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How to Shoot Macro Portraits That Tell a Story

If you need to take a set of images that have a consistent look and also tell a story, going macro and taking close-ups is a great approach to use. Look for angles that intrigue and suggest that there’s more than what meets the eye. Here, we will be creating our own photo set that incorporates a mix of normal portraits and close-ups of your subject’s face and body. We have shot with a model here, but go ahead and try it on your friends, family members or even pets! (Reported by: Haruka Yamamoto, Digital Camera Magazine. Model: Mirai Tanabe (Agency: Best Assist))


Equipment used: A medium telephoto macro lens

Choose a macro lens that lets you photograph your model close-up. Macro lenses come in different focal lengths, but here, you want one that is medium telephoto (around 80 to 100mm) as that gives the best results for portraits.


EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

RF85mm f/2 Macro IS STM

The images in this article were all shot on the EOS R and EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM.


Step 1: Start by taking simple, normal portraits

We will be using normal, non-macro portraits to anchor our story set. But although we said “normal”, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should shoot them in your usual way!

Inconsistencies in the lighting and background of your images will be very obvious when you put them together into a set. Make use of the tight angle of view and shallow depth of field of your medium telephoto lens to keep the background of your portraits simple. For best results, try to shoot in the same conditions as the close-up images.

Background: Keep it simple

Do: Simplify the background

Girl resting head on arms

A simple background makes it easier to curate your shots into a set without any shot looking out of place.

Don’t: Pack in too much information

Waist-up portrait with colourful background

This shot has too many colours in the background, which could make it challenging to fit into a set.


Lighting: Keep it consistent

Whenever you shoot photos for a set, keep the lighting conditions consistent. As I wanted the shots in this set to express femininity, I kept the lighting soft and diffused. Harsh lighting with strong contrasts creates harsh shadows, which can stand out too much in a photo set.

Pro tip: Lace curtains are good for diffusing window lighting.

Also see: 5 Fundamental Lighting Patterns for Portrait Photography

Do: Use semi-backlight to reduce shadows

Close-up portrait with soft shadows

Softer shadows bring out a sense of femininity

Don’t: Use strong side lighting

Profile head shot with strong shadows

Strong light and shadow distract viewers from the person.

Revise your lighting angles here:
[Lesson 14] Knowing Your Light Rays


Pro tip 1: Make sure the model isn’t wearing an outfit with striking colours

Putting the model in boldly coloured clothes to make a shot look more striking is very effective for images that stand alone. But in a photo set, the colours will distract the viewer from the subject, and could make the set look inconsistent.

Of course, it’s possible to create a set of photos that is colourful yet not too distracting. That requires more advanced know-how, so if you’re new to this, it would be easier to start with an outfit that commands less attention.

model in red shirt

Our eyes are drawn to the model’s red shirt.

What kind of lighting and camera angles will flatter your subject better? Find out in:
3 Flattering Techniques to Learn from Professional Models


Step 2: Shoot close up, paying attention to curves and lines

Now that we’re done with the normal portraits in Step 1, we can move on to shoot close-ups of the model.

Angles: Look for lines; bring out the dimension

When it comes to close-ups of facial features, many people tend to think in terms of parts of the face: eyes, lips, etc., and photograph these from head on. Not only does this look flat and characterless, when you have an entire set of such shots, it can look like one of those games where you mix and match cutouts of different facial features to create a face.

For a different approach, look for lines and curves. To keep consistent with what I wanted to express in this set of images, I looked for angles that showcased curves, which look more feminine. You might need to tilt your camera to give the shot more dimension.


Good example for eyes
Bad example for eyes

To emphasise the roundness of the model’s eyes, I got her to lie down and took a close up of her profile from a diagonal angle.  Including the lines of her nose gives the shot an additional layer.


Good example for mouth
Bad example for mouth

To avoid taking an ordinary-looking shot, I asked the model to put her finger on her lips. The finger creates a line that makes the shot look more impactful.


Focus position: Doesn’t have to be on the line that is the primary interest of the shot

Leaving things to the viewer’s imagination makes a shot more intriguing, and tight framing isn’t the only way to do it. Skillful choice of where to place the focus works, too!

For example, in these shots, the soft, feminine feel will be captured even if the curves were in the background bokeh instead of the in-focus area. So don’t feel that you have to use a narrow aperture to keep things sharp—go ahead and use the widest aperture possible. In fact, the unique shallow depth of field of a macro lens is perfect for this look.

Close up of wrist with model’s jawline in background

The model’s wrist might be the part that is in focus, but we still have a sense of the outlines of the out-of-focus elements behind.


Pro tip 2: Check your shots and make sure that they all have dimensionality

Any image that is flat or doesn’t have the same sense of lines will break the flow of the photo set. After you have shot the normal and close-up portraits, line up your images and check them carefully. Always keep the lines and dimensionality in mind, both during the shoot and when you are selecting the images!

Model resting head on hands, close-up

Head-on shot of eyes, close-up

This was shot from a flat angle, which would disrupt the flow of the photo set.


Close up of lips and jaw, shot from an angle


For more portrait photography tips and tutorials, check out:
2 Instant Techniques to Liven Up Your Outdoor Portraits
[Flash Technique] Creating a Pop Art-inspired Night Portrait
Handling Natural Light: A High Key Portrait with Patterned Shadows


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Haruka Yamamoto

Haruka Yamamoto

Born in Tokyo, Yamamoto is a freelance photographer who shoots for a variety of mediums that include magazines, CD jackets and advertisements. She also has her own blog, where she posts shots from an ongoing photography series “Otome-graphy [Maiden-graphy]”, which seeks to remove existing stereotypes of young women as well as address Yamamoto’s own issues about aging. A collection of these shots was published in book form in 2018.