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The art of macro photography - top tips from IGPOTY

Philip Smith
6 June 2013

The IGPOTY Macro Art photo project is open for entries until 30 June. If you're thinking of entering - or if you're interested in macro photography - IGPOTY director Philip Smith offers some top tips.

Over the last twenty years the development of macro lenses has opened up a whole world of photo opportunities for those of us interested in the fine details of life – the tiny, the unexpected, the easily overlooked.

This is a photo of a Dutch Iris (Iridaceae hollandica Apollo) taken with a 185mm macro lens. The macro shot reveals the delicate pattern of veining on the petal. The background is a dark shrub - blurred to a subtle tone by the lens's high magnification. 

Iris macro shot

Dutch Iris (Iridaceae hollandica Apollo) taken with a 185mm macro lens (Photo: Philip Smith)

Macro lenses can be very expensive. Do I need one to do close-ups?

Well, yes and no. You can do close-ups with a non-macro lens. But they will not be as close up as the close-up you get with a macro lens. A macro lens enables you to have subjects the same size on the sensor as they are in real life. So if you are photographing a 5mm bit of leaf – it will be 5 mm as the sensor sees it. A non-macro lens can’t do that kind of thing. And some macro lenses will do more than a 1 to 1 ratio – they will do 1 to 4 or 1 to 8 even. So yes, tiny things can look really big in the image.

Macro lenses come in different focal lengths – 50 mm or 105 mm or 180 mm – which one should I be using?

A lot of photographers feel that a 105 mm macro lens is really useful. Indeed, it is really my ‘workhorse’ for plant portraits. The longer the focal length the greater the degree of magnification; so if you have a 180 mm or 200 mm macro lens, you can really zoom in on small details.

That sounds really good – is there a downside to the big lenses (apart from the cost)?

Well, yes. The depth of field – the amount of the picture that will be in focus – is really small and so you have to be very careful with focusing. This can be tricky, but it does mean it's easier to get a really out-of-focus background – very useful if you are looking for a good separation between the plant and its background. This photo of a delphinium bud, taken with a 105 mm lens, shows how a macro lens creates a clear distinction between in-focus foreground and blurred background. It creates an image which takes us away from reality and into the world of imagination

delphinium

Delphinium bud, taken with a 105 mm lens - an image which takes us away from reality and into the world of imagination (Photo: Sarah-fiona Helme)

I’m using a small compact camera which has a macro setting – is this any good?

It’s better than nothing and enables you to get closer shots than you might otherwise do.

I’ve decided to enter the International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) Macro Art Photo project. The deadline is June 30th 2013. What do I have to remember?

  • Remember that detail is everything with macro. Don’t let anything be out of place – no stray foliage, no background light that you don’t want.
  • Aim for an even light over the subject. Use a reflector – a piece of card or foil if you don’t have a pro reflector – to bounce natural light into the subject.
  • Camera shake is a real issue with macro work because the scale is so tiny. Use a good sturdy tripod if possible. This is preferable to using post-production to image stabiliser technology.
  • Try to focus manually. Autofocus will often lock onto the wrong area of the image with macro shots.
  • Be bold. Go abstract, go wild and have fun. Don’t be satisfied with your first go. Keep at it and strive for perfection. Be critical of your own work. Flickr etc have us believe that every photograph ever taken anywhere in the world is ‘awesome’. Sadly the big news is that this is not the case. Get the detail right and everything else will follow.

The International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) Macro Art Photo project

The IGPOTY Macro Art photo project is open for entries until 30 June 2013.
The seventh annual IGPOTY competition has eight categories to enter and is open until 31 October 2013. Find out more about the competition and how to enter on the IGPOTY website.

The winner wins £500 cash and all finalists will be exhibited at Kew and Wakehurst in 2014.

Good luck!

- Philip -

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