Shoot Great Macro Photos — With a Cheap Plastic Cup

September 23, 2014

Have you ever shot really close-up hand-held macro photography and struggled with keeping your subject still, holding your camera steady, or avoiding harsh, ugly shadows?

I’m going to show you how to solve all of those problems in just a few minutes with nothing more than a plastic cup and some scissors.

The challenges

There are lots of challenges when shooting macro photography outdoors, especially if you’re shooting handheld.

For one, things move. If you’re trying to capture a bug, it’s probably crawling away. If you want to shoot a flower, even the subtlest breeze can seem like a hurricane through a macro lens.

Secondly, if you’re shooting handheld, it can be a real challenge to hold the camera steady. Even focusing can be tricky. But setting up a tripod to shoot something on the ground can be a real pain in the rear—and a tripod makes moving quickly very difficult.

Finally, if you’re shooting outdoors on a sunny day, hard shadows can ruin your shot. But setting up diffusion panels and reflectors just adds another layer of complexity to the shoot that can leave you frustrated and take the fun out of your photography.

The homemade solution

All of these challenges can be overcome by a single, simple cup.

Here’s all you need:

  1. A white plastic cup
  2. Scissors or a hobby knife
  3. Black gaffer tape (bonus)

Visit your grocery store for white plastic cups—ideally the kind with a bottom that’s slightly bigger than the end of your macro lens. The Western Family brand worked great for my Panasonic LUMIX 45mm f/2.8 Micro Four Thirds lens. It’s a bit tight for the Canon 100mm macro, but could work with a little creative cutting and stacking (more on that later).

Cut a hole in the bottom of the cup to match your lens size. If you get the sizing just right, it should snap onto your lens and stay there!

At first I just used the cup as is, but it started to crack pretty quickly after popping it on and off the lens repeatedly, so I added gaffer tape to seal the hole and keep the cup from cracking any more. You don’t have to do this, but your modifier will last longer if you do.

How to use it

Simply set the cup over your subject, like in the picture below. I’m using a Panasonic LUMIX GX-7, which has the really nice bonus of the articulated LCD screen. This makes shooting objects on the ground, or down low, a lot easier.

Why it works

Here’s what’s happening:

  1. The cup solves the “moving subject” problem. If you’re shooting a bug, it traps the bug and keeps it from crawling away. Also it blocks any breezes.
  2. The cup acts as a stabilizer for your camera, instead of using a tripod. Of course it’s not as solid as a big tripod, but it’s a lot better than handheld.
  3. Finally—and here’s the best part of this—you get really soft, diffused light, even in the harshest of direct sun.

Check out the samples below, with and without the cup. What a huge difference!

Here are some shots of a flower on a bush, and a tomato on a vine. I couldn’t set the camera down on the ground, but the cup still acted as both a wind block and a diffusor. As you can see with the tomato, it’s not just about softening shadows, but eliminating harsh highlights as well.

Here’s a shot I wouldn’t have wanted to even try to get without the cup. I spotted yellow jackets flying into an air vent, and quickly put the camera over them to trap them so I could get a few shots. Needless to say, be very careful if you try something like this!

Limitations and work-arounds

One of the biggest immediate limitations is that you’re pretty well locked into the distance from subject-to-lens. However, you could stack multiple cups (or cut the top off of one) to make your cup-modifier taller or shorter. Or look for different-sized cups to suit different needs.

If the end of your lens is bigger than the bottom of the biggest cup you can find, you can always cut more off the bottom until the cup is wide enough (as long as the lens is smaller than the top of the cup). But this could result in a very short cup—so again, consider stacking multiple cups.

For more neat macro techniques, watch my Photography 101: Macro and Close-up Photography course on LinkedIn Learning.