3 Keys to Dazzling Macro Photography

Author: Dean Hueber

purple flower
copyright Dean Hueber

1) Size Matters:  Size, in this case, is the size of your images’ depth of field.  You want your subject in focus, which is not to say that limited focus can not be a creative tool, but in my opinion far too many macro closeups suffer from a lack of critical sharpness, especially when you want to make large prints.  Consider using image stitching software, such as Helicon Focus, that combines multiple images shot at different focus points within your subject, to achieve increased depth of field.  Most of my flower macro shots, for example, are created by combining 3 to 25 images.  The higher number of shots result from being extremely close to the subject when you shoot it.  The closer you are to your subject, the less depth of field you will have, all other things being equal, so if you want extreme closeups of subjects rendered extremely sharply, multiple shots will be required.

cactus blossom2) Background is Critical: The background should be simple and non-distracting; sunny spots, bright rocks, etc. compete with your subject for attention, as do patterns that are too complicated.  Consider cleaning up that background before shooting (remove the grass that is too close to your flower), changing your composition and camera angle to remove a bright area in the background, or using a solid colored drop-cloth to create a simpler background when your compositional choice would result in too busy a background.  You also want to generally limit the depth of field of your background, i.e. ensure that it is relatively blurry. Many good macro subjects are lost in the chaos of a background out of control, so by controlling the background you ensure that your subject gets the attention it deserves!

Dew Drops on Poppy
Dew Drops on Poppy

3) Shady is Better: Generally speaking, macro photography benefits from soft, diffused light rather than direct sunlight on the subject.  Cloudy days, for example, create even, soft light which flatters your subject and enhances colors.  Sunlight can sometimes be used to enhance macro photography, such as backlighting to illuminate textures, but even then I’d generally soften the sunlight with a handheld diffuser rather than have bright sunlight on my subject.  The contrast between sunlit and shadow is often too great, leaving the image with hot spots and too little shadow detail.  Once you’ve captured your image in soft light, a quick levels adjustment via photoshop will allow you to adjust your black point and white point so that your colors are richly saturated and fill the spectrum from light to dark.  Selective levels adjustments allow you to further fine-tune the image.

Dean Hueber is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshop and an avid nature photographer.