How to Use Macro Lenses

By TimBrookes
A macro photograph of a blade of grass.

Macro photography is the art of capturing detail up close, but first you need the right equipment. A macro lens is a great addition to any photographic setup, and with the right information and approaches can be used to capture tiny objects in immense detail.

Light reflecting in the optics of a camera lens.

Choose the right lens for the subject. Fixed-length macro lenses come in a variety of different focal lengths. If your subject is a nervous butterfly, use a 200 mm lens as opposed to a 50 mm to keep your distance. Greater focal lengths are perfect for macro photography as out-of-focus backgrounds become increasingly soft the longer the lens.

A macro shot of a butterfly with a blurred background.

Adjust backgrounds by changing focal length and adjusting shooting distance. A 50 mm macro lens at a distance of 11 inches (28 cm) from a subject will provide the same image as a 180 mm macro at 31.5 inches (80 cm), except the perspective distortion of the longer lens will widen and further blur the background. This is an especially useful technique for showing living subjects in their natural habitats yet eliminating excessive background detail.

A basic camera tripod.

Stabilize your camera with a tripod. Macro photography often relies on precise composition and well-lit frames. A tripod will enable the exact setup of a shot and provide a safeguard when shooting in low-light situations where longer shutter speeds are required. For dedicated macro photographers, macro focusing rails move the camera closer or farther away from the subject to allow precise focusing and composition.

A flash unit for an SLR camera.

Use a flash to facilitate higher f-stop values, and a wider depth of field. Often for the level of detail desired in a macro photograph an aperture value of f/11-f/16 is required. With a flash gun utilizing through the lens metering it is possible to light a shot perfectly. It is often recommended to use a flash bracket or to mount the flash off the camera for correct lighting angles.

Use extenders and extension tubes to get the most out of your macro lens. A tele-extender contains optics that increase the focal length of a lens at the expense of light. A 200 mm lens at f/4 would effectively shoot at 400 mm f/8 with a 2x tele-extender. Extension tubes add distance between the lens and the camera, enabling the camera to focus at a closer distance than is otherwise possible. It is not possible to focus to infinity when using an extension tube.

Tip

If you're considering a macro lens but are on a budget, try adding an extension tube to a normal 50 mm prime lens and experimenting. As extension tubes contain no glass optics, they are a cost-effective tool for getting extra life from existing equipment.

Warning

Avoid zoom macro lenses as they are not as precise as fixed length twin element macro lenses and are known for considerably less sharp results.