Macro photography

Macro photography is the business of making photographs of little things.

Take a look at:

And, take a look at these strobist links:

And here are some other great online macro resources:

Some people say that macro photography and closeup photography should be distinguished and that macro photography begins at 1:1. Whatever the case, macro photography is a specialized aspect of photography that is a lot of fun and has become very popular. There are a number of ways to approach it.

One approach is to get a special "macro lens", mount it on your digital SLR, and go to it. This is extremely convenient, and such lenses are often quite sharp, even for plain old photography (and they work just fine for ordinary photogrpahy).
Since I have a Canon DSLR, I compiled a lineup of Canon macro lenses.

Another suggestion that I am playing with is using movie camera lenses (which are easy to get cheaply) as macro lenses.

Extension rings and bellows

Dedicated macro lenses are by no means the only way to do macro photography. Any lens can be used with extension tubes to allow much closer focusing, and macro lenses on the end of some extension will focus closer yet! A bellows is a versatile (but somewhat bulky and fragile) way to obtain lens extension, but is really suitable only for studio work.

All kinds of rings are available. You can get really cheap but useable rings without electrical connections. These mean you will loose electrical control of your lens, so you must have manual aperture control, and will need to do manual focusing. The first is a big issue unless you are using an old manual lens (which is a great idea if you are on a budget). Having to do manual focusing doesn't matter much anyway, most macro work is focused by moving the camera around to get focus (at least that is how I do it). If you are using a belows, it probably incorporates a focusing rail. If not, you are in the market for a focusing rail.

Decently priced rings with electrical connections are available, or you can shell out the money for the Canon EF-12 ($80) or EF-25 ($130) rings.

A number of people have done do it yourself projects on bellows:

Closeup Lenses

Also (perhaps wrongly) called diopters, these are things like filters that screw on the end of any lens and allow closer focusing. The main advantage here is that they are small and light and can be mounted in the field without opening up your camera and exposing your sensor to dust.

If you are interested, I have a whole section on closeup lenses.


Anything goes, but consider that the more optical surfaces that get involved, the more opportunity for image degradation there is. You can combine extension tubes, diopters, and teleconverters as you see fit. You can mount lenses backwards, and even put one lens backwards in front of another with the right adapter.


Manual focus with digital SLR cameras can be problematic in any case. With a manual lens and a lot of extension, things can get really hard. One answer is a live hookup to a computer that allows focus test shots to be made and evaluated real-time on a large screen. Another answer is to change the focusing screen in the camera (a signficant undertaking, but worth considering if you are serious about all this). An outfit called Katz Eye Optics markets viewscreens with a split prism and microprism, much like the good old days of film SLR cameras. All kinds of grids and special patterns are available. They have a Screen for the Canon 20D for $98.00 - and then you have to install it. Here are one man's instructions (8 pages) for the screen install process:

Focusing Rails

One rail is the manfrotto 454 "micrometric positioning plate". Reviews say it is good at 1:1 and a little beyond, but becomes too sloppy at higher magnifications. Beyond that it is frustrating. The price is right at $85, however one fellow built his own rail using some 8/32 threaded rod with a brass knob and a couple of ball-bearing drawer slides from a hardware store and said the results were far superior to the Manfrotto 454.

Velbon also has a rail for $99 that has pretty good reviews.

Novoflex makes rails in the $300 bracket, as does Kirk. The Kirk rails require an Arca type quick release plate.


This can be a big issue. In the field, you take what you get, or use a flash, and or use a reflector (such as the photoflex litedisc). In the studio, we used to use a couple of tungsten high intensity lamps along with tungsten balanced "type A" ektachrome. These days, your digital camera will do the white balance for you, but you can certainly use flash in the studio, most likely with some kind of diffuser. Some people would make you believe that ring lights are essential for macro work, but I have never used them, and some people who know what they are talking about say that the flat lighting they generate is exactly what you do NOT want.

What about the "macro" setting on my zoom lens?

Give it a try! You are probably going to find that it provides worthwhile close focus ability at one end (probably the short end) of your zoom range, but not what purists would call a true macro capability.

Depth of field

Suffice it to say this becomes a big issue when doing macro photography. Depth of field is typically a few millimeters, or perhaps less than a millimeter. This is why one mark of a true macro lens is tiny apertures such as f/32 which would not be found on an ordinary lens.

One option in this bold new world of digital photography is image stacking to gain depth of field. There are a number of software packages dedicated to doing this. One photographer I know uses Zerene.

Feedback? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's Digital Photography Info /