Essential macro photography tips and techniques

It's easy to get started with close-up photography – this macro photography guide covers the best Canon cameras and lenses for incredibly detailed shots, with hints and tips for taking stunning images.
An extreme close-up of a brightly coloured wasp feeding on a lime-green flower anther.

Close-up photographs of everything from insects to flowers, food and household objects can reveal astonishing levels of detail. You might assume you need fancy equipment and professional skills for great macro photography, but with just a few hints and tips anyone can take stunning close-up shots, even with budget-friendly cameras and lenses. Read our macro photography guide for all the advice you need.

How do you take macro photos?

To keep things simple, most entry-level Canon cameras have a Macro shooting mode, available on the mode dial or via the menu system. This optimises all the relevant settings for close-up photography. Full macro photography goes further, typically involving a lens that delivers full 1.0x magnification. This means small objects are reproduced at full life size on the camera's image sensor, enabling extreme magnification when you view the resulting photographs on-screen or in print.

This macro photography guide sets out to answer all the most common questions about macro and close-up photography, including:

  1. Choosing your kit: whatever kit you have, you can take great close-up photography, but a powerful camera and dedicated macro lens can help you take things up a level.
  2. Understanding your settings: automatic macro modes are great for casual close-ups, but switching to Aperture priority (Av) or Manual (M) mode will enable you to fully unleash your creativity.
  3. Staying in focus: Canon's reliable autofocusing systems are great for general photos, but for ultimate macro shots try features like focus peaking and bracketing.
  4. Editing your photos: macro photography often benefits from editing, but you needn't be a pro. Simply cropping your shots will help bring finer details to the fore, while spot healing can help refine the final product.

Best kit for macro photography

An extreme close-up of a shell, showing the texture in the spirals.

Similar to other Canon EOS R System cameras, the EOS RP has an array of powerful macro-friendly functions, including focus peaking and focus bracketing. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 24mm, 15 sec, f/4 and ISO100.

An extreme close-up of a red flower, showing the detail in the petals.

The EOS RP also features a vari-angle rear touchscreen. This works really well when taking macro shots from tricky angles, as well as enabling quick and easy focusing for general close-ups, as you can simply touch the preview image at the point on which you want to autofocus. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 24mm, 1/10 sec, f/4 and ISO100.

You don't need expensive cameras and lenses to shoot close-ups. The best camera for macro photography is the one you have at hand. Many entry-level point-and-shoot cameras have a Macro shooting mode that enables focusing distances down to just 1cm. The Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III compact camera has a more powerful Macro mode, adding the bonus of focus peaking for accurate manual focusing, which we'll come to later.

EOS cameras that take interchangeable lenses give you more flexibility for close-up shooting, as you can fit the ideal lens for the task. They also have vari-angle touchscreens that enable you to shoot from any angle and offer focus bracketing and focus peaking options.

The Canon EOS M50 Mark II mirrorless camera is a great affordable option, especially when combined with an EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM lens. This gives greater maximum magnification at 1.2x, and launched as the world's first autofocus lens to feature a built-in LED Macro Lite for illuminating the subject.

A close-up of the centre of a rose with the Macro Lite turned off.

The Canon EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM lens features a built-in Macro Lite and the images above show the difference the light makes. Taken on a Canon EOS M3 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS M6 Mark II) with a Canon EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM lens at 1.3 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100.

A close-up of the centre of a rose with the Macro Lite turned on.

The extra illumination that the light provides helps to remove shadows and darkness from the image. Taken on a Canon EOS M3 with a Canon EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM lens at 0.4 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100.

What are the best lenses for macro photography?

Many lenses supplied with Canon EOS cameras have impressively short minimum focus distances (MFD). These include the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM for EOS R System cameras, which has an MFD of just 13cm, and the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II for APS-C format DSLRs, which features an MFD of 25cm and can be used on EOS R System or EOS M series cameras via an EF-EOS R or EF-EOS M mount adapter. The same goes for the Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM lens, which features a similar Macro Lite as the EF-M 28mm and is a fantastic affordable option for a first macro lens.

An extreme close-up of a leaf, showing its intricate structure.

Like most recent Canon macro lenses, the RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM has a hybrid Image Stabilizer. This counteracts side-to-side as well as up and down movement, making stabilisation much more effective in handheld close-up and macro shooting. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/40 sec, f/2 and ISO800.

An extreme close-up of the head and wings of a butterfly.

The 1.4x magnification Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens enables you to capture incredible detail, such as the individual scales on this butterfly's wings. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/50 sec, f/4.5 and ISO3200. © Oliver Wright Photography

For enthusiasts looking to take their creative macro photography to the next level, dedicated macro lenses and Canon's range of full-frame cameras are ideal. The full-frame sensors in the Canon EOS RP and EOS R6 retain incredible image quality under low-lighting levels, for clean shots even at high ISO values. They both also include a focus bracketing mode that's particularly useful for macro photography, which we'll explain a little later. Excellent companion lenses include the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM. These deliver 0.5x maximum magnification and come complete with hybrid Image Stabilizers to keep handheld images blur free.

The same applies to the pro-grade Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM for DSLRs. For super-sized magnification, the top-spec Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM delivers a huge 1.4x magnification.

Best settings for macro photography

A woman takes a macro image of a shell with a Canon camera and lens. She is dressed in winter clothing and resting on her elbows in the sand for support.

Think of how much detail you can capture in a wide-angle landscape shot. Now imagine filling most of the camera's image sensor with something the size of a postage stamp. Even 0.5x macro magnification can reveal fine details that are usually invisible to the naked eye.

A man uses a camera with a large lens to take a close-up photograph of an insect on a leaf.

Shooting close-ups of insects and other bugs can be hit and miss. You can improve your hit rate by selecting the AI Servo (continuous) autofocus mode and high-speed continuous drive mode. Keep the shutter button pressed down to capture a burst of images in rapid succession, to ensure you get a few keepers.

The Macro shooting mode of many Canon cameras works well, but for more creative close-up shooting with enthusiast-level cameras, it's best to take control yourself. The use of semi-automatic and manual modes can pay dividends.

A particular challenge is that depth of field (the distance between the nearest and furthest points in a scene that are rendered sharply) becomes very small in close-up photography and absolutely tiny in full macro shooting. To maximise the depth of field, you can switch to Av (Aperture priority) shooting mode and dial in a narrow aperture of around f/16 to f/22. Unless lighting is very bright, however, this can require slow shutter speeds for a correct exposure. That's not generally an issue if you're using a tripod for flower macro photography, food close-ups and other still-life subjects, but dull lighting can result in flat-looking images. For indoor shots, you can add light with a table lamp, or use daylight from a window. Photographic LED lamps are also a good option, as are the LED Macro Lites in some Canon lenses, mentioned above.

Insect macro photography will require a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. This is also true when other living subjects are involved, for example in eye macro photography. One way of achieving this when also using a narrow aperture is to increase your camera's ISO setting. However, going for a higher ISO can result in a loss of fine detail and an increase in image noise – which is where the low noise capabilities of full-frame cameras like the EOS RP or EOS R6 come into play.

A more advanced solution is to use a flashgun or Speedlite. As well as adding illumination, the very short duration of the flash effectively freezes the action. For ultimate close-up control and a shadowless lighting effect in macro photography, the Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II is compatible with most Canon macro lenses.

Macro photography techniques

A close-up image of a scoop of vanilla ice cream encased in a thin, circular layer of chocolate, garnished with sprinkles and a thin green leaf.

For the ultimate sharpness in extreme close-ups and macro shots, the camera typically needs to be as steady as possible. Taken on a Canon EOS M50 Mark II with a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/5.6 and ISO2500.

A close-up image of a vibrant pink flower.

Nature has hidden depths of beauty that you can reveal in close-up and macro photography. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/2 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Focusing can be tricky in close-up shooting and demands extreme accuracy, due to the typically tiny depth of field. The Canon Photo Companion app includes a useful tool which calculates the closest and furthest points of focus, depth of field and the hyperfocal distance depending on your camera and settings.

For still-life images such as macro food photography, it's best to mount your camera on a tripod or other support, so that it's fixed in place and there's no movement or blur. To ensure complete stillness, use the camera's two-second self-timer or a remote control, so you don't have to touch the camera when taking the shot.

Even when using a tripod, vibrations can be caused by touching the camera immediately before an exposure and, for DLSRs, the action of the reflex mirror flipping up. A good combination of settings available in most Canon DSLRs is to use the two-second self-timer delay in conjunction with the Mirror lockup mode. The mirror will then flip up two seconds before the shot is taken, giving sufficient time for vibrations to dissipate. The Canon Camera Connect app is also useful in these situations, enabling you to control your camera from your phone.

A close-up image of blue flowers; the blooms in the centre are in focus, while the background is blurred.

With the camera locked in place, autofocus can work well if you use single-point AF and precisely line up the point with the part of the subject that you want to be sharpest. Manual focusing can work even better, as demonstrated in the video above. Canon's recent EOS M and all EOS R System mirrorless cameras feature a focus peaking option (your lens must be in MF mode). Turn this on and areas within the image frame will be indicated in the viewfinder or rear screen as they come into focus, allowing you to fine-tune your shot. Alternatively, use a magnified preview of the desired area to ensure optimum manual focusing. You can use the same technique on the rear screen of Canon DSLRs by switching to Live View mode.

Even with the most accurate focusing and a narrow aperture, you'll sometimes find that you still can't get as much front-to-back sharpness as you want. Again, this is due to the very shallow depth of field when shooting close up. Some Canon cameras, including the Canon EOS RP and EOS R6, feature a Focus Bracketing mode. This is great for macro shooting, as it takes a series of shots while automatically progressing through a range of focus distances between each frame. The series can then be merged into a single image at the editing stage, resulting in a wider focal plane.

To bring out the detail, try experimenting with different light sources, ranging from natural ambient lighting and reflecting light with a sheet of white card or paper, to using a photographic LED lighting panel or Speedlite flashgun. A number of Canon macro lenses also feature a built-in Macro Lite, which helps to remove shadows and darkness.

How to edit macro photographs

The back screen of a Canon EOS R6 camera, showing the RAW shooting mode and settings for a close-up image of a parrot's head.

Many Canon cameras feature a RAW quality mode. Use this to get the greatest latitude at the editing stage, using software like Canon's Digital Photo Professional (available as a free download). You'll be able to fine-tune the exposure value and white balance for optimum brightness and colour rendition, with no degradation in image quality. You can also apply sharpening or use Unsharp mask to accentuate detail, and add impact by adjusting clarity, contrast, colour tone and saturation.

The vast majority of close-up and macro images greatly benefit from a little editing. If the minimum focusing distance of your lens restricts you from getting as close to a subject as you'd like, don't panic. Creative cropping at the editing stage enables you to remove the unwanted periphery from an image and retain just the area you want to keep.

Nothing is ever entirely perfect. When you're shooting macro or close-up photographs, the sheer level of fine detail that you'll capture will accentuate any specs of dust, blemishes and other flaws. A spot healing brush or clone tool in image editing software can effectively mask these over, by copying the brightness, colour and texture data from surrounding pixels.

The latest versions of Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) also include a Depth Compositing tool. This automates the process of converting a batch of images captured with the Focus Bracketing mode of EOS R System cameras, merging them into a single image. It's perfect for extending the effective depth of field in close-up and macro photography.

Hopefully these tips and techniques have demonstrated how easy it is to get started with macro photography and inspired you to get out there and have a go at honing in on the detail and capturing your own close-ups.

Written by Matthew Richards

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