Macro photography and manual focus

In this article, I’ll talk about some basic tips in Macro photography. This field is quite special because, thanks to the specific gear, it’s possible to take suggestive pictures: a Macro lens, that has a 1:1 magnification ratio, allows to capture tiny details, making them appear giant; the same goes with insects, flowers and tiny objects.

Thanks to this you can also get highly creative results, extrapolating a detail of a common object and making it look like something very special, playing with proportions; macro photography has a great potential to be a fascinating and visually striking genre.

If the Macro lens is fast, say f/2.8 or wider aperture, being able to focus on the chosen point can be a really tough job. If, in addition, it is a telephoto lens (as in my case is the Pentax smc D-FA 100mm f/2.8 Macro WR, equivalent to a 150mm lens in full frame format) shooting at full aperture and center the desired point turns out to be a real bet. Depending on the distance of the subject, the depth of field can decrease to a millimeter: so with just an imperceptible movement of the camera or the subjet, the shot will be a fail. Furthermore, often the lens’ autofocus system is not as precise as we would and we risk to have to repeat the shot again and again to obtain the desired picture. These are just some of the challenges to face in Macro photography.

So the best alternative is only one: to disable the autofocus and proceed by hand (and by eye naturally). Manually operate the lens’ focus ring 100% guarantees the result, unless obviously you don’t have vision problems. Personally I tend to use two shooting techniques with manual focusing:

    • With the tripod, I simply set the focus ring until I obtain the desired composition.

    • Handheld shooting, i block the focus ring in a fixed position and I shift my whole body by some millimeters back and forth, checking by eye when to shoot. It’s very useful to breathe deep and slow and shoot while breathing out, keeping the arms tight along the body, in order to reduce the unwanted movements to the minimum. In this case it can be necessary to shoot repeatedly two or three times to be sure not to fail.

If you use really fast lenses (and in case you also have vision problems) there are two useful solutions that let you to focus much easier (this is also vald with extremely fast, non Macro lenses, like the Pentax smc A 50mm f/1.2 for example):

    • If you prefer to look through the viewfinder, it’s possible to use the microprisms and split focus screens (the latter are the one used with film camera, that have a split circle in the center). Both of them are much clearer than the focus screen supplied as standard, especially with low-end D-SLR. The downside is a certain discomfort if you use them in conjuction with slow, AF zoom lenses (say f/5.6 to narrower aperture); moreover sometimes you have to prepare to spend quite a lot of money for them.

    • If you can do without looking through the viewfinder, the use of Live View is useful: in this case you can magnify by software the focus area to improve the precision. Moreover some recent cameras are equipped with the Focus Peaking function, that clearly points out on the display the pixels of a certain color which fall within the focus area. It’s a truly notable feature. In the following video you can see the Live View with Focus Peaking in action:

This is my experience in the field of macro photography and I hope it can be of some help to you. But what is your experience? If you have any hint or trick, I invite you to talk about it below.

About Claudio Beffa

I'm an Italian photographer and designer with a great passion for the discovery of amazing places and their history and soul. With, I'll tell you every step of my journey and I'll show you my best travel & landscape shots.

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