Macro Shooting

Canon 5D MK II - Canon 28-90 reversed at 38 mm Novoflex EOS - Retro Adapter - f/13 1/160th with a Canon 270 Flash ISO 200


3 Days to Better Live Bg Photos

Hand Held Focus Stacking


Macro Obstacles Macro Flash Brackets Exposure Basics Shutter Speed
Magnification Hardware Basics

Depth of Field

Macro Flash Processing Useful Links Contact Me

An Overview of this Site:

This site is a “How to do Macro Bug Photography”. It specializes in photographing live bugs with the belief that if you can shoot a moving object you can usually shoot a stationery one. Once you learn how to shoot live bugs you can go on a safari without leaving your yard. If you want to see the kind of images you will get by reading this site visit the Gallery. For me it started when I went out with a Point and Shoot and captured a good image of a flower that had a bee flying by it. Macro Spider Shot with Ring Flash

At the time I thought it was a great shot and I knew I was lucky to get it. I wanted to increase my luck by developing my skill and increasing my knowledge, which naturally meant reading numerous articles, watching videos etc. which lead to trials and errors (which hopefully some of you maybe able to avoid by reading this).  The goal is simple - get consistently good shots.  With some practice it is not hard to come back with 30-40 percent of your images being exceptional. However, you will end up with a new difficulty - what to keep!

What you will find is that a lot of what you read on the internet about Macro Photography is not true. I think people read something on the internet, believe it to be true and put it in their own words and republish it. Then the more it is read the more it is believed to be true or they just leave some important part out. I don't know how many times I have read flash stops all motion, this is not true at all and I can easily prove it.  Today on three sites I read to always shoot wide open to blur the background of your macro shot. At 1:1 magnification there is only 2 hundredths of an inch in focus to begin with, where do people come up with this stuff? What they should be talking about is how do you get the most depth omacro wasp photo with reveresed lensf field without stopping down so much that diffraction starts to play a role in image quality.

Anyway, on this journey I tried about everything I saw and read about. I saw a lot of flash rigs that people had built and so I tried them as well. When trying them I really didn't understand completely as to why they were needed.  I never read as to why people were using them (Remember above, the piece left out). I now know and it is a key component to consistently capturing a live insect. So, If you read nothing else on this site, read the page on Macro Flash.  I have also written a page called 3 Days to Better Live Bug Photography. I assure you that if you spend three days doing the exercises you will improve all of your photography. What you will learn in those three days is it is you not your equipment that makes the biggest difference, it is the operator.  The photo on the right was done with a reversed lens adapter and an old 28-90 lens.  The total cost of both was around $100; click on it to see the file.

This site is primarily geared more towards macro photography not so much general close up photography of objects the size of flowers or butterflies.  But you don't have to have a true macro shot to have a great photograph of a bug.

Most web sites and books on macro photography seem to agree that a macro photo is one that is shot at 1:1 magnification or higher. Which means the object is the same size on the film or image sensor.  Not all agree with this, one site says 1:3 or a third life size, another 1:10 life size. It is made more difficult by camera companies that offer specialized macro lenses that are 1:2. (50mm Macros are usually 1:2) Then lets confuse everyone a little more by adding a macro mode to a lens. On this web site a macro photograph is one that is close to 1:1. It needs to be noted that at 1:1 there is a thing many call the bellows factor that comes into play.  It means that at 1:1 your aperature is really two stops less. Canon does not show this, Nikon does. So, if you have a Nikon camera and your display says you are shooting at f/11 you are, if you are shooing with Canon at 1:1 and it says f/11 you are really at f/22.

The photograph on the left was shot on a crop sensor camera and the lizard was about twice the size of the sensor.  So it is about 1:2 or half size. Click on it to see the actual image and when doing so check out the eye as you can see the pattern of the diffuser in it.

So if you have a photo of a butterfly on a 4 X 5 view camera and the butterfly is the same size on the film (or larger) it is a macro shot. If you have the same image on a DSLR it would not contain the entire butterfly as the sensor is smaller. So when you look at a butterfly shot with a DSLR it is most likely a close up shot (or a very small butterfly). When you see a shot of a bee taken with a DSLR it could be a close up cropped or an actual macro shot as the bee could be as big as the sensor.  On this site the goal is to get a good, large as we can image of a bug on the sensor where we have good depth of field. So if you want to be picky many of the shots on this site are not true macro shots they were cropped and most of the shots you see out there are actually not true macro shots. If they were they would most likely be stacked images to get the depth of field  you see. To prove my point, for my macro lens to get 1:1 magnification I have to be focused as close as possible. If I am anything less than that it is not a true macro shot.  I only bring this up as I just finished watching a YouTube video where the person said they had a crop sensor so the bug was magnified more on their sensor - that is not true. With the same lens it is magnified the same on a full frame DSLR or a crop sensor, it is not sensor size but whether or not the image is life size or larger on the sensor.

When I first wrote this my go to setup was shooting with a 100mm macro lens with a 1.4 X tele-converter, so I may or may not have a true macro shot.  (I have the ability to go to 1.4:1 magnification with the converter) At the end of the day it is about the image not whether or not it is a true macro shot.  What you will find is with a practice you will automatically know how far to be away to get the little extra depth of field that comes with shooting from a distance. You will also not be so far away as to lose image quality when you crop the photo. You will also end up with a setup you like and that is what you will use most of the time.

That being said, now I go out with a setup and look for opportunities with what I have.  In other words I will go looking for small spiders or other insects on something stationary if I am carrying my MPE-65 Macro Lens. (it goes from 1:1-5:1 magnification). I always hand hold it and usually shoot between 2.5:1 and 3.5:1. When I have it I will also look for hand held focus stacking opportunities. 

If I go out with my 100mm macro I will be looking for larger bugs such as bees, beetles, grass hoppers etc.

One thing about taking photos of bugs, they don't wait on you. If you see a live one you usually don't have the time to say, hold on there, wait until I change my lens configuration, so when you go out you look for things to shoot that will work with what you have mounted.


Cheat Sheet

How to take a true handheld macro photo of a live bug

  1. Set your camera to manual “M”.

  2. Enter a shutter speed that will sync with your flash such as 1/200th – less if you want a mixture of ambient light.

  3. Set ISO to 100

  4. Enter an aperture of f/8 or f/11 – if shooting Nikon and it is a true macro you can increase it two stops.

  5. Decide how much magnification you want by manually pre-focusing on a similar size area.

  6. Turn autofocus off

  7. Set your flash to its automatic or manual mode.

  8. Take a test shot of a similar lighted subject and adjust the flash manually or by using flash compensation. When doing this test shot it should be of a similar reflective area. In other words if the bug is on a brown fence shoot a part of the brown fence if it is on a white flower shoot a white flower.

  9. Move into the insect and adjust your angle to get the most DOF while keeping the eye(s) the sharpest.

  10. Take the shot



The above cheat sheet contains all the steps to get a great handheld macro shot.  If it does not work it is you not the equipment.  So it is helpful to understand each of these steps. If you do the exersices on the "Three Days to Better Live Bug Photos" you will prove to yourself why this works.

I have placed links to sites that I thought were some of the best for specific topics. Best to me means, easy to understand where you benefit greatly. I have also put up a page of them for easy reference.

Anyway, along this journey I have found that it could be one of the best ways to understand photography as when you magnify an object you also magnify all the obstacles of getting a good photo. You will learn that the "M" setting on your camera really stands for "Maximum Quality Photo". You will also end up understanding depth of field, shutter speed and camera movement along with using a flash manually.

I have found it to be a great hobby as there are bugs everywhere. You can just go out in your backyard, or while you wait for the perfect time to take that sunrise or sunset photo you will now have something different to do - photograph bugs.

You don't need tons of expensive equipment to get a good macro shot you just need patience, practice more practice and some knowledge.

However, if you have a really big budget go out and purchase a nice full frame DSLR, a fixed focal length macro lens (100mm from Adorama just click on the link on the left) and a dedicated Macro Flash. Look over the manuals, set your camera to f11, a 200th of a second, ISO 100, set the flash to E-TTL, pre-focus to the closest point, and move into a bug and when in focus take the shot. With technology today you will not be disappointed as about 30 - 40 percent of your shots will be good! not necessarily great but good.   Yes, not 1 or 2 percent like you will get if you follow the advice on most web sites.

However, if this is not in your budget you can start getting the same good results for less than a hundred dollars with skill and knowledge. Actually for as little as ten bucks you can get going.

On this site there is a lot of redundancy as very few will read every page so hopefully each page will bring something new as well as reinforce what is sort of required knowledge. This site is not meant to be an all and everything about macro bug shots or macro theory (lens design etc), it is meant to be a place where you learn what some of your options are for hardware and find some tips for getting that good bug shot on a consistent basis. In some of the examples on this site I use f/8, f/11, f/14 or f/16 which may not seem consistent; however it depends on magnification and the bellows factor (more on that later).

As mentioned above that the knock out drop dead unbelievable shot you see of a bug was probably staged with multiple shots with the images focus stacked. You will find by reading this it cannot have been done any other way as depth of field does not exist at extremely high magnification. Can you hand hold a camera and shoot a stack? the answer is yes, in many cases  you can hand hold a camera and shoot a stack. I go over that in my workshops.  Once you do it you will be amazed at the results and it really isn't that hard once you get it down. When practicing one time I took the first shot closed my eyes and took five more that were aligned - it may be sort of a Zen thing, I don't know, I just know how to do it.  Now I frequently close my eyes when shooting a stack.

On this site there is a little manual that is sold that will train you how to hand hold your camera and shoot a series of images for focus stacking.  The sale of this manual is what pays the hosting costs of this site.

I would also like to thank Jeff Carsten a retired professional photographer who worked as my mentor along this journey. One thing he taught me that I always do is once you get back, put the images on a PC, put the card back in your camera and format it. Now you are ready to go again and you won't forget your card.

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