Beginner's guides to digital SLR Photography

Macro photography with a digital SLR camera — Part 2

Following on from the previous article, now I’m going to talk about some ways to take your macro photos to the next level.

PART 1   |   PART 2


Dealing with the background

I mentioned in the first section how depth of field can be a problem in macro work. Because once you get into macro, it becomes crazy difficult even getting a whole bug in focus. But that can work to your advantage. All you have to do is get some distance between your subject and the background and then suddenly macro’s tiny depth of field starts working for you, blurring your background into a smooth sheet of colour. That’s what I did in the butterfly shot above.

getting the background in focus

In this first drawing the background’s going to be about the same distance away as the bug. So the background’s going to either be in focus, or close enough to it to be almost in focus. That means that the background is likely to compete for attention with your subject.

getting the background out of focus

In this next drawing the background is, well, in the background. Because it’s difficult enough to get a whole bug in focus, then something a few feet away or further is going to be reduced to nothing more than a massive smudge. So look for opportunities to put some distance between the subject and its background. That can often come from simply photographing it from a different angle.

Black background

The flash is only sufficient for the foreground objects Jumping Spider

When you combine f/16 and 250th second, everything except those objects within reach of the flash will probably be underexposed. The photo of the jumping spider, taken in broad daylight, is an example of that.

Okay, so you’ve got the background separated out from your subject, but it’s gone black. What’s happening?

The problem is that the flash is only throwing enough light to illuminate your subject. The rest of the shot is being badly underexposed by your manually selected settings of 250th second at f/16. If the flash had been bright enough to illuminate the background, then your subject up close would be badly blown out (overexposured).


The tripod allows for a longer exposure

Putting the camera on a tripod will allow you to keep that f/16 aperture for your depth of field, while also having a much slower shutter speed to expose the whole scene better and more evenly.

Using a tripod lets you go back to the kind of shutter speed necessary to get the background properly exposed while still keeping that small f/16 aperture for your depth of field.

Okay, we might not want the background to be in focus, but we might not want all your photos to look like they were taken at night either.

Here’s your chance to find a nice, even background that is lit front-on with good light. In such ideal conditions as this you might be able to get away with hand-held shots but otherwise your camera will find this new setup more to its liking.

At this point I’ll add that when it comes to buying a tripod then I think it’s worth getting a good one. Your tripod will probably be with you for much longer than your camera body.

flash natural light

Both of these shots were taken in the middle of the day. Picture 1 was taken with a flash and Picture 2 using nothing but natural light. Note the black (underexposed) background in the picture taken with a flash.

Not using the flash

Keep your aperture at about f/16 and turn off your flash. And you don’t need to be in manual mode any more. Switch to aperture priority mode (or whatever your brand of camera calls it) and allow your camera to choose the right shutter speed for the shot. Your background will still be blurred, but it will no longer come out black.


Getting the camera down at the critter’s level will often put the background into the distance, blurring the background so much that it no longer competes with the subject. This is a trick which works with other types of photography too.

This is where the beautiful patches of light to be found first thing in the morning or very late in the afternoon can produce wonderful macro photography, due to the light’s rich golden quality. And since the bugs are colder they won’t move as quickly. I personally believe natural light is the most beautiful.

Camera vibration

I said earlier that when you’re taking macro shots, the slightest camera shake can produce a blurred shot. That becomes even more noticeable with longer exposures. Okay, you’re using a tripod to help keep things still, but the mechanical bits of the camera can cause some vibration too. That’s why I use a cable release.

Cable release

cable releases

Cable releases. Make sure you use the right type for your camera.

A cable release will prevent your trigger finger from shaking the camera. But if you don’t have a cable release, you also have the option of using a delayed (timer) exposure. Chances are your camera will allow you to expose the shot some seconds after you touch the shutter button, allowing the camera time to stop vibrating.

Live view mode

A lot of the newer digital SLRs have a feature called live view mode. What that means is, you compose your image on the screen on the camera rather than by looking through the viewfinder. I think it’s a matter of preference as to how you like to work, and LCD screens can be difficult to see properly in daylight. But live view mode can often allow you to ‘zoom in’ on part of the subject to check small areas of focus and so that that can come in mighty handy for fine macro work.

Ugly backgrounds

Ugly background Using two tripods

Sometimes the background is correctly exposed but also just plain ugly. Using a second tripod to hold your subject allows you to move it to some place where it’s not a problem.

Here’s where we can be a bit sneaky. You’ll see in the first picture you can sometimes you get a really ugly background behind your subject. Now, in the first article I talked about the importance of having a good tripod. Before I got my good tripod I had a really cheap, lightweight tripod. I found out that the cheap tripod was worse then useless for holding a camera because the slightest breeze would make the camera wobble. But it turned out to be perfect for holding something as light as a grass stem with a bug on it!

So what I do, is to use the lightweight tripod to hold my photo subject. If you carefully cut off the leaf holding your insect then you can use a cheap, lightweight tripod to hold the leaf in front of your ideal (distant) background. That’s what I’m illustrating in the next graphic (at right.) This time, everything is just where I want it. I won’t pretend I invented this trick. A lot of the experts use methods like this.

device for holding a plant stem with a tripod

This clothes-peg thing sitting on top of the old tripod cost me nothing, but does a great job at holding plant stems in front of my macro setup.

If you want, you can buy clever thingies that turn the head of a tripod into something that holds a clamp, but you can save some money by doing it yourself. Some of the best professional photographers I know solve problems with tape and wire and cardboard instead of spending more money. In the picture at right I show you the result of a few minutes playing with some stuff lying around the house. You’ll see that it’s just some cardboard, tape and a clothes peg mounted on top of the old tripod. The screw which normally holds a camera onto the tripod screws into the cardboard instead and that clothes peg holds the plant stem. And because it’s sitting on a camera tripod head, I can make it go up or down or rotate it or whatever I want.

It would be possible to write entire books about macro photography, and of course lots of photographers have done just that. There are heaps of techniques and tricks that will enhance your work and this series just doesn’t have time for all of them.

So consider this as just a start. If you follow some of the things I’m talking about you should hopefully be improving your ratio of macro keepers. Now you just have to go hunting for some interesting bugs.

PART 1   |   PART 2


Beginners’ guides to digital SLR photography


Before you start


The essential basics


Making sense of technical stuff

Photography words

Photography words explained


Sneaky stuff


Common problems and their solutions

Preying mantis

Taking things further


Photography at night

Other photography stuff

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