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Close-Up Photography vs Macro vs Micro (What’s the Difference)

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Related course: Macro Magic

So what is the difference between macro vs micro in 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 vs Macro vs Micro?

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 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 image formed on the sensor is much smaller than the subject itself. For example, the image of a 10-meter tree might only produce an image 1 cm tall on the sensor. That’s a ratio of 1:1000.

conventional close up photography graph
A flower whose image is smaller when it reaches the sensor.

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 the same size as the subject.

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

Here, macro applies to situations where the image size is equal to or greater than 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 must produce a sensor image size at least as big as the subject. It is often bigger, up to a factor of ten to one (10x 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 a range of 1x to 10x.

ExpertPhotography recommends the Canon EF-S 17-85mm lens. You can read our articles on macro lenses for Canon and Nikon for more options.

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 that you can install a backward lens 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 is 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 must set the camera to full manual mode. Adjust the shutter speed and ISO for the desired image sharpness and brightness.

You can use a crop-sensor lens on a full frame camera with a reversing ring. Doing so allows you to achieve a magnification of 4x for close-ups.

ExpertPhotography recommends the Fotodiox Macro Reverse Ring.

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens
Canon EOS 6D with a reverse mount adapter and a backward EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens.

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

Do 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 get you into the true macro range. But this is with reduced optical quality.

ExpertPhotography recommends looking at Amazon’s best sellers for camera lens diopters.

Extension Tubes

What happens 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.

Extension tubes move 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
Without (top) and with (bottom) an extension tube.

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 generally get you just into the true macro range.

ExpertPhotography recommends the Viltrox Metal Extension Tube Set.
extension tubes on canon camera

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 lets you focus close enough to achieve a 1:1 image size. That’s without additional attachments. This 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

Do 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 the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM and the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro Lens.

Micro vs Macro

Microphotography applies to magnifications exceeding those you can get using macro photography equipment. There is no “micro” lens you can attach to your camera.

To reach magnifications much greater than 5x, you need a microscope. This allows you to achieve magnifications from 7x to 100x or more, depending on the optics.

Two Close-up Photography Microscopes on white background

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.

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 the 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. So 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 these three points 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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