One question you might ask yourself when you’re just starting out with macro photography is the difference between macro, micro and close-up photography. Is there one? Are they all the same?
There is. And they’re not.
In our article we’ll take you through everything macro, micro and close-up. You’ll learn what the differences between these three photography types are, and what equipment can help you with each.
The term ‘close-up photography’ has no scientific definition. It is generally understood to mean any photo that shows the subject closer and in more detail than we’re used to seeing in everyday life.
It can be applied to a tightly cropped head shot, 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.
Obviously, we can’t get significantly closer to the moon by moving the camera. But for small terrestrial objects, getting closer to the subject is the crux of the matter.
As we move closer to a subject, the image on the sensor gets larger.
But there’s a snag – you’ll eventually reach the minimum focusing distance, where you can no longer focus the image.
Achieving True Macro
For non close-up photography, the size of the image of a subject formed on the sensor is much smaller than the subject itself.
For example, the image of a tree 10 metres tall 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, if we can get close enough and still keep the subject in focus, we can produce an image that’s the same size as the subject.
At that point, the ratio will be 1:1. This is sometimes called life-size or just X1 magnification. It is the point at which we pass from general close-up images to true macro.
The term ‘macro photography’ is more properly applied 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 really just a close-up setting.
In order to be considered true macro, the sensor image size must be 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.
Before considering specialist equipment, let’s examine a few options available to those who want to explore true macro in the range X1 to X10.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EFS 17-85mm
The cheapest option is to fit the lens onto your digital camera back-to-front with the help of a simple adapter ring. This fits your camera body on one side and screws into the filter thread of your lens on the other side.
The disadvantage is that you lose control of the lens. It’s no longer electrically connected to the camera.
The aperture will be wide open once the lens is removed from the camera body. On some lenses, you can lock the desired aperture can by pressing the depth-of-field preview button while disconnecting the lens.
This will upset the automatic metering so the camera will need to be set to full manual mode. Adjust the shutter speed and ISO for the desired image sharpness and brightness.
A reversing ring costing only a few pounds has, in this example, enabled a crop-sensor lens to be used to good effect on a full-frame camera. It achieved a magnification of X4.
If you prefer to keep your lenses attached to your camera, you can attach close-up lens ‘filters’ onto the filter thread of your normal lens. These normally 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 normal camera lens. If that doesn’t get you close enough, swap it for a stronger power or combine them.
Close-up screw-in lenses will get you into the true macro range but with reduced optical quality.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EFS 18-135mm
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.
Extension tubes move the camera lenses farther away from the sensor. This means that the focal plane once again lies on the sensor to produce a sharp image.
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.
Extension tubes can be stacked to achieve closer focusing distances. They will generally get you just into the true macro range.
A dedicated macro lens will let you focus close enough to achieve 1:1 image size without any additional attachments. They can also focus on infinity so you can use them like a normal prime lens.
This image was taken hand-held in natural light using a 60mm macro lens and then cropped to 3404 x 2269 pixels:
ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon 7D MkII
ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM
If you want higher magnifications, you can combine macro lenses with other techniques like extension tubes for example.
Canon make an unusual macro lens that can zoom between 1:1 an 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. This can be difficult to do accurately at high magnifications. A sturdy tripod and some kind of focusing rack is essential.
Micro vs Macro
Micro photography is a term usually applied to magnifications that exceed those you can get with the above methods and equipment.
There is no ‘micro’ lens you can attach to your camera. In order to reach magnifications much in excess of X5, you will need a microscope. This will typically 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.
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 attach your own camera by way of an appropriate adaptor.