Biggie Smalls

By Jack Berglund

Its seems, as humans we’re fascinated by miniature versions of things: toy models, dolls houses, tea cup piglets, miniature ponies etc. Bigger is also better (so I’m told). This probably explains why Macro photography, the art of capturing small objects and blowing them up many times bigger than life size is so compelling.

Macro photography is defined as taking a picture of an object so that it appears on the sensor (or film) at least as big if not bigger than the real life object (referred to as 1:1).  This is a not very helpful definition given that you’d rarely print or display something at the same size of your sensor and the image will be enlarged many times when presented but there you go.  Some marketing literature will claim something is ‘macro’ if the object will print larger than actual size on a 6×4″ photo which is a better way of defining things but only gives you a 1:4 magnification (image is one quarter the real life size on the sensor) so your close ups will not be so close as a true macro shot.

What You’ll Need

You’ll get best results with a dedicated macro lens but there are alternatives.   Some zoom lenses can take macro like photos (close to 1:1) so check what you have already.  There are also macro tubes which you insert between the lens and the camera.  Moving the lens away from the sensor, decreases the minimum distance they can focus at allowing you to move closer and get an enlarged view of the object even though the magnification of the lens is unchanged.  There is a somewhat wacky but apparently effective option to mount one lens backwards in front of another.  You lose auto-focus and have to walk round with a weird set of lenses on the front of your camera but can get good photos…

Macro lenses come in different focal lengths like any other lens.  The focal length does not affect how large an object appears but rather how long the ‘working distance’ (the minimum focal distance where you get the largest magnification) is. The larger the focal length, the further away from the object you can be and still take a macro photo.  This can be important when photographing insects or other living creatures that might be spooked by your presence and makes it easier to avoid getting your shadow in the photo. A 60mm macro lens has a working distance of around 20cm, a 105mm macro lens around 30cm (this is from the sensor.  A 60mm lens is typically 7cm long and a 105 around 10cm long so from the end of the lens you’ll be 13cm and 20cm away respectively).

Longer focal lengths will also ‘compress’ the view which means you see a narrower slice of the background.  This can be a good or a bad thing depending on what you want your photo to look like.  It can be helpful to get only a small piece of the background as its easier to avoid any unsightly or distracting items behind whatever you’re photographing.  Other things to consider are the size of the lens.  Longer focal length macro lenses (105mm, 200mm etc) tend to be significantly larger and heavier than a 60mm lens for example.  This can be important if you’re hiking or otherwise lugging your gear.

Macro lenses can also be used as normal lenses and tend to have high quality optics making them a good choice for a portrait lens in many cases.  You may want to consider this so that you buy a lens that can be used for multiple things.

I use a Nikon 105mm macro lens on a crop sensor camera (D200) which I’ve been very very happy with.  It gives me enough working distance to photograph insects.  It is a bit of a beast to carry but nothing unmanageable.  All the photos on this page were taken with this lens.

What to Photograph

Lots of things look good viewed in close up: insects, plants, rust, water drops, anything that has an interesting texture of detail when viewed close up.  I enjoy shooting insects the most as its somewhat challenging (they move) and amazing to see how intricate the structures of these small creatures are.

Tri Hard

A tripod is often recommended for Macro work.  For the most pin sharp photos this is probably a must but I personally like to photograph insects which don’t generally stay still so I end up shooting hand held.  I have heard of people freezing insects so they don’t move as much but this seems wrong somehow. You can setup the tripod on a given flower and wait but personally I think life is too short for that.  My advice – shoot hand held until you get hooked, then go to the trouble of using a tripod to get some killer shots if you really need to.

What to Do

Macro photography is notorious (Biggie Smalls, notorious, get it? No?…never mind!) for having a very (very) shallow depth of field. This means you have to ‘stop down’ to at least f/8, probably further to get a depth of field that is still only a few centimeters deep.  Set your camera to aperture priority and dial in the desired aperture.  When shooting hand help and/or shooting objects that move, make sure you’re getting a shutter speed of at least 1/200s at your given aperture.  Raise the ISO on your camera if you’re not.

When shooting insects or other creatures, the same rule as portrait photography applies – focus on the eyes.

If shooting hand held, you may have to take several shots before you get one that is sharp and in focus the way you want it.  Most images look sharp and in focus on the LCD monitor so make sure you zoom in to check. If you struggling to get enough of the object in focus, stop down the aperture a little further (remember to make sure your shutter speed remains high enough; adjust the ISO if needed).  It can take a bit of practice to get good shots, particularly when the object in question moves every few seconds but if you persevere you’ll get some amazing shots that you can’t believe you took yourself.

For the very largest magnification, you can try turning auto-focus off on your camera.  Focus the lens as close as it will go and then move the camera forwards and backwards to focus.  When set to its closest focusing distance, the lens will also give its greatest magnification.  This is most practical using a tripod but you can attempt it hand held.

In Short

  • Get a lens that can take true macro images
  • Find something interesting to photograph
  • Use a tripod if you have the patience
  • Shoot aperture priority, f/8 to f/16
  • Zoom in on your camera LCD to check focus/sharpness
  • Enjoy yourself

  1. Thanks for the write up man. I still haven’t decided what my second lens will be, but I’m looking into macros. Great shots!

  2. Wow, what beautiful photographs!

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