How to take great macro photos on a smartphone
July 11, 2022
Some high-end smartphones are well-equipped to tackle tiny subjects – Amy Davies discovers how you can take macro photographs with a smartphone
Your smartphone is probably not the first thing that you think of when it comes to taking close-up photographs. But what if you could achieve stunning results using just the smartphone in your pocket, giving you the option to grab close-ups while out and about wherever you are? Many of the recently announced smartphones have a dedicated macro shooting capability, therefore allowing you to get super-close to your subject and capture fine detail.
There are other ways to achieve good results too, when capturing macro with your smartphone. Using the smartphone’s telephoto lens is one way to get good results, while there are also additional add-ons, loupes and lenses that you can experiment with.
In this piece, we’ll be taking a look at three photographers who use their smartphone to create beautiful close-up work, each of whom will share their tips for getting the best results you can. On the final page we’ll discover which are the best smartphones you can currently buy exactly for this purpose. As usual, if this is something you enjoy then we’d love to see your pictures. Get in touch via social media or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeanette is the creative director of Jet Black Squares Ltd. She teaches smartphone photography courses, more information about which can be found at jetblacksquares.com
Jeanette uses the iPhone 11 Pro but asserts that any phone, no matter its age, has the potential to take cracking close-ups. Her favourite things to photograph are ferns: ‘They look so magical when all curled up.’ She also likes raindrops, insects (if they stay still long enough), and flowers in bud. ‘Considering the size of the camera on the phone, they can produce excellent results.
I don’t think the quality is as good as a dedicated macro lens – but then you aren’t paying lens prices. ‘Don’t dismiss the smartphone as not being a “proper” camera. It does take a bit of a mindset change, but as Rankin said on the Great British Photography Challenge, “stop thinking of it as a phone, and start thinking of it as a camera”.
‘You may also want to use a macro clip-on lens, which are very cheap and can produce good results. Just ensure they are clipped on correctly – they are best used without a phone case to avoid any light leaks by ensuring a tight fit. You will have to be virtually on top of your subject too, otherwise you will just see a blurry screen.’
Jeanette’s top tips for macro smartphone photos:
- Take your time and don’t zoom in. If you bring your phone in slowly, a good depth of field should be achieved.
- If you have a close-up/macro lens or setting on your phone, then switch to it. By doing this, you aren’t zooming in and losing quality.
- Touch the screen to set your focal point before you press the shutter. Being so close, it’s easy for the camera to focus on something else, so you have to be very specific.
- Turn the phone upside down. It often gets you closer, and gives a totally different view.
Gem Toes- Crichton
Gem is an experimental photographer, artist and teacher as well as an amateur botanist. She uses photography as a way of examining plants, their morphology and engaging others with the natural world more broadly. Take a look at capturedbygem.co.uk for more information.
As well as her DSLR and macro lens (Nikon D850/Nikon Df and 105mm macro lens), Gem is a keen user of her smartphone. She says, ‘I usually have a Kite 10x Triplet hand lens/loupe with me. My iPhone tends to be with me when out walking so I’ll use this teamed with a 10x hand lens/loupe to photograph and record the plants I identify in the field. It’s a handy and lightweight combination when I don’t want to carry heavy or expensive equipment.
‘Hand lenses/loupes can be picked up relatively cheaply from places that stock naturalists equipment, such as NHBS and Summerfield Books. Using a phone and a hand lens/loupe is quite a different experience from using a DSLR. It works well for me as I usually have my phone. I am particularly interested in plant morphology (the study of the physical form and external structure of plants), so it really depends on what you’re interested in photographing.
‘There are downsides, of course. You need a steady hand, there’s a smaller field of view (less in the frame), and you usually get vignetting from the barrel of the lens (which I quite like). You also need to get physically closer to the subject, which isn’t always going to work with wildlife. Overall however, I think these limitations force you to think about composition, using the foreground as focus without distracting backgrounds.’
Gem’s top tips for macro smartphone photos:
- The subject needs to be well lit. You can take portable LED lights into the field with you, use a small reflector, or even take the subject home for closer examination. (Please be mindful about picking / removing protected wildflowers).
- An elastic band is a good way of temporarily attaching a hand lens/loupe to your smartphone.
- Experiment! Find out which results you enjoy, try different hand lenses/loupes, camera settings, angles and lighting until you get the results you like.
Mel is a photographer who has been shortlisted in a number of different competitions, including Close Up Photographer of the Year. Her book, Elemental, was published in 2017. She runs workshops on mindfulness and using your smartphone for photography. For more details see melcollie.co.uk
Another user of the iPhone 11 Pro, Mel also has a small Manfrotto tripod with a smartphone mount for her close-up work. Occasionally she will also use an Olloclip 21x lens for microscopic detail. She says, ‘When I’m out and about, I might not have my camera with me, but I always have my iPhone. So when something catches my eye I can still take a shot. It’s always in my pocket, so I can readily get the shot that I want.
I like promoting the smartphone for photography because I would like to get people to use them less for scrolling and comparing their lives, and instead as a tool for a better way to see the world, and themselves.
‘During my workshops I especially emphasise the idea of using the camera the way a person used to write a diary. Instead of labelling the smartphone as the enemy – because it’s not a “proper” camera – we can see it as a camera we can use to be fully engaged in the moment.
‘A smartphone is great for many reasons, and they’re more flexible than you might think. Comparing the iPhone’s 12 megapixels to the 20 or more from a DSLR/mirrorless camera may mean your print size is somewhat limited, but I’ve been able to print my iPhone images to A2 size with no loss of detail.’
Mel’s top tips for macro smartphone photos:
- Camera shake can be an issue, so I use my headphones to take the picture (press the ‘volume down’ button). This means I touch the screen far less. Alternatively, use the timer setting of 3 or 10 seconds which can help to minimise touching the screen.
- To get the exposure right, tap the screen lightly to set the focus on the main subject, then gently swipe up and down to make adjustments (this is for iPhones, but Android devices generally work in the same way).
Best Smartphone for Macro Photography
There are a few smartphones which offer dedicated macro functionality, while others can be used for close-ups so long as you use them in a specific way. Here we’ve included three of the best smartphones you can currently pick up – the iPhone 13 Pro, the Google Pixel 6 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra (which was the recent winner of Smartphone of the Year at the AP Awards).
Shooting exactly the same macro scene with each of the smartphones reveals how each of them copes with close-up shooting. Giving you an idea of whether or not you might want to add it to your wishlist.
iPhone 13 Pro
- From £949
- 3 x lenses, including ultrawide, wide and telephoto
- Macro mode
One of the big selling points of the iPhone 13 Pro is its dedicated macro mode. Something which is not found on the ‘non pro’ version of the latest iPhone series.
With it, you simply get closer to your subject and you will see a macro icon appear, and the camera will switch from using the standard lens to the ultrawide lens (but will maintain the same framing as if you were shooting with the 1x lens).
With this option you can get as close as 2cm away from the subject and record fine detail. You also have the option to switch off macro focusing, which can be helpful in certain situations. If you can’t get close to the subject, you also have the option of using the 3x telephoto lens, but you’ll tend to lose some quality if you do that.
Google Pixel 6 Pro
- From £849
- 3x lenses, including ultra wide, wide and telephoto
- No dedicated macro mode
While the Pixel 6 Pro doesn’t have a dedicated macro mode, it’s capable of taking some fine detail shots, and is an excellent all-rounder. It’s also the cheapest of the three smartphones here so it’s good for those without a top-end budget.
A good way to get a close-approximation of a macro shot is to use the telephoto lens, which will allow you to fill the frame in the same way as close-focusing with a wideangle lens.
You won’t get the same level of detail if you inspect too closely. But for sharing your shots on social media sites, or for printing small it should do the job. If the detail or object you’re trying to photograph isn’t too small, you might be able to get away with using the 1x lens and cropping afterwards.
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra
- From £1149
- 4x lenses, including ultrawide, wide, two telephotos
- Macro ‘Focus Enhancer’ mode
The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is the best smartphone on the market right now for enthusiast photographers. With its ability to closely focus on a subject being one of the reasons why. Like the iPhone, close-focusing will switch on automatically as soon as you get close enough to a subject. You have the option to switch it off if you need to by simply tapping the ‘Focus Enhancer’ icon.
A handy feature is the ‘S Pen’ which you can use as a remote trigger -– ideal for keeping the phone steady. As with the other phones here, you also have the option of using a telephoto lens to fill the frame if you can’t get close to a subject. Such as for insects and other small wildlife.