Macro photography is close-up photography on steroids. It’s all about getting as close to small things—like bugs, the details on a flower petal, or the head of a pin—as the laws of physics allow without a microscope and taking a picture.
Over on our sister site How-To Geek, Jason’s got a great guide on how to take your first macro photos. Here we’re going to dig into the gear you need to get started.
A Macro Lens (Probably) Isn’t Necessary
You don’t need a dedicated macro lens to start taking macro photos—they cost hundreds of dollars, and there are much cheaper ways to get much the same effect, which we’ll look at in a moment. However, there’s a reason that pros use macro lenses, so it’s worth having a quick look before going further.
By definition, a macro lens is any lens that can reproduce something at a 1:1 ratio or better on the film sensor. Or, in plain English, if you’re taking a close-up photo of a daisy, that daisy will be projected onto the sensor at least the same size it is in real life. By contrast, if you take a portrait of someone standing a few feet away, their head will be projected on to the sensor at, perhaps, 1% of its true size. This is what gives you such glorious close-ups with macro lenses.
To get these close-ups, macro lenses have extremely short minimum focus distances. Most lenses won’t focus on something that’s closer than a few feet away, while a dedicated macro lens can focus on things that are as close as 8 to 12 inches away. That’s why you can’t just take super-close-up photos with whatever lens you have lying about.
If you really want a macro lens, there are some great options out there—and they can be used for other kinds of photography, too. If you shoot Canon, cast a glance at the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens ($899); for Nikon fans, try the Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens ($897).
Otherwise, here’s what we do recommend.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras, Lens Only
A spectacular Canon macro lens—but overkill if you're just starting out.
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens
One of Nikon's best macro lenses. Great for close ups and portraits.
A Set of Extension Tubes
So, if you’re not going to use a dedicated macro lens, you need a way to make your existing lenses work as one. The simplest way to get great results is with extension tubes. These tubes fit between your lens and your camera and, due to the physics of optics, decrease the minimum focus distance of your lens, and thus increase the possible magnification you can get. I much prefer them to the other options like reversing rings, as they don’t expose your lenses to the elements.
Most extension tubes come in sets with three tubes of differing lengths. The tubes can either be used individually or in combination as needed to get the magnification you want. It’s awkwardly mathematical to predict the exact magnification you’ll get with any specific combination of lens and tubes, so just play around and see what works for the kind of things you’re shooting.
There are two main categories of extension tubes: ones with electronic connections and ones without. Extension tubes with electronic connections are significantly more expensive, but they let you use your camera’s automatic features like autofocus, exposure metering, and aperture control. Extension tubes without electronic connections are basically cheap dumb pipes—they work great, but you have to focus manually, dial in your own exposure, and have to shoot with the aperture wide open.
At $9.95, this set of FotodioX extension tubes for Canon and Nikon cameras is great for getting started. They don’t connect your lens to your camera electronically, but at that price you can’t argue. There are 7mm, 14mm, and 28mm tubes, so you can extend any lens by between 7mm and 49mm. These, like all extension tubes, will work best with a telephoto lens like a 50mm or 85mm lens.
As an upgrade, consider this set of Kenko automatic extension tubes ($129.90) for both Canon and Nikon cameras. The 12mm, 20mm, and 36mm all preserve your camera’s electronic connection to the lens, so you can use its automatic features.
A Sturdy Tripod
All photography is limited by the laws of physics, and macro photography is more limited than most. One of the quirks of optics is that the closer your lens is to the object you’re photographing, the narrower the depth of field. This means that with macro photography, the area in focus in your photos can be absolutely tiny. Check the header image of this article: the spider’s eyes are in focus, but its body isn’t—that’s an area in focus of just a few millimeters.
It’s almost impossible to handhold your camera steadily enough to get in-focus shots for macro photography. Instead, you need to lock your camera down on a steady tripod. We have a whole guide on buying a tripod, but if you want the short answer, go with our top pick: the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB.
It folds down to 24.75-inches and extends to a maximum height of 65 inches. Even better, the legs can splay really wide, and the center column inverts so its minimum height is just 6.25 inches. Absolutely perfect for macro photography.
Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB 100 Aluminum Tripod with SBH-100 Ball Head for Sony, Nikon, Canon DSLR Cameras, Black
A perfect macro tripod. Sturdy and reliable. And gets low enough for any subject.
A Focus Rail
Even with a tripod to lock your camera down, getting focus with macro photography is a challenge. It’s just hard to make fine adjustments by moving around 10 pounds of camera, lens, and tripod. To get more control, you need a macro focus rail.
These rails mount on top of your tripod and let you make tiny adjustments to your camera’s position relative to the subject. If you want to tweak the focus by just a few tenths of an inch without having to move your tripod and reframe your whole shot, they’re the tool you need.
Reputable four-way focus rails start at about $40 for this model from Neewer, while popular professional models, like the Oben MFR4-5, are more expensive. They all do the same thing: what changes is how well built they are and how smoothly they make adjustments.
A Ring Light or Macro Light
Again, the laws of physics are against macro photographers. If you get up close to your subject, you interfere with the natural light and often cast a shadow that can throw off your shots. Also, if you have an electronic extension tube, you want the option to use a narrow aperture, which means you need more light. The fix to both problems is the same: bring your own.
There are two main styles of macro lights: ring lights and flexible camera-mounted lights. Ring lights surround the lens and project an even light towards your subject. They’re great for when you want to guarantee easy flattering light for your subjects.
Flexible camera-mounted lights are attached to extendable bendy wires and mount to your camera’s hot-shoe. They give you more options with how you position the lights relative to your subject.
Bolt has great starter models available in both kinds: the VM-110 ring light and the VM-210 flexible macro light. Both run on 4 AA batteries, although only the VM-210 is a true camera flash—the VM-110 only provides continuous light.
A lot of photographers overthink their gear situation and assume they need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to try new things. You really don’t. A cheap set of extension tubes and your existing tripod are all you need to get started with macro photography. As you get more into it, you can add a focus rail and a light for more interesting shots, but you don’t need them at the very start.
So, what are you waiting for? Get up close and get shooting!