In general, we know what macro means like we know what micro means. Both come from Greek, and differ from one another simply by the vowel. In English, that’s the difference between Mac and Mike, but in the Greek original it’s like the difference between hee hee and ha ha.
So now, tell me: what kind of laugh and what kind of laugher gives us hee hee? How about ha ha? Which sound is higher, ding or dong? If a bell goes ding-dong, is the second note higher, the same, or lower? Most people most of the time in most languages will say the “ee” sound is smaller and higher and the “ah” sound is larger and lower. (To go really large and low, go for “oh” and “oo.”) It’s also closer: Italian, for instance, gives us qui and lì for things here, and qua and là for things there.
So micro (spelled μικρο in Greek) refers to small things, things you look at close up, and macro (spelled μακρο in Greek) refers to large things, things you take an overview of. Microeconomics is economics on the small scale; macroeconomics is economics on the large scale. Microscopic is teeny-tiny things looked at closely, and macroscopic is life-size or larger. And microinstructions are individual instructions, while macroinstructions are sets of microinstructions put together in a sequence to accomplish a more complex task. Macroinstructions have, since the 1950s, been called macros by computer programmers, and if you’re wondering why those little executable sequences in Word are called macros, now you know.
The exception to all of this is macro lenses and macro photography. If you have a macro lens (or a macro extender or attachment for a lens), you are using it to photograph… small things. Things like this bug.
Or this drop of water, maybe.
One reason is that microphotography, also and perhaps more properly known as photomicrography, refers to photographing really small things. Things too small to be seen with the unaided eye. So when I photograph bugs and raindrops, they’re really too big to be that.
But they’re still awfully small to be called macro. They’re smaller than most things I’d take pictures of.
But that’s actually why they’re macro… because after I take the photos of them, I present them on screen in an image that shows them larger than life. Originally, photomacrography was exactly that: any print (remember prints? posters?) that was larger than what it depicted. It made the subject larger, so it was macro. By that definition, billboards are often photomacrography. But that definition is not what has persisted.
And that definition is not the one that has transferred to the metathesized version, macro photography (also written as one word, macrophotography). In the current definition, you are taking pictures of small things and showing them larger than life. For instance, you could take piece of macaroni and make it as big as your elbow. (Sorry, I have no illustration for that, because I have no macaroni.)
If you’re interested in macro photography, I wrote a guest post about it for the blog of my friend, the photographer and fellow linguist Selena Phillips-Boyle. Read it on her blog: “Let’s Get Small.”