How To Focus In Macro Photography

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You’re enjoying photography and have worked with your camera enough to be fairly proficient. The time has come to add a new lens to your gear bag.

For this guide, we’re assuming you’ve decided on a macro lens. It’s a great choice because of the incredible diversity of the natural world surrounding us, and they’re also capable of functioning as a nice portrait lens and valuable piece of studio gear. 

However, working with a macro lens involves some challenges and the information below will help get you on your way to capturing the stunning types of images associated with macro photography. I’m going to avoid overly technical discussions and will instead strive to explain things plainly in order to help you overcome these problems quickly so you can get back to shooting.

The biggest key to your success though will be as it is with everything – practice, practice, practice.

Focusing Problems Unique to Macro Lenses

As you begin to shoot you’re likely going to become frustrated because the images are blurry or with only small areas appearing sharply in focus. The depth of field while working with macro photography is extremely thin because you’re working with such a tight subject area.

Closing the aperture down to f11 will begin to increase the depth of focus by restricting the incoming light. You may find you need to close it several steps further to achieve the larger area of focus desired, but this is where I usually start when shooting with a macro lens.

This helps create a larger depth of field, but don’t forget, you’ll need to counteract aperture adjustments by reducing shutter speed and/or increasing the ISO settings. 

I typically like to shoot with higher shutter speeds since my macro subjects are often quick on their feet and also frequently capable of flight. Therefore, I don’t like to sacrifice my shutter speed and instead will increase the ISO settings until the desired balance of shutter speed, depth of field and image brightness is achieved.   

Depending on which macro lens you’ve chosen, the minimum focusing distance will vary. A larger lens, say 105mm, will need to be about a foot away from the subject before being able to focus, whereas a lens with a shorter focal length like a 60mm could be as close as eight inches.

Sometimes you may not want to be intimately close with what you’re shooting. A flower? Sure, no problems there. But how about something like a large, multi-eyed and hairy spider? In that type of situation, a lens allowing you to step back a bit while maintaining performance is more desirable.

A bit of distance also helps keep tiny living subjects from getting spooked. You’ll soon notice you and your camera are being seen as a giant black eye by insects and animals. While many are surprisingly tolerant, those who don’t like it will simply leave. It’s best to be respectful. Watch your subject’s behavior and you’ll soon be able to predict where you’ll want to be for the shot.

Autofocus

A modern DSLR will offer a variety of ways to control focusing and they’re usually spot-on and can even be intuitive. However, another challenge presented by macro photography is focusing. Working so closely with your subject can cause the focusing system to “hunt”, meaning you’ll notice the focal point indicator rapidly jumping from place to place. 

This problem is further aggravated by the slight movements of the photographer. What I typically do is manually select a single focal point, where I anticipate my subject to go if it’s moving, and then steady myself for a quick, but steady shot when they get there.

Doing this eliminates the hunting and allows the camera’s autofocus to perform normally.

Manual Focus

Many photographers opt to manually focus while working with a macro lens because of the above-mentioned auto-focusing issues. Some recommend keeping the focusing at a certain point and then moving the camera back and forth ever so slightly until a clear image is achieved. This is to eliminate hand movements created by moving the focusing ring back and forth.

This is a good method, but I tend to do it the opposite way when focusing manually and instead do my best to keep the camera steady while working gently working the focusing ring. If shooting animals or insects you’ll want to focus on their eyes. 

Shooting macro handheld is challenging regardless of how you decide to focus and I will often go back and forth between manual and auto modes depending on what’s working for any particular subject.

Having your camera as dialed in as possible beforehand goes a long way towards getting the shot. Additionally, if your lens comes equipped with an anti-vibration system you’ll want to be sure to have it turned on to help eliminate any slight movements you create when hitting the shutter. 

Tripods and Focusing Rails

When working with quickly moving insects, a tripod isn’t really practical. However, with a subject that’s stationary, such as a flower or a studio subject, a tripod can be worth the time it takes to set-up because it will eliminate problems associated with photographer movements. 

You can find a variety of tripods available for surprisingly little cost, but you’ll soon be reminded of the saying “You get what you pay for,”. These types of tripods may seem great at first and they can get you out of a jam if you really need one right away and are on a tight budget, but they’re usually made with thin plastic and metal components.

While you can also go the other direction when shopping for tripods, spending thousands of dollars, you’ll find it best to at least step up a little bit to a higher rated and sturdier unit. After all, you’ve likely invested a significant amount of money in your camera equipment, it doesn’t make sense to risk it all by securing it to a tripod with legs that can fold or break with only a small amount of pressure applied in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Using a tripod will allow for longer shutter speeds if needed, help with the composition of the photo (especially if it requires an awkward position), and let you get your focusing pre-adjusted to where you need it. It’s also essential if you like working with focus stacking and will be combining multiple images.   

Focusing rails are another helpful tool if working with a tripod and image stacking. A focusing rail is a device attached to the top of the tripod. It allows for incremental compositional adjustment of the camera, moving forward and back, and side to side.

This focusing rail on Amazon is a great affordable option that gives you four direction movement and very precise control.

With a focusing rail your overall composition remains the same while you take shot after shot of the same image, but with different focal points which are later combined in post-production.

Flash and Macro Photography

Working with the small apertures required for macro photography means lighting can become an issue, especially when coupled with the fast shutter speed needed for moving insects. Using a flash can be an effective way to counter this problem.

I usually haven’t needed to use one for my macro work, but when I do I’ve never needed a full power flash. My best results have come from using its lowest power setting. This will help eliminate glare and harsh reflections from the flash and the diffusers available with my speedlight are also useful to this end and can help provide a softer and more natural-looking light. 

When using your on-camera flash, or an aftermarket speedlight, your shutter speed will likely be limited to 1/250th of a second in order to be properly synced. While you can use a light meter to adjust your flash and camera settings, a bit of trial and error can achieve the same results.   

Macro Lenses and Portrait Photography

They may be designed for catching highly detailed images of small things, but macro lenses also work well for portrait photography, especially headshots.

Macro lenses can capture sharply detailed portraits while additionally allowing the photographer to maintain a respectful working distance from their model. The focal lengths associated with macro lenses are also in the range of what’s usually considered the most desirable for portraits.

While using some lenses for portraits, such as a zoom or a wide-angle, distortion can be a concern, but this is a less likely issue with a macro lens.

Conclusion

Macro lenses have a specialized appeal and are an enjoyable piece of gear to have in your camera bag once you get used to them.

Hopefully, this article will help you with some common, but simple challenges associated with macros, as well as provide a simple guide to some useful accessories. Shooting with your macro lens, or any lens really, as often as possible will assist you in being able to anticipate these challenges and overcome them.

I’m often asked how I’ve gotten certain shots and I like to answer “I had my camera with me,”. Frequently using your camera, and your macro lens is without a doubt the best way to become a better photographer. It’s also a lot of fun, and isn’t that what made you love photography in the first place?

Photography Goals

Photography Goals

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