Macro photography tips

These top tips for macro photography will help you take spectacular close-up images. Here's everything you need to know, from creative techniques and essential camera settings to choosing the right Canon kit.
An extreme close-up of a brightly coloured wasp feeding on a lime-green flower anther.

Close-up photographs of everything from insects to flowers, food and household objects can reveal astonishing levels of detail. With the right camera and lens, and the right settings, you can reveal details that are all but invisible to the naked eye. Typically, a macro lens will deliver between 0.5x and 1.0x magnification at its minimum focus distance. That might not sound particularly impressive, but 1.0x magnification reproduces small objects at full life size on the camera's image sensor. They will then be massively enlarged when you view them on screen or in print, giving a whole new perspective to your photography.

Anything can be your subject in macro photography as you uncover a hidden world and see everyday things differently. Shooting at really close range can be a lot of fun, but it's not without technical challenges. Read on to discover expert advice for creating spectacular close-up images, as well as the best Canon kit for macro photography, even if you're on a budget.

Macro photography techniques

A close-up image of a vibrant pink flower.

Nature has hidden depths of beauty that you can reveal in close-up and macro photography. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/2 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Focusing can be tricky in close-up shooting and demands extreme accuracy, due to the typically tiny depth of field. The Canon Photo Companion app includes a useful tool which calculates the closest and furthest points of focus, depth of field and the hyperfocal distance depending on your camera and settings.

For still-life images such as macro food photography, it's best to mount your camera on a tripod or other support, so that it's fixed in place and there's no movement or blur. To ensure complete stillness, use the camera's two-second self-timer or a remote control, so you don't have to touch the camera when taking the shot.

Even when using a tripod, vibrations can be caused by touching the camera immediately before an exposure and, for DLSRs, the action of the reflex mirror flipping up. A good combination of settings available in most Canon DSLRs is to use the two-second self-timer delay in conjunction with the Mirror lockup mode. The mirror will then flip up two seconds before the shot is taken, giving sufficient time for vibrations to dissipate. The Canon Camera Connect app is also useful in these situations, enabling you to control your camera from your phone.

With the camera locked in place, autofocus can work well if you use single-point AF and precisely line up the point with the part of the subject that you want to be sharpest. Manual focusing can work even better. Canon's EOS M and all EOS R System mirrorless cameras feature a focus peaking option (your lens must be in MF mode). Turn this on and areas within the image frame will be indicated in the viewfinder or rear screen as they come into focus, allowing you to fine-tune your shot. Alternatively, use a magnified preview of the desired area to ensure optimum manual focusing. You can use the same technique on the rear screen of Canon DSLRs by switching to Live View mode.

Great macro subjects throughout the year

For effective macro photography, you need to think small. Garden bugs, spiders and bees make great subjects, while nature in general has a lot to offer all year round. From budding flowers in spring, to bees and butterflies in summer, golden leaves and mushrooms in autumn, and snowflakes and frost in winter, there is always something to shoot.

Indoors, you can get creative with macro food photography, or shoot extreme close-ups of objects such as coloured pencils that are rich in fine detail. For more inspiration on subject matter and how to shoot it, check out Ian Wade's video on autumn macro photography above.

Lighting for macro photography

A brightly lit close-up image of red cabbage taken by Matt Doogue on a Canon EOS R10.

This close-up photo of a red cabbage was shot at full magnification and lit from above. Photographer Matt Doogue used in-camera focus stacking to maintain uniform focus across the entire image. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/5.6 and ISO250.

By contrast, a darker version of a close-up image of red cabbage taken by Matt Doogue on a Canon EOS R10.

A close-up image of red cabbage shot at full magnification, this time lit from the right and with reduced power to highlight the texture and contours of the lines of the cabbage. Matt again used in-camera focus-stacking to maintain a more uniform focus. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/5.6 and ISO250.

To bring out the detail, try experimenting with different light sources, ranging from natural ambient lighting and reflecting light with a sheet of white card or paper, to using a photographic LED lighting panel or Speedlite flashgun.

Fairly low-intensity lighting isn't generally an issue if you're using a tripod for flower macro photography, food close-ups and other still-life subjects, but dull lighting can result in flat-looking images. For indoor shots, you can add light with a table lamp, or use daylight from a window. Photographic LED lamps are also a good option, as are the LED Macro Lites.

A more advanced solution is to use a flashgun or Speedlite. As well as adding illumination, the very short duration of the flash effectively freezes the action. For ultimate close-up control and a shadowless lighting effect in macro photography, the Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II is compatible with most Canon macro lenses. Alternatively, try shining a bright light on to the subject from an oblique angle. This will create deep shadows, giving a three-dimensional look.

Increasing the depth of field

A close-up image of blue flowers; the blooms in the centre are in focus, while the background is blurred.

Even with the most accurate focusing and a narrow aperture, you'll sometimes find that you still can't get as much front-to-back sharpness as you want. Again, this is due to the very shallow depth of field when shooting close up. Some Canon cameras, including the Canon EOS R8 and EOS R6 Mark II, feature a Focus Bracketing mode. This is great for macro shooting, as it takes a series of shots while automatically progressing through a range of focus distances between each frame. The series can then be merged into a single image at the editing stage, resulting in a much larger depth of field.

Effective composition for macro shots

A close-up shot of pink and yellow cake taken by Matt Doogue on a Canon EOS R10.

Compared with a full-frame camera, an APS-C format camera such as the Canon EOS R50 or EOS R10 has a smaller image sensor. As well as giving the attached lens a longer 'effective' focal length, it also gives you greater effective magnification due to the 1.6x crop factor. It's great for closing in on a small area of an object for a dramatic composition, such as this cake shot at full magnification, lit from the top and slightly behind to add shadow and contrast. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/7.1 and ISO1250.

You can use the typically tight depth of field to your advantage in macro photography. Areas that are more than a few centimetres or so in front of or behind the plane of focus will become very blurred in the image. So, it is important to think about the background as well as the object you are shooting.

Backgrounds with a fairly uniform colour and brightness will form a plain backdrop that can help to isolate the main subject and make it stand out in the image. Backgrounds with more varied colours and tones can also work well. Either way, consider the colours of the main subject and its surroundings, and how well they work together to enhance the overall image.

The rule of thirds is a classic composition tool. Think of your image frame being divided by equally spaced gridlines – two on the horizontal and two on the vertical which you can add in-camera. Now try placing the main area of interest over the point where two of the lines intersect. This can create maximum visual impact in an image. Alternatively, break the rules and position the main subject right at the centre of the frame. This can work well with symmetrical objects, which in themselves make great macro subjects.

For flowers, leaves and other subjects that are slightly bigger, a good compositional tip is to close in on a very small area of the complete object and take a tight, detailed shot.

Best cameras for macro photography

An extreme close-up of a shell, showing the texture in the spirals.

Similar to other Canon EOS R System cameras, the EOS RP has an array of powerful macro-friendly functions, including focus peaking and focus bracketing. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 24mm, 15 sec, f/4 and ISO100.

An extreme close-up of a red flower, showing the detail in the petals.

The EOS RP also features a vari-angle rear touchscreen. This works really well when taking macro shots from tricky angles, as well as enabling quick and easy focusing for general close-ups, as you can simply touch the preview image at the point on which you want to autofocus. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 24mm, 1/10 sec, f/4 and ISO100.

You don't need expensive cameras and lenses to shoot close-ups. The best camera for macro photography is the one you have at hand. Many entry-level point-and-shoot cameras have a Macro shooting mode that enables focusing distances down to just 1cm, while the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III compact camera has a more powerful Macro mode.

EOS cameras that take interchangeable lenses give you more flexibility for close-up shooting, as you can fit the ideal lens for the task. The Canon EOS R50 and EOS R10 also have vari-angle touchscreens, making it easy to shoot from creative angles. Simply tap the point on the screen that relates to the area in the scene where you want to autofocus. They also feature an enlarged preview option and focus peaking for ultra-precise manual focusing. Another bonus of these APS-C format cameras, compared to full-frame bodies, is that the crop factor effectively boosts the maximum magnification of a 1.0x macro lens to 1.6x.

For enthusiasts looking to take their creative macro photography to the next level, Canon's range of full-frame cameras is ideal. For example, the high MP count of the full-frame sensors in the EOS R8 and EOS R6 Mark II enables them to retain incredible image quality in low-light conditions, allowing clean shots even at high ISO values. Like the EOS R50 and EOS R10, they also both include a focus bracketing function which is particularly useful for macro photography.

Best lenses for shooting close-ups

An extreme close-up of a leaf, showing its intricate structure.

Like most recent Canon macro lenses, the RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM has a hybrid Image Stabilizer. This counteracts side-to-side as well as up and down movement, making stabilisation much more effective in handheld close-up and macro shooting. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/40 sec, f/2 and ISO800.

An extreme close-up of the head and wings of a butterfly.

The 1.4x magnification Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens enables you to capture incredible detail, such as the individual scales on this butterfly's wings. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/50 sec, f/4.5 and ISO3200. © Oliver Wright Photography

Many lenses supplied with Canon EOS cameras have impressively short minimum focus distances (MFD). This includes the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM for EOS R System cameras, which has an MFD of just 13cm.

Excellent macro lenses include the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM. These deliver 0.5x maximum magnification and come complete with hybrid Image Stabilizers. These correct for shift in both the vertical and horizontal planes, as well as vibration. Compared with regular Image Stabilizers, Canon's hybrid Image Stabilizers are much more effective in handheld shooting for extreme close-ups.

For the ultimate in macro lenses, the Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM delivers a class-leading 1.4x magnification as well as featuring a Spherical Aberration control ring, enabling you to adjust the look of foreground and background bokeh in defocused areas.

Best settings for macro shooting

A woman takes a macro image of a shell with a Canon camera and lens. She is dressed in winter clothing and resting on her elbows in the sand for support.

Think of how much detail you can capture in a wide-angle landscape shot. Now imagine filling most of the camera's image sensor with something the size of a postage stamp. Even 0.5x macro magnification can reveal fine details that are usually invisible to the naked eye.

A man uses a camera with a large lens to take a close-up photograph of an insect on a leaf.

Shooting close-ups of insects and other bugs can be hit and miss. You can improve your hit rate by selecting the AI Servo (continuous) autofocus mode and high-speed continuous drive mode. Keep the shutter button pressed down to capture a burst of images in rapid succession, to ensure you get a few keepers.

The Macro shooting mode of many Canon cameras works well, but for more creative close-up shooting with enthusiast-level cameras, it's best to take control yourself. The use of semi-automatic and manual modes can pay dividends.

A particular challenge is that depth of field (the distance between the nearest and furthest points in a scene that are rendered sharply) becomes very small in close-up photography and absolutely tiny in full macro shooting. To maximise the depth of field, you can switch to Av (Aperture priority) shooting mode and dial in a narrow aperture of around f/16 to f/22. Unless lighting is very bright, however, this can require slow shutter speeds for a correct exposure. That's not generally an issue if you're using a tripod.

Insect macro photography will require a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. This is also true when other living subjects are involved, for example in eye macro photography. One way of achieving this when also using a narrow aperture is to increase your camera's ISO setting. However, going for a higher ISO can result in a loss of fine detail and an increase in image noise – which is where the low noise capabilities of full-frame cameras like the Canon EOS R8 and EOS R6 Mark II come to the fore.

Finishing touches

The back screen of a Canon EOS R6 camera, showing the RAW shooting mode and settings for a close-up image of a parrot's head.

Many Canon cameras feature a RAW quality mode. Use this to get the greatest latitude at the editing stage, using software like Canon's Digital Photo Professional (available as a free download). You'll be able to fine-tune the exposure value and white balance for optimum brightness and colour rendition, with no degradation in image quality. You can also apply sharpening or use Unsharp mask to accentuate detail, and add impact by adjusting clarity, contrast, colour tone and saturation.

The vast majority of close-up and macro images greatly benefit from a little editing. If the minimum focusing distance of your lens restricts you from getting as close to a subject as you'd like, don't panic. Creative cropping at the editing stage enables you to remove the unwanted periphery from an image and retain just the area you want to keep.

Nothing is ever entirely perfect. When you're shooting macro or close-up photographs, the sheer level of fine detail that you'll capture will accentuate any specs of dust, blemishes and other flaws. A spot healing brush or clone tool in image editing software can effectively mask these over, by copying the brightness, colour and texture data from surrounding pixels.

The latest versions of Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) also include a Depth Compositing tool. This automates the process of converting a batch of images captured with the Focus Bracketing mode of those EOS R System cameras that do not have the in-camera option, merging them into a single image. It's perfect for extending the effective depth of field in close-up and macro photography.

Hopefully these tips and techniques have demonstrated how easy it is to get started with macro photography and inspired you to get out there and have a go at honing in on the detail and capturing your own close-ups.

Written by Matthew Richards

Related Products

Related articles