Life in Macro

Every once in a while, you find a new technique or piece of equipment that’s a game changer.  Sure, I’d had lenses that had “macro” settings on them for ages.  But for whatever reason, I’d never tried shooting people with them before.

Recently, I borrowed a very special type of macro lens from a friend, the Canon MP-E 65mm.  This lens shoots nothing but macro – it will not focus at all if your subject matter is more than 4 inches (10 cm) away.  This greatly restricts the types of things you can shoot – anything bigger than your thumbtip is out of the question.  It’s not what I’d call a “versatile” lens.

Pillow talk

The subject matter that I found to be most compelling were eyes and lips.  Lips are a little easier, in that there is more latitude for what you have in focus.  With eyes, the iris generally has to be sharp, or the image is lost (there are some exceptions).  This can be difficult when you’re holding a long lens so close to a model’s eye that it’s almost brushing her lashes.


What makes a good macro portrait?

  • The viewer should be able to distinguish what they’re looking at
  • There should be enough variety of texture and color to make the image interesting (this is why eyes work well and belly buttons do not)
  • If the image is blurry, it should look intentionally blurry
  • The geometry of the image should draw the viewer’s eye across the image
  • 50mm is too wide for most facial photography; 100mm works better

Having a totally out-of-focus image can work for you.  The image above was shot with available light in a fairly dark location, so it had a long shutter speed on the exposure (1/13 second).  Between the movement of the model and the camera, this made for a very soft, unfocused image.


In this situation, the image takes on an almost painterly quality, with very little sharp detail in the image at all.

One advantage of using natural light is the ease of visualising the final shot.  The image below was shot with a strobe in a strip box (thin softbox).  This created a significant catchlight in the model’s eye that is not present in the naturally-lit image.  It was not possible to use a larger light source without fully occluding the model’s eye.

Blue eyes

It’s worth noting that this is one type of photography where it is essential to focus manually.  Do not rely on autofocus!  At extreme levels of macro focusing such as these, it is often easiest to set the focus and fine-tune by moving closer to or further from the subject.  Live view really shines here; live view shows you exactly what the camera’s sensor sees, so anything in focus during live view is guaranteed to be in focus when the image is shot.

Models: Marissa Quimby, Jayne Delane

Makeup: Miguel Vigil @ Foxy Cut Salon