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How to Use Macro Lenses to Photograph Things in Close-Up Detail

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Read Time: 10 mins

If you're a photographer and you’d like to know more about lenses, then you’ll love our free course, What Every Photographer Should Know About Lenses. In this lesson you’ll learn about lenses for macrophotography.

What is a Macro Lens?

All lenses have a limit to how close they can focus on an object. With a regular lens this isn't really that close, but with a macro lens you can get close… really close! Macro photography is extreme closeup photography, usually of very small objects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is greater than it is in real life.

A macro lens, classically, is a lens capable of reproduction ratios greater than one to one (1:1), although it often refers to any lens with a larger reproduction ratio. Magnification describes the size an object will appear on your camera's sensor compared to its size in real life. The ratio of the subject size on the sensor plane to the actual subject size is known as the reproduction ratio.

How Can I Make Macro Photography?

The closer you place your lens relative to the subject, the larger that subject will appear in the image. There are several lenses that have a macro feature and the amount of image magnification will depend on the lens.

Hold Still Down There!

Using a remote switch or shutter release device can also greatly improve the sharpness and control over the macro photos, as the camera no longer moves as a result of you pressing the shutter button.

Macro of raindropsMacro of raindropsMacro of raindrops
Macro of raindrops / Envato Elements

Timers and Releases

Another option is to set the camera to a ten second timer, as this will give the camera time to settle down and stop moving. Pressing the shutter button, even with the self-timer, can still cause shake issues, because it can potentially nudge the camera and mess up your composition.

Manual Focus

At higher magnification, photos will have a correspondingly shallow depth of field. The control over the focus point is much more critical than normal. Precision adjustments should almost always be made using manual focus.

Macro Flash

If your lens is really close to the subject, you'll have an issue with light as well, because the lens will be blocking light from the front of the object. In these cases you might want to investigate using a dedicated macro flash that attaches to the front of the lens.

Extension Tubes

A pretty inexpensive way to get into macro photography is to use normal lenses and extension tubes. An extension tube increases the lens' magnification by an amount equal to the extension distance divided by lens' focal length. For example, adding a 25mm extension tube to a 50mm lens will give you a magnification gain of .5x. So, if the lens' original magnification was .15x then the new magnification will be .15x plus .5x which is .65x.

Using Macro Lenses

Here, we’re going to check out how to shoot some macro-shots, first using lenses that have a macro capability, then we're going to switch over to extension tubes.

Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 Macro Lens

The Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens has a macro capability, which means it can focus much closer than a normal lens. If this was on a full frame camera it would be a standard zoom lens, but because this is on a Canon 7D (1.6x crop factor) it’s going to act more like a lens that's in between a standard zoom lens and a medium telephoto lens.

Tamron 28-75mm f2/8 macro lensTamron 28-75mm f2/8 macro lensTamron 28-75mm f2/8 macro lens
Tamron 28-75mm f2/8 macro lens / David Bode

You can see in the image above that the camera is set up on a tripod and it’s on a device called a focus rail slider, which allows more precise control over the focusing because it has a little gear to slide the camera in and out, left and right. This helps because manual focusing at extreme magnification on photographic lenses can be very tricky to do.

Then the camera is put in ten second self-timer mode, and that's because if touched, the setup will wobble around a little bit. A cable release mechanism or a remote could be used to fire the shutter too, but ten seconds on the timer should be plenty of time to let the vibrations settle out.

Taken with the Tamron at 1,6 secondsTaken with the Tamron at 1,6 secondsTaken with the Tamron at 1,6 seconds
Taken with the Tamron at 1,6 seconds / David Bode

The settings here are: ISO 100, f/9 with an exposure time of 1.6 seconds. With this lens, that's about the best magnification you can get because it’s set to 75mm and is at the closest focusing distance for this lens. You can't get it any closer and get it in focus, so if we want a more macro shot, something with a higher reproduction ratio we're going to have to use a different lens, or change the setup.

Quantaray 70-300mm

This is a Quantaray 70-300mm lens with a macro capability. It's basically not a great lens, but let's see what we can get with it.

Setup with Quantaray lens / David BodeSetup with Quantaray lens / David BodeSetup with Quantaray lens / David Bode
Setup with Quantaray lens / David Bode

With this lens, in order to get to that macro capability, it has to be between 180mm and 300mm. On the lens, there's a little switch to switch it over to macro which gives you a little bit more focus range to work with than when in normal mode. The camera needs to be repositioned because the minimal focusing distance is 3.1 feet.

A macro photo taken with the Quantaray / David BodeA macro photo taken with the Quantaray / David BodeA macro photo taken with the Quantaray / David Bode
A macro photo taken with the Quantaray / David Bode

We’ve changed up what we're shooting here to see if we can get anything a little bit more interesting. At 3.2 seconds this is what we get. You can see it's pretty close with a lot of detail and the depth of field is really, really shallow. 

Extension Tubes (or Macro Rings)

Now let's try extension tubes and see what we can get; for this example we're going to be using an extension tube with a Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens.

Macro rings / Envato ElementsMacro rings / Envato ElementsMacro rings / Envato Elements
Macro rings / Envato Elements

The tube used is made by Fotodiox, it’s made out of aluminum and comes in a few different parts: a 7mm, a 28mm and a 14mm extension. These mean we can vary the amount of lens tube extension that’s put on the camera.

First, we’ll start with the 7mm, which isn't going to be much. Unscrew the required ring/tube. The back is the part that mounts to the camera. The Fotodiox isn’t a smart lens adapter, that means there are no electronic contacts on the lens, so all electronic communication will be disabled from the lens. That's because this is a cheap lens extension tube and that's just one of the things that you have to deal with. It’s not really a big deal because you can focus and set the aperture manually. The latter is tricky because this lens doesn't have a manual aperture control, but there's a workaround.

Normally, when shooting a photo on your camera, what happens when you half press the shutter button is the lens stays wide open, so it can be very bright while you're composing the image. For example, this is an f/1.8 lens so it stays at f/1.8 right until you take the picture and when you take the picture, the aperture’s closes down, it snaps the photo and then opens back up so you can see what you’re doing.

Aperture locked at f/9Aperture locked at f/9Aperture locked at f/9
Aperture locked at f/9

The workaround is that we can lock the lens at f/9 by pressing the depth of field preview button on the side of the camera, putting the aperture at f/9, and then all you have to do is take the lens off and it’s locked at that aperture instead.

One problem now is that things are really dark when looking through Live View, so the ISO needs cracking up to see, but you can crank it back down before you take the shot.

7mm Tube

The cool thing about doing this with a nice prime lens is that it's much sharper than any of the other lenses in the previous examples. It’s very sharp and you can see some very cool details at f/9 like all the scratches, dings and dents.

Extension tube 7mmExtension tube 7mmExtension tube 7mm
Extension tube 7mm / David Bode

7mm and 14mm Tubes

We can increase the macro power even more by adding some more extension tubes.

Extension tubes 7mm and 14mm addedExtension tubes 7mm and 14mm addedExtension tubes 7mm and 14mm added
Extension tubes 7mm and 14mm added / David Bode

Here's what this produces:

Result with 7mm and 14mm tubesResult with 7mm and 14mm tubesResult with 7mm and 14mm tubes
Result with 7mm and 14mm tubes / David Bode

This is the result with the the 7mm plus the 14 mm lens extension tube.

7mm, 14mm and 28mm Extension Tubes

Let's try them all.

7mm, 14mm and 28mm Extension Tubes7mm, 14mm and 28mm Extension Tubes7mm, 14mm and 28mm Extension Tubes
7mm, 14mm and 28mm extension tubes / David Bode

Here we’re using the full lens tube extension, which is the 7mm, the 14mm and the 28mm extension. Focusing is super critical when using this much lens tube extension.

Result with 7mm, 14mm and 28mm extension tubesResult with 7mm, 14mm and 28mm extension tubesResult with 7mm, 14mm and 28mm extension tubes
Result with 7mm, 14mm and 28mm extension tubes / David Bode

This exposure was 6 seconds, and we can see all kinds of really cool details.

But that just gives you an idea of what you can do with a macro extension tube. It's super easy, and relatively inexpensive; in this case, the extension tube was under $30 and the prime lens was less than $100. You can use any lens with the tubes, but the problem is that putting heavier lenses puts a lot of stress on the tube and on the lens mount, because you're adding lot of weight out in front of the camera, which is not ideal.

Lighting in Macro Photography

Lighting can be a definite problem in macro, because as you get closer to the object the camera and your body block some light from hitting it. To help compensate for this you can look at things like a ring flash or a dedicated macro flash, or set up some speed lights and set them off to the side.

Putting a speed light on top of your camera won’t work well because, it's won’t get down in front of the lens from that angle.

Macro Examples With Lights

Macro photograph of a keyMacro photograph of a keyMacro photograph of a key
Macro photograph of a key / David Bode

These examples were shot in the same position as previously demonstrated, but with two speed lights using radio triggers.

Macro photograph of a fingerMacro photograph of a fingerMacro photograph of a finger
Macro photograph of a finger / David Bode

This is a finger, and you can really see the ridges and little things in between them here. It's really incredible the amount of detail that you can get with something so simple, just a lens extension tube and camera on a tripod.

Macro photograph of an eye (left) and more detail (right)Macro photograph of an eye (left) and more detail (right)Macro photograph of an eye (left) and more detail (right)
Macro photograph of an eye (left) and more detail (right) / David Bode

In the image of the eye you can really see the detail in the iris. Some of these were taken with one flash at a 90 degree angle to the face, and that really lit up the texture of the eyeball, and some with two flashes, one on the left and one on the right.

Macro photograph of arm hair (left) and more detail (right)Macro photograph of arm hair (left) and more detail (right)Macro photograph of arm hair (left) and more detail (right)
Macro photograph of arm hair (left) and more detail (right)

Learn More About How to Use Lenses

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