There was a time in the late 80s and 90s when disposable cameras and the development of one-hour films dominated the world of photography. While this put the medium into the hands of the masses in an accessible way, the mass production that made this possible meant the cameras were built to the lowest common denominator. But now that smartphones are in the pockets of billions of people around the world, everyone has a high-quality camera that rivals any high-end DSLR camera.
With this democratization of photography came an increased interest in niche photography, especially astrophotography (index, use a Google Pixel 7), panoramic photography, and macro photography. Before smartphones, if you wanted to take a macro shot, you needed an expensive camera and an equally (if not more) expensive lens. Today, you can do it with just your phone, or if you want to push the limits, a few pieces of an inexpensive kit.
What is macro photography?
Macro photography is when there is at least a one-to-one ratio between the size of the subject being photographed and its projection on the camera sensor. In more practical terms, it’s an extreme close-up where you take a picture of something small and make it look big.
Most phones on the market allow you to zoom in on your photos, but this has two limitations. The most obvious is that you lose resolution when you zoom in. A high pixel count can alleviate this problem, but cannot solve it. The other issue is your camera’s minimum focal length. If you get your camera too close to your subject to magnify it, the camera will blur, ruining your shot.
High-end phones tend to overcome this problem with a telephoto lens, allowing you to use optical zoom to magnify the subject. Budget phones are more likely to have a low resolution macro camera that allows you to get closer to the subject without losing focus.
If you want to get around these limitations and take great macro shots with your cell phone, your only option is to invest in a lens kit. An additional lens allows you to reduce your camera’s minimum focusing distance while taking full advantage of your main camera’s higher image resolution. There are plenty of cheap imports available, so at the bare minimum, get one with glass lenses and aluminum body. You are better off without the 10 in 1 kits.
The basics of smartphone macro photography
Whatever your approach to macro shooting, it’s best to understand its limitations and know how to overcome them. It’s not as easy as sticking a lens on your phone, but if you know a few basics, you should be able to take pictures in no time.
Focus and depth of field
Using a macro lens decreases your camera’s minimum focus distance, but it comes at the cost of maximum focus distance (which is infinity for most phone cameras). This means that the distance between your phone and your subject is limited. With most kit lenses, you need to maintain a distance of about an inch, and instead of relying on camera software to focus, you’ll need to move the phone around to find that sweet spot.
The counterpoint to being able to focus on closer objects is that you have a smaller distance between the part closest to your subject that is in focus and the farthest. It’s called depth of field, and with macro lenses it’s very shallow.
Both of these limit how you can compose your shots. When taking these test shots, it was common to have part of the subject in focus and part out of focus. Deciding which part of your subject is most important and needs focus is a creative choice you have to make.
By introducing an external lens into the smartphone camera, the problem of enlarging the subject while maintaining high resolution is solved, but now there is a new problem. The kit lens surrounding the original camera blocks some of the light that would have been available to the camera sensor. The need to keep the phone an inch away from the subject also means you risk blocking out ambient light.
To work around this, you either need to position yourself so you don’t block the light (which may not be possible depending on where you are or what you’re shooting), or introduce additional light into the socket sight (which can be difficult to handle with only two hands). Some lenses have built-in light rings to solve this problem.
Movement and stability
The purpose of macro photography is to magnify something small and make it bigger. One consequence is that it is not just the subject that is magnified. It is also any movement. Animals move, flowers blow in the wind, and keeping your body perfectly still is impossible. There are strategies to overcome this challenge.
First, if you’re using the manual controls in your camera app, set it to a high shutter speed. If you set it too low, movements appear as blurs in your image. Avoid night sessions if you can. Your phone automatically reduces its shutter speed to compensate for low light.
If you can, use a tripod. This isn’t always a feasible option, but if it is, it avoids most motion blur issues you might encounter. If you need to avoid even the slightest motion of touching the phone to take the photo, you can set a timer or drop $20 on a decent bluetooth camera remote.
How to make it work
The technical elements in this article are fundamental to taking a macro photo, but that’s only part of the story. To take Instagram-worthy photos, the first thing you need is patience. Your first photo may be blurry or out of frame. However, you can quickly remedy this by taking lots of photos. Some will be bad. Some will be fine. But if you persist, you will find diamonds in the rough.