How to get sharp macro photos

Macro photography can be extremely challenging. Getting an in focus, sharp photo requires impeccable technique. This article will help you get the sharpness part of the equation down pat so you can concentrate on composition and exposure challenges.
Updated: 27th April, 2020

All of the fundamentals of photography apply in getting sharp macro photos, but because you are working at extreme magnifications their application can be more of a challenge. The basic things to cover are:

  1. Set your depth of field to cover everything you want to be in focus
  2. Achieve accurate focus
  3. Ensure the camera is still
  4. Make sure your subject is still (or you use a fast enough shutter speed)

Sounds easy! And in theory it is, but real life isn't quite so simple, as outlined below:

Depth of Field In Macro

When working at the high magnifications needed for macro and closeup photography controlling Depth of Field becomes critical in getting sharp photos. Consider that when shooting at 1:1 magnification on a full-frame camera at f2.8 your depth of field is around 1mm (even less on a crop sensor camera). Even stopping down to f/22 only yields around 8mm of sharp focus.

Control Your Aperture

When shooting macro you should set your camera to use Aperture Priority mode (or manual if you're brave). By doing so you will gain full control over your depth of field.

Remember that a smaller f-number means a smaller depth of field. The following table shows approximate depth of field values for each aperture at 1:1 magnification (with any lens):

F-NumberFull Frame DoF1.5x Crop Dof
f/2.81 mm0.8mm
f/41.6 mm1.0 mm
f/5.62.2 mm1.4 mm
f/83.0 mm2.0 mm
f/166.1 mm4.0 mm
f/228.3 mm5.5 mm
f/3212 mm8.1 mm

Choosing Your Plane Of Focus

Because you only have a very limited depth of field to work with, you should carefully consider your composition to make full use of that depth. Make sure that any of the subject that you want in-focus is parallel to your camera's sensor (see below for an example).

Keeping the subject parallel to the sensor will help with sharp macro photos.
Keeping the subject parallel to the lens helped keep the important parts of the image inside the depth of field.

Achieving Accurate Focus

Despite large advances in autofocus technology, even modern cameras can struggle to achieve accurate focus on macro photos. The focus points often cover too large an area and may lock onto something slightly in front or behind the optimal point. Due to the depth of field issue discussed above, even tiny errors in focus can be the difference between a great shot and a throwaway one.

Below you can see an example of a 'so close' moment, where the camera's autofocus has locked onto the insects's back, rather than the eye as intended. This was likely due to the back having higher contrast than the eye, making it easier for the camera to focus on.

A misfocused shot will ruin otherwise sharp macro photos
Autofocus locked onto the higher contrast area of the insect's back, making the focus point too far back and the eyes blurry.

Use Manual Focus

For this reason, I recommend you put your camera in manual focus mode for macro photography. For many people, the idea of turning off their camera’s autofocus system fills them with fear. However, by using the technique outlined below you will increase the number of perfectly focused macro photos.

  • Set your camera to manual focus mode
  • Set your lens to focus at the minimum focus distance
  • Point your camera at your subject and get close to your subject
  • Move your camera back and forwards until the focus point is exactly where you need it.

If you find that your subject is too large in the frame, simply adjust your lens' focus point to be slightly away from the minimum point and try again. Your camera will be slightly further away from your subject and it will be smaller in the frame. If you are using a macro lens it will probably have markings to show the reproduction ratio at various focus points.

Magnification scale on a macro lens
The magnification scale on a Tamron 60mm macro lens

1:1 means you will fill the frame with a subject the same size as your camera sensor. 1:2 means you will fill the frame with a subject twice wide and twice as tall as the sensor and so on. You can read more about reproduction ratios here (coming soon)

Keep your camera still

The idea that your camera has to be as still as possible when taking a photo certainly isn’t unique to macro photography. However, because you are dealing with very high reproduction ratios, even tiny camera movements will have a detrimental effect on the sharpness of your photos.

Vibration Reduction in Macro

Optical stabilisation technology has come a long way in recent years, and will certainly help you take sharper closeup photos. However, as the reproduction ratio of your image increases (ie, closer to 1:1 magnification and beyond), VR systems become less effective. This is due to the same reason as why tiny camera movements can cause blurry photos.

Using a tripod, monopod or other stabilising techniques.

If you are shooting still or slow moving subjects a tripod can be very helpful in eliminating camera movements. If you're using the manual focusing technique described above, a sliding head for your tripod can make it much easier to move your camera back and forwards.

Macro sliding rail

Moving subjects will be almost impossible to capture with a tripod due to the time it takes to set up. However a monopod can be very helpful in these situations. It certainly doesn't offer the same stability as a tripod, but it will be much more stable than handholding and with some practice can be very quick to set up.

If you find that even a monopod is too limiting, an alternative is to simply brace yourself and/or your camera against something solid while shooting. Leaning your shooting arm or body against a tree, pole or even the ground will help to keep things steady. A lot of practice is required to handhold high magnification macro photos, but it is certainly possible.

Holding a pole to stabilise the camera for sharp macro photos
Holding onto a broomstick to help stabilise the camera (LCD view is simulated, obviously 🙂 )

Keep your subject still

This can often be easier said than done, especially if you are shooting live creatures and/or outdoors. For the same reasons as camera movement, even the tiniest of subject movements can have the intended subject swinging wildly through the viewfinder. 

Consider, if you are taking a photo at 1:1, something that was in the centre of your frame will be completely outside it if it moves just 16mm to the left or right. Looking through the viewfinder of a moving object at macro magnifications can make it look like you're in the middle of a earthquake!

Avoid the wind, or block it.

Even the smallest breeze can shake a flimsy plant enough to make it impossible to photograph. Many macro photographers will not bother venturing outside if there is any kind of breeze.

Shooting in the early morning is often the best time to find still conditions. That also has the bonus of providing the best natural light and will be the time when insects haven’t yet fully warmed up and become most active.

Unfortunately you can’t control the wind, but if you find yourself trying to take a photo in a breezy area you can often block it with something like a reflector or other solid object. This is made easier by the fact that what you are photographing is usually quite small. Patience is also key in breezy conditions. Sometimes it can help to set yourself up and wait for a momentary drop in the breeze before quickly making sure your composure is spot on and pressing the shutter.

Anchor your subject to something

It can also help to anchor an easily moveable subject to something more solid (like a tripod, or the ground) to stop it from moving around. There are some reasonably priced accessories available that can help with that:

The Wimberly Plamp (short for ‘Plant Clamp’) is a fantastic tool for holding a swaying plant steady. If you're shooting an insect on a swaying branch these tools can also help with steadying it. I have used the Plamp, attached to a tripod leg to great effect:

Example use of a Plamp to stabilise a flower

Shoot indoors

If possible, consider moving your macro subject indoors. It isn't always practical to do so of course, and you have to be mindful of any issues that might arise from you moving things from outdoors to inside - but it can certainly work for some subjects. Once inside you will be able to better control your shooting environment.

Be Mindful of Your Shutter Speeds

One effect of stopping down your lens to f/16 or smaller in order to get a larger depth of field is that the amount of light entering your lens will be very small, resulting in very slow shutter speeds. A slow shutter speed will increase the chance of motion blur ruining your photos.

For still subjects and using a solid tripod you can get away with shutter speeds as low as 1/30 of a second. For anything moving, or handheld shots you will need something much higher. 1/200, 1/400 or above is often ideal.

Using a flash

You can use a flash to light your subject and get faster shutter speeds, but that does come at a cost. Using flash as your main light will probably result in very dark, or black backgrounds. This can often be a desirable effect, but something you need to be aware of.

A black background
Black background due to using flash as the main light source

Another challenge with using a flash is that because you are so close to your subject, your camera and lens can often block the light coming from your flash. Using an off-camera solution can help, or there are dedicated external flash units that attach to the end of your lens to help.

Combining a flash with a slower shutter speed can also be helpful in freezing your subject while keeping detail in the background. Set your camera to manual mode and experiment with exposure values to find a setting that works well.

Increase your ISO

Another way to increase your shutter speed without compromising on depth of field is to increase your ISO value. Doubling your ISO will halve your shutter speed (make it twice as fast). Of course, this will increase the digital noise in your photo, but a noisy photo is usually better than a blurry one.

Summary

There is quite a lot of information to take in when trying to get sharp macro photos. It certainly isn't easy, but with practice a lot of the above techniques will become second nature. It can often be helpful to examine the shots that didn't quite turn out as you'd hoped an analyse what went wrong.

  • Was your depth of field too shallow? Increase your f-number
  • Did you miss the focus point? Try manual focus mode, or increase your depth of field
  • Did your camera move, making the photo blurry? Find a way to stabilise yourself or the camera. Maybe increase your shutter speed
  • Did your subject move, making the photo blurry? Find a way to suppress the movement, or increase your shutter speed.

With lots of practice and plenty of patience you will be able to take amazing closeup photos that explore worlds that most people don't see every day.

Do you have any other techniques that work for you? Let us know in the comments section below!

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