Macro Workshop Notes

Here are some notes and examples from our workshop.
You’ll find links to products we think you’ll benefit from. If you use these links it will help us keep the costs down.


Macro equipment.

Extension tubes

Buy ‘auto’ tubes with aperture control. You don’t need autofocus.
Tubes will reduce light as a result of ’spreading’ the image on the sensor.
Good image quality if your lens is good enough to have it’s resolution reduced.

Reversed lenses

reverse lens
Reversing a wide angle lens makes it magnify the image

Very good magnification
Very cheap or free!
Can be reversed onto a macro lens or high quality tele.
If attached to tele then keep the reversed lens wide open.





Filters & adapters

By far the best adapter to quicklt convert any 50+ lens to macro is the Raynox DCR-250

Old lenses

Some lenses have a manual aperture ring, some have manual ring with auto ‘A’ and some have no aperture ring.
If you are using extension tubes on a modern lens with no aperture ring, then you need auto tubes which pass the aperture info through to the body.
If you have a lens with an aperture ring then you can use cheap tubes and set the aperture manually on the lens, but you will be viewing through the closed down lens so it will be dark – in this case focus, with the lens open then stop down to shoot.
Stop-down metering can be used on some cameras, to quickly get an exposure on an old manual lens, whilst keeping it wide open for focusing.
Old lenses will have poor contrast and will suffer more from flare.

Macro rails

Macro rails allow you to position your camera with pinpoint accuracy on a tripod. A simple rail moves back and forth on a rack, while the compound rail moves side to side also. Rails are essential for focus stacking and very useful for fine tuning the camera position.

Macro lenses – 1:1 and 1:2

1:1 is ’true’ macro and produces an image on the sensor the same size as the object.
1:2 is half macro
Most ‘macro’ zooms have no more than close up ability.

 2x 1.7x & 1.4x convertors.

In general, convertors and macro don’t mix. Macro is all about exquisite detail and quality, and convertors invariably soften an image more than cropping into it later.
They rob you of precious light and add another layer of optics.
They have their uses. Personally, I never use them.



Sunlight and cloud

Watch out for bright midday sun with deep contrast and harsh highlights
Try to get out in morning or evening, when the light is soft and low and the insects are sleepy!
Try a diffuser to soften light.
Cloud is the best diffuser, but it will be darker so you may need a tripod and a wind-break.
Don’t be afraid to shoot into the light – it can be very pretty


Milk bottle plastic used to diffuse the flash and bring it over the end of the lens

On-board flash

Use Pringles tube or milk bottle to soften the light and get it over the subject.
Remember it is very low powered flash so you may need higher ISO


External flash

Much more powerful and able to see over the lens, but use a diffuser to soften the light.
Remove the flash and use a cord or trigger to fire it from one side or behind the subject.
Use low ISO to retain detail.
Simulate low sun by firing the flash behind the subject (shooting into the light), hide the flash from the lens to avoid flare.
Use shutter speed to control ambient light.
Use aperture and flash power to control flash exposure, not shutter speed. ISO should remain as low as poss.
Remember macro is small, so a small diffuser is all that’s needed as long as it’s close to the subject.
The bigger your diffuser in relation to the subject, the softer the light. So get your reflector or milk bottle as close as possible to the subject.

Continuous lights (light bulbs)

Continuous lights are low powered, so use a tripod. Experiment with white balance (starting with tungsten or fluorescent) to remove colour casts.
Use aperture, or shutter speed to control exposure. ISO should always be low for macro. Detail is king.
Use cool, fluorescent bulbs for macro to avoid wilting/killing your subject.
Daylight temperature bulbs can be bought at craft shops, for artists to paint under.
While you’re there, buy some white foam board to make diffusers and reflectors and little studio floors.

Tents and diffusers

The cheapest light tent is a white, pop-up linen basket. Tents create a small studio for your subject and wrap the light around it.
The cheapest and easiest flash diffuser is a sheet of printing paper taped to the flash or resting near to the subject to reflect the light.

Contre jour lighting – shooting into the light.

Snow drops – contre jour. Lit using a flash behind a tree

Always look to see if there’s an opportunity to get the light behind the subject, this is counter intuitive and against the rules! yay!
It nearly always results in images with pop! and something a little different.
Unless you want a bit of creative lens flare in your image, you should position the camera in a shadow,
or, if using flash, position the flash out of the camera’s line of sight, behind a tree but still able to light the subject from behind.
To avoid a full silhouette, you can either use another (low-power) flash from the front, or hold a reflector in front to bounce the light back.
Exposure should be controlled on the flash or using the aperture.
Balance ambient light using the shutter speed. If you are close to the subject you can use a low shutter speed like 1/20th if necessary.
This will let more ambient light into the scene and the flash will ’stop’ the movement for you.


Pop-up portrait reflectors are inexpensive ways to add light to your scene, diffuse bright sunlight, or slow down the wind around your subject.
The black side can remove light from one side of your subject, for more modelling.
You can also sit on them!
The simplest reflector is a sheet of paper or a white handkerchief.

Camera and flash settings

A or AV – aperture priority and f-stops

This is the most useful setting for quickly controlling the depth of field and the flash exposure (on a manual flash).
Small number like f2.8 = more light and smaller depth of field – good for isolating the subject.
Large number like f16 = less light and larger depth of field – good for getting more in focus or achieving adequate focus quickly.


Aperture also affects other things like lens performance. Generally, lenses perform better 1 or 2 stops in from wide open.
So a 2.8 macro lens will be sharper and have better resolution and colour at f5.6 or f8
Sharpness begins to fall off after f16 and extreme macro really emphasises this problem.
General rule of thumb: keep around f5.6 to f8

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is used to control motion, and ambient light when using a flash.
To avoid camera shake, the shutter speed should be at least equal to the lens focal length.
So a 50mm lens would need around 1/60th second and 300mm lens at least 1/250th, but preferably 1/500th.
Because you will be concentrating on tiny areas for macro, tiny movements will show in your images so it’s best to try and double the figures above.
Tripods can remove the need for fast shutter speeds but the subject needs to be still.
Flash is effectively a very fast shutter. A low-powered pop of flash can last as little as 1/10,000th of a second, so it can behave like the world’s fasted shutter!
Using flash to stop motion is only possible if the subject is exposed by the flash much more than the ambient light is exposing it.
So get the flash close to the subject and use the shutter speed to let in only as much ambient light as you need to make the scene look natural.

Manual override

Manual is your friend! Manual is used to set all the parameters above and gain full control. It’s essential when messing about with old lenses.
If you have a flash attached, then set the camera to manual, leaving the flash to expose the subject.
Your camera will have a maximum flash sync speed, meaning it either won’t go off faster than 1/180th (or similar) or it won’t fire the flash.
This is not usually an issue with macro as you rarely get the chance to use faster speed than that. But you may need to increase the aperture value to get the shutter speed down below sync speed. If you are using triggers and you’ve set the shutter faster than the sync speed, then your camera may refuse to fire the flash. Check the shutter first, then the batteries!


Your flash has several auto settings, and usually TTL or PTTL will work just fine. TTL measures the light Through The Lens during the exposure and shuts down the flash accordingly. Old fashioned ‘Auto’ measures light bouncing back onto the flash and is unlikely to understand your tiny subject.
Manual is your friend again. A couple of test shots and you are away! no guessing; you tell the flash exactly how much light you want on that iridescent beetle.
This means that cheap manual flashes from China are every bit as good as high-end flashes from camera manufacturers. Save your money and buy 4 cheap Yongnuo flashes and a trigger.



Stong diagonals and a very low angle like the spider's prey, all add to the drama
Stong diagonals and a very low angle like the spider’s prey, all add to the drama

Get down low, zoom right into the fangs, or just one eye, fill your image with the vibrant colour of a flower, anything to increase the drama over just standing there bolt-upright pointing you camera at the top of a child’s head or the back of a spider.

Look for complementary or jarring colours. Yellow dandelions or cellandine  in a field of bluebells – focus on the yellow and let the blue/purple drop out of focus and frame your subject

We like patterns. We like repeating patterns like sand ripples on a beach, or the lines of a blue park bench filling the frame in front of a field of yellow.

Texture can be the enemy of macro, creating an image that’s too busy or distracting, but it can be amazing all by itself or as a background for something without texture. Soft water on a jagged rock, tree bark dropping out of focus.

Depth of field
This is both a pain and a blessing. Macro subjects often drop out of focus too quickly, but this can be a boon for isolating an eye in a furry face, or a flower in a sea of grass.


Diagonals, lines, texture & colour.

Leading lines, diagonal lines intersecting lines. Look for ways to add them to your composition, or prevent them from distracting from the focal point.

Remember that foreground bokeh (out of focus area) can be a beautiful addition to your composition. Try shooting through grass etc to frame your subject.

Your position
If you just stand there with straight legs and snap away, you are unlikely to have captured the best angle.
Are you really uncomfortable? do you knees burn? are you all wet? Excellent! you probably got a great shot that nobody else well ever see, let alone shoot!
However, get as comfortable as possible whilst going for that dramatic, never-before-seen angle. Try to relax and hold the camera steady.

Compositional ‘rules’ and tricks

Rule of thirds – position your subject one third in from the edges and preferable one third on two directions. It really works and is the simplest route to a pleasing composition.
Leading lines – Try to find things that lead your eye onto the subject
S-shapes – We love curves and S-shapes like a meandering river leading to a sunset, are pleasing to the eye.
Diagonals – Add drama to your image by finding diagonals. If they also lead to your subject then even better.

Now take all those rules and try the opposite!

Shoot a milky, fog-laden image, with no strong lines or colour. Try the subject bang in the middle of a square frame, allow your image to be broken up by horizontal lines. We are so accustomed to compositional rules, we see all the time on the TV and magazines, that thinking out of the box can create a refreshing image. But you have to know the rules to break them successfully.