Macro Photography: What You Need to Know for Photographing the Smallest Creatures

Macro Photography: What You Need to Know for Photographing the Smallest Creatures

Macro photography can be a fun and exciting step for a hobbyist or the full time photographer looking to shoot something different. It takes patience (in most cases if you are working with small creatures) and a keen eye for that interesting shot. So what do you need to know in order to start into macro photography?

I have always been fascinated with the smallest of creatures on the planet. They go unnoticed in day to day life yet they play a huge role in the ecosystem. Years ago I worked as a scientist in the wetlands but had a crippling fear of spiders. As an initiation on the airboats, the driver plowed through an area that had been untouched for quite sometime knowing the amount of spiders hanging low would flood the boat quickly. Needless to say I had two options: learn to love them, or lose my job by going insane in front of my boss. Within a day my fear was gone as I had to live among these creatures for over 8 hours as I worked. 

Over the years I learned not only to accept them but found a love for them I never knew existed. From a distant perspective they are fast, creepy, and sent chills up my spine. However researching them and looking at them with macro photography I found these guys to be some of the most fascinating creatures on earth.

regal jumper Phiddipus regius - female

I wanted to learn more about capturing them and turned to my colleague Jen Swedhin for help. Swedhin has been a male portrait photographer as well as a virtual assistant to other photographers for years. She recently started posting more on macro photography documenting wildlife inside and out of her home so I contacted her to see how she got started in this new area. She uses a Minolta 70-210 lens with a Raynox 250 macro clip on adaptor. "I have also been using a reversal ring, but so far haven’t managed to eliminate light leaks with the lenses I have available. There is a steep learning curve which is a fun but frustrating challenge after being a portrait photographer for many years" Swedhin wrote. 

regal jumper Phiddipus regius - male

One big challenge she noted was the depth of field. It is s razor thin even at f/18+. "The margin for error or missing focus is huge, and when the object you are focusing on is less than 1mm. If you miss it you can’t fake it" she said. She works in manual focus so she rocks back and forth with small movements to find the subject and get focus. Her typical settings are f/16-18, ISO 100-250, 1/160 sec with a speedlight. She says that the speedlight so far has not disturbed them which was a worry at first. Mainly they just keep an eye on her or come to her lens to investigate. "when a bug decides they want to be somewhere, they can get their super fast" she wrote. 

jumping spider Anasaitis canosa

She is typically just inches away from her subject so there is a lot of care that goes into not disturbing them or their homes. "I’m also waiting for the jumping spiders to jump on my lens, which they do 50% of the time and 'oooohing and ahhhhing' over how cute those little 8-legged puppies are" she said.  

Extension tubes are also great to create a large space between the back of the lens and the image sensor. This wil help you focus from closer distances. A macro lens is key for this type of photography as they have optics optimized for peak sharpness at the minimum focusing distance. Swedhin says that her Raynox clip on the macro lens makes a world of a difference. It helps obtain the maximum macro magnification power. 

regal jumper Phiddipus regius - female

Another challenge is the major light requirement. Even shooting in full sun she needs a good deal of supplemental light. However, this light needs to be both focused and diffused. It often needs to be directed into small spaces like the inside of a bush. She found that an inexpensive speedlight with a broad diffuser works well and is flexible enough to adapt to changing environment.

twin flagged jumper Anasaitis canosa

The biggest challenge she  found was being completely at the mercy of these tiny creatures. "They don’t sit still, they don’t listen to direction, they move with the wind (or my breath, or the camera shaking a leaf, etc) and they move fast." she admitted. She does not go for the "spray and pray method" when shooting normally but when shooting insects and spiders, sometimes that’s what it takes. It’s a lot of patience, a lot of standing still, a lot of sore arms, and a lot of missed shots. 

Green Lynx Spider Peucetia viridans

A question she is asked often is where to find them. The majority she has found in her yard while the rest were on walks around her neighborhood. All it takes is slowing down and looking. Her biggest goal with sharing these images was to educate and help reduce the fear surrounding spiders. In North America there are only two medically relevant spiders, "That is to say there are only two spiders that can cause bodily harm, and both of those have rare bites and are shy creatures. The rest are just neighbors trying to live their life" she wrote. She found a way to combine her love for biology and photography has reignited her passion for both. 

twin flagged jumper Anasaitis canosa with fly

carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina


house centipede Scutigera coleoptrata

labyrinth orb weaver Metepeira labyrinthea

Macro photography is a perfect way to learn to appreciate so much that is around you that goes unnoticed. It will help to create a moment of patience and understanding whether you chose to photograph spiders, flowers, or anything else that gets you in close. If you have any extra tips feel free to comment! 

All images are with permission and courtesy of Jen Swedhin. Lead image is a jumping spider Anasaitis canosa.

Jennifer Tallerico's picture

JT is known throughout the International Boudoir Photography Industry and the region for her unique approach to Fine Art Photography. Her underwater work as JT Aqua is ethereal based and conceptual. She is an educator, writer and currently teaching workshops for underwater and boudoir.

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Macro photography is what cured me of my arachnophobia too. Spiders start as a vague notion of quick, creepy, dark creatures. But with macro you see how intricate, complex, and beautiful they are. Here's my favourite spider macro image I've ever taken. I was photographing the spider when a bee landed nearby and he got quite upset about it.

I've never been afflicted with arachnophobia, or any other phobia for that matter, so having the little buggers pose on your person while you take your shot can be disconcerting to those standing next to you who are........

I have zero interest in macro photography but that was a great read. 😊

I shoot underwater macro, which shares all the challenges mentioned in this article plus frequently some current, which is analogous to wind. In that situation, manual focus is almost impossible, but continuous AF plus tracking can be productive.

This shrimp for example is often found swaying on an anemone but getting a lock on one eye will produce the shot. Static targets like anemone fish eggs are tougher because they are only 1-2 mm hence need to be taken from very close. Technically challenging but really rewarding