Macro Photography and Depth of Field

There are a couple trains of thought about the use of depth of field in macro photography. One camp insists that one should stop the lens aperture down to gain the most depth of field so that the entire image is as “in focus” as possible. The other camp insists that a very shallow depth of field works well to isolate a subject. I tend to follow the second example although there are good reasons to use both. Let’s take a look at them.

Shallow depth of field can isolate the subject by putting the background and foreground out of focus. We achieve this by shooting at wide apertures (f4for example) and focusing precisely on the subject. The focus point is critical. When photographing an insect you need to focus on the eye generally, with flowers quite often it will be the petals but in other instances it might be the stamens. Let’s look at a few examples:

Example 1, Macro Photography - Large Aperture f4.5

Example 1, Macro Photography - Large Aperture f4.5

Example 1, Macro Photography - Small Aperture f18

Example 2, Macro Photography - Small Aperture f18










I think most of you would agree that the first image with the lovely out of focus background is the best image, but is this always the case? The closer we get to the subject when doing macro photography the less depth of field we have for a given aperture. On very small subjects this often means that the tip of a stamen might be sharp but everything else is out of focus and guess what, this doesn’t always work. We are in a position of compromising the sharpness of the subject with the softness of the background. The choice of background can make a huge difference here as well as the focal length of the lens. I’ll cover this in another article.

When would we want to use the maximum depth of field possible (small apertures)? If it is important to have the complete subject sharp and the subject has depth you might be forced to shoot at small apertures to achieve this. By watching the background closely at least you can minimize the distraction. Dark backgrounds and light backgrounds can help immensely as can very simple backgrounds. Another option is to show as little of the background as possible by getting in really close to the subject.

Work with the background - Brittlebush Flower, Palm Springs, California

Work with the Background - Brittlebush Flower, Palm Springs, California

Blackberry Bush, Cowichan Valley, British Columbia
Subject Parallel to Camera – f5.6 Blackberry Bush, Cowichan Valley, British Columbia












A few other options are possible; if you can keep the camera plane parallel to the subject you may not require as much depth of field. If you do require that little bit of extra depth of field watch the background carefully and be willing to shift the camera a fraction to make the background work for you. Consider the background a compositional element even though it’s not your main subject. The photograph of the yellow Brittlebush flower shows this well. Special rails are available for this purpose although they tend to be bulky and expensive.

A last thought. What I have been discussing with macro work also holds true with almost all other photography and especially photography with long telephoto lenses. Take a look at those amazing sports photographs that the pros are shooting of ML baseball or many of the excellent wildlife images; they have very soft backgrounds isolating the subject by using limited depth of field. Here are a few examples.

Jesse Crain

Jesse Crain

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island

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15 Responses to “Macro Photography and Depth of Field”

  1. Lynn says:

    Thank you Kevin. I tend to get up very close, maybe too close? trying to capture tiny details, without a tripod. Do you generally use a tripod for macros? A tripod would allow flexibility with shutter speeds and increase the depth of field as well.

  2. kevin says:


    Yes, I do use a tripod about 99% of the time for macro work. When you are in really close while doing macro photography the depth of field is so shallow that I find any movement at all can shift the focus. It’s just really good practice and can make the difference between an OK image and one that you can sell or be very proud of. What many people find amazing is that if you make large prints of a typical landscape image you can often tell if the camera was hand held, tripods rock, they just aren’t perfect for every situation.

    Lots of the work I do is handheld but if I can use a tripod I do. I’ll show some images of my macro setup later as I have modified my tripod for low level shooting.

  3. Lynn says:

    Looking forward to seeing your macro setup and maybe I should dust off my tripod.

  4. kevin says:

    Hi Lynn,

    Dust off that tripod!

    I hate tripods too but use them as much as possible. With lenses in the normal focal length range and wide angles it isn’t as critical but as soon as you start pushing the extremes it makes a big difference. I watch people shooting with 400mm lenses handheld ocasionally and wonder what sort of results they get, it’s hard enough to get really sharp photos with these lenses on tripods.

    With macro I find I just can’t hold the camera still enough to lock in on my point of focus or make minor corrections in composition.

  5. Diane C. says:

    Fascinating! This article is a real eye-opener for me because I haven’t been paying much attention to backgrounds. Of course it is part of the composition, but I didn’t realize its importance or how to manipulate it. I have some experimenting to do now.

  6. Lisa's Chaos says:

    I love macro work, but hate tripods, so I am generally shooting with the large aperture. I have been determined to make myself do more small aperture work so I guess I should get used to getting out the tripod. :)

  7. kevin says:

    Hi Diane,

    I have always felt that one of the most often overlooked parts of photography is viewing the out of focus backgrounds as part of the image. I’m also constantly scanning the corners for branches or some other unwanted object intruding into the image. It’s amazing how many times I’ve photographed my camera bag over the years due to this!

  8. kevin says:


    Get out that tripod! We all detest them but they make life so much easier. Have you ever considered using a monopod? I carry one often and while not as sturdy as a tripod it is far better than hand holding for close-up work and when using long telephotos.

  9. Lynn says:

    I just wasted this morning, pushing the limits and doing it hand held, so I will dust off my tripods when I get home to try to stop the nonsense of hold your breath, be still and hope for luck shooting.

  10. mstoastburner says:

    Excellent article Kevin. I’m just trying to wrap my head around aperture, depth of field and what not and your article and examples have been very helpful. Thank you!

    And I have to laugh at Lynn’s “stop the nonsense of hold your breath, be still and hope for luck” comment. So true! :-)

  11. kevin says:

    I think all of us can relate to Lynn’s comment! I have left my tripod at home a few times and really kicked myself after viewing the slightly fuzzy images.

  12. berkshire wedding photographer says:

    Terrific! I’m very jealous of those images, I wish I could do as well.Those images took a lot of aptitude to produce, well done. I’ve bookmarked this site.

  13. Rick Louder says:

    Tri-pods. Don’t forget you can extend just one of the legs and use the tripod like a monopod. It can be better than hand-held. Still too much hassle for my modus operandi.

  14. Rick Louder says:

    I think you mentioned you had a Sigma 50mm Macro in your kit? Does that stop down to f42? I know we are heavily into the “circles-of-confusion ” territory, but is it any good at f24 and f32? I tested one of those lenses out and found it to be very sharp and bright. But the build quality made me balk at purchasing it.

    kevin Reply:

    Hi Rick,

    The Sigma 50mm macro I have only stops down to f32. Truthfully, I have never stopped down neyond f16 as I prefer to have shallower depth of field most of the time. I think these lenses are sharpest around f8 or f11.

    The build quality is a little light compared to the Nikons but at the same time it’s not bad. Unless using it every day I wouldn’t worry too much.

    You are right about using tripods as monopods.

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