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What is Macro Photography ?

| February 22, 2010 | 2 Comments
What is macro photography ? Many of us have heard the term, but not everyone understands exactly what it means, and it becomes easy to become confused. Learn the basics of macro photography with this concise guide.

Euro Coin Photographed with 18-55mm lens

Euro Coin - 18-55mm lens

The most common misconception is that macro photography means taking photos of small objects and enlarging them. While this is a consequence of taking macro photos, it is not necessarily how it works. Macro photography is all about getting in close, not increasing magnification.


The correct definition of macro photography means that the object being photographed should have been recorded life-sized on the camera’s sensor.

Euro Coin Photographed with 300mm 1:2 Closeup lens

Euro Coin - 300mm 1:2 closeup lens

Imagine that you have a coin (for example 1 EUR)which is approx 23mm in diameter. This same coin will appear 23mm (life-sized) on the camera’s sensor at the closest point of focus. This is the characteristic of ‘true’ macro lens (also referred as 1:1 macro by lens manufacturers). Some lens manufacturers claim their lens are ‘macro’ with magnification factors of 1:2 (half life-size) or even 1:4. What it means is that objects photographed will appear 2x or even 4x smaller than it would appear if it was photographed with a ‘true’ macro lens.

Euro Coin photographed with true 50mm 1:1 macro lens

Euro - true 50mm 1:1 macro lens

Those lens are suitable for close-up photography but they are not true macro lens. Check Euro coin photos on the left for comparison. The top image was taken with a common Pentax 18-55mm kit lens at its closest focus point. The middle was taken with Sigma 300mm 1:2 ‘macro’, while the bottom one was taken with Pentax 50mm 1:1 macro lens.

We have collected some of the most frequent questions related to Macro Photography:

1. What is the main benefit of a macro lens ?
Basically, it allows you to get close to your subject. Very close !!! And to capture your subject up close with tremendous level of detail.

2. Will my subject be any larger if I shoot it with 100mm macro as opposed to 50mm ?
No. This is a common question among the beginners in macro photography. Your subject will appear the same size regardless of the focal length you are using.

3. What is then the main difference between 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 180mm macro lens ?
The main difference between macro lens of different focal lengths is in the minimum working distance. All lens have a minimum working distance, which means how close to your subject can you get. For example my Pentax 18-55mm kit lens have a minimum working distance of 25cm (that is 25cm measured from subject to camera sensor), meaning I can come as close as approx 12 cm to my subject with the tip of the lens when using 50mm focal length. Now with my Pentax 50mm macro working distance is 15cm (15cm subject to sensor), meaning I can get as close as 5cm to my subject with the tip of my lens.

4. Why is minimum working distance so important in macro photography ?

Macro working distance comparison

Macro working distance comparison

Minimum working distance is very important in macro photography, if you are interested in taking macro photos of insects and other living beings. Most insects are timid and will fly away on the first sign of someone approaching. Therefore it is important to be able to stay as far away as possible, while still taking a good macro photo.

5. So why would anyone want to use macro lens with smaller focal length (e.g. 35mm) ?
Macro photography as such pushes one other basic photography concept to its limits: depth of field (DOF), Basically, the closer you are to subject, the shallower depth of field. In addition in you remember from our lens focal length guide lens focal length also affects DOF. The longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field. In macro photography, DOF is measured in millimeters, and lens with longer focal length may have a problem of having too shallow DOF. Here, the benefit of the lens with smaller focal length becomes apparent. Lens with smaller focal length will have bigger depth of field, allowing you to keep bigger portion of your subject in sharp focus.

Bokeh Example

Bokeh Example


6. What is bokeh ?
Bokeh is the blur, or the aesthetic quality of the blur in the out-of-focus areas of the image, or “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light. Differences in lens aberrations and aperture shape cause some lens designs to blur the image in a way that is pleasing to the eye, while others produce blurring that is unpleasant or distracting— “good” or “bad” bokeh, respectively. Bokeh occurs for parts of the scene that lie outside the depth of field. Bokeh is often most visible around small background highlights, such as specular reflections and light sources, which is why it often associated with such areas. Photographers sometimes deliberately use shallow focus techniques to create prominent out-of-focus regions, thus encompassing bokeh as a compositional element of the photo. It is especially important in macro photography as due to the extremely shallow depth of field, there will be lots of areas that are out-of-focus.

For more digital macro photography tips check out:

We hope that you liked these insights into macro photography. Stay tuned for more macro goodness coming up in near future.


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Category: Beginners Photography, Macro Photography, Photography Lessons

About the Author (Author Profile)

Alan Graf is the editor and founder of Digital Photography Student. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and is also editor of CRO-Wallpapers.com – a Croatian wallpaper archive, and his own photo gallery at http://www.alangraf.com.

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  2. […] 20 Photography tips on Shooting Macros By Alan Graf | Published February 26, 2010 Macro photography can be very fun and rewarding, but also sometimes if the basics are not understood correctly, can […]

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