Macro Photography Tips: Photographing Alien Creatures

Have you ever really had a good look at a fly, wasp or insect? Or do you just chase them outside or even squash them with a rolled up newspaper? These creepy-crawlies are absolutely fascinating and up-close they appear as totally alien creatures.

Bumble Bee by Murray McCulloch
Figure 1 Bumblebee, Nikon D7000, Nikon SB700 Speedlight, Laowa 60mm f/2.8, 50mm extension tubes, 1/50 second, f/2.8, ISO 100, focus stacked from 19 images. 3:1 Magnification. Image by Murray McCulloch

Macro-photography is the close-up photography of small subjects - popularly taken of arthropods (including spiders, insects and other small creatures) or flowers. Macro-photography is defined by the subject in the photograph being greater than life-size. The magnification, or magnification ratio, describes the relationship between the size of the subject projected onto the camera sensor and the size of the subject in reality.

Confused? An example would be a 20mm spider being projected onto the camera sensor at 10 mm. This would give a magnification of 10 mm: 20 mm, or 1:2. Technically speaking macro-photography involves a magnification of 1:1 or greater.

So what gear do you need? In general I refer to DSLRs throughout. Any camera body will work; personally I use the Nikon D7000. Ideally you will need a macro lens which can achieve magnification of 1:1 or greater, however there are work arounds to convert other lenses to macro. A flash unit which is properly diffused is not strictly necessary, however the vast majority of my own macrophotography is done with flash. It becomes increasingly challenging to achieve adequate lighting for the subject as your magnification increases. A tripod and focusing rail can be used for some applications, however I often find it cumbersome to use in the field.

Image by Murray McCulloch
Figure 2 Homemade flash diffuser, Nikon D7000, Laowa 60mm f/2.8, Nikon SB700 speedlight.

You may already have the gear to give macrophotography a try. One of the cheapest and easiest ways to is to use a reversing ring, and any lens with a focal length of 50 mm or less - an 18-55 kit lens works well. The reversing ring is attached to the camera body and the lens is attached in reverse i.e the electrical connections face outwards. This enables a much closer focusing distance. As the lens is reversed the lens contacts are on the opposite end and you will lose the cameras brain, so you will have to use your own! You also need to be careful that you don’t damage the contacts or back element of the lens, as these are usually protected by the camera body.

Other macrophotography methods which I won’t go into much detail include:

  • Adding Diopter lenses – these attach to the front of another lens to increase overall magnification.

  • Extension tubes or bellows – basically just enables the lens to sit further from the camera body, which enable you to focus closer and achieve greater magnification.

  • Stacking lenses – reverse mounting a short focal length lens on a telephoto can achieve some high magnification photography.

Image by Murray McCulloch
Figure 3 High magnification setup with flash diffusion, Nikon D7000, Laowa 25mm f/2.8, Laowa KX-800 twin flash. 2.5-5:1 magnification

All that said, a dedicated macro lens will usually give you the best results and be the easiest to use (Nikon call these Micro lenses, because they like to be different). Longer lenses provide the advantage of a longer working distance, and therefore you don’t have to get as close to your subject and subsequently are less likely to scare it away! If you are looking for a macro lens go for one that can achieve 1:1 magnification of greater.

So what do you want to achieve in your photograph? Composition is key in any photograph. I recommend that you try and get down to the level of your subject, which usually gives them more character. The critter’s eyes are often the most important part to get in focus.

Jumping Spider Image by Murray McCulloch
Figure 4 Jumping Spider, Nikon D7000, Nikon 50mm f/1.8d reversed, 50mm Extension Tubes, Loawa KX-800 Twin Flash, 1/160 second, f/8, ISO 160, 2.5:1 Magnification. Image by Murray McColluch

Choice of background is also very important – try to attain a clean, non-distracting background, which complements the subject. Darker backgrounds often work better on lighter subjects and vice-versa. You can even create your own artificial background with a piece of coloured card, a large leaf or your own shirt, carefully placed behind the subject. Increasing the ISO and reducing flash power is a good way to bring colour out from the background.

Depth of field becomes a tricky animal with macro, in that basically the higher the magnification the shallower the depth of field becomes. Try increasing the aperture to around f8 and aim to get the important features in focus. High magnifications may only have a DOF a fraction of a millimetre. One option to counter this is to focus stack a series of images together to achieve a greater overall DOF, which will be explained later.

Spider Image by Murray McCulloch
Figure 5 Spider, Nikon D7000, Nikon SB700 Speedlight, Laowa 60mm f/2.8, 50mm extension tubes, 1/250 second, f/4, ISO 100, focus stacked form 11 images, 3:1 Magnification. Image by Murray McCulloch

With such a shallow DOF, attaining the focus on the subject can be problematic. Often auto focus struggles and I usually turn it off and use it in manual. What I find useful is to set the focus to where you want it and then move the whole camera backwards and forwards until your subject is in focus. Take a heap of photos as you move backwards and forwards, and hopefully one or two images should have adequate focus.

I shoot all of my macro shots in manual mode with the following settings: shutter around 1/200s, F/8, ISO100-800. I then manually adjust the flash to compensate.

Focus stacking is a really cool technique, which enables you to stack a bunch of photos, with different focal planes into a single image and with a much greater DOF. In general this technique is used at higher magnification levels and is almost necessary at a magnification of greater than 2:1. To start you will need to take a series of photos each with a slightly different focus. This is most easily done with a focus rail and tripod, whereby you take an image and then move the rail slightly forward to take a further image. This is repeated until everything you want is in focus. It is possible to achieve this in the field without a tripod. Though the individual images may be slightly unaligned, they can often be realigned using software packages.

Earwig Image by Murray McCulloch
Figure 6 Earwig, Nikon D7000, Speedlight, Laowa 25mm F/2.8, Loawa KX-800 Twin Flash, 1/100 second, f/2.8, ISO 200, focus stacked form 32 images, 4:1 Magnification Image by Murray McCulloch

Once you have acquired all of the images you then need to use some sort of software to stack them together. Zenere stacker works well, but you can use Photoshop if you already own it, and there are several other dedicated software packages available. If you have a program like Zenere stacker then all you need to do is to import the images to be stacked and hit go - the program will do the rest! You can then do a bit of touch up manually if the program didn’t quite get it right.

Insects! There are a million described species, with some estimates of a total 30 million species on earth. There are quintillions of them, anywhere and everywhere. No, seriously, there is an estimated 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) insects on earth, which equates to around 200 million insects per human. The only problem is that whenever you want to go shoot them you never seem to find them. Perseverance and patience are required to find cooperative subjects. When exploring you are better off going out in the early morning or evening when it’s a bit cooler and insects are less mobile. You can even go out at night, if you have a good flash. It is also interesting that at night a lot of different species appear and insects are often a bit more cooperative.

Wind is the enemy of all macro photographers, so make sure you pick a very still day to go shoot. You will have to move slowly and look at every leaf and twig, because more often than not you won’t see the creatures if they aren’t moving unless you are looking really closely. And when you do spot a subject, approach slowly and watch your shadow, as this can often scare them away.

Jumping Spider Image by Murray McCulloch
Figure 6 Jumping spider, Nikon D7000, Nikon SB700 Speedlight, Laowa 60mm f/2.8, 1/100 second, f/8, ISO 200, 2:1. Image by Murray McCulloch

When getting to the extreme range of macro photography i.e. greater than 1:1 magnification, light and diffusion make or break the image. People often spend large sums of money on big fancy lenses, however often just by controlling the lighting conditions you can achieve the greatest improvements in image quality. There’s a DIY-attitude in the macro community, in particular with flash diffusers. This may be because there aren’t really many appropriate diffusers available and often you will need to design a specific diffuser for your own specific setup. There is an extensive range of types and builds available, that you can look up on the internet.

So you’ve reached the end of the article. Did you learn anything? These are just some techniques that work for me, but I encourage you to experiment and find something that works for you. You don’t need the most expensive gear, and you may be able to easily modify some of the stuff you already own. All you need is to get out, play around and have fun.

Happy shooting!


Murray McCulloch is a People's Choice New Zealand Geographic Photographer of Year based down in Dunedin. With a passion for sharing the macro world - Murray captures the hidden details of what is often missed.

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