Getting Tack Sharp Photos With Macro Photography

Macro photography classically means that the image you take is close to the same size as the subject when it is projected onto the camera’s sensor.

As a result the DOF (depth of field) is going to be very shallow, which means that getting “tack sharp” images will require a little more work in order to capture enough depth of field so that all of your subject is in focus. We Will Look at macro focusing in this article

Macro photography
Brad Sharp POND LILY Tamron 180mm macro f3.5 IF 1:1 lens f/10 @ 1/80sec. ISO 100 hand held


In my humble opinion, one of the biggest flaws in many macro shots is that the entire subject is not fully in focus.

Selective focusing (where only one part of the subject is in focus) has its place, but when I see this technique used in macro focus photography it more often than not tells me that the photographer didn’t have the tools or the knowledge needed in order to properly capture all of the small, intricate details.

For instance, while all interpretation of photography and art are subjective, I personally would much rather see an entire insect clearly, as opposed to just seeing the eye of an insect in focus.

In order to get macro subjects in “tack sharp” focus a complete depth of field is very important. The way to do that is to use a small aperture (f/22 or f/32). Earlier I wrote that you get the sharpest images using f/stops more towards the middle range (f/5.6 or f/8), but when shooting macros, you have to use the smaller apertures because the DOF is so small to begin with.

In some cases you may not be able to get the entire subject in focus even when using the smallest aperture opening. When that happens, I try shooting from different angles in order to get as much in focus as possible.

Live View

As mentioned in the focusing portion of these articles (Part III), contrast detection autofocus is the most accurate way to focus, and the Live View mode on newer DSLR cameras use Contrast Detection for focusing. It only makes sense then that if you want to be very precise in your focus, such as with macro photography, live view focusing would be a wise choice.

I have Live View on my Canon 5D Mark II and I love that when I am shooting macros I can put it in Live View, then magnify the image on the LCD viewer, manually focus until I get it exact and then take the shot with a remote shutter release.

Touching the camera after acquiring focus may move the camera slightly, but if you have the camera securely tightened to a solid tripod, and you are very careful when you hit the Live View release button, the camera shouldn’t move out of focus. You can then take the shot using a remote shutter release.

Macro focusing . Goatsbeard with black background by Brad Sharp.
Brad Sharp GOATSBEARD 1/60 sec. @ f/22 ISO 100 Lens: EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM + tube – tripod For this image I wanted the largest depth of field possible so I used f/22 (f/32 was the max). Since there were so many points that the autofocus could focus on I use manual focus, combined with Live View – magnified so that I could fine-tune the focus.

Macro Lenses (called Micro by Nikon)

They are designed to focus very close to the subject and allow you to fill the frame with the smallest of objects

Note: Macro lens means being able to focus on a subject close enough so that when a regular 4×6 inch print is made, the image is life-size or larger.

Selecting a Macro Lens

Long macros in the range of 150mm to 200mm work well in most situations for four reasons.

1. It is much easier to isolate a subject against an out-of-focus background (this is a good thing).

2. You can stay further away from your subject with the longer focal lengths–useful when photographing butterflies or spiders in a dew-laden web.

3. Some macro lenses are able to focus so close the object actually touches the lens. This makes it impossible to get any additional lighting on the subject.

4. All long macros come with a tripod collar which makes it very easy to support on a tripod.

Shorter macros (50 – 100) lenses have their advantages too.

1. If you are shooting very small subjects which move, using a shorter macro makes it easier to keep the subject in the frame.

2. Shorter macros are easier to align and hold steady, so you may be able to shoot without a tripod. 3. Shorter macros are much less expensive.

Extension Tubes

Extension tubes are the poor man’s alternative to a Macro lens. An extension tube is a hollow tube that fits between your camera body and the lens. They have no glass, therefore they do not affect the image quality and there isn’t any reduction in optical quality. An extension tube is designed to increase the size of the subject on the sensor, rather than zooming in to make the subject larger.

Macro photo of Eight-spotted Skimmer on pipe with blue sky by Brad Sharp.
Brad Sharp EIGHT-SPOTTED SKIMMER Canon EF70-200mm f.2.8 L IS lens with 20mm & 36mm Extension tubes – f/5.0 @ 1/200 sec. – tripod

In general, the longer the lens, the greater the minimum focal distance. (Refer the DOF calculator website). Adding an extension tube will greatly reduce the minimum focal distance (which means you will have to get much closer to the subject), they will also reduce the DOF distance to a very, very small DOF, and they will not be able to focus to infinity.

Using an extension tube on a telephoto lens allows you to use the zoom to get the rough focus and allows you to use the manual focus of the lens for fine tuning. Using a fixed length macro lens, with or without an extension tube, means that you have to move the camera closer, or further away, before you can even begin to focus the lens.

Tripods and shutter releases (or using the camera’s self-timer) are a must!

When using such small apertures it forces you to use long shutter speeds in order to capture enough light, especially when you are not shooting in the bright mid-day sun. So, to maintain a clean image at these camera settings, you need to control all possible camera shake.

Focusing Rails

The ability to be very precise in macro focusing is vital to capturing “tack sharp” macro images. Focusing rails allow you to mount your camera on a tripod and then move the camera along the rails with very precise control, which makes it much easier to obtain a good sharp focus.

Wind Breaks & Plamps

When shooting flowers out, or other lightweight objects, even the slightest movement will cause a blur. You will need to make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to prevent that blur. At the same time you will want to make sure that your aperture stays in the “sweet spot” (read more on the “sweet spot” in Part II), which will limit your shutter speed options.

That means you may need to put up a wind break to prevent any movement in the subject. Using a Plamp to steady the flower may also help.

Note: A Plamp is a positional flexible arm to hold macro subjects. One end clamps to your tripod, while the other end clamps to the subject.

Macro photo of yellow and red Day Lily by Brad Sharp.
Brad Sharp DAY LILY 1/10 sec. @ f/14 ISO 100 Lens: EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM – tripod


With small apertures and/or with your camera set very close to a subject, getting enough light to produce a good image can become an issue.

Ring flashes (flash tubes arranged in a circle around the front of the lens) provide even illumination with little to no shadows when shooting at close range. They can also freeze the action of moving subjects (assuming there is not too much ambient light), even without a tripod.

Another lighting option is a twin flash set. Twin lights have one light on each side of the lens. Because they provide a main light and a fill light, they not only allow you to get close to your subject, but create a greater feel of depth in the image.

Focus Stacking And Macro Focusing

Because the DOF is so shallow with macro focus photography, ‘they’ have come up with some software that will allow you to combine multiple images taken at different focus distances and combine them, similar to HDR images, in order to get an image with a greater depth of field than otherwise possible.

Some of the programs that use multiple shot DOF enhancement are CombineZ, Syncroscopy AutoMontage, TuFuse, Zerene Stacker, PhotoAcute, and Helicon Focus. I haven’t tried any of these (yet), so I am not making any recommendations, but you may want to check them out. The best part is that some of them are free, but then again, you usually get what you pay for, so be careful.

Lens Flare

Lens flare appears as yellow-orange streaks, or polygonal shapes, or visible artifacts and will produce a general haze over the image. It is caused by very bright light, usually when pointing the camera in the direction of the sun, which causes light to shine into the lens and reflect and scatter off of the internal parts of the lens.

Zoom lenses tend to produce greater lens flare than wide angle lenses. Lens flare, with its accompanying haze, will lower the overall contrast and color saturation of a photograph and eliminate your being able to capture a “tack sharp” image.

Close-up photo of a bronco rider on a bucking horse by Brad Sharp.
Brad Sharp BRONCO RIDER 1/640 sec. @ f/3.2 ISO 1250 Lens: /EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM – hand held.

I was out of position for this shot, as the horse went right which caused me to shoot in the direction of the sun. You can see the lens flare in this image, and it would have been worse if the horse continued to the right.

Some photographers purposely create lens flare as an artistic element in their photography. In these cases, the goal is not to obtain “tack sharp” images, but rather an artistic interpretation. But if you want tack sharp images, you will need to avoid lens flare. The best way to do so is to always use a lens hood, and to be aware of where the light is coming from.

Keep working on capturing those “tack sharp” images and enjoy the process.

Photos by Brad Sharp
Copyrights on Text and Photos: © 2015 Marla Meier, Apogee Photo Magazine, LLC. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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