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Close up macro photography on your smartphone

Close up macro photography on your smartphone

Instagram worthy macro photography on your smartphone requires preparation, basic photography theories, accessories and apps.

Have people saying 'You shot that on your mobile phone?'

These techniques, tips and apps will have you capturing SLR looking macro photography on your smartphone in no time. I explain each in detail and provide my top takeaway points at the end.

1. Site and subject preparation
2. Lens accessories
3. Lighting
4. Smartphone specific tips for sharp focus
5. Camera replacement apps - manual focus
6. Magnifier on iPhone
7. Photo editing apps and processes

We live in a busy world, where our amazing smartphones allows us to take quick snaps of everything around us. Close-up macro photography forces you to slow down, look at everyday objects in a new perspective - often at a level of detail not obvious to the human eye.

Macro photography is such an exciting photography genre. I quite often return to macro photography when I find myself in a creative rut.
Capturing sharp, close up photography on your iPhone or Android smartphone can also be serious business for an entomologist recording insects and primary producers sharing details of pests and plant disease.

Other Industries can also benefit from close up macro photography on the smartphone are: forensic, clinical, dental and medical. Even small business owners showcasing their produced goods, including jewellery and manufactures of small components and parts.

The standard camera app in most smartphones does a great job. However, you are limited to how close you can hold your phone to the subject before you can no longer achieve sharp focus. Below are some accessories and techniques to overcome the limitations of the smartphone.

1. Site and subject preparation
Depending on the subject you are capturing - you may be able to control the subject and environment. Outdoors and indoors each have their pros and cons.
  • Outdoor environment - the best time is early in the morning when the sunshine is less intense, there is less wind and insects are less active. An overcast day is always better and I will cover this further in the lighting section.
  • Indoor environment - if you are capturing a moveable object; such as a flower, macro photography on your smartphone is much easier in a controlled indoor environment. Indoors, you may be able to better control the backdrop, lighting and focus. I will cover each of these points in more detail shortly.

The next consideration is how to set up the subject and other elements in the image (composition)

  • Isolate the subject to make it the obvious focal point
  • Remove any distracting, bright or colourful elements in the photo
  • Simplify the background by using a dark cloth or dark board.
  • A contrasting background can be quite effective - texture &/or colour
  • Look for shapes and lines within the image and how they lead the viewer's eye

Experiment with different angles. I suggest moving either the subject or yourself and take practise shots using the smartphone hand-held to determine the best angle before using a tripod.

Related: Latest photo capture tips and technique articles

2. Lens accessories
As a professional photographer and late adopter to smartphone photography, I previously compared the lens quality between a DSLR and the smartphone. Some may even call this a prejudice!

You may have already discovered, there are a lot of cheap and nasty lens attachments out there. However, I can since learned that photography is not about having the best equipment.

That said, I have experimented with many lens attachments and have finally found a supplier that I can totally recommend. Struman Optics supply amazing lens that can be attached to any smartphone.

Yes, that means you Sony, HTC, LG, Huawei and even tablet owners can get in on the action too!

The lens is attached by either a sturdy universal metal clamp that can be used on both the front and rear lens or can be screwed into a supplied case, specific to iPhone and Samsung models.

What makes these lenses superior to most available - is the optics (obviously), lens coating, ease of use (no app required). Additionally, when you upgrade your smartphone - there is no need to purchase a new lens. Hmmm, I have a few old Olloclips for the iPhone 5 if anyone is interested!
Attaching a macro lens to a smartphone
HD 2.8x macro lens
This lens provides an optical magnification - meaning extra dots (pixels) of information in the photo. Digital magnification (zoom) effectively takes the existing pixels and turns one pixel into multiples of the same data making it appear closer. This can really make the image look pixelated and blotchy (if that's a word?).
example macro and close up photography smartphone camera with macro lens attachment
The better quality lens will retain sharpness in the whole image and not diminish and become more blurred near the edges. This then allows you to pinch and zoom in the image, and produce some stunning and sometimes alarming results! If you have a cheap lens attachment, zooming in on a blurred image will just look worse.
Cinematic wide-angle lens
I know what you are going to say. A wide-angle lens is for capturing a larger, wider field of view - such as capturing more of the interior. This is my go-to lens attachment during my in-person real estate smartphone photography workshop. However, using a wide-angle lens held really close to a subject can create a fantastic close-up image. The background and surrounding area become more distant creating a really cool distortion effect whilst your main subject appears normal.
Cinematic macro lens
This lens is a world-first manual focus smartphone macro lens. If you enjoy capturing flowers, this is by far the best lens for you. This lens needs to be held between 1cm and 8cm to the subject.

This lens has a depth of field (area in focus) of approximately 10mm making it perfect for most macro subjects.

The best feature of this lens is the super creamy soft blurred backgrounds and bokeh. Software background blur is a big advancement in smartphone cameras. However, the genuine background blur by this lens is no comparison.
3. Lighting
Lighting consideration is critical in any photography - in particular, macro photography on the smartphone. When you get in really close, there is less light and the smartphone and even yourself can cast shadows in the small subject. Providing ample light will allow the smartphone camera to operate faster and avoid some of those blurry images.

There are three main considerations with light - strength, quality and direction.

You really want to avoid the strong midday, harsh light that produces those shadows within your subject. If you find yourself in a position where you must achieve the image in these conditions - you can use a diffuser to soften the light and produce a nice even light on the subject.

The smartphone is convenient and practical - therefore, I have a cheap DIY light diffuser option for you.

Baking paper! Yes, attach the baking paper to an old picture frame. I use this technique during my in-person food photography courses, together with a cheap work light from a hardware store.

The next factor is the direction of light. This can be controlled by bouncing the light using - you guessed it, another cheap DIY product. Foam board or white cardboard. Experiment with different board positioning and see how it affects the light bouncing off the subject.

You may start to feel like a professional photographer at this stage, with all these apparatus. This is what it takes to create those Insta-worthy macro photographs on your smartphone!

4. Smartphone specific tips for sharp focus
The most fascinating thing about close up and macro photography on the smartphone is the detail. To achieve sharp detail, we have controlled some factors above: including keeping the subject steady and a high quality lens attachment. The next step is to stabilise the smartphone prior and during the capture.

The easiest way to stablise the smartphone is to attach it to a tripod. Smartphone holders can be sourced online at a low cost and attached to a standard tripod. I am a big fan of the versatile Joby tripod.

There are a number of hidden features in our smartphones that most of us discover by accident. Our smartphone did not come with a manual. If it did would you read it?

A couple of tips that will help you achieve sharper focus on your smartphone are:
  • Tap the screen to tell your smartphone where to focus
  • On the iPhone you can pinch and zoom, long press to lock the focus, then zoom back out again
  • Take the photo by pressing the volume button on your attached genuine earphones!
  • Use the timer or on some Android photos - say 'cheese'
  • Use a camera replacement app that allows manual focus adjustment
5. Camera replacement apps
This is the opportunity for you Android smartphone users to laugh at us iPhoneographers. Most of you already have manual control in Pro or scene modes. For the iPhone users, we can install a camera replacement app that uses all same hardware (lens and all the internal stuff) - however, it changes all the software including the interface. It is a little weird the first time you look at a replacement app, because it looks like you have a new phone camera. In many cases, it operates entirely differently too.

My normal camera replacement app recommendations are either ProCamera by CoCoLogics or Camera+ by LateNite Apps. Both these apps offer manual control over many settings, including manual focus.

I am going to recommend another that really excels in manual focus - Prime RAW Manual Camera by Klinger. This app provides a green overlay over the screen - showing you exactly which parts of the image are in focus. You can also change the manual focus sensitivity.

Related: Latest mobile photo editing articles >>

6. Magnifier on the iPhone
Don't have a macro lens - that's ok. Using the Magnifier on an iPhone you can digitally zoom a lot closer than the normal camera. After you press the capture button it creates a screen capture. The resolution is not as great as a normal photo. However, it is a quick and easy option with built in editing and filters to enhance the details.
7. Photo editing apps and processes
My favourite all-purpose mobile photo editing app is Snapseed by Google, available on iTunes and Google Play. I have written a previous blog: Snapseed photo editing - detailing my basic photo editing process. This applies to macro photography as much as any other genre.

For more advanced photo sharpening, the next best app is Adobe Lightroom mobile. It may seem a little intimidating. However, once you know the correct tools, when to use them and how to avoid over-using them your results will be incredible.
Once you learn photo sharpening editing techniques on your Android or iPhone, your photos will look amazing online and printed, hung on your wall. You will know the secrets to why, when and how to use the tools inside my recommended editing apps for professional results.
Click/tap here - to learn more about the Blurry to Tack-Sharp Photos: 4-Step System

Click/tap here - to learn more about the Blurry to Tack-Sharp Photos: 4-Step System

Click/tap here - to learn more about the Basic to Advanced Photo Sharpening - Mini-Course

Top six take-away points to remember
That was a long blog post. I wanted it to be a comprehensive reference guide, providing you all the tools to start capturing some stunning close up and macro photography on your smartphone. We would all love to see your results in our community.

Here are my top six tips:
  • Check the background for distracting elements
  • Diffuse and bounce the light
  • Experiment with different angles
  • Use a high-quality lens attachment to get in closer
  • Attach your smartphone to a tripod
  • Edit the image to enhance the sharpness and details

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