Macro basics – what’s it all about?

by Paul Harcourt Davies

Many of your macro subjects will be found close to home like this bumblebee on a Passiflora

Many of your macro subjects will be found close to home like this bumblebee on a Passiflora

Jumping in at the deep end

Perhaps you’ve been  producing some nice pictures and honing your photographic skills for a while. Now you find yourself ready to expand into new photographic realms…you’ve seen dramatic close-up shots and want to take your own.

There is no time like the present for a new challenge and with the launch of our new blog Learn Macro, Clay and I will regularly post in a series that will take you through the basics and way beyond. Every now and again, in a world where digital photography changes so rapidly, we all need to reassess what we are doing and we will cover the material as completely and accessibly as we can. We have to battle at things too and are alway learning and experimenting: in this area of photography you never stop and that is one of its big attractions.

When it comes to moving in close, you might be put off by jargon in books and magazines or that other people tell you it is really difficult. Well, don’t believe them. With a bit of patience, a willingness to learn about your subjects and the techniques,  you can begin to take pictures that really make people sit up and take notice.

This is the basis for a series of posts on the basics, those nuts and bolts of what people call ‘macro’ …cameras, lenses, techniques and more…We want to help introduce and foster an interest in an area of photography that we have no doubt you will find as fascinating as we do. Our aim is to help you discover and record subjects in ways that deliver new insights into the world that surrounds us all a world that goes largely goes unnoticed.


I always encourage people to begin their macro work on something where they have a real interest – it gives you an ‘inside track’ because you recognise the image opportunities and you learn and imporve quickly. My early passion (one that still remains) was for wild orchids and i learned more and nmore to try and get the images I wanted. This is a Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) one of a family of insect mimics with a fascinating form and life-style.

So what is ‘macro’?

These days ‘macro‘ is a kind of catch-all term for anything up close…Words can change their meaning with use as time passes and newcomers to this field often find the language confusing because terminology is sometimes used sloppily.

Manufacturers began to use the prefix ‘macro’ as a selling point for what were, in fact, just their close-focusing lenses.The ‘macro’ setting on a zoom is really just a close-focus facility, but ‘macro’ sounds better in a sales pitch. Nikon went further, and called their macro lenses ‘micro Nikkors’ – to add to the confusion they also made a series of specialist ‘macro Nikkors” for laboratory use.


A zoom lens with a good close focus can get you an image like this…I keep a camera on my study desk and just go out on the off-chance for this kind of thing.

Though, the terms ‘close-up’ and ‘macro‘ are often used interchangeably, they refer to separate parts of the magnification range as the image on the sensor gets bigger. To clarify this, we need some way of describing image size and the terms magnification and reproduction ratio are two ways of quantifying this by describing how big the image on the sensor is compared with the subject you are photographing.

For example, if the image is life-size this means it is the same size on the sensor as it is in real life – another way is to say that the magnification is ‘times one’ (or  1x even x1) or again that the reproduction ratio is 1:1.

If an image is one-half life-size, the magnification is 0.5x, and the reproduction ratio is 0.5:1. On the other hand, if the image on the sensor is twice the actual life size of the subject, the magnification is then 2x, and the reproduction ratio is 2:1…

When you buy a ‘macro’ lens of whatever focal length  you are paying for a highly-corrected lens that has been designed to give its best performance when used close to a subject. Without accessories you can also get a life size image on the sensor.

As you’ll see in future posts, a wide range of cameras from smart phones through mirrorless to DSLRs can capture images of things at close quarters and there are several ways of doing this. Usually, you find that a zoom on your camera also has a ‘macro’ setting or macro-focus that  lets you move in close and learn to handle the camera. If you get keen then the most versatile purchase might be a so-called ‘macro’ lens but you can do a great deal with a whole variety of lenses… from ultra-wide angle to telephoto, as you’ll see.


In future posts we’ll help you master depth of field – how to chose to reveal as much front to back detail as you can or, as in this shot to get a shallow focus and create a more atmospheric image.


So, a few terms you’ll come across (and hear misused)

  • Life-size – means a subject (or the part of it you are photographing) is the same size as its image that is focused on the sensor. That translates as 1.0x magnification, or a 1:1 reproduction ratio.
  • Close-up photography is even  more of a catchall term than macro, but to differentiate the two, I’ll think of close-up as starting at a magnification of 0.1x on the sensor. Therefore the reproduction ratio begins at 1:10, meaning the image on the sensor is one-tenth life-size. Its application extends to 1.0x (1:1, life size).
  • Macro photography, sometimes just called macro, refers to a magnification range from life-size on the sensor to about 20 times life-size…though  when you begin to deal with larger than life-size images you see the term ‘super macro’ is now widely used.

I’ll try to be consistent and use ‘close-up’ whenever a definite, specific application is not implied and macro for what begins where close-up ends at 1:1 There is considerable overlap and many have given up and just use the term ‘macro’ for everything… I find myself doing the same thing.

When you read around you might  come across some other terms:

  • Photomacrography: This is often used as a synonym for macro photography, or plain ‘macro’ but technically its specifications lie beyond the limits of the 1:1 ratio of so-called macro lenses. Using extension tubes, teleconverters, bellows, and special purpose lenses designed for magnifications up to 20x
  •  Photomicrography: This range starts where macro ends (greater than 20x), and you use a microscope. In practical terms, there is overlap between Photomacrography and Photomicrography.
  • Macrophotography: an improper way to write macro photography since it means the photography of very large objects on a large scale…not what we are about.
  •  Microphotography – Essentially the opposite of macro photography, involving the optical reduction of images  to very small sizes as with the printing of circuits onto microchips, or microfiche.
  • True macro – is a term used to embrace photography that uses equipment, perhaps in a studio or lab, such as bellows and special lenses  to reproduce images at ratios greater than 5:1, up to about 20:1. This is an area I love and in Learn Macro we’ll cover all sorts of ways of doing this cheaply and effectively..super macro is a recent term for the same thing from about twice life-size upwards.



You can get images like this with a wide range of cameras given the superb definition of many modern cameras and their associated lenses.

NEXT- what camera to use?

© Paul Harcourt Davies 2014   NB No part of this blog may be used in any way without the express permission of the author concerned: all commercial use of images must be accompanied by a fee (rates on request). Any illegal use will incur a penalty fee in addition to the commercial rate.

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