Macro Lens – An Introduction to Macro Photography

Macro photography can be loosely defined as close-up photography. It involves using a macro lens for superior focusing in specfic situations. Given the inability of most camera lenses to focus on very close subjects, this is a challenge in itself.

Add the desire to photograph very small subjects that are low to the ground, so that they fill the frame, and you are about as far from the “point and shoot’ concept as you can get. You can’t do this kind of photography with your iPhone!


The ability to do good macro photography requires that you deal with four major issues: focus, lighting, stability, and composition.

Close focusing demands that you modify the state of the optics that control the usual kinds of photography, so that you can focus on subjects that are as close to the camera as a quarter-inch.

Lighting must be closely controlled, so as to avoid hot highlights and black shadows.

When working with the very narrow depths-of-field that result from close focus and high magnification, you must ensure that there is no mechanical movement of your camera system. Hand-holding is not an option here!

Composition must be carefully arranged, as in most types of photography, to produce eye-catching images.

macro lens photography
Copyright © Mike Goldstein

This image of a monarch butterfly brings all the secrets of macro photography together.

The monarch and the flower, form a wonderful diagonal that stretches right across the frame, placing the butterfly at the “intersection of thirds” … two favorite compositional ploys enabled at the same time.

The tall flower was located well away from any background, allowing the background to be completely muted out, by using a very narrow depth- of- field. No distracting elements here!

The lighting on the insect and flower was very soft, as the day was “cloudy bright” … no time for diffusers with these fast-moving monarchs!

Finally, the entire butterfly is in sharp focus, as the plane of the bug exactly matched the plane of the front element of the lens.


… and I must confess, this was a “grab shot”, when I had no intentions whatsoever of doing macro photography. I was working on an autumn scenic in Vermont, using my 300mm telephoto on the tripod, with a “trigger type” ball head. When I looked around after making my shot, I found a horde of butterflies on the nearby flower patch. I frantically swung the camera and shot for five minutes before the butterflies went elsewhere. This was the only good shot and it has done very well in competition.

Sometimes, God really does smile on we hard-working photographers!

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

This wonderful fungus is one of the larger subjects to be found on the forest floor in North America and Eurasia, generally in early autumn.

A very small aperture results in a relatively wide depth-of-field, producing an image where all of the fungus is in focus.

Note the even lighting. This image was made on a very cloudy day, which produced no shadows at all. Under these lighting conditions, bright colors seem to “jump” off the film.


Most camera lenses will not focus closer than a foot or so (or more!) from the subject. If you want to fill the frame with the delicate bells of a lily-of-the-valley or the tiny blossoms of hepatica, this will not cut it. The “macro” option, offered by many lenses, is also seldom up to the mark.

The cheapest and simplest way to achieve close focus is to screw a close-up filter (sometimes known as an “Achromatic Macro Lens”) to the front of an existing lens. The degree of magnification is measured in “diopters”. This will allow close focus, but with questionable quality of the resulting image.

To obtain close focus with high magnification and good quality, it is necessary to extend the lens away from the camera body. This is most easily accomplished by removing the glass from a cheap tele-extender and mounting it between your lens and the camera body. A 135mm short telephoto lens makes a dandy macro lens using this technique. Sets of commercial “extension tubes”, providing a variety of extension, are available for many camera systems.

Proper macro lenses have this extension built in. With a very wide range of adjustable focus and very small apertures, they provide their best quality at very close focus distances. A 200mm macro lens will allow comfortable working distances with excellent macro capability.

Buying a macro lens with an auto-focus capability is usually a waste of money. Close focus results in very narrow depth-of-focus. Only the photographer knows where he wishes the point of focus to be and ‘manual focus’ is the name of the game.

Here is a web page that describes a variety of these lenses…

Inexpensive Extension Tube

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

Note the presence of the “cheap extension tube”, a tele-extender with the glass removed, between the telephoto lens and the camera body.

This has the effect of moving the lens away from the camera body, greatly increasing both its close-focus capability and its magnification.

Macro Lens

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

Pictured is a Tamron SP macro lens, of 90mm focal length. At the rear, you can see the adaptor which allows the lens to be used with a variety of brands of camera bodies.

This lens allows an aperture of f32, a very small aperture that provides a relatively wide depth-of-field when necessary. It has an amazingly wide focus range adjustment.

I often use this lens in conjunction with a Tamron X2 tele-extender, matched to the lens. This gives me a minimum aperture of f64, and allows a much more comfortable working distance between camera and subject. Use of the tele-extender does not appear to compromise the quality of the resulting images.

Extension Tubes

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

Sets of commercial extension tubes, such as these, are available for most brand-name lenses. The set illustrated was made by Canon, for the FD-series of lenses.

Note the various amounts of extension (in mm), as represented by the three sections. Using these sections alone or ‘in series’, one can have available a wide variety of magnification factors.

These extension tubes, which contain no glass, are used simply to move the lens away from the camera body, thus increasing both magnification and the ability to close-focus.

Macro Photographer

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

Here’s a dedicated macro photographer at work, doing all the right things!

She has a large diffuser that is masking her subject from the bright sunlight. The camera is mounted on a sturdy tripod, and her shutter release cable is ready at hand.

She’s kneeling on the forest floor, using a plastic pad of some sort to protect her clothes from damp and dirt.


Macro subjects, such as small flowers, are best photographed under natural light, when God’s diffuser is overhead. Point sources of hard light, such as the sun, or a local flash, throw nasty dark shadows.

Cloudy days are best. If you want to shoot under sunshine, use a neutral diffuser to cast a shadow on both your subject and the background. Note that using a colored reflector to throw a shadow might cause a color shift in your image.

You can use a small reflector to bounce light (use the color of your choice) back into shadow areas of your composition.

Homemade diffusers and reflectors work very well. Commercial products can be obtained from Photoflex and other manufacturers.

Remember that white light passing through a colored filter takes on the color of the filter. If you’re shooting white trillium under natural light on the forest floor in spring, don’t be surprised if you end up with green trillium petals!

You should also keep in mind that if shooting film, subjects colored purple, blue, magenta, or pink will look very different when shot with direct sunlight and in shade.

When shooting flowers in the woods, stop down your lens and check for hot-spots in your background. It’s amazing how reflective dead leaves and twigs can be in your composition–like little land mines.

Finally, if your eye is not against the viewfinder when releasing your shutter, remember to block light from the viewfinder, to avoid erroneous exposures.

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

This macro photograph of a ladyslipper flower illustrates the necessity for even lighting.

Note the hotspots on the white petals, the most reflective part of the flower. These petals are actually over-exposed. Use of a diffuser, held between the light source and the flower and its background, would have resulted in a much more pleasing image. 

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

This image of showy pink ladyslipper was made just last spring and shows I’ve learned a thing or two since first starting to shoot them.

The hard sunlight was softened by using a diffuser and I managed to cover enough of the background to avoid hot-spots. Since it was impossible to soften the background with focus, I decided instead to keep it all as sharply focused as possible, with a very small aperture.

The composition is based on a diagonal, more or less, and I was careful not to crop petal parts out of the frame.


To do good macro photography, you must avoid any mechanical wiggle, shake, vibration, or “creep” in your camera support system.

Your tripod must be heavy enough to support your camera system without collapsing. You must be able to shorten its legs and lower the tripod head, so as to get down to where your subject lives. Cutting off your tripod’s center post is a common compromise.

Inverting your center post, so that the camera is below the top of the tripod and inside the legs, is not a very convenient way to photograph. It’s better to clamp a tripod head to the bottom of one tripod leg and work from there.

Often, using a right-angle viewer, available for many camera bodies, will save you a bruised chin and expensive dental repair. Use of this viewer is the reverse of the submarine periscope idea. Here’s the web site of one supplier…

Using a quick-release will save the trouble of screwing the camera on and off the tripod. However, the quick-release must not compromise the rigidity of your system.

The only type of tripod head to use for macro photography is the “pan” head, with its three lever adjustments of position and attitude. Ballheads simply don’t give you the flexibility for the very minute changes of position necessary for macro work.

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

One strong requirement for a tripod used in macro photography is that it gets you down to where your subject lives.

In this case, I’ve placed “Shirley” (a left-over from the portraiture section of a New York Institute of Photography course I took) on the ground, to serve as a subject. She’s somewhat larger than the usual hepatica I chase in the spring, but illustrates the point.

The tripod is my Slik carbon-fiber unit, the one that goes in my bag on the plane when I’m travelling. Mea culpa, I’m using a ball-head in this case, as it’s light enough not to compromise the advantages of the carbon-fiber tripod. Well, I never intended this system to be my el primo macro setup!

It does go quite low, however, and will support an amazing amount of weight, with good stability, even at full extension.

Pssst! Can you see what’s missing? I forgot to include the shutter-release cable in the setup, before making this photograph!

Adjustable Tripod Head

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

The use of a horizontal position extender, such as this Soligor unit, allows the camera to be precisely positioned in the horizontal plane, for the best possible composition.

The alternative to using such a device is to physically move the entire tripod back and forth, a very clumsy option when twigs, sticks, or rocks are littering the ground.

Note that this extender has been outfitted with Bogen quick-release units, so that it can be quickly mounted to the tripod when needed.

A “variable position extender” is a very useful addition to the tripod system–for precise horizontal adjustment of the camera position relative to the subject.

Don’t forget the mandatory use of the shutter release cable, that allows you to release your shutter without touching the camera system. While you can use the camera’s self-timer, you are giving up, to the camera, the control of the moment when the shutter is released. When shooting under breezy conditions or when shooting live subjects, this isn’t practical.

Before going out to photograph, install the camera, lens, and horizontal position extender on your tripod head. Position it carefully, for a vertical composition, and check your alignment horizontally. Now, go get yourself a cup of coffee.

Come back in ten minutes, and check your alignment for any mechanical “creep” in your system, resulting in a shift of your horizon. Any variation from your original position indicates that interfaces need tightening or your rigidity needs to be improved.


Macro composition is more about “what’s not there” in the final image. In a word, keep it simple and clean.

Before shooting, stop down your lens to see what is in focus. Look carefully at your background, cleaning out intrusive elements such as sticks, dead leaves, and discarded bottle tops.

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

This image was made in the spring, on one of my annual forays to a local garden, chasing wildflowers that prosper there.

The flowers were photographed on slide film in shade, as the film would have introduced a magenta color cast had I shot them in sunlight. This is their true color.

The background was very much in shade and has gone very dark indeed–not a bad thing in this case. Only a couple of small spots escaped the attentions of my diffuser and they should be eliminated.

Incidentally, I remember doing some extensive “clean-up” of the background, eliminating lots of bright dead leaves, and some twigs, and checking for hot-spots through the lens before making the image.

The flowers themselves form a nice diagonal, a composition I try to use quite often when doing flower photography.

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

This image was very difficult to make. I wanted all the petals to be in focus, but if I had shot from the side, that would have been impossible. Only a shot looking down on the flower would enable me to put the petals on the same plane, more or less, as the front element of my lens.

So, picture this: I’m standing on a step-ladder, with my tripod, and somehow managing to achieve some sort of stability, while I look down on the flower. Luckily, the petals are quite bright, and stand out nicely from the muted green background. The clouds overhead provide the soft lighting I need, as it’s not possible to manipulate a diffuser under these conditions!

We really work at some of these images!

Your background, ideally, should be a de-focused blur. This is easily achieved if you can raise your subject, so that the background is at least three feet away. Use minimal aperture settings to ensure a blurred background.

Copyright © Mike Goldstein

This image of a swamp milkweed shows the effect of trying to soften the background with a narrow depth-of- focus. Were the background closer to the plant, it would have been nigh impossible, as the plant itself is very “deep”, needing lots of depth-of-focus to keep it all sharp.

In this case, it was not possible to keep all the leaves from cropping out, or the plant itself would have been too small in the frame, so I tried to crop leaves evenly around the composition, as much as I could.

Shooting in direct light here would have been a disaster, as all the white parts of the plant would have over-exposed considerably and any hard shadows would have been very distracting.

… and now, go ye forth, and magnify

by Mike Goldstein

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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