Five Top Tips to Help You Create Brilliant Macro Photography

Professional underwater photographer Fiona Ayerst explains five easy ways to get the most out of your macro shots, for both compact camera users and DSLR users.

By Fiona Ayerst

Compact Cameras

  1. Most compact cameras have a macro mode, designated by the flower symbol, which reconfigures the zoom mechanism in the camera to allow closer focus. No additional items are needed to shoot macro with these cameras. In fact, these cameras are wonderful for macro work because you can squeeze them (carefully, of course) into small spaces that massive DSLRs cannot venture.
  1. If your housing allows, it is a good idea to investigate and buy clip-on lenses or extension tubes to enable you to either get closer to your subject, or to get a larger reproduction of the critter you’re shooting.
  1. If you can’t afford strobes, use custom white-balancing to add some color back into your photos, and try to shoot in clean and shallow locations. A red filter can really help if you are deeper than 26 feet (8 m) but shallower than 66 feet (20 m).
  1. If you can afford strobes, make sure you invest in good oscillating arms to give you full control over the light’s direction.
  1. Use manual settings on your camera. For a worst-case scenario (if you can’t access manual settings) use aperture or shutter priority. Program and Auto modes do not work underwater.

DSLR Cameras

  1. With a DSLR, I recommend you start with a 60mm macro lens and a suitable port. The short focal length of this lens will afford you great depth of field. The 100 or 105mm is a great lens but harder to use due to its narrower angle, so switch to that when you are more advanced.
  1. If you have a crop-sensor camera and the old style FX 60mm lens then you get a crop factor and your focal length is around 85mm, which is perfect for even very tiny subjects.
  1. Invest in a good focus light that is not part of your strobes. I like to have one mounted to the hot-shoe on the top of my housing.
  1. Unless you are trying to achieve shallow depth of field, work at f-stops around 18 to 22. Remember that most strobes synch only up to 1/250th of a second.
  1. Try to learn the behavior of your subject and then depict this in your composition. For example, the long-nose hawkfish is a hungry, dart-like critter so portrait aspect shots using strong diagonal lines and opposing colors work well to describe its character.

Fiona Ayerst lives in Mossel Bay, South Africa and teaches underwater photography all over South Africa, Zanzibar and the Red Sea. She runs an annual underwater photography internship program in Mozambique from July to October. See for more information on her courses.