The Macro Camera Guide: The Best Gear For Marco Photography
Getting in close turns the most average subject — and even the most average backyards — into extraordinary works of art. Macro photography captures details we often don’t notice with our eyes, translating them into larger-than-life pixels.
But while macro photography can be an incredible medium, it’s also an incredibly difficult task for a camera. Getting in close makes it difficult for the lens to achieve a sharp focus, and some cameras can inch closer than others. So what do you need to look for in a macro camera? Here’s what you need to consider before getting in real close — along with the best macro cameras on the market right now.
Macro Camera: How big is the sensor?
The camera’s sensor is one of the biggest image quality indicators. Normally, bigger is better — larger sensors have more resolution, better low light performance and even stronger background blur.
But, smaller sensors appear to allow you to get in closer to the subject. If you put the same lens on a large sensor camera, then put it on a smaller sensor camera, that cropped sensor camera will have the closer view. That’s because smaller sensors are like cropping closer into that image. Since smaller sensors appear as a cropped version, images from those cameras appear to be even closer to the subject.
Cropped sensor cameras, like choosing a Micro Four Thirds camera or an APS-C DSLR over a full frame camera, make it easier to get in closer without the longer lens. The resolution of a full frame camera allows more room to crop without a drastic loss in quality, but a camera with a smaller sensor essentially makes that crop for you.
Larger image sensors, however, also produce a more blurred background. Most of the time, photographers like the larger sensors for that reason, since it’s easier to blur out a distracting background or simply create an artistic effect.
But, getting in close to your subject will already blur the background. If you take the same camera on the same settings and shoot something from ten feet away, then shoot something from ten centimeters away, the background from that second picture will be much blurrier. Get in real close, and even parts of your subject may get blurry. That’s why some macro photographers use a technique called focus stacking to get more of the image in focus — they are so close that the bumblebee’s eyes are in focus but his antennas are not.
Does that mean you should go out and pick up a camera with a tiny sensor for macro photography? Not at all. Macro photography still benefits from aspects of a larger sensor like that higher resolution. But, if you are looking for a camera largely for macro photography, it means that you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune on a full frame camera — a crop sensor DSLR or a micro four thirds mirrorless camera is often plenty.
Macro Camera Lenses
While the camera is important, the lens is essential to macro photography. Lenses have what’s called a minimum focus distance — it’s how close they can get to an object and still be able to focus on that item.
Lenses with macro in the name are designed to get up close. They have a much shorter minimum focusing distance than a regular lens, allowing you to get that close-up. If you’ve ever tried to take a close-up with a regular lens, you probably heard the autofocus motor going in and out — and never locking focus.
Macro lenses are designed to focus close to the camera — the lens’ technical specifications will list just how close you can get while still being able to lock a sharp focus. While this specification gives users a good comparison point for similar lenses, a 50mm that can focus ten inches from the lens won’t be as close an 85mm that can focus ten inches from the lens front.
To give users an even better idea of how close the lens can capture tiny subjects, macro lenses also list a magnification ratio that the lens can achieve at that closest focusing distance. A true macro lens captures a 1:1 ratio, which means that objects one centimeter long are also one centimeter long on the camera’s sensor, when shooting as close as possible for that particular lens. A 1:1 ratio is great for macro, though some manufacturers advertise 1:2 ratios as macro lenses.
Fixed Lens Macro Cameras
Interchangeable lenses are excellent for their versatility, but casual photographers can still get solid close-ups with smaller (i.e. less expensive) compact cameras. Remember smaller sensors make it easier to get that close-up, so compact cameras extend that concept even more.
When looking for a compact camera to shoot macro, look for that same minimum focus distance in the technical specifications. Be sure to look too for a macro mode — Macro lenses have a switch that tells the lens to focus close, while fixed lens cameras achieve the same setting with a macro or super macro mode.
The type of fixed lens camera isn’t as important as looking for that minimum focus distance and a macro mode. Some super zooms have great macro modes and so do many pocket cameras. I’ve tried out great macro modes from every brand of camera, but Olympus compacts (and mirrorless cameras) tend to always consistently get great close-ups.
Macro Photography Accessories
The lens and camera used for macro photography is important — but some accessories can help you get even closer.
Reversal rings allow photographers to mount their lens backwards on their camera. That’s right, backwards. Reversing even a normal lens turns it into a macro lens. The reversal ring holds the lens in place in that awkward opposite position. Reversal rings are one of the cheapest macro photography solutions out there — but, with the lens on backwards, you loose both auto exposure and auto focus, which means reversed lenses must be shot on manual mode with manual focus.
Extension tubes increase a lens’ macro photography ratio, allowing you to get in even closer. Extension tubes aren’t as cheap as reversal rings, but they are still often fairly inexpensive considering the price of a pro-level macro lens. And if you pick up a compatible extension tube, you should still have access to autofocus. A bellows kit offers similar advantages but make it easier to adjust the distance from the subject — unfortunately, they tend to be hard to find and more expensive than macro extension tubes.
When getting up close to a subject, a flash mounted on top of the camera may actually catch the shadow of the lens in the photo if you are close enough. Macro ring lights move that light to the lens, so there’s no shadow and close-ups with a flash are no problem. Ring lights also create a softer light with lighter shadows. Besides using them for macro, they are often used for product photography or for creating circular catchlights in a portrait subject’s eyes.
Before you decide on a ring light, take a look at how that ring light can be adjusted. On budget options, the level of light can only be adjusted all at once. Some high-end ring lights, however, use two separate tubes inside that ring. That allows you to make one side brighter than the other, offering a wider range of lighting options.
An alternative to ring lights is to mount two flashes on both sides of the lens, creating that even lighting up close. These dual flash kits tend to be pricier than ring lights but many offer more control.
While ring lighting is largely an add-on for interchangeable lens cameras, a few compact cameras come with ring lights, like the Ricoh WG-5. Olympus also makes an adapter that fits on the front of the TG-4 and turns the built-in flash into a ring light.
The closer you are to your subject, the more you’ll notice camera shake. Tripods are essential for many types of macro work and result in sharper shots. But, just like all macro lenses are not created equal, some tripods are better for macro work than others.
While many of the basic things to look for in a tripod are the same — like strong, stable legs and a portable design — the height range is essential for macro photography. While most look at the maximum height to make sure they won’t have to stoop to shoot, macro work usually requires being close to the ground — something not all tripods can achieve.
When choosing a tripod for macro photography, look for a low minimum height so you can still shoot that lady bug on a leaf of grass. Tripods often achieve lower shooting heights two ways — from adjustable lens angles or a reversible center column. Adjustable leg angles lets you splay out the length of the legs to the sides shoot at a lower angle. This set-up gets you down low easily, but makes the tripod much wider.
Some tripods instead expand their height range with a reversible or tilting center column. Some tripods reverse that center piece entirely, mounting the camera upside down yet nearly to the ground. Others tip the center column to the side for lower shooting angles.
Macro photography opens up an entirely new world of tiny subjects — making it an incredibly rewarding type of shot to work with. While macro photography is often impressive, it’s also a bit harder to shoot than larger subjects. A good macro camera, lens and accessories help take some of that difficulty out of the equation, making it possible to capture stunning shots, simply.
Best Macro Camera
Ready to start shooting tiny new worlds? Here are the best macro cameras on the market right now.
Olympus' single-digit TG Tough cameras have long been a popular choice because of a bright lens and excellent macro mode and the company is continuing the tradition with the new TG-5. Like earlier models, the TG-5 features a waterproof design,...
Grade: A Price: $449.00
Nikon’s affordable DSLR is getting even more connected — the Nikon D5600 packs in much of the same imaging tech and body style of the D5500, but adds Bluetooth connectivity and built-in time lapses. Sitting towards the low end price-wi...
Grade: B Price: $999.00
All 4Ks are not created equal -- and the Panasonic FZ2500 sports a true cinema quality 4K video mode.4K is technically 4,000 pixels, but most manufacturers will classify 3800 as 4K. While Panasonic’s bump up to 4096 pixels is a less noticeab...
Grade: A- Price: $1,094.00
The Olympus PEN E-PL8 may be one of the manufacturers' more affordable options, but it's still a serious shooter with a stylish, compact body and solid features.Using the same Micro Four Thirds sensor, the E-PL8 offers 16 megapixel resolut...
Grade: B+ Price: $549.00
Nikon’s 3300 is a solid beginner’s DSLR and now the manufacturer is expanding on that with the D3400. The latest entry-level DSLR from Nikon wraps up much of the same features as the 3300. So what’s new? Nikon has added Bluetooth...
Grade: A- Price: $387.00
The Sony RX10 line combines the higher resolution of a 1" sensor with a much bigger zoom than the small RX100 line can muster. That just expanded even more with the Sony RX10 Mark III. With the previous camera offering about an 8x zoom, the l...
Grade: A Price: $1,398.00
The Nikon COOLPIX A900 is a small camera with a big zoom and even big video capabilities with 4K.While the A900 looks like a typical point-and-shoot and uses the standard 1/2.3" sensor, the 35x optical zoom is hiding in a pretty small camera....
Grade: A- Price: $379.00
After a number of classically styled options, Olympus seemed to have the retro-styled mirrorless down pat — and then came the Olympus PEN-F and it’s left-sided rangefinder-esque viewfinder. The Olympus PEN-F has much of the same classi...
Grade: A- Price: $1,199.00
When it comes to the micro four thirds format, Olympus is the camera brand that comes to mind. The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II is an affordable entry into the popular line, sitting at under $800 with a kit lens, a pretty nice price point considerin...
Grade: B+ Price: $649.00
If there's one camera brand that's combining the latest technology with the traditional look and feel of a classic camera, it's Fujifilm. The Fujifilm X-T1 offers pretty much every imaginable high-end feature wrapped inside a classical...
Grade: A- Price: $800.00
Olympus's waterproof cameras have a long history of high rankings--and for good reason. It's not unheard of for even a professional to pick up the top camera in this line-up so they don't have to damaging risk their pricier gear for an...
Grade: A Price: $450.00
Ricoh's WG-5 offers several features that puts it towards the top of our list for waterproof cameras, including a bright lens and excellent macro mode, though speed prevents it from taking the top slot.The camera captures shots with a 1/2.3&qu...
Grade: A- Price: $297.00
The Canon EOS Rebel T6i and T6s boasts the highest resolution the popular EOS line has seen yet, thanks to a 24.2 megapixel APS-C sensor. The T6i model is designed for affordability, while the T6s is a flagship model for more advanced users.Both o...
Grade: A Price: $699.00
Basic point-and-shoots are compact and travel easily, but often lack zoom and speed. Enter the Olympus SH-1, a compact camera that packs in a pretty solid zoom along with excellent speed, wrapped up in a sturdy, retro-styled body.Because the Olymp...
Grade: B+ Price: $199.00