New Ways To Think About Macro

To get a unique close-up perspective, think beyond the usual macro lens
This Article Features Photo Zoom

A larger-than-life paper wasp engages a water bug at the local watering hole.


A flowery detail shot of the Texas prickly pear.

There's a wonderful miniature world out there you can capture with your camera. There are flowers and lichens at your feet, insects buzzing everywhere, tiny frogs and lizards hiding in the ground cover and miniature scenics in every grand landscape. To capture the essence of this world, know your subject, pay strict attention to your composition and know the working details of your equipment. Every lens you have has the potential to be a great lens for close-up or macro work when you know their benefits and limits. Decide what you want to photograph and how you want to present your subject, and you can select your lens accordingly. Telephotos can give you a comfortable working distance, while extreme close-up situations with depth of field are suited to your arsenal of wide-angle lenses. Optional equipment like diopters, extension tubes and teleconverters broaden your photo opportunities and the subjects you can effectively photograph.

First, I'll go over some math. Don't panic! It's simple, and understanding the math defines reproduction ratios so it's pretty important. The reproduction ratio of the image size on the film plane or digital sensor, X, to the actual size of the subject you're photographing, Y, is expressed as a ratio, X:Y. An image that's reproduced at "life-size" (image size equals subject size) on a film plane/sensor would have a reproduction ratio of X = 1 to Y = 1, or 1:1). Typically, "close-up" photography involves reproduction ratios from about 1:10 (the subject size is 10 times the image size on the film plane/sensor) to about 1:1 (life-size). Ratios where the film plane/sensor size is equal to or greater than the subject size, such as 2:1 (the image size on the film plane/sensor is twice the size of the subject) is usually referred to as "macro" or "super-macro" photography. There's wiggle room in the definitions, and the terms are often interchanged.

To capture truly great macro images, it's a good idea to research your subject. For example, to photograph mating gray petaltail dragonflies or robber flies, you need to know where to find them, when they're present and active, and how wary they are of your approach. For wildflowers, you need to know what species you want to photograph, where you can find them and when they bloom. You also need to decide whether you want basic record images or artistic impressions. Do you want your subject and its environment, or are you trying to isolate a singular feature? These are key composition considerations for any macro photograph.

A Western diamondback rattlesnake captured from a safe distance in the Rio Grande.

There are a number of other considerations that play important roles in your lens and accessory selection. Depth of field, subject concerns like working distance, and the choice between a cleaner background that will isolate a subject versus backgrounds that include the habitat and surroundings all figure into your gear choices. Most nature photographers carry macro lenses, optimized for close-up work, but they're not the only arrows you should have in your quiver. All your lenses, from wide-angle to supertelephoto, and accessories like extension tubes and high-quality achromatic lenses can be part of your macro equipment.

Early in my career, I didn't even own a macro lens. I used a Nikon medium telephoto zoom and two-element Nikon diopters. The zoom telephoto provided a good working distance for wary insects, but the minimum focusing distance was too far for small subjects. The diopters let me focus closer, emphasizing the subject. I recommend high-quality, two-element diopters. They're very sharp and you don't suffer the light loss of extension tubes. I captured great photos with this initial setup, but I wanted to improve my images and started researching macro lenses. A lens designed for true macro work is optimized for edge-to-edge sharpness and close-focusing capability without the need of additional elements like diopters or extension tubes.

Eventually, I purchased an extremely sharp Micro-Nikkor 200mm ƒ/4D and an AF Micro-Nikkor 70-180mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D macro telephoto zoom. The macro world opened up for me, and I found a wealth of new subjects to photograph. The 70-180mm macro lens has proven invaluable in capturing images of rapidly moving, and sometimes dangerous, subjects like giant centipedes, spiders and scorpions. These macro telephoto lenses provide the working distance I need (you can capture frame-filling images from a greater distance than with a 50mm or 60mm macro lens), and the zoom aspect of the 70-180mm macro let me quickly recompose as insects like these can move quickly. I also can easily switch from a habitat view to a dynamic close-up with a quick twist of the zoom adjustment to capture an entirely different perspective of my subject.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

In Southern Utah, Welling frames purple geranium nicely against yellow tall goldenrod solidago plants.

I was creating nice photos, but noticed my macro images all started looking compositionally similar. They captured something of the environment, but they were mostly straightforward record photos. I needed to expand my macro creativity, so I broadened my lens selection. I began using all my lenses, from wide-angle to supertelephoto, to capture macro images with different expressive feelings. The wide-angle lenses have the benefit of a broad depth of field while allowing close focus on a subject. I could create impressionistic images of wildflowers by placing some flowers near the front element of the lens, creating out-of-focus swaths of color to frame a wildflower, yet still have enough depth of field to keep a specific flower sharp and make it the main element of the image. The wide-angle approach provides a completely different perspective I couldn't achieve with longer telephoto lenses.

I gained an additional benefit using wide-angle lenses for macro work. I often hike some distance to photograph grand landscape images, and having wide-angle lenses for macro work, I can eliminate the weight of a macro lens in my backpack, but still create interesting, intimate, small-world images. I give up working distance with this setup, so I photograph insects and small animals differently, usually capturing more of an environmental image rather than an isolated close-up.

A robber fly perches on a dead stalk near Hornsby Bend, Texas. Telephoto macros are great tools for staying away from dangerous animals and skittish creatures while still providing the ability to get close to the action. Welling has employed several telephoto lenses with macro abilities and extension tubes for achieving even more range.

I also began using superzoom telephoto lenses for small critter macro photography for several reasons. One issue is depth of field. You almost always want the eyes of the creature in very sharp focus, but how much else is in focus is determined by your creativity and lens selection. And you need to get close enough to emphasize your subject in the frame, but not so close that you scare it away. Telephoto lenses provide greater working distance. With live subjects, you also need to make quick decisions regarding your overall composition, and a zoom lens helps tremendously. I prefer subject isolation, making the background as out of focus as possible. Medium telephoto macro lenses have two drawbacks for macro—not enough working distance and too much depth of field for the aperture I usually need, which results in too much background detail. I now use two supertelephoto lenses for this work, one with a 1.4x converter for magnification and one with extension tubes.

I started photographing odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) several years ago, and the Nikon 200-400mm ƒ/4 AF-S VR with a 1.4 teleconverter was my workhorse setup for many years. While I captured superb, frame-filling images of many small creatures with this outfit, it's heavy and requires a tripod, making it somewhat hard to use for macro work. I began searching for another lighter, quicker-to-use setup. Recently, I started using the Sigma APO 50-150mm F2.8 EX DC OS HSM zoom telephoto with Kenko auto-extension tubes. The sharpness is exceptional, and the working distance and zoom range are great. I photographed a new species of spiketail dragonfly with this setup. At 100% magnification, you can see the individual hairs on the dragonfly. Although 1 stop to 11⁄2 stops slower than my other supertelephoto lens, the 50-150mm is much lighter, so carrying it on long treks is much easier. With its stabilization capability, it can be used handheld in many situations, eliminating the need for a tripod. It's definitely in my macro gear backpack.

One trick I also use is image cropping thanks to the resolution of my Nikon D3X. This gives me an extremely large file that lets me get tighter framing after taking the shot. For example, if my subject is small in the frame (a low reproduction ratio), I can crop to emphasize the subject. Even cropped, these files usually are large enough for publication and print work. For more options, the Lensbaby Sweet 35 Optic lens attachment also provides extended selective-focus abilities and utilizes click-stop aperture adjustment. This setup gives me another way to experiment with bokeh and selective focus.

You can see more of Dave Welling's photography by visiting and

1 Comment

    The best tip I can give: EXPOSE FOR THE BACKGROUND So often I see black backgrounds…lighten up on the flash duration/pwr, lower shutter speed, expand ISO a tad, maybe ISO 400 instead of 100 and don’t use f/16+ try f/8-f/11. Place a colored flat surface behind your subject and light it with a secondary light source. A great setup is a macro twin light where on is the key light and the other is fill for the background. Wow, it has been so long since I was into macro.

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