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What Is the Difference Between Micro, Macro and Close-Up Photography?

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Related course: Macro Magic

So what is the difference between macro, micro, and close-up photography? Is there one? Are they all the same?

In our article, you’ll learn the differences between these three photography types. And we’ll also show you which equipment can help you with each.

macro photo of a brown butterfly sitting on a flower[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]

What Is Close-Up Photography?

The term ‘close-up photography’ has no scientific definition. It generally means any photo that shows the subject closer and in more detail than we’re used to.

So what does a close-up do? You can apply it to crop a headshot, a flower stamen, or even the moon. It’s not so much about the nearness of the subject as it is about the field of view.

Now, what lens do I need to take close up photos? Any lens can take regular close-ups. All you have to do is either zoom in or get closer.

For instance, you can zoom in to get close-ups of the moon. Or simply shoot at a short distance when shooting small objects.

But most lenses will eventually reach their minimum focusing distance. That means your subject will be blurry if you get too close.

close-up photo of a bird

Close-up vs Macro Photography

For regular photography, the size of the image formed on the sensor is much smaller than the subject itself.

For example, the image of a 10 -metre tree might only produce an image 1 cm tall on the sensor. That’s a ratio of 1:1000. As we get closer to small objects, the image size on the sensor gets much closer to the real-life size of the subject.

Eventually, we can get close enough and still keep the subject in focus. This way we can produce an image that’s the same size as the subject.

At that point, the ratio will be 1:1. You can call it life-size or just X1 magnification. It is the point at which we pass from general close-up images to true macro.

conventional close up photography graph

In photography, macro applies to situations where the image size is equal to or greater than that of the subject. But it’s not uncommon to see a lens with a ‘Macro’ label that’s just a close-up setting.

Canon Zoom Lens

For a lens to be true macro, it needs to produce a sensor image size that’s at least as big as the subject. It is often bigger up to a factor of ten-to-one (X10 or 10:1).

That’s about the highest magnification you can achieve without resorting to a microscope.

Now let’s examine a few options available to achieve macro in the range X1 to X10.

ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EF-S 17-85mm.

What Equipment Do You Need for Macro Photography?

Let’s take a look at all the necessary equipment for shooting macro.

Reversing Ring

The cheapest option for macro photographers is to use a simple adapter ring. It fits onto the front of the lens so you can install backward onto your digital camera.

The disadvantage is that you lose automatic control of the lens. It’s no longer electrically connected to the camera since the lens is backward.

The aperture will be wide open once you remove the lens from the camera body. On some lenses, you can lock the desired aperture. Press the depth-of-field preview button while disconnecting the lens.

Doing so upsets the automatic metering, so you need to set the camera to full manual mode. Adjust the shutter speed and ISO for the desired image sharpness and brightness.

With a reversing ring, you can use a crop-sensor lens on a full-frame camera. Doing so allows you to achieve a magnification of X4 for close-ups.

EF-S 18- 135mm f3.5-5.6 IS STM lens

What if you prefer to keep your lenses attached to your camera? You use close-up lens filters onto the filter thread of your standard lens. These generally come in a set of different magnifying powers (diopters).

When you need to get a little closer to your subject, just screw a +1 diopter close-up lens onto your standard camera lens. If that doesn’t get you close enough, swap it for higher magnification, or combine the filters.

Close-up screw-in lenses will get you into the true macro range but with reduced optical quality.

ExpertPhotography recommends: Fotodiox Macro Reverse Ring.

Extension Tubes

What will happen if you get closer to a subject than the minimum focusing distance? The rays of light will try to come into focus behind the sensor. Consequently, your image will look blurry.

The use of extension tubes moves the camera lenses farther away from the sensor. In other words, the focal plane once again lies on the sensor to produce a sharp image.

extension tubes illustration

The larger image produced using extension tubes is not as bright. It can be equivalent to a decrease of two or more stops at higher magnification. And since they have no optics, there is no loss of quality.

You can stack extension tubes to achieve closer focusing distances. They will generally get you just into the true macro range.

extension tubes on canon camera

ExpertPhotography recommends: Viltrox Metal Extension Tube Set

Macro Lenses

What if you want to do macro photography without the hassles of using attachments? Then consider buying a macro lens.

A dedicated macro lens will let you focus close enough to achieve a 1:1 image size without any additional attachments. This type of lens can also focus on infinity so that you can use it as a standard prime lens.

The below image was taken hand-held in natural light using a 60mm macro lens and then cropped to 3404 x 2269 pixels.

A Close-up Photo of a Bee on a flower

If you want higher magnifications for macro photography, you can combine macro lenses with attachments.

Canon makes an unusual macro lens that can zoom between 1:1 a 5:1 magnification. The MPE-65mm f/2.8 macro lens has no focus ring – just a magnification setting.

To focus, you either have to move the subject or the camera. That’s why it can be challenging to do accurately at high magnifications. A sturdy tripod and some kind of focusing rack are essential.

Macro, Micro, Close-up Photography Lenses

ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM.

ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro Lens.

Micro vs Macro

Microphotography applies to magnifications that exceed those you can get using macro photography equipment

There is no ‘micro’ lens you can attach to your camera. To reach magnifications much above X5, you will need a microscope. This will allow you to achieve magnifications from X7 to X100 or more depending on the optics.

You can buy a microscope for less than the cost of a macro lens. Perhaps the most versatile for photography is an inspection microscope. This type has a ring light to illuminate the subject from above.

Two Close-up Photography Microscopes on white background

Some now have a built-in USB camera, but their resolution is far lower than even a cheap DSLR. Look for an instrument that has a C-mount port. That way, you can use your camera by way of an appropriate adaptor.

ExpertPhotography recommends: Celestron 44341 LCD Digital Microscope II.

Conclusion

Remember that close-up photography is a blanket term for regular close-ups, macro, and micro photography.

Close-up means you’re just shooting at a short distance from the subject. You can use virtually any lens to achieve close-up photos.

Macro means you’re taking super close-ups of objects at 1:1. Meaning, the size of the image on your sensor is equal to the size of the item you’re photographing in real life.

Micro means the magnification is at a microscopic level. In other words, it deals with subjects you can’t see with your naked eye.

All you have to remember are the points above to avoid any confusion. It’s not too hard, right?

Looking to learn more about macro photography? Why not check out our course Macro Magic next!

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