There are a lot of great “getting started” tips for macro photography that you can find in a simple Google search, which included a lot of basic things like “use a tripod”, “stop down your aperture” and “shoot in bright light to maintain a low ISO setting”. But with all types of photography you get less-than-perfect scenarios where you must think quickly and creatively to achieve expected results. Those basics tips aren’t very helpful for that. So whether you are just discovering macro photography or have faced its challenges and need some convincing to try again, I have put together a list of hacks that you may not find in those generalist guides.
7 Alternative Macro Photography Tricks
When should you use a macro-specific lens? Most are not only for photographing bugs and flowers (although this is a popular way to explore this lens type). Macro lenses are also great for portraits, wedding details, product shots, food blogs, and, yes, even landscapes!
Macro lenses can also be used in abstract photography for their ability to isolate a subject. Why is this good for you? It puts the power in your hands to create works of art from the seemingly mundane.
Typical Tip #1: Use a Tripod
It’s true that you really should use a tripod to stabilize your macro setup. A lot of macro lenses have some heft to them and that extreme magnification and sliver of depth of field will show every little movement and mess up your shot.
Alternative Hack: Cheat with Faster Shutter Speed
If you don’t have a tripod, adjust your settings so that you aren’t shooting at any slower of a shutter speed than 1/400th of a second to avoid camera shake ruining all your frames. Next, try steadying yourself by leaning against a solid structure, tucking your elbows by your side, and exhaling while simultaneously relaxing your shoulders, then click! It’s not perfect but will do in a pinch.
Typical Tip #2: Choose the Best Vantage Point
Check all angles before you settling on your composition. Moving around your subject will allow you to choose on the best vantage point or angle. A running theme in macro photography is that small movements make a world of difference, whether it’s that you are picking up a new highlight previously unseen or getting your subject more or less on the same focal plane.
Alternative Hack: Shoot All Angles, Even the Ones You Don’t Like
Take several test shots that focus less on producing a winning image and instead are a study of light, color, and depth of field. Don’t take more than one image in that particular camera position, instead orbit around the subject to compare and contrast your P.O.V. until you come across something you love. You can always change positions later but you will be doing yourself a service to do this exercise beforehand to avoid shooting too long in a composure you like less than your last frame.
Typical Tip #3: Find a Good background
Because of the extreme shallow depth of field created by macro lenses, your background will play a huge role in the mood of the image. Since mostly everything will be a blur of colors, it is up to you to decide how you want that color to interact with the subject.
Alternative Hack: Make Your Own Background
Look for a complimentary color to your subject to make it pop off the page or the same color as your subject for an interesting monochrome look. If what you have to work with is limited, consider bringing in a background of your own and simply prop it behind your subject for more control.
Typical Tip #4: Use Manual Lens Focus
Autofocus works by identifying contrast and when working with such a narrow depths of field, that contrast is less easy for your lens to identify and causes an effect called focus hunting. To shoot in manual mode, turn the focus ring first until everything is out of focus and then, with intention, turn it the opposite direction until the area you want appears sharp and clear.
Alternative Hack: Manually Focus with Distance
If you are hand holding, focus on your subject and then try physically moving yourself and/or the camera forward and back from your subject to make the final micro adjustments just before you depress the shutter. This method sometimes works better than the clunky focus ring when attempting to get your subject in focus when shooting at f/5.6 or lower.
Typical Tip #5: Close Down Your Aperture
In macro photography, depth of field is measured in millimeters. Your DOF becomes extremely shallow when you are using one of the wider apertures. Shooting at f/8 or f/11 on a macro lens will yield the look of f/2.8 on a standard lens. However, this means you need a LOT of light to compensate and at these close distances, no matter how much you stop down, you’re unlikely to get your entire subject in focus.
Alternative Hack: Focus Stacking
Take a series of 5-7 images. Later you’ll use a Photoshops focus stacking action to merge your frames and increase the DOF in post production. For each shot, focus on a different part of your subject – front, medium, and back. Once stacked, the subject will look crisp throughout while the background can remain silky soft.
Typical Tip #5: Use Live View Mode
If you are on a tripod when setting focus, you can turn on the Live View LCD screen and zoom in 100% on specific parts of your scene to check if your focus is razor sharp in the area you want.
Alternative Hack: Verify Your Focusing Tools
If you find you’re continually having to check focus and it seems to just keep being wrong, there are a couple of things you need to check. First, make sure your diopter didn’t get bumped and is actually set for your eyes. You also should check whether your camera and lens combo is back/front focusing. Learn more about that in Microadjustment for Lens and Camera Front/Back Focusing Issues.
Typical Tip #7: Avoid Getting in Your Own Light
If you are shooting with light that you can’t control, depending on where you are standing, you can actually cast a shadow into your scene. If you are intensely focused on shooting and having trouble with your exposure, check that you aren’t hindering your light.
Alternative Hack: Intentionally Get Into Your Own Light
If you are having issues with harsh contrast or hot spots when shooting in bright sunlight, cast a shadow into your scene using your body to mask out the bright light source and make it a more even light.
To summarize, macro lenses aren’t as specific and limiting as you may have thought and they are certainly a good work horse lens to have in your kit. Remember, there is always more than one way to accomplish your vision. When you face a road block, remember to calm your mind, take a deep breath, and know that macro photography is a lot like mediation. Read more about that in my article What Meditation and Macro Photography Have in Common. With macro photography, there must be a willingness to experiment outside your comfort zone and – most importantly – practiced patience.