The art of photography consists of many sub-specialities which all require different kinds of camera equipment and accessories.

In between sweeping landscapes and portraits, there is a lot more to photography and this can include documentary street shoots to close up photography of insects.

In this article, we’ll look at the fascinating discipline and photography equipment required to take a close up photo which is called macro photography.

Macro photography, which requires a creative eye for detail, patience and technical know-how is a specialised genre of photography and fine art.

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Typical Macro Photography Subject Matter

Most forms of nature are well suited to close up photography.

Have you ever seen a close up photo of an insect, flower or plant?

If you have, there’s a chance that the extraordinary detail achieved by macro photography lenses provided such an unusual perspective that you did not even recognise it.

Achieving such compelling subject matter where tiny life forms, or even sections of them, are blown into beautiful images, takes passion, patience and the right photography equipment.

If you have ever browsed through a copy of National Geographic, you will most certainly have seen that many of its photography competition winners are masters of the close up photo.

The reason these images are so mesmerising is that it is seldom, if ever, that we see those subjects from that perspective, let alone showcased at centre stage.

Achieving this kind of quality is dependent on many photography skills, one of them is knowing how to work with white balance to nail exceptional colour.

In terms of composition, macro photography is usually characterised by the subject taking up the whole frame. This can make the viewer feel like they are not looking at a tiny insect but something much larger!

How does this work?

macro butterfly
Macro photography is all about making small critters like this one appear lifesize. Unsplash

As the concept of close up photography suggests, it is all about magnification.

Imagine how an object appears when seen through a magnifying glass and you’ll get a good idea of how the magic of close up photography works.

Achieving this means that some technical skill is required. Firstly, the subject should fill the entire frame, which means that it should be similar in size to your camera sensor. For instance, a close up photo of a one-inch insect would usually be shot by a camera with a one-inch sensor.

Even if all that sounds fascinating, how do you go about getting into macro photography as a beginner?

How to Get Started with Macro Photography

Macro photography is a lot more difficult than it first appears which means that there is the potential to get disheartened. Remember that you may be dealing with tiny living objects that could fly away or scatter out of sight at any moment. As such, you will need to know how to approach live subjects so that you do not spook them!

What’s the secret? Is it the photography equipment?

Working Distance

Of course, photography equipment has a lot to do with it, but the concept of working distance, which means the space between you and your subject is vital. More specifically, it refers to the distance between the lens of the camera and the subject.

Your first step to taking an awesome close up photo is understanding your optimum working distance. Being too close to your subject will either spook it or cast a shadow while being too far away means that you will not fill the frame.

Macro photography experts believe that an optimal working distance is around six inches which gives you the opportunity to take your shot within the correct lighting range and with the subject fully in your frame.

Of course, achieving a good working distance is also greatly dependent on macro photography lenses.

Some macro photography lenses will allow you to get closer to your subject without your need to move towards it. Ideally, you would want the kind of lens that allows for a long working distance and allows you to be flexible in your approach. This kind of photography equipment is not inexpensive.

macro mushroom
To get the perfect shots, you need to figure out the right working distance. Unsplash

The Right Camera

Let’s take a deeper look at photography equipment and how this impacts close up photography.

Using the right camera will make your macro photography endeavours much easier.

It is advisable to invest in either a DSLR or mirrorless camera, both of which have their own pros and cons regarding viewfinders, lag time and focus systems, however, either type should be fine.

Either way, aim to have an electronic viewfinder that will help you to easily see what is going on and lead to a better end result. Ultimately though, in terms of your photography equipment, your camera body is almost secondary to the type of macro photography lenses out there that could help you.

What Are Macro Photography Lenses?

The first thing to know about macro lenses is that you don’t need one to take close up photos.

That said, a dedicated lens, if you are able to make the investment, is certainly worth it.

So what exactly is a macro lens?

Simply put, a macro lens provides a 1:1 ratio with it and the sensor.

In other words, the lens will allow you to make small things appear to be life-size because they will take up the whole sensor and frame.

The main difference between an average camera lens and a specialised macro lens is that most ordinary lenses cannot focus on subjects that are closer than just a few feet from them. A macro lens, however, will allow you to focus on subjects that are extremely close to you, around 6-12 inches away.

So while it is not impossible to use an ordinary camera lens to achieve a close up photo, you might have a tricky time pulling it off and achieving focus on a subject that is that close to you.

Besides a macro lens there are other photo accessories to help you get the shot you are looking for.

macro lens
A macro lens is one way to capture unique macro images. Unsplash

Other Essential Macro Photography Equipment

If you have been around photography for a while, you may have heard of an extension tube which is a popular accessory for the macro photographer and one that is certainly worth looking into.

Extension Tube

While it sounds more like something a plumber or electrician would use, an extension tube is an excellent option for those who plan to forego the investment of a macro lens.

So if you already have a top of the range camera and don’t wish to dedicate more budget to macro photography lenses, extension tubes could be a worthwhile solution to what you need.

Why?

While most ordinary cameras need a few feet to be able to focus on their subjects, the extension tube offers a way around this.

Basically, the extension tube fits into your camera between the body and the lens which allows you to decrease the minimum focus distance of the lens.

You will often find that extension tubes come in packs of three, but it’s important to pay attention to the type of connection they have. Some allow for electronic connections and others do not.

Electronic connection tubes are usually more expensive because they allow you to access other important camera features such as aperture control and autofocus.

Tripod

Another critical piece of equipment to help you achieve an excellent close up photo is a tripod. As an essential part of most photographers’ equipment, at some point, you will need to invest in one anyway.

However, if you want to be a macro photographer, this is especially true which means that you will want to shop around for the right tripod sooner, rather than later.   

So how will your tripod help you with close up photography?

Well when the stakes are high and you are trying to take a close up photo of a butterfly that is about to fly off at any moment, camera shake is fairly inevitable. Even if the camera is heavy, feels sturdy and you are not nervous, it is very easy for the camera to move and mess up your shot.

This is when a tripod that will not only take a load off of you but allow you to focus on the composition and can lend you a helping hand.

Think about the extreme levels of concentration and sharpness required to bring the eyes of a spider into focus for instance. Achieving this, without creating blur, by simply holding a camera in one’s hands is extremely rare.

Photography equipment aside, once you have everything you need, a photography tutor like those found on the Superprof website is an excellent way to help you progress your macro skills and take your shots to another level of professionalism.

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Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.