Gearing Up for Better Macro Photography

Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, macro photography is a highly popular pursuit in the field. Also known as close-up photography, macro gives you the freedom to get face-to-face with your subjects. And this dynamic will help you produce some wonderfully beautiful and creative photographic art.

If you’re interested in macro photography, it’s important to understand what you’ll need to succeed. You can’t just point your current camera equipment and configuration close to a subject and expect a good picture!

Close-up subjects such as flowers and insects pose a unique set of challenges to even the most skilled photographers. Accordingly, you need to equip yourself with the proper gear to achieve the best results. When you have the right configuration, you’ll be absolutely amazed at the types of subjects you can successfully capture.

most important element to successful macro photography

Canon EOS-1D X, EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, 180.0 mm, 1/250 sec; f/3.5; ISO 2500, Evaluative metering

In most cases, the equipment you need will come down to your lens and your flash. To help you quickly understand what you’ll need, this discussion will be organised into two primary sections:

  1. Lenses & Related Equipment
  2. Flashes & Configurations

With the right macro lens – and appropriate flash setup – you’ll take your macro photography to even greater heights. Read on to learn about all the important aspects you should know for each of these areas. You’ll be well-equipped to capture all your shots in full clarity, with beautiful lighting, and with just the right level of colour and depth for the most natural results.

Gearing Up for Better Macro Photography

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, 70.0 mm, 1/1600 sec; f/2.8; ISO 500, Centerweighted-Average metering

Part 1: Lenses & Related Equipment

The lenses you use are the single most important element to successful macro photography. Simply stated, you need the right lenses mounted on your camera to capture your macro subjects in focus. By understanding this concept now, you’ll save yourself a lot of time (and headaches) with your ongoing configurations.

The best way to understand appropriate lens usage is to dive right into some of the best examples of macro-capable equipment. Have a look at a few of the best selections for getting the most out of your macros.

Canon EF 100mm F2.8 USM Macro

If you’re a beginner in the macro photography world, Canon’s 100mm option is an excellent starting point. However, it’s also a highly versatile option for experienced photographers who want to get the most from their lens.

The 100mm focal length is ideal for capturing an expansive range of close-up subjects. With a built-in ring to easily accommodate the MR-14 ring light macro flash, you can quickly get your lighting just right to capture beautifully rich and natural colours.

This lens’s focus mechanism is fully internal which prevents the front element of the lens from extending while you focus. This is especially helpful when you’re really close to a subject and do not want to disturb it with your lens.

Additionally, the USM focus motor equipped in this lens is much faster than many other macro lenses available. Combined with a full-time manual focus, this makes the Canon EF 100mm a highly useful option for anything from insects to flowers.

Flashes & Configurations macro photography

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, 100.0 mm, 1/80 sec; f/2.8; ISO 1250, Centerweighted-Average metering

Canon 180mm L F3.5 Macro

A true macro lens, the Canon 180mm consistently captures wonderfully vivid, clear, and high quality shots. The longer 180mm focal length allows you to get your close shots without being right on your subject. This is especially helpful if you can’t get too close without interfering with your subject (such as scaring an insect away).

In most cases, the 180mm lens captures the backgrounds of your shots a little better than the shorter focal length. Much like the EF 100mm, the internal focus design keeps the lens from extending forward while focusing.

This lens will accommodate popular macro flash setups such as the MR-14 ring light and the MT-24 twin light. However, due to its size you will need to also purchase a Canon 72C Macrolite Adapter to attach them.

One of the disadvantages of this lens size is related directly to its ability to capture close-up subjects at a slightly further distance. This provides an optimum arrangement for larger macro subjects such as dragonflies and butterflies. For smaller subjects, however, the distance may add a little too much empty space in your composition. Fortunately, adding extension tubes and teleconverters (more on these later) can help to resolve this minor issue.

The 180mm focal length adds some challenges to beginners who may not have a full grasp of their camera usage. The learning curve is a bit steep, so this lens is not recommended for beginners. However, this is an ideal macro option once you’re comfortable and proficient enough to use it.

Canon MP-E65

A much more specialised lens, the Canon MP-E65 is reserved for those with advanced knowledge and skill within macro photography. This option only offers a 1x to 5x magnification ring without additional focus adjustment options. While this may sound confusing when it comes to adjusting your focus, this setup is designed to move your entire camera mount until your subject is clear.

This technique takes a bit of time to learn, understand, and eventually master. In fact, most photographers recommend using another lens in manual focus mode to practice before investing in this option.

With this much challenge and technical complexity, why would anyone choose this lens option? The answer comes down to its results. The MP-E65 produces amazingly high quality, sharp macro images. Once you’re up to 2x or higher magnification, your subjects will be literally centimeters from your lens element. That means you’re getting as close as physically possible to your subjects – and capturing images no other lens is capable of producing.

Because of the technical challenges with this lens and your camera’s physical position, you’ll also need to master your lighting to get worthwhile images. After all, with your front element so close to your subject, it’s very easy to drown out your light and end up with a dark shot or muddied colouring. In most cases, using either your MR-14 or MT-24 is essential.

Get Out There & Start Photographing macro and close up photos

OLYMPUS E-M1 , OLYMPUS M.12-40mm F2.8 , 36.0 mm (in 35mm: 72.0 mm), 1/250 sec; f/5.0; ISO 200, Digital ESP metering

Additional Equipment Options

To get the most out of your lenses, you can also rely on some additional support equipment to amplify your shots. This equipment provides a great method to take your shots even further and truly capture your subjects the way you want them.

  • Extension Tubes: Extension tubes allow you to reduce the distance you need from your subject. By extending your lens outward, you’ll be able to get better magnification for your shots. In general, you can expect to get about a 2x magnification added to your setup. For longer lenses like the Canon 180mm, this can help you get closer to smaller subjects to better fill your frame.
  • Teleconverter: A teleconverter can be fit on your macro lens to boost the effective focal length. For instance, the Canon 180mm can also use a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter for more effective length. You should attach extension tubes onto the teleconverter and finish with the lens itself for best results. While teleconverters can add some focal length that you may need, this will likely result in a slight loss of quality in your final image.
  • Life Size Converter: The Life Size Converter (LSC) acts almost like a combination of an extension tube and teleconverter. It will allow you to have 1:1 reproduction for even better macro lens magnification results. While the LSC is designed for a Canon 50mm F2.8 macro lens, it will fit on several other lenses for increased magnification.

Part 2: Flashes & Configurations

Macro photography means that you are very close up to your subjects. When your lens is this close to a subject, you are also reducing the amount of light your camera can capture. Because of this dilemma, an effective flash configuration is essential to achieve the best results.

There are many different options you have available for your flashes and related lighting setups. Without a proper configuration, you risk ruining your images with harsh, unnatural lighting. That’s why it’s so critical to understand how to achieve the best lighting through flashes, exposure compensation, and other requirements.

Flash Exposure Compensation

Before you even mount a flash or a ring light onto your macro lens, it’s important to understand what flash exposure compensation is all about. Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) is a method you can use to modify the light output of your camera’s flash. It’s a vital component to all areas of photography. And it’s especially critical within macro photography where even a modest change in lighting can significantly impact your outcome.

FEC is a means to balance your flash with the natural light in an environment to create a much more naturally coloured shot. You can adjust the FEC within any Canon camera system. In many cases, you can adjust this output directly on your flash for even more control.

The more you understand how to adjust your FEC, the better your pictures will turn out. Practice makes perfect, so modify as necessary based on your environment, time of day, and subject until you have a result that satisfies you.

Close-up subjects such as flowers and insects

Canon EOS-1D X , EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, 180.0 mm, 1/125 sec; f/5.0; ISO 640, Evaluative metering

Built-in Pop Up Flash

Multiple DSLR models come equipped with a basic pop-up flash right in the camera. This is a quick and simple option that can also be effective for your macro work. You’ll probably want to decrease the FEC to prevent overly harsh light from impacting your shots. A great place to start is an FEC setting of approximately -2/3.

Regular Flash

Using a regular flash is a perfect starting point for beginners who want to learn the basics of effective macro lighting. Typical flash mounts will serve you in all your photography – including close-up shots. This is the perfect option for beginners to get the best of all worlds – and a useful addition to their photography arsenal.

Most macro shots with a regular flash will require a bit of extra effort to produce an optimal shot. Firstly, you will most likely need to adjust your FEC to turn down the flash output. Second, you will probably need to use a diffuser to help soften the light and prevent harsh or unnatural shadowing effects. You can usually adjust a flash with a tilt or swivel to alter the light’s angle and get your shot looking perfect.

Ring Light

Ring lights provide you with the power and control to light your macro shots no matter how close you get to them. Ring lights feature a control unit that you can mount to your camera’s hot shoe (mounting point). Depending on your specific camera, you may also need an adapter that will allow the light to be clipped on.

Ring lights offer two separate flash tubes which can be adjusted independently. Most of these units also offer a ratio setting to quickly adjust both tubes based on your specific conditions. For example, a 4:1 ratio will give you the right difference in flash output to create some shadows without over-lighting your subject. This can help prevent your composition from looking too flat from one source of direct light.

Ring lights pose additional challenges when it comes to adding diffusion. While they have some built-in diffusion properties, it may not be enough for your needs. A ring light hits your subject very directly with few shadows (even using ratios). This can prove to be an advantage or disadvantage based on what you’re trying to capture.

Twin Light

Similar to a ring light, a twin light can be mounted on your camera’s hot shoe with the ability to adjust independent flash heads. Unlike the ring light, however, a twin light allows for much greater adjustability and more lighting control.

Twin lights can help you add considerably more control when you need precision lighting. Additionally, you can add a variety of diffusers to soften the light and improve your compositions.

The one advantage that a ring light may offer is the ability to provide lighting when you are very close up to your subject. In those situations, a ring light may be a more appropriate option. Besides this limitation, a twin light flash offers the most advantages for achieving the lighting you require.

Diffusers, Multi-Flash & Custom Configurations

Once you’re truly in the thick of your macro photography, your lighting demands will become much more specific. This is when you can utilise a variety of additional tools to help improve how your flash lights up your shot.

  • Diffusers: As mentioned, diffusers can help to soften light and prevent sharp contrasts with shadows. This can achieve a much more natural-looking photograph compared with a straight flash.
  • Multi-Flash Setups: You can mix-and-match flash setups to play with lighting and get your result to match your vision.
  • Custom Built Flashes: Many photographers customise equipment to build specific flashes, diffusers, and more. This element can help you truly flex your creative skills to really capture the shots you want.
macro photography is a highly popular pursuit in the field

Canon EOS-1D X, EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, 180.0 mm, 1/1250 sec; f/3.5; ISO 100, Evaluative metering

Get Out There & Start Photographing

Now that you’re armed with the basics of macro photography gear, it’s time to get out and start experimenting. The best way to learn in this field is through practice. This holds especially true when you’re working with close-up subjects and macro photography.

From tripods or monopods to separate flash lighting, macro photography will pose many challenges as you learn and grow. Enjoy the process – and see all the creative and natural pictures you can produce for your portfolio.