How to focus on macro photography?

If you want to photograph the small world of plants and bugs, you will face many challenges along the way. Macro photography is a difficult genre – you are pushing the physical limits of depth of field, diffraction, and motion blur. Naturally, focusing on macro photography is not an easy task, but it is a crucial task. How do you optimize your focus technique to capture small objects? The answer all depends on what you want to photograph.

A macro shot of a butterfly

1. Focus problems unique to macro lenses

When you start shooting, you may be frustrated because the image is blurry or only small areas are clearly in focus. The depth of the field is very thin with macro photography because you are dealing with such a narrow subject area.

Sometimes you can use this selective focus from a thin depth of field to isolate your subject well, but it’s usually too thin, so you need to do something to increase the depth of the field.

Closing the aperture to F11 will begin to increase the depth of focus by limiting the incident light. You may find that you need to turn it off further to get a more focused area, but this is where I usually start when shooting with a macro lens. This helps to create a greater depth of field, but don’t forget that you need to offset the aperture adjustment by lowering the shutter speed or increasing the ISO setting.

I usually like to shoot at higher shutter speeds because my macro subjects are usually fast and often able to fly. Therefore, rather than sacrifice my shutter speed, I will increase the ISO settings until I reach the ideal balance of shutter speed, depth of field, and image brightness.

Depending on the macro lens you choose, the minimum focus distance will vary. Larger lenses need to be about 1 foot away from their subject to focus, while shorter lenses may be closer to 8 inches.

Snail shot with macro lens

Sometimes you may not want to get up close and personal with what you’re filming. A flower? Of course, there is no problem. But like a big, multi-eyed, hairy spider? In this case, it is preferable to have a lens that allows you to step back a bit while maintaining performance.

A little distance also helps keep the tiny creatures from spooking. You’ll soon notice that you and your camera are seen by insects and animals as giant dark circles under your eyes. While many are surprisingly tolerant, those who don’t like it will just leave. It’s best to be respectful. By observing your subject’s behavior, you can quickly predict where to shoot.

2. How to focus in macro photography?

(1) Shoot relatively large subjects

In macro photography, “relatively large” subjects are objects the size of dragonflies or flowers. If your subject is about four inches or larger, my advice is to focus on the moving subject as usual. Using continuous servo autofocus (AF-C), the autofocus zone mode works well for tracking your subject throughout the frame.

Even if the subject is not moving, you can also use continuous servo autofocus. This is because your subject may not move, but no matter how hard you try to stay still, you will still move. It’s impossible to hold a camera completely still, and it’s easy to see any slight movement at such close range.

The biggest difficulty here is that fast-moving themes are still not easy to focus on, and there’s nothing you can do about it. My main advice is to take multiple shots in a row, as your image may only be in perfect focus for a fraction of a second. You don’t want to miss it.

(2) Shoot smaller subjects

By the strictest definition, “macro photography” means that you focus at 1:1 magnification or higher. So if your camera sensor is 1.5 inches wide, the scene captured in the entire photo will also be 1.5 inches wide or less.

At this magnification, moving the camera forward or backward a few millimeters at a time is enough to knock the entire image out of focus. In addition, even if you are successful with focus, your depth of field will be very small. In fact, if you just want the ant’s head and body to be in focus at the same time, you’re probably out of luck.

As you might expect, even the best autofocus systems on the planet struggle in these conditions. The problem gets worse if your subject moves quickly, and you have to track its movement without losing focus.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to focus on tiny objects, even when they’re moving.

A macro shot of flowers

For ordinary photography, manual focus is often slower than auto focus. In addition, it is usually not very accurate for fast-moving objects. However, high-magnification macro photography is a different beast, and in this case, manual focus is the best option — but only if you use it properly.

The correct way to focus manually in macro photography is not to compose and then rotate the focus ring until the image in the viewfinder looks sharp. Instead, it sets the focus ring at a specific point and moves it back and forth until the image looks sharp.

For example, for high magnification macro photography, I would set my lens to 1:1 closest focus distance. I would then slowly rock back and forth in the field, no more than a few centimetres at a time, waiting for my subject to look attentive. When it’s very clear, I’ll take the picture as soon as possible.

This process is made easier by using a relatively small aperture (usually between F/11 and F/22). Of course, this significantly reduces the amount of light in the photo, and it’s quite possible that you’ll need to use the flash to optimize the photo. I covered some of these earlier in an article on macro photographic lighting.

If it helps, consider placing the camera on a monopod or cane while moving forward and backward. This eliminates some of the extra vibration and inaccuracy that comes with handheld cameras, although the downside is that you lose some of the flexibility of the camera’s height.

Also, be aware that even good macro focus techniques won’t give you a perfect success rate. Personally, even under the best possible conditions, only about 1/3 of my hand-held 1:1 zoom photos are as sharp as possible. This is not an easy task. However, this is the type that you will improve on over time. Like all areas of photography, it takes practice.

(3) Use a tripod

Some macro photographers can get around the difficulty of hand-held focus by simply using a tripod. In general, with a moving subject, it is almost impossible to accurately capture a macro image in focus using a tripod. In contrast, it is best to use a tripod for relatively still macro subjects.

If your subject remains stationary, you have the flexibility to set the tripod. You can spend as much time as you need moving the tripod back and forth, adjusting its height, and changing the composition. Still, there are some tripod attachments that are invaluable for this type of photography as they will make your job faster, the faster focusing guide rail.

With full focus track settings, you can move the camera a fraction of a millimeter in any direction at a time. The most delicate movements you can make are very large and imprecise compared to a typical ball head. The difference will be day and night, focusing on track settings can save you a lot of time and field work.

In addition, the focus rails allow you to focus in macro photography more easily, which is very valuable for capturing the maximum depth of field of a still object.

3. Macro lens and portrait photography

Macro photography may be designed to capture high-detail images of small objects, but macro lenses are also good for portrait photography, especially head shots.

Macro lenses capture clear and detailed portraits while still allowing photographers to maintain a respectful working distance from their models. The focal length associated with a macro lens is also in the range generally considered best for portraits.

A macro shot of flowers

Distortion can be a problem when shooting portraits with certain lenses, such as zoom or wide-angle lenses, but it’s less likely to be a problem with macro lenses.

4. Conclusion

As long as there is a strong will, there will be a way for you to open. Focusing in macro photography is no easy task, but you can still choose to take the sharpest shots.

For relatively large subjects, just focus like a typical hand-held photo, as if you were just taking a normal photo of a wild animal. However, for smaller subjects, it is best to focus manually and swing back and forth until the subject looks as clear as possible in the viewfinder. Neither method is perfect, so if you’re shooting stationary objects, you might prefer a tripod based setup with focus rails.

As with everything in photography, the method you use will depend on the particular subject you tend to photograph. It’s possible to focus on almost any subject in macro photography, so the best thing to do is practice. The more time you spend perfecting each focus method, the better your macro photos will be.


What is the best focal length for macro photography?

A focal length of around 90-105mm is often regarded as ideal for macro photography, as it allows you to get close but not too close to what you’re shooting.

Is macro photography hard?

Macro photography is a difficult genre — you’re pushing up against the physical limits of depth of field, diffraction, and motion blur. Naturally, focusing in macro photography isn’t an easy task, but it’s a crucial one.

Is it worth buying a macro lens?

It’s worth buying a macro lens, as it’s useful for so much more than just macro photography. If you want to try your hand at macro while expanding your options with several other genres of photography, a macro lens might be just the right option for you.

What can I use instead of a macro lens?

Supplementary lenses are perhaps the cheapest alternative to getting into macro photography on a budget. These small lenses screw into the filter thread of your camera’s existing lens and allow the lens to focus closer than it’s normal minimum focal length.

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