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  • Writer's pictureJanice Gill

Macro Photography made Easy.



Single bell flower on a bluebell staem with a blurred green background.
Single Bluebell Flower by Janice Gill.

Macro photography is one of the most varied and intriguing branches of photography.

It tests observational and technical skills, patience, balance and artistry.


Getting started can be a steep learning curve and overwhelming. Many photographers get started and then quickly give up.


It can be demoralising for beginners to find how few shots work. However, there are a couple of tricks to help get your hit rate up, which I wish I'd known when I first started.


Lens Choice


True macro shots are those where the object you are shooting is recorded on the sensor at life-size (1:1). The bluebell flower above fits into this category. However, many images are referred to as macro photography, where the subject is somewhat smaller on the sensor. In fact, some manufacturers label their lenses as macro even at a 3:1 ratio.



Cardinal beetle peeping over the top of a grass seed head
Cardinal beetle on a grass seedhead by Janice Gill. Shot with a zoom lens and cropped to size.


For beginners, I don't recommend going out and buying a macro lens. A zoom lens will produce an image you can crop down, as today's sensors have more than enough pixels to allow a substantial crop. Using a zoom lens also has the advantage that you won't disturb a flighty subject or inadvertently block the light source.


Balancing speed, aperture and ISO.


There is never a more important time to watch this trio of interconnected settings.

Most of the time, my camera remains in Aperture Priority, one of the semi-automatic settings on cameras. If I'm shooting flowers, moss or other stationary objects, I'll leave that setting alone, choosing the aperture for the depth of field I want. My ISO will be set to 200 unless that means the exposure time is ridiculously long.


White butterfly on chive flower with several flowers in the background. An out of focus bumble bee can also be seen.
Wood white butterfly on a chive flower by Janice Gill. This required a deeper DOF than usual as the butterfly was not in the vertical plane.

I recommend you begin with aperture priority (usually denoted by an A on the mode dial) as long as your subject remains still. If your subject is not very deep, you can open the aperture wide (smaller numbers e.g. f1.8), allowing a fast shutter speed. If you need more of the subject in focus, you will need to close the aperture (larger numbers e.g. f16), which will reduce your shutter speed. If this gets too low, your shots may be blurry,

and you'll need to increase the ISO.


At first, this may seem clumsy, but with practice, you'll soon get the hang of it. Then you can move on to subjects that move.


For insects, spiders and other small creatures that are continuously moving around, I like to use Shutter Priority (marked with an S on the mode dial). I keep the ISO down at 200 whenever possible, but I'll be ready to ramp it up if the lighting conditions aren't perfect. I keep an eye on the aperture the camera then sets to make sure it's appropriate. As with shooting stationary objects, I recommend you follow suit.



Hoverfly covered in pollen at a hazel catkin.
Hoverfly on Hazel Catkin by Janice Gill. These insects move rapidly and are easily disturbed so a shutter speed of 1/500 was used.


How to get sharp focus.


Cameras are getting better and better at focusing automatically, and much of the time, can be relied upon for a decent shot. When the subject is larger than the depth of field, some cameras will be hunting for focus. To get the focus where you want it, use autofocus for a close approximation, then switch to manual. Don't move the focus ring, but rock back and forwards a tiny amount until you find the position of best focus. This becomes surprisingly easy after a little practice.


Supplement the Light


Macro photography isn't easy at the best of times, with a much lower hit rate than most genres. It's harder when nature isn't playing ball, and the skies remain heavily overcast. Sometimes all you need is a small reflector - a piece of white card can help. At other times you may not be able to get a shot without upping the ISO too much. You'll then need to introduce some light.


Thinking creatively when you need to add light can make all the difference. Options include a constant light source, flash, torchlight and more. I've been known to use a phone torch that bounced off a reflector, but I have a ring light that I can fit on the camera or use handheld, which mimics daylight at various temperatures.



Bumble bee with proboscis out flies towards a yellow flag iris
Bumble at the ready by Janice Gill. A grab shot that required a rapid response. Sometimes you just get lucky.


Moving Forward


If you enjoy the challenge of macro photography once you've given it a go, then is the time to invest in a specialist lens. The most important factor is the speed - get the fastest you can afford.


If you have any questions along the way, feel free to ask.


Happy Shooting!

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4 Comments


Janice Gill
Janice Gill
Jul 18, 2023

My first digital SLR was a Sony A350 and I loved using it.

I'll be writing about photography on a regular basis, so feel free to keep checking back.

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kebba
Jul 16, 2023

Janice, thanks for all this guidance! I have been taking all my images with my iPhone 13 ProMax, and I am surprised at how wonderful most of the images are. But I am looking at getting a "real" camera, and I appreciate all discussion of the features and how best to use them.

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Janice Gill
Janice Gill
Jul 18, 2023
Replying to

I 'm hoping to get a phone with a decent camera on it - there are so many instances when phone shots are OK and large cameras are not allowed.

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Laura Oneill
Laura Oneill
Jul 16, 2023

A great informational article for those of us who enjoy photography. Much of what I have done the past few years has been on my cell phone. However, I am now 'playing' with the Sony mirrorless camera at work as I am a back up photographer. Macro would be one of my preferences, but most of the work means group shots.

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