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Macro Photography Explained - Photography Tips and Techniques

written by: Carl Weaver•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 4/4/2011

Macro photography is the use of magnification to create an image with enhanced detail possibly not viewable to the naked eye.

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    Macro Photography Explained

    Macro photography is commonly thought of as close-up photography. It has a more technical definition, though, having to do with magnification. For it to be macro photography, you have to have a magnification level of greater than 1:1. That is, the image captured on film or on the imaging sensor has to be larger than what was photographed.

    water droplets on rose leaf A prime example of macro photography is one of my favorite subjects – photographing water droplets on foliage. Note the size of the droplets – certainly larger than what I saw with my naked eye. The smallest droplets, along the serrated edge of the rose leaves, were about the size of a ballpoint pen tip.

    Black-Eyed Susan Disregarding the technical definition, another definition has come about for macro photography. The way people use the term sometimes forgoes the issue of magnification and simply incorporates the other dominant factor common to most macro shots, which is shallow depth of field. The picture at left is a good example of this. Sure, it has a shallow depth of field but the magnification is missing.

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    Equipment for Macro Photography

    If you have a point-and-shoot camera, chances are you have a macro or "close-up" setting on it. Sometimes the macro setting is indicated by an icon that looks like a flower. This is not always truly a macro setting, as discussed earlier, but it does allow very close focusing and can produce similar results.

    The most obvious piece of equipment for an SLR is a macro lens. These are not much more expensive than normal lenses and are easy to find. Other equipment you can use includes magnifying lenses, extension tubes, bellows and a fancy thing called a reversing ring.

    A magnifying lens screws on to the front of your lens like a filter to make the subject appear larger. An additional feature of the magnifying lens is that it has a center focus, which gives the illusion of a shallow depth of field. Extension tubes are simply hollow tubes that fit between the lens and the camera. The added distance between the two increases the focal length and thus creates magnification. A bellows works the same way, except that the distance between the camera and lens is adjustable. The last item – the reversing ring – allows you to mount the lens backward. While most lenses give you a smaller picture than what is real, turning the lens backward allows the opposite – magnification.

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    Tips for Great Macro Photography

    • Use a tripod. You are likely photographing something very small and a tripod, along with a remote shutter release will minimize camera shake.
    • Try using manual focus. Sometimes the autofocus capabilities of our cameras do not work quite right with macro settings. Try switching to manual focus to get a better, clearer shot.
    • Experiment a lot. Try some of the accessories mentioned, like a bellows or extension tubes. You can get these used rather cheaply on some of the online auction sites. You can also rent some types of equipment like this from professional photography stores or possibly from a fellow photographer.
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    Written from author's experience doing macro photography. Photos by Carl Weaver.