How to Photograph Small Things

The world of macro photography[1] is a fun one to explore. You can use your camera to see levels of detail that the human eye rarely (or never) does, whether that's shooting super-close-ups of insects, or photographing the intricate detail inside a flower, or maybe just photographing a piece of jewelery.


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    Get the right lens for your camera. If you're shooting a digital SLR and you've got the money, go and buy a dedicated macro (1:1) lens for your camera and forget about the rest of this. If you don't, there are other, cheaper options which give pretty reasonable results if you're not looking too hard. Several options exist to shift the lens further from the film plane (which means that you can focus to much closer distances, letting you get closer to your subject than you would otherwise).

    All of these cheapskate methods are imperfect; they effectively increase your focal length (which means less light hitting your film or sensor for the same aperture setting on the lens, meaning longer shutter speeds, making it harder to freeze motion and making camera shake a problem). They usually require your lens to be operated fully manually (an old, cheap, manual-focus lens with a manual aperture, such as many M42 lenses, are just about ideal for this). It means operating your lens far outside of the conditions for which it was designed, which will usually mean some optical degradation. You also won't be able to focus to infinity with any of these combinations. Nevertheless, it will result in infinitely better photos than you'll get with a lens you don't own.

    (If you're using a compact (point-and-shoot) camera, you can happily ignore all of this; the very short focal lengths and generous depth-of-field of such cameras make them ideal for close-up work, right out of the box.)

    • A bellows is more useful than any of the improvised methods for moving the lens further forward because it allows you much more precise control over how far you're shifting your lens forward. It also, typically, costs more money. Almost any bellows will be usable on almost any SLR, regardless of lens mount (just use a cheap, glassless adapter), so go for whatever is cheapest.
      • Some big cameras have built-in bellows.
    • An old teleconverter with the optical components removed works fine as a ghetto extension tube.
      Extension tubes are a very cheap, though less flexible, way of doing this. You don't even need proper extension tubes to do this; you can, for example, rip the optics out of a bunch of cheap teleconverters and stack these as needed.[2] Alternatively, you can roll your own extension tubes if you're really cheap.
    • A reversal ring might be sillier than the other methods -- it means working your lens backwards, which may have weird results.
    • One or more of a set of "close-up lenses" can screw in to the filter thread. These are convenient but optically poor (get a cheap used set, which probably won't be any worse than a new set), even compared to lens extensions. If you're stacking them, put the most powerful (biggest number) one on first.
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    Get a tripod if you're shooting things that don't move. This will allow you to use slower shutter speeds, and consequently, lower ISOs (for less noise) and smaller apertures (for more depth of field) The cheapest, plastic tripod will be fine for a compact camera.
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    Set up your camera. A few important adjustments will make for much better close-up photos. Don't sweat it if your camera doesn't have any of the settings mentioned. Check your manual (or experiment) if you don't know where to find these settings.

    • Macro mode is usually indicated by a flower symbol on the mode dial or elsewhere.
      Switch your camera to macro mode if you're using a compact camera. This is usually indicated by a flower icon on your mode dial. Don't use this mode if you're using a digital SLR; on at least some Canon digital SLRs, for example, this will be worse than useless, in that it's more-or-less equivalent to point-and-shoot noob-mode -- disallowing changing the aperture, popping the flash without asking, and so on. Instead, switch it to aperture priority (Av on Canon, A on Nikon) on such cameras (which you'll need to do if you're using any of the improvised-macro-lens methods). If you've got a dedicated macro lens designed for your camera, programmed automatic (P) works fine, too, if it allows you to shift the program.
    • Kick up the ISO as far as you dare if you're hand-holding. It was said earlier, but don't hand-hold unless you have no choice in the matter. If you have to, a higher ISO will allow you to use smaller apertures than you would otherwise (giving you more depth of field). Set it to the lowest ISO you have if you're photographing things that don't move from a tripod.
    • A built-in flash isn't usable as-is. The best solution is to use a macro ring flash (and if you're the kind of person that has one, you probably don't need to read any of this). The simplest solution is to turn off the flash. Other things you can try are one or more regular flashes off-camera, connected with cords or wirelessly, aimed at the subject from a distance to avoid overexposure from even their minimum power setting, bouncing flash off a ceiling or card, or even trying to bounce the built-in flash off a card down toward the subject.
    • This photo illustrates the extremely shallow depth of field in the macro world.
      Set a small aperture on your camera (or lens). Depth-of-field is very shallow, often a few millimeters or less, as you get very close to things. More than likely, you'll want to use the smallest aperture you have; defocus is a much greater worry than the diffraction effects caused by very small apertures (and can be harder to compensate in software). It'll also eliminate any corner dullness, spherical aberration, light fall-off, and some chromatic aberrations that come from shooting most lenses at their widest aperture. Try to arrange your subject in a plane perpendicular to the lens: for instance, generally take a picture of a bug more from the side or top rather than face-on.
    • Enable your mirror lock-up and self timer, if you're shooting in controlled conditions on a tripod. Mirror lock-up will result in less vibration from your camera's mirror (if you're using a digital SLR), and the self-timer will give physics a chance to damp the camera movement caused by you pressing the shutter button. This will result in sharper pictures, particularly if using a longish exposure without a flash.
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    Set your subject on a plain background, if you're under controlled conditions.
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    Set up your camera on your tripod and get as close as you possibly can to get your subject to fill your frame.
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    Take your pictures and check for correct exposure (things not being lost in shadow, no blown highlights) on your LCD. Use exposure compensation if you have this problem (or if you're shooting fully-manual, as you may have to with some cameras when using improvised methods, adjust your shutter speeds and apertures manually until it looks right).
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    Get the pictures onto your computer and check for focus problems (if you get them, focus manually, or use an even smaller aperture). Crop your picture as tightly as possible in your favourite image editor. Show your pictures off to the world!


  • Some compact cameras might hunt for focus and never find it (or find it on something that isn't your subject). You can get around this by placing a larger object with details on which the camera can focus, such as a business card, at the same distance as your subject, focusing on that, then locking the focus there.

Things You'll Need

  • A camera, film or digital. Any of them will do fine.
  • A plain background of some kind if you're shooting under controlled conditions.
  • Other equipment is detailed in the steps above.

Sources and Citations

  1. More properly, this should be called "close up" rather than "macro"; the definition of "macro" is that the "image projected on the "film plane" [...] is close to the same size as the subject", which it isn't on small-sensored digital cameras.
  2. See The £30 improvised macro lens, by Lewis Collard.

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