Coffee foam in macro mode.
Coffee foam in macro mode, captured with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Sydney Butler

Most people take photographs at human scale or larger. Pets, people, landscapes, and food are all common subjects. With “macro mode,” you can take clear pictures of small details and objects, with certain iPhone or Android handsets that support it.

What is Macro Photography?

Macro photography is the art of taking close-up photos of small objects. There’s a strict definition of macro photography where the subject must match up at 1:1 scale with the camera sensor, but most of what’s referred to as macro photography doesn’t stick to this rule. Professional macro photographers care about whether a subject is photographed at life sizes or magnified by a certain factor.

This article isn’t about the broader art of macro photography, but about its specific implementation in smartphones. If you want to dig deeper into the subject, we’ve got a great explainer of what a macro lens is in photography. Beyond smartphones, you can take macro photos with a traditional camera. Here’s some great macro photography gear if you want to get started.

How Does Macro Photography Work in a Smartphone?

You may have noticed that modern smartphones pack multiple cameras these days. It’s common to have a wide and an ultrawide camera, but higher-end phones may have more. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra used to take the photos you see in this article has four: ultrawide, wide, 3x telephoto, and 10x telephoto.

If you want to take macro photos, you need a camera that can clearly focus on subjects that are very close. Usually starting from just under an inch from the camera.

To give a phone macro photography powers, there are two main routes that phone manufacturers take to add this feature. One is to add a dedicated macro camera to the phone. This is something we’ve seen on many mid-range phones where a 2-megapixel camera sensor is paired with a dedicated macro lens. Unfortunately, these cameras tend to produce poor results and are really more of a fun diversion than a way to make genuinely attractive photos.

The other way to get macro photos is to repurpose one of the wide or ultrawide cameras on the phone and adjust its focal distance into the macro range. Both the iPhone 13 Pro/Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra phones take this approach and the results speak for themselves.

Both methods also benefit from computational photography, but as always you’ll get better results with better raw input for those algorithms.

How to Use Macro Mode on iPhone or Android

Using the macro mode on your smartphone is actually quite intuitive, but it does differ from phone to phone.

For iPhone users, only the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max offer a macro mode at the time of writing. Tim Brookes wrote a comprehensive iPhone Macro Photography Guide, but the short answer is that your iPhone 13 Pro will automatically detect when you’re within macro distances. What’s rather annoying is that you can’t manually control this process. At least this was the case until iOS 15.1.

On the Samsung S21 Ultra used for this article, things are much the same. The phone knows when you’re close to the subject and switches to a “focus enhancer” mode. This is however only available if you’re switched to the wide camera (second from the left in the camera app).

If you have a phone with a dedicated macro camera, then all you have to do is switch to that camera and you’re ready.

What if Your Phone Doesn’t Have Macro Mode?

If you don’t have an official macro mode on your current phone, you may still have a few ways to take macro or at least near-macro photos. Test the various cameras in your phone to see how close you can get to small objects and still remain in focus. If you change your photo settings to increase the quality and resolution of those images, it may be possible to crop a macro-like image from the larger frame.

You can also buy external macro lenses that clip onto your phone. It’s a minor additional hassle, but it’s far cheaper than buying a whole new phone just to get access to macro mode.

Xenvo Pro Lens Kit for iPhone, Samsung, and Pixel

A simple clip on lens kits that adds macro functionality to phones that don't have it.

Macro Photography Examples

We took our S21 Ultra out and snapped pictures of various small subjects to show what sort of images you can expect. This grasshopper was crawling around in a pot plant.

Xenvo Pro Lens Kit for iPhone, Samsung, Pixel
Sydney Butler – S21 Ultra

This slug was also just minding its own business on the pavement when we put a camera right up in its face. It didn’t seem to notice.

Slug Macro S21
Sydney Butler – S21 Ultra

This tiny mushroom was found growing out of a rotting tree trunk on a forest floor.

Mushroom macro S21
Sydney Butler – S21 Ultra

Macro photography really lets you capture the world from a perspective most of us never see with the naked eye and it opens up access to interesting subjects that are all around you, making it one of the most rewarding types of photography.

Macro Photography Tips

If you want to get the best macro images with your phone, here are a few practical tips:

  • Take your time, get the focus right and take multiple photos.
  • Make use of a tripod or something to steady the camera against, even your own body.
  • Use a selfie stick to get close to objects that are out of reach or might be disturbed if you moved in too close.
  • Make use of voice-activated camera shutter functions or a Bluetooth remote shutter. At macro scale, even just tapping the screen can ruin your shot.
  • Consider bringing additional lighting, like a small soft LED light, since macro photographs often suffer from poor lighting.

Most important of all: Be creative and have fun!

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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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