Photographing the world at very close range requires little more than a good quality lens and a strong light source. By definition, macro lenses allow focusing down to life-size. To visualize this, imagine photographing a ladybug with a macro lens on a traditional film camera. A true macro lens would give you a 35 mm film negative with a life-size image of the ladybug. This image would of course appear much larger once it is printed and displayed.
A true macro lens can shoot to a 1:1 life-sized ratio, and some can shoot even closer. These lenses have a less curved surface than a traditional lens—this design helps maintain edge-to-edge sharpness even at the widest apertures.
The flatter lens surface means a flatter plane of focus, too. Using a smaller aperture can help counteract this effect, but sometimes the flatter plane, with the accompanying blur in the foreground and background, can be used to dramatic effect.
Macro lenses come in a variety of focal lengths: mid-range are 100-105 mm, and longer are 180-200 mm. The longer range allows some distance between you and your subject, which has a few advantages. With macro shooting, light is a factor—shooting something at a very close distance means you or your camera may block out some of the surrounding light. Longer range focal lengths are better for photographing subjects that spook, like bugs and butterflies. Image stabilization features are available on some lenses, which can help when photographing something very close up.
With the advent of digital photography, many standard lenses, while not macro in the truest sense, have very close-focusing ability which can mimic a macro shot. For the amateur, this is an excellent way to try your hand at macro photography. Take advantage of the brighter spring sun and zoom in. As you become more proficient in controlling aperture and focus, a true macro lens will be the next step for even more stunning photographs.