Secrets to good macro photography

I’m not a photography expert, but over 12 years of trying to photograph tiny bugs, I’ve learned a few lessons that are worth sharing. Feel free to share your own tips and tricks as well!

  1. Always use your flash. It’s very difficult to get sharp macro photographs without it.

  2. Get a good flash diffuser. This is a lot more important than it sounds. With a good flash diffuser you will get nice even lighting and vibrant colors. Without it you will get blown-out highlights and harsh shadows. Unfortunately, there are no good mass-produced macro flash diffusers (trust me on this). You either have to make your own or get one custom made by Zamir (in the U.S.) or Brendan (in Australia). The custom made ones may seem expensive, but they make a huge difference and are worth the money.

  3. Find the aperture sweet spot for your camera and lens combination. You basically want to use the smallest aperture possible (to maximize depth of field) that doesn’t show noticeable diffraction softening. For most standard SLR cameras and macro lenses this will be somewhere around f/11 or f/13. For most four-thirds cameras and macro lenses this will be around f/9 or f/10. Experiment with your aperture to find the optimal setting.

  4. Shoot in manual mode (for both your camera and flash). This may be intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, you will relish the control it gives you. Plus this will allow you to shoot with fractional flash. Using 1/8th to 1/16th flash will give you more pleasant, even lighting (as it will incorporate some natural light) while still giving you super sharp photos. (If manual mode is too much of a learning curve, use aperture priority mode instead.)

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Great tips!

I’ve been meaning to upgrade my diffuser into one similar to Zamir’s but have been using this one for the last few years and it works pretty well, especially for insects and anything without big eyes. For herps you can see the square light reflected in their eyes. I added several layers of packing foam to the inside to give it a little more softness.

One thing I also do is set my white balance to daylight rather than auto so that my illumunition source doesn’t affect the white balance.

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Let me throw another diffuser into this conversation: MK Diffuser by Marcus Kam of Malaysia. I have been using mine for two mothing seasons and consider it second to my macro lens in importance.

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One other strategy around white balance that I’ve found helpful: If you are taking a photograph of a dark subject, having it on a bright background is going to result in the subject appearing under-exposed.

Last night I caught a spider and took a few photos before sending it outside. Huge difference between the spider on a bright countertop (it looks practically black) versus with a dark blue cloth beneath it (rich orange & brown features become visible). I went back and included one of the photos on the bright countertop to the observation to illustrate.

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Great tips!

A big thing for me has been learning the fieldcraft to photograph insects too.
Approaching slowly, taking care not to make sound or cast shadow on subject makes a huge difference in how close you can get. Shadow seems particularly key.

With the right approach, I find I can often get close enough to hold the flower an insect is on, and then slowly rotate/tilt flower to get a range of angles for better identification.

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I’ve found that butterflies especially are sensitive to shadow and fast movements. If you act like a praying mantis and very slowly get closer to a butterfly and don’t cast a shadow on it, you can often get surprisingly close, especially if it’s feeding!

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Very useful.

I’ve just been using a big sheet of thin white packing foam as my diffuser, which does the job pretty well (and is easily replaced when I wreck it). I’d be interested to try out one of these professional solutions to see how much of a difference it makes.

For iNat photos, I tend to sacrifice sharpness for depth of field by using smaller apertures (usually f/22). More depth of field is useful for identifications. One day I’ll make the jump to f/8 and focal stacking, but at the moment I don’t have the time for that level of post-processing.

Another handy tip, if you’re photographing with an SLR and macro lens, is to get extension tubes. They allow the lens to focus much closer. I carry a DSLR, a 90 mm macro lens (it gets me to 1:1), a flash unit, and a 50 mm set of extension tubes (these ones).

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Those are some great tips. Don’t forget, many cell phone cameras can do a really good job these days. But whatever camera you use, cropping is pretty important. Long before I knew about iNat, I wrote some more basic tips with an emphasis on getting good shots for ID purposes. https://blog.jciv.com/2017/09/06/insect-photography-for-identification/

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I’m using a cheap godex ring light (around 100$) and f/16 as a max possible before it’s getting smooth, probably should use bigger one, but as I don’t use stacking I really need that dof. There’s pretty much no shadow at all from it, but I yet to learn how to use it and still have a daylight-like picture, if it is real at all and with certain texture there’s a lot of bright spots on an insect.
Learning your subject is a must in all kinds of photography but as said slowly approaching to anything, trying your best is a gold tip! Using some kind of support for your hands helps too, both with focusing and getting clear shots, if there’s a wall or tree – use it, sometimes one finger is enough to not shake with wind.
Also always use torchlight for focusing! It’s really much harder to do without it, it helps a lot and also helps with finding hidden insects!


I’m interested in getting rings for smaller objects, so if anyone has experience with stuff for Nikon I will appreciate if you will share it!

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How do you feel about ring flashes? I have a Pentax one but I only use it when we’re running a light trap at night. During the day it’s far too bulky to carry over long distances through trees and brush. It does a nice job of lighting up insects on the ground cloth, but I have to run it at 1/16th power or everything gets washed out. I wish it had a low power mode for focusing in the dark.

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Interesting tips!

Now for us small wallet novices that use cell phones-could you do another battery of tips?

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It’s crazy what you can achieve with just a phone and a hand lens if you have good light and a cooperative subject. You also need to have a macro mode on your phone and you need to take your photos outside of the iNat app to have better control. In my case, I can fix the focus to the closest distance possible and I just move the phone+hand lens to focus where I want. Stabilizing yourself really helps too. I then crop the photo to aid with AI ID. This is one from yesterday https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/83371801 I also use a decent 10x hand lens https://belomostore.com/belomo-10x-triplet-loupe.html

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I feel like it should be mentioned that those tipps are especially for good macro photos for IDing purposes.

When I read the headline and then recommendation 1 and 3 I was very surprised at first, until I realized again which platform I am on right now ;-)

For artistic macro photos in nature it is mostly recommended not to use a flash (depending on your goal and taste of course) and use bigger aperatures rather than smaller ones. For a while I was mostly photographing with open aperature.
I know, nowadays as the macro community is more interested in stacking the preferences changed a bit. So it really depends on what your goal is in macro photography: e.g. showing as much detail as possible or creating a more artistic depiction

Those examples are photographes without flash and big aperature (5.2 and 3.5)
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/38359039
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/37759732

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Are those stacked? Most of the time the things I’m photographing don’t sit still long enough. I’ve seen people do something like 40-shot handheld stacks but I’ve never been able to do more than 3, they’ll always move at least the antennae or legs. Or else just moving myself will shift the perspective enough to throw it off.

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Unless you’re using a cheap third-party one that doesn’t support TTL, why would you use manual flash? I was watching somebody do this the other day and being completely unable to get a good photo. I use manual exposure (1/200s, f/11 on a Canon 100mm macro) but leave the flash on automatic. Unless it’s an unusual scene (dark object on a light background or vice versa), it usually comes out good.

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All this talk about flash and manual settings … one reason I don’t use manual is that the subjects I like to photograph are usually far too mobile and don’t sit still long enough for me to adjust the settings I want.

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It seems that there is a common misunderstanding about why people are using manual settings for their camera and flash. It certainly is not to force yourself into changing settings between every shot. It’s quite the opposite actually. By using manual settings you ensure that you always have the optimal settings for your system (camera, lens, flash, diffusor and focal distance combination) and don’t rely on what your camera thinks is best for a certain situation. You get much more uniform output. Photography becomes so simple this way that it’s like studio photography in the field. I have the camera at the same settings for 90% of the time without a need to change anything. Only when you encounter animals in weird situations you need to change some settings which you can do already before you get close if you have some experience with your gear.

The scenario where someone observed another person failing at using the flash in manual mode is not at all an argument against using flash with manual settings. It’s just an example of someone not knowing how to use their gear. It takes practice and experience. But once you figured that stuff out it’s the simplest way of macro photography.

Manual settings allow me to concentrate on the organism that I’m trying to photograph more, because I simply don’t have to worry about the setting. You know that the shots will look good as long as you nailed the focus.

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See:
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/macro-lenses-for-smartphone-cameras/9112/4

I bought the Ztylus Revolver after reading this thread and have to say, it´s second bar none, a real gamechanger. I agree with @frousseu though too…its amazing what you can get even with just a loupe.

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Gotta say I love my little Olympus TG5 for iNat purposes–a starter camera from which I have yet to graduate. It won’t get you to fine art level macro, but it’s better than any phone+clip on combo I’ve seen. I’ve gotten “great photo” responses from bug IDers more than a few times–and it fits in a pocket!

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You set settings for lighting conditions you have, in macro it’s still much easier and recommended to use flash, so it doesn’t matter much in which conditions you shoot (unless it’s really bright sun on object is on a very reflective surface, e.g. paper, wood, etc., where you have to agjust flash), cameras are never that clever and they can solve problems weird way, e.g. first day of my first dslr with tele lens result in pretty bright but okayish as I though at the moment pics, now I know that camera automatically setting 5000iso for bright sunny day wasn’t a good decision from it.

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