Secrets to good macro photography

I have spent a lot of time shooting bees (just submitted a research paper documenting some of my finds to the Washington entomo society journal). If light is great outside, I try to shoot natural light, high shutter speed, and get action shots. In lower light I am forced into using the flash (My D7500 has a great in camera flash) and low shutter speeds and about f18 seems to be my sweet spot, sometimes up to f22.
All the various diffusers I tried just got in the way and were too big.
Indoors on dead or cold subjects I still have a lot to learn but always use the flash and f20 to f22.

Typically Photoshop (CS5 or CS6, depending on the computer I’m on). It’s a two-step process with step 1 loading all files into a stack (File > Scripts > Load files into stack) and step 2 selecting the layers in the stack and aligning and blending them (Edit > Auto-Align and Auto-Blend Layers). I’ve also used CombineZM, which is a free program and works pretty well, especially considering that it doesn’t cost anything. It automatically aligns and scales the images before stacking them. There is a bit of a learning curve and some options to play with but you can find a number of good tutorials online. Sometimes one program works better than the other on a certain set of images, and sometimes getting a good result requires being selective about which images to stack, so more layers does not always equal better results. There are always artifacts around the edges after stacking, so it’s a good idea to take the pictures with enough space around the subject to allow for cropping the final image.

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Thank you! I will consider byuing Ps eventually, I tried a free programm, but it was very unclear how to do that with quite unintuitive interface.

I use a Panasonic micro 4/3 with a macro lens. For flash photos, I generally use aperture of about 13. I use flash most of the time except in bright sunlight, which seems to interfere in the shutter timing and causes blurry photos. If I can set the manual focus to minimum distance, I can move the camera to focus, and then measure the size of the insect by pixel distance (for example, 306.6 pixels per mm with this lens and camera). My photos are not masterpieces, but it’s easy to take pictures this way.

For mid to larger insects in the day time, I usually use a Sony RX10 iv. At full (25x) zoom it has a minimum focus distance of around 2.5 feet, which means I can take decent photos 2.5 feet from the bees and butterflies.

One thing that’s pretty important for me is to use spot focusing whenever I use autofocus.

Whoa! That skipper photo is breathtaking!

There are a lot of good ideas here. Thanks for posting them! :sun_with_face:

I have been photographing for years and never heard the word “stacking” before. What does it mean?

I hardly use the automatic setting because my camera doesn’t do a good job in guessing the right exposure. My gear is old and falling apart. First the release button fell off after dropping the camera and now I have to use a paperclip to take pictures and last weekend my little flash broke. Despite all of these hurdles I can still take pictures. I will have to adapt to the new limitation of not having a flash anymore until I buy a new camera. I am limited with one fixed lens that it’s incredibly frustrating to focus manually so because of that I always use the automatic focus. However, this same lens is my saving grace because it it the only one that I have and when everything is right it can take good macro photos.

I think the quality of the gear is very important. So buy the best gear that you can afford. However, it depends, as some folks have already mentioned here, on your goals and what makes you happy.

You said it! Last weekend I had an amazing experience with butterflies. There were feeding on two plants with yellow flowers of the same species and they forgot all about my shadow and me. For the first time I was able to take decent pictures of different species of butterflies in just one spot. Furthermore, there were other bugs that enjoyed those plants while a beetle was drunkenly “drowning” in another plant with white flowers. The peculiar thing was that the beetle would totally ignore the plants with yellow flowers and the butterflies would totally ignore the plant with white flowers.

It means you make multiple photos of one object at the same angle, but with different focal points, then you stack thosee photos, resulting in 1 image with greater dof than 1 photo, most of professional macro is done that way.

Like melodi_96 said - it’s also used extensively in microscopy, where it is often referred to as Z-stacking. I think that’s because the stage with the slide is the XY plane, and the focus knob moving the stage up and down is the Z direction in XYZ spatial coordinates. Wikipedia also has an article on focus stacking with example pictures: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus_stacking

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@melodi_96 @annkatrinrose OK Thanks! Interesting process. It sounds like that you definitely have to focus the object manually.

If you photograph small objects you can’t use auto focus.

Well, I do it all the time but after a certain size my camera struggles to use the auto focus. I used to put my finger next to the subject to help the camera to see it, especially in low light, but now I can only do it if I use a tripod and the self timer because I need both hands to operate it.

As I remember from reading years ago with smaller matrixes dof is bigger while quality is worse, so it’s easier to use auto focus as you can’t see much difference if it’s focused 3mm further or closer. Plus from experience it’s hardly can focus anywhere near needed point in many situations.
To represent this I take similary-positioned hoverflies, in 1 somehow both abdomen and legs are in focus (also shot with zoom, so dof is even bigger), in 2 it’s far from that, that is also why stacking is so valued in macro.

I’ve found that bugs will often move their legs or antennae within the several seconds it takes to get shots (since some flash charge time is needed), which screws up the stack.

I also use CombineZP (the original website is no longer up but you can download it from the archive on the Wayback Machine). It’s better for larger stacks with narrower depth of field, like microscope imaging, but as noted it tends to leave artifacts. It’s not too hard to use; there are a number of different algorithms, but usually either “Do Stack” or “Do Soft Stack” is what works. Photoshop works better where you have fewer images in the stack and want to keep the soft background, because it takes whole chunks of each image.

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Yes, you’re right, restless arthropods can be a real problem when focus stacking. I’ve found by far the best (and sometimes the only) way is to use a combination of Photoshop and Zerene Stacker which has excellent retouching tools, so you can select and copy the “best” leg and antenna shots to get an acceptable final result. You just have to be careful not to finish with a seven-legged insect with three antennas :sweat_smile:! It does take time and concentration, but I actually enjoy that bit almost as much as taking the original photo, for me it’s a sort of meditation. Yeh, strange, I know :yum:!!

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Normally in flash photography almost all of the illumination is coming from the flash (and the incredibly short light pulse is what freezes the movement of yourself and of the animal). The shutterspeed is almost neglectable. When your subject sits in bright sunlight not all of the illumination is coming from your flash anymore and therefore the shutterspeed will have an effect on your images. Normal flash sync speeds of around 160-250ms are not quick enough to freeze most movements. If you still want to get sharp images in bright sunlight conditions while using a flash you would have to use high speed-sync which allows you to select faster shutterspeeds.

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After reading all the posts, I decided I would add my grain of salt. I joined iNaturalist recently, but I have practiced macrophotography for tens of years. I am a medical entomologist by profession and a naturalist by heart. Joining iNaturalist has been one of my best decisions.
The preceding posts explore several directions which are worth discussing, and I will try to outline the ones that I feel are most significant. There are several subjects that would justify individual, focused, discussions.
The title of this topic is: SECRETS TO GOOD MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY
I propose considering the following criteria:

1 Good for iNaturalist means that:
a) The photos make it easy for specialists to confirm the identities
b) Submitted photos and information are easy to manage and well documented
2 Good for iNaturalists, the citizen scientists, means that:
a) They feel at ease with the technicalities of taking the photos and they are satisfied with the results
b) It does not interfere with their ongoing outdoor activities, and it is not overly time-consuming or costly
c) In the process, they obtain more precise IDs (species level, “Research grade”) and can learn more about their sightings
d) It promotes communications within the community

We must try to facilitate the ease and accuracy of identifiers’ contributions. What I often see lacking is additional photos of the same specimen from different angles. Depending on the species, critical features maybe on the back, the head, the wing, … or all of those. I try to improve on this aspect, as in these examples in the field and on a lighting panel (white background):
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/84432435
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/84362370
Point 1b): I wonder how the size and resolution of photos is managed by iNaturalist. Some cell phones and cameras generate huge files. I wonder if cropping to center on subject before uploading to iNaturalist could improve the displayed result and reduce the size of entries to manage, while preserving critical info.

Point 2a): I think the most practical advice, as stated in Zygy’s initial comment, to improve the quality of macro photos is:

  • for cell phones and for compact cameras without macro capability to use an accessory lens
  • for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras to use automatic extension tubes, if a macro lens is not available or too costly
  • to use diffused light from a flash and manual settings for shutter speed, ISO and aperture (try it, it is easier than it seems). Very often autoexposure in macro with a flash will be off course.
  • In manual stings avoid too high apertures (above F11 or F15) because it will increase the depth of field, but with the cost of needing more light and losing sharpness (effect of diffraction).
  • To use autofocus if the camera/cell is performing, or manual focus by moving the camera/cell instead of the focus ring/focus slider.

There are several comments in this post about focus stacking. It involves 2 steps: focus bracketing (series of photos with the same frame but gradual focus distance shift) and Z-stacking, where computer software produces one photo using the focused parts of each photo. Right now, it is a rather complex method, but eventually more cameras and cell phones will be able to do it automatically in the field. Most cells already have a Panorama option which works live in the field.

However, focus stacking can provide the best photos of insects for ID, sometimes impossible by any other method:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/84561017

Finally, if you really like a macrophoto posted on iNat, you can click on it and on the information icon (“i”). It will often provide information about the camera/cell model, lens, use of flash, speed and aperture, number of photos used for stacking, etc. It could be a good starting point in deciding what would work for you.

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Quite a few cameras now make the photo-taking part an optional automatic process (for example, Nikon calls it focus shift, I think Canon calls it focus bracketing, and newer versions of the Olympus TG series has that feature as well), but as others have noted having a motionless subject and a motionless camera really help.

For still subjects I’d agree that manual might be better, but I’ve been using autofocus with macro for years. For moving insects, herps, and flowers in the wind it’s pretty invaluable.

It’s not about flash, but it’s a good idea to pay attention to color rendering when using LEDs.
The reason is that the color does not come out well unless each spectra comes out.
If you do not develop it, we also recommend changing the picture style.