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Macro Magic

Find nature’s secrets in the world of the very small
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Lupine Leaves: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 50mm ƒ/2.5 Compact Macro, 0.7 sec. at ƒ/32, ISO 100

When I bought my first camera in 1974, it came with a set of extension tubes for macro photography. I was living near Boulder Creek in Colorado, and because of my fascination with the details of nature, I often focused on macro photography rather than the scenic landscape.

My enthusiasm for macro is still alive and well. As in those early days, my tools are simple. I often use a pair of Canon EF 25 extension tubes with my 50mm Macro or 90mm Tilt-Shift lens. One of the key skills any macro photographer needs to learn is how to manage depth of field. These two lenses, plus tubes, offer me flexible options for a range of creative depth of field. Using a wide aperture and high magnification can give a beautiful soft-focus effect, especially by simplifying the background.

Just as often in my macro photographs, I’ll want total sharpness to reveal the details of my subject, such as showing all of the tiny hairs and water droplets on a wet lupine leaf. For this situation, I’ll often use ƒ/32 or ƒ/22 for maximum depth of field. Although these aren’t the optimum apertures for resolution, I find that optimum focus is more important than perfect resolution.

Plum Blossom: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, TS-E 90mm ƒ/2.8, 1/180 sec. at ƒ/2.8, ISO 400

Besides the obvious need for great light and composition, camera position is especially important with macro imagery. The angle at which one is photographing a subject can determine the degree of sharpness. For example, if you’re aiming obliquely at an interesting ice pattern at ground level, even a small aperture may not pull the whole pattern into sharpness if the focus range is beyond the focal length/aperture combination. The more parallel the camera back is to the main plane of the subject, the better.

In making the photograph of lupine leaves shown here, the hardest part was setting up the tripod so the camera back was as parallel as possible to this group of leaves. I use Gitzo tripods with no center column and legs that “release” to open wider. I can open the tripod legs, which allows for lower camera placement.

Just picking this group of lupine leaves was a highly selective process. I searched diligently for a group that was close together and also of similar height to minimize the distance between the furthest and closest leaf. The selection of lighting, form and compositional aspects, such as density of leaves and depth of field, must all work together to make a great image.

When using the wide-aperture, soft-focus effect, your camera angle is just as important. Besides focusing on the main object, such as a flower, it’s vital to look for potential distractions around it. Bright areas in front of or behind the flower can draw the viewer’s eye away from what you’re trying to show them. Whether handholding my camera or using a tripod, I maneuver around the object while watching carefully to see how the graphic elements fill the frame. As I framed the plum blossom, I moved my position so the branch arched gracefully through the frame without conflicting with the flower’s shape. Once I found the best angle, I focused by moving the camera rather than trying to focus while handholding at high magnifications and/or long focal lengths.

In terms of processing this blossom photograph, I added a second background layer, which I blurred in Photoshop to heighten the soft-focus, glowing effect. I’ve rarely used this technique, known as the Orton Effect, but found it to be a useful tool in this case.

With either the soft or sharp approach mentioned, your choice of aperture is critical. It’s often the case that no one ƒ-stop is perfect, and you must balance the need for sharpness of the main subject against the need for a soft, out-of-focus background. Because of this, I almost always “bracket” my captures with a range of aperture settings. For the plum blossom photograph, I used the lens’ widest aperture, which was ƒ/2.8, to give the softest possible effect. Had I wanted more sharpness in the flower, I would have tried exposures at smaller openings. By bracketing while in the field, I could later find the optimum balance of focus on the flower, but without too much sharpness that gave me a distracting background. I’m able to see the subtle variations much more easily on my computer monitor. For this specific image, I was after a very soft, impressionistic effect, so I used my 90mm Tilt-Shift lens, plus the 25mm extension tube. The tube allowed for macro focus, and I actually tilted the lens to increase the softness, much like using a Lensbaby.

Whether you use a macro lens, or extension tubes or other macro options, learning the basics of close-up photography can add depth to your portfolio, as well as offer new excitement about and exploration of the wondrous details of nature all around us!

To learn about William Neill’s his one-on-one workshops, ebooks (William Neill’s Yosemite, Meditations in Monochrome, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit) and online courses with, and to visit his PhotoBlog, go to

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.