- Macro photography speaks to the techniques and equipment we use to get close to a subject so that it appears as large or larger than life-size.
- Still life photography speaks more to the subject, those often inanimate objects that can be arranged, composed, lit, and controlled by the photographer.
One thing the two genres have in common is the slow pace and purposeful approach the photographer can take. A distinct benefit to still life macro photography is that it will slow you down, make you look closer at your subject, and help you create an image that will show your subject in a way others might not have seen it. It will force you to become purposeful and creative, skills that will serve you well.
That is a short “why” for macro still life photography. Now, let’s offer you the what and how of the art.
What is macro photography?
In macro photography, the objective is to get close to your subject. But to truly be called “macro” photography, you will need to be able to render the subject at a 1:1 real-life-to-sensor size.
Visualize this: A full-frame sensor is 24 mm x 36 mm. A US quarter is 24.26 mm in diameter. So if you focus closely enough to fill the frame top to bottom with a quarter (not cropped), that would be a 1:1 ratio on a full-frame camera. If you can focus closer, that would be macro-plus. (And if you have the equipment, usually a microscope that can exceed 20:1, you’ve entered the world of micro photography, not something many do but interesting in its own right.) If you can’t achieve a 1:1 focusing distance, you might be able to make close-up photos, but they won’t be, in the purest sense, “macro” photos.
Does that matter? Not really. Close-up still life photography is fine, as well. We’re after the art more than the science. The idea here is to creatively examine, explore, and photograph the world in an introspective way.
1. Use the right equipment
To do macro photography, you need a macro lens, right? Well, that’s one way to do it, but here are some other options:
I’ve not yet purchased a bellows, but otherwise have personally used all of the other methods and sometimes combine several together when making a macro photograph. Probably because it’s the camera I always have with me, some of my favorite macro images have been done with my phone. Some may argue that a cellphone or smartphone isn’t a “real” camera, but you can’t argue with the images. Often, my cellphone makes a better macro photo than I could have taken with my “real” camera. I have annotated the images throughout this article with information about the equipment I used to make the shots.
A nice advantage of still life macro photography is that, starting out, you needn’t spend much to give it a try. See what your cellphone can do. If you already own a DSLR or mirrorless camera, the reversed lens technique can probably be done for under $25. A good set of extension tubes is currently under $150. If you find you like macro shooting, then pony up for a dedicated macro lens (where the sky is the limit for price).
2. Keep your setup steady
When you’re close to your subject and the world is magnified, a millimeter is a significant distance. Sometimes that might be all the depth of field you have. The slightest movement of the camera or the subject will blur the shot or knock it out of focus.
There are many problems you can fix with some skilled editing or specialized plug-ins and add-ons, but out-of-focus images is not one of them. So, if you don’t typically use a tripod or other means of steadying your camera, macro still life photography will likely make you a convert. Sometimes with an image-stabilized lens or IBIS (in-body image stabilization) in your camera, you might get away with a handheld shot. Even so, a tripod is always the better option when available.
3. Consider a focusing rail
As we just discussed, a millimeter can be huge in the world of macro photography. To get good focus on your subject, you can try autofocus, but will the camera focus on the tiny spot you desire? A better option is to move the camera and/or the subject in incremental amounts.
A great way to do this is with a focusing rail. Mount the rail to your tripod, mount your camera to the rail, and now, with knobs and gears that move the camera, you can perform very tiny adjustments to the distance between your camera and subject. Use manual focus to get the point of interest as sharp as you can, then fine-tune with the rail adjustment knobs.
We will discuss focus stacking a little later, but suffice it to say that if you decide to get serious about macro still life photography, sooner or later you will want to buy a focusing rail.
4. Bring in artificial lighting
As with any kind of photography, lighting is a key factor in getting a good image. In macro still life photography, you will have some unique challenges. One of the biggest is that working extremely close to your subject puts you in the way of your own light, so that you or your camera cast shadows on your subject.
There are many ways around this, so I won’t begin to recommend a perfect solution. One that often works for me and also can be done on the cheap is inexpensive LED flashlights. Because you can bring your lights close to your subject and use various DIY modifiers, reflectors, flags, and so forth, you can control just how the light interacts with your subject. One issue can be the varied Kelvin temperature of these inexpensive hardware-store flashlights. But if you are shooting RAW (and you are, right?), you can usually deal with this later when editing.
There are hundreds of other ways to light your macro subjects, and as with all of photography, you should explore what other photographers have done.
Just don’t be satisfied by whatever ambient lighting conditions you find. See what you can do to achieve various looks by playing with your lighting. Experimentation is key to creative photography.
5. Adjust your perspective
Another technique in macro still life photography is to find unique angles. Just because you are shooting tiny objects doesn’t mean you should always use an overhead view.
If you’re shooting bugs, maybe you want to compose from a bug’s-eye viewpoint. For flowers, how about getting below and looking up?
If you traditionally shoot handheld shots from eye level, here’s your chance to break that habit. The whole idea of macro still life photography is to show things in ways most people never see them – so mix it up and find that unique perspective that will add excitement to your images.
6. Think about compositional guidelines
Just because you’re shooting tiny subjects doesn’t mean you can forget about standard compositional techniques. Things like the rule of thirds, leading lines, patterns, texture, symmetry, asymmetry, depth of field, lines, curves, frames, contrast, color, viewpoint, depth, negative space, filled space, foreground, background, visual tension, shapes, and the rule of odds will still take your composition to the next level.
Another important consideration is the background. The limited depth of field might aid in making the background soft and compete less with the main subject, but not always. Consider how you can move the camera or subject to have a more pleasing background.
You might also have some colored fabric or paper you can use for backgrounds. I have a small, 20-inch, 5-in-1 reflector that collapses to half its size and fits nicely in my camera bag. I can use it to reflect the light, diffuse the light, or act as a background with its white, black, gold, and silver sides. It’s a handy item for macro still life photography.
7. Use a tabletop studio, but also go out into nature
What you’re photographing and where you’re working will greatly change your macro still life photography approach. Because you’re probably shooting small subjects, a tabletop can work just fine as your studio.
Working indoors can have distinct advantages: you have full control over subject and camera placement, lighting, backgrounds, and the shooting environment (no wind!). Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to photograph flowers in their natural environment, but if you want an exercise in frustration, try macro photography outdoors on a breezy day. Perhaps you could bring some cut flowers indoors. Depending on how you light and shoot your subjects and your choice of background, no one may know they were not photographed outdoors. The beauty of macro is that it’s like a movie set – it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside the frame; your world is that tiny view captured by the camera.
That said, your macro subject will sometimes need to be photographed outdoors where you find it. You can still control what the camera sees through lighting, background choice, and camera position, though there will be other, harder-to-control elements.
I have great respect for macro photographers whose subjects are live insects. Insects typically don’t stay still for very long, and when your depth of field is minimal, keeping insects focused and in the frame can be challenging.
If you do want to photograph insects, try continuous focus, a high shutter speed, and take lots of shots. Another trick is to go out early in the morning after a cold night; the bugs will still be in a state of torpor, which means they will be very inactive until they warm up. I have seen some stunning macro shots of dragonflies still covered with morning dew.
If you’ll be doing outdoor macro still life photography, another item you might want to add to your camera bag is a plamp. The term comes from two words, plant and clamp, and that’s exactly what it is: a clamp for a plant! Wimberly has trademarked the name “Plamp” and you can always buy their commercial version, but if you are a DIYer you might try creating a similar device. Such a gizmo has many uses – it can prevent plants from moving in the wind, and it can also hold things like reflectors and diffusers.
Wherever and whatever you shoot when doing macro still life photography, remember: digital film is cheap. If it takes several dozen tries to get that one sharp image, it’ll be worth it. Shoot lots!
8. Focus stack when necessary
One of the biggest challenges in macro photography is getting sufficient depth of field (DOF). Even at a small aperture like f/22, you may have no more than a millimeter of sharp focus.
But there is a work-around technique, called focus stacking. You shoot multiple images, each focused on a portion of the subject. Then you combine the files with focus-stacking tools. Photoshop can do this, or you can use specialized programs like Helicon Focus or Zerene Stacker. ON1 Photo Raw also has focus-stacking capabilities.
Focus stacking will put your skills and patience to the test. Some of those impressive close-ups of bugs full of stunning detail might have several dozen images stacked into one to get the necessary depth of field. Make a great focus-stacked image, and you have moved into the higher levels of macro still life photography.
9. Look around you
What makes a great subject for macro still life photography? Everything! Things that might not even make you look twice suddenly become interesting when you photograph them at a macro level. You can spend an entire day photographing ordinary household objects in a new way, enjoying the intricate detail of a flower, or appreciating the pattern and texture of a scrap of fabric.
To wrap up, I wish you success with your macro still life photography. And to inspire you, let me show you some of the images I’ve made with this technique.
Macro still life photography tips: final words
Well, there you have it:
9 tips to get started capturing beautiful macro still life images.
So get out, get practicing, and have fun!
Now over to you:
What macro still life subjects do you plan to photograph first? Which of these tips will you use? And do you have any tips of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!