shade, or wait for an overcast day.

Expect that there will be plenty of background and foreground blur, and use it to draw attention to your sharp main subject.

Expect that there will be plenty of background and foreground blur, and use it to draw attention to your sharp main subject.

Close-ups are best thought of like portraits rather than landscapes. Use a tighter, squarer crop such as 4:5 (for making an 8x10) print, rather than the 2:3 ratio that is your DSLR’s native output. You would do this cropping in an editing program such as Lightroom or Photoshop.

Close-ups are best thought of like portraits rather than landscapes. Use a tighter, squarer crop such as 4:5 (for making an 8x10) print, rather than the 2:3 ratio that is your DSLR’s native output. You would do this cropping in an editing program such as Lightroom or Photoshop.

Poor Man’s Macro

If you’re not ready to make the investment in a dedicated macro lens (let’s face it, it’s a lot of money for something with a very specific purpose), but would like to dabble in macro, you have options.

Extension tubes attach behind a normal lens and allow it to focus closer than it normally could, leading to almost-macro performance. They are stackable for cumulative effect. A lens with an extension tube attached will sacrifice long range focus in exchange for tor close-up ability.

Extension tubes attach behind a normal lens and allow it to focus closer than it normally could, leading to almost-macro performance. They are stackable for cumulative effect. A lens with an extension tube attached will sacrifice long range focus in exchange for tor close-up ability.

A diopter or close-up lens screws onto the front of your lens like a filter, and acts like reading glasses for your camera. This is easy and cheap magnification, but the picture is usually distorted on the edges, and the sharpness is not even across the whole frame.

A diopter or close-up lens screws onto the front of your lens like a filter, and acts like reading glasses for your camera. This is easy and cheap magnification, but the picture is usually distorted on the edges, and the sharpness is not even across the whole frame.

Learn more

I’m offering a hands-on workshop on Macro Photography at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA on July 28, 2019, where I’ll be demonstrating these principles in person, as well as some more advanced principles such as using flash to add lighting to your close-up photos. Bring your own macro gear and learn to use it with me, or use this time to decide whether you’d like to invest in dedicated equipment. Any questions, feel free to contact us!