If you’ve found your way here, your questions about macro photography probably go deeper than, “What do I need to get?” I’m glad you’re curious, and I hope I can provide answers to at least some of your questions.
“What is macro photography?” is a good place to start.
There often seems to be confusion as to what macro photography really is. I believe that this is no small part due to the way camera and lens manufacturers market their products. Your point-and-shoot, more likely than not, has a macro function. And if you own a DSLR, there’s a good chance that you’ve at least seen an “all-in-one” lens that is both a zoom and a “macro” lens (we’ll call these macro-zoom lenses). The problem is that neither the point-and-shoot (in most cases) nor the macro-zoom lens is capable of getting you the extreme close-ups that are usually associated with macro photography. Why is that? The reason is quite simple: point-and-shoots (even those with a macro function) and macro-zooms are not designed for macro photography.
That’s right, neither is designed for macro photography–they’re actually designed for close-up photography.
What’s the difference?
The distinction between macro and close-up photography really comes down to differences in what is known as the “reproduction ratio.” Think of it as magnification. The reproduction ratio is the ratio of the size of the subject’s image on the image sensor to its size in real life (size of image on sensor:size IRL). Macro photography is done at reproduction ratios of 1:1 or greater, while close-up photography is done at ratios that are less than 1:1. At the 1:1 ratio, the subject’s image on the sensor is the same as its size in the real world. Think of it as actually taking the subject and, without changing anything about it, placing it on the sensor.
If it’s not macro, then it’s close-up photography.
If you think about this distinction, then you hopefully understand why the photos that come out of point-shoots and macro-zooms lack the epic magnification that is the hallmark of macro photography.
To recap: macro photography ≥1:1.
Now that you understand what separates macro from close-up photography, you might have questions about the sort of equipment you’ll need to get started.
A bit of an aside, but something that I feel is important to address: I personally don’t agree with the 1:1 definition for macro photography. I think it made sense when most photographers still shot on film, since (as far as I know) the film was the same size no matter what camera you used–1:1 was the same across the board. In digital, every manufacturer uses a different sensor size–even the size of APS-C sensors varies from between manufacturers. This means that 1:1 on a Canon APS-C sensor will give you a different result than 1:1 on a micro four thirds sensor when you display the images at the same resolution. I don’t think there’s really a way to neatly define what constitutes macro photography these days–just make sure the subject is appropriately large in the frame, and make sure it’s sharp. How you get there is up to you.