Macro photography (or photomacrography or macrography, and sometimes macrophotography), is extreme close-up photography, usually of very small subjects and living organisms like insects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is greater than life size (though macrophotography technically refers to the art of making very large photographs). By the original definition, a macro photograph is one in which the size of the subject on the negative or image sensor is life size or greater. However, in some uses it refers to a finished photograph of a subject at greater than life size.
The ratio of the subject size on the film plane (or sensor plane) to the actual subject size is known as the reproduction ratio. Likewise, a macro lens is classically a lens capable of reproduction ratios of at least 1:1, although it often refers to any lens with a large reproduction ratio, despite rarely exceeding 1:1.
Apart from technical photography and film-based processes, where the size of the image on the negative or image sensor is the subject of discussion, the finished print or on-screen image more commonly lends a photograph its macro status. For example, when producing a 6×4 inch (15×10 cm) print using 35 format (36×24 mm) film or sensor, a life-size result is possible with a lens having only a 1:4 reproduction ratio.
Reproduction ratios much greater than 10:1 are considered to be photomicrography, often achieved with digital microscope (photomicrography should not be confused with microphotography, the art of making very small photographs, such as for microforms).
Due to advances in sensor technology, today’s small-sensor digital cameras can rival the macro capabilities of a DSLR with a “true” macro lens, despite having a lower reproduction ratio, making macro photography more widely accessible at a lower cost. In the digital age, a "true" macro photograph can be more practically defined as a photograph with a vertical subject height of 24 mm or less.
"Macro" lenses specifically designed for close-up work, with a long barrel for close focusing and optimized for high reproduction ratios, are one of the most common tools for macro photography. (Unlike most other lens makers, Nikon designates its macro lenses as "Micro" because of their original use in making microform.) Most modern macro lenses can focus continuously to infinity as well and can provide excellent optical quality for normal photography. True macro lenses, such as the Canon MP-E 65 mm f/2.8 or Minolta AF 3x-1x 1.7-2.8 Macro, can achieve higher magnification than life size, enabling photography of the structure of small insect eyes, snowflakes, and other minuscule objects. Others, such as the Infinity Photo-Optical's TS-160 can achieve magnifications from 0-18x on sensor, focusing from infinity down to 18 mm from the object.
Macro lenses of different focal lengths find different uses:
Continuously-variable focal length – suitable for virtually all macro subjects
45–65 mm – product photography, small objects that can be approached closely without causing undesirable influence, and scenes requiring natural background perspective
90–105 mm – insects, flowers, and small objects from a comfortable distance
150–200 mm – insects and other small animals where additional working distance is required
Extending the distance between the lens and the film or sensor, by inserting either extension tubes or a continuously adjustable bellows, is another equipment option for macro photography. The further the lens is from the film or sensor, the closer the focusing distance, the greater the magnification, and the darker the image given the same aperture. Tubes of various lengths can be stacked, decreasing lens-to-subject distance and increasing magnification. Bellows or tubes shorten the available maximum focus distance and make it impossible to focus to infinity.
Placing an auxiliary close-up lens (or close-up "filter") in front of the camera's lens is another option. Inexpensive screw-in or slip-on attachments provide close focusing. The possible quality is less than that of a dedicated macro lens or extension tubes, with some two-element versions being very good while many inexpensive single element lenses exhibit chromatic aberration and reduced sharpness of the resulting image. This method works with cameras that have fixed lenses, and is commonly used with bridge cameras. These lenses add diopters to the optical power of the lens, decreasing the minimum focusing distance, and allowing the camera to get closer to the subject. They are typically designated by their diopter, and can be stacked (with an additional loss of quality) to achieve the desired magnification.
Photographers may employ view camera movements and the Scheimpflug principle to place an object close to the lens in focus, while maintaining selective background focus. This technique requires the use of a view camera or perspective control lens with the ability to tilt the lens with respect to the film or sensor plane. Lenses such as the Nikon PC-E and Canon TS-E series, the Hartblei Super-Rotator, the Schneider Super Angulon, several Lensbaby models, the Zoerk Multi Focus System, and various tilt-shift adapters for medium format, allow the use of tilt in cameras with fixed lens mounts. Traditional view cameras permit such adjustment as part of their design.
Ordinary lenses can be used for macro photography by using a "reversing ring." This ring attaches to the filter thread on the front of a lens and makes it possible to attach the lens in reverse. Excellent quality results up to 4x life-size magnification are possible. For cameras with all-electronic communications between the lens and the camera body specialty reversing rings are available which preserve these communications. When used with extension tubes or bellows, a highly versatile, true macro (greater than life size) system can be assembled. Since non-macro lenses are optimized for small reproduction ratios, reversing the lens allows it to be used for reciprocally high ratios.
Macro photography may also be accomplished by mounting a lens in reverse, in front of a normally mounted lens of greater focal length, using a macro coupler which screws into the front filter threads of both lenses. This method allows most cameras to maintain the full function of electronic and mechanical communication with the normally mounted lens, for features such as open-aperture metering. The magnification ratio is calculated by dividing the focal length of the normally mounted lens by the focal length of the reversed lens (e.g., when an 18 mm lens is reverse mounted on a 300 mm lens the reproduction ratio is 16:1). The use of automatic focus is not advisable if the first lens is not of the internal-focusing type, as the extra weight of the reverse-mounted lens could damage the autofocus mechanism. Working distance is significantly less than the first lens.
Increasingly, macro photography is accomplished using compact digital cameras and small-sensor bridge cameras, combined with a high powered zoom lens and (optionally) a close-up diopter lens added to the front of the camera lens. The deep depth of field of these cameras is an advantage for macro work. The high pixel density and resolving power of these cameras' sensors enable them to capture very high levels of detail at a lower reproduction ratio than is needed for film or larger DSLR sensors (often at the cost of greater image noise). Despite the fact that many of these cameras come with a "macro mode" which does not qualify as true macro, some photographers are using the advantages of small sensor cameras to create macro images that rival or even surpass those from DSLRs.