Macro Photography Part II: Shooting Techniques
Last month I discussed equipment best suited for macro (close-up) nature photography. Using the proper equipment is essential to get close to your subject. In the end, however, using the proper techniques will produce aesthetically pleasing, effective images. This month I offer a list of techniques to consider when photographing the natural world’s many miniature wonders.
Just How Close is Close Enough? The closer you can focus on your subject the greater the reproduction ratio. Reproduction ratio represents the size of the image on film or sensor compared to the original size of the subject. For example, 1:1 means life size and 1:2 refers to those images reflecting half the subject’s actual size. Most zoom lenses go from infinity to a range of approximately 1:5, 1:4, 1:3 and, in a few cases, even as close as 1:2. True macro lenses usually range from infinity to 1:1. There are other methods of getting even closer than 1:1, but when you do this, shooting becomes quite difficult. For those looking to really get into macro, learning to shoot up to 1:2 or 1:1 is a great starting place.
Quality of Light and Time of Day. As with any area of photography, the quality of light can make or break a photograph. It is important to consider the time of day and inherent color temperature’s effect on your subject. In the morning and evening, the warmer color cast will add a different feel then if you were shooting on overcast day that has a bluer color and feels cool. Time of day is important to consider not only for color but also the quality of light. Is the light in which you are photographing soft with light shadows or hard deep shadows? How does that affect the subject or composition? The following is a list of things to consider when analyzing the light conditions surrounding your subjects and the best time to photograph them:
In classic macro photography, photographers were looking for sharp details throughout the photograph. Traditionally very small apertures are used such to give as much depth of field as possible. Many photographers, however, are finding more innovative shots in macro by shooting with their aperture wide open. This is when a faster lens such as F 2.8 gives you an advantage. With an extremely shallow depth of field, very small areas in photos are sharp yielding a softer feel and a different creative effect. When shooting wide open (exposure F 2.8), I always recommend a tripod. I move back and forth slightly as I focus on many different areas to see what looks best. In one small area you could spend hours zooming in on only a few subjects. Try both ways (classic and more innovative) while learning. You will be surprised at how much fun you will have!
Depth of Field Preview. This function is found on most single lens reflex (SLR) cameras and is very useful in macro photography. In fact, I never shoot a macro shot without checking my depth of field to see what will be in focus. Keep in mind, though, that your viewfinder will be darker because you will be stopped down so that you can see the actual depth of field of your image. If you wait for a few seconds your eyes will adjust to the lower light. If you are shooting with a wide open aperture, the depth of field preview will not have an effect. Sometimes to truly see the difference I will go back and forth between the depth of field preview being on and off. After flipping back and forth a few times I am able to better recognize the difference in depth of field at the chosen aperture.
Focus. Macro photography is the one time I always use manual focus. This is because when shooting macro there is so little depth of field that I want to slowly focus in and out until I find the best spot. Sometimes the change between points of focus is so slight that I can’t see a difference until I get my images into the computer. Its always a good idea to bracket your point of focus if you are uncertain which composition will be the most effective.
Exposure. In a high percentage of macro shots, the built-in meter is correct because you are usually filling the frame with the same color. When exposure is easy, I suggest that you use your smart metering mode (matrix or evaluative metering) and the aperture-preferred auto mode for exposure. Shoot and check exposure; if your shot is close but not exactly what you want, you can use your exposure compensation for small corrections. If your exposure is way off or the lighting is particularly tricky, switch to manual exposure and spot metering. If using manual exposure, remember that the Zone System for Color makes it easier.
Composition. For many photographers, this is the biggest challenge. Here are some suggestions:
Try one or all of the following assignment ideas to improve your macro photography skills:
Select a macro shooting technique or composition type and shoot several different subjects until you have 8-20 images that you really like. Try, for example, shooting various subjects with your aperture wide open for a series of photos with extremely shallow depth of field. Or, try shooting different insects close up in the early morning when their bodies are covered in thick dew. Be creative and have fun—and let us know about any fun project you come up with.
Macro Experience—Page Orb
I fall into the category of photographers who are spontaneous. Historically, the urge to go out and photograph builds and builds until I act. I also go through phases where I always have a camera around my neck, in my bag, or on the passenger seat of my car. Because of this mentality, I have always enjoyed looking at Macro but never thought it was the genre of photography for me. There were obstacles such as special equipment, tripods, lighting devices. Then once I was set up I could have spent hours making movements no larger then an inch. Long story short—it seemed to take more planning, thought and patience than I was used to or comfortable with. I’m not sure how or when the shift occurred but I must admit my mind began to change.Perhaps it was the long snowy winter that we had in Montana. I began looking for subjects other then trees and snow. Or perhaps it was the fact that my whole outlook on photography is ever evolving and I’m just giving into it. Either way, macro started to intrigue me. When Neil proposed a two-part series on macro I was game. I knew I needed to learn more about the equipment as well as the techniques and figured the self-project was a perfect place to start.
I owned a macro lens but realized quickly that it only had a “representation ratio” of 1:5. To work in true macro, I borrowed a Tamron 90mm macro, a Canon Close-up Lens filter to put on my 24-70mm zoom lens and a couple of extension tubes. I own a solid Bogen tripod, a cable release and diffusion disk that I’ve used in studio work. With my newly acquired quiver of equipment and Neil’s list of technique suggestions I descended on my backyard.
My honeysuckle bush was just starting to bloom and it seemed like a perfect spring subject. I found my branch of choice and set up my tripod and camera. I apparently didn’t pay attention to the “Quality of light and Time of Day” portion of Neil’s article. It was 4 p.m. and cloudy when I started my Macro experience but after setting up the tripod, focusing and composing my shot the sun came out. After a few photographs I realized that the light was too harsh, casting deep shadows on my subject and it’s background. Because of the already busy background and the now high contrast scene I realized my images would probably not be very interesting and possibly a visual assault of sorts. Instead of giving up I pulled out the trusty diffusion disk and held it up between the light source (in this case the sun) and the flowers. The light changed from hard to soft and even, changing the scene completely. Now my next problem was the wind. The wind was picking up and it was hard to get a photograph without movement not to mention keep the same composition. As I started to get more and more frustrated I realized that to really explore macro I needed to control my environment. Once I had it figured out, then I could hit the garden but for now it was time to move inside.
With out the diffusion disk. Too much contrast in the background. I also had too much depth of field which made the scene too busy.
With the diffusion disk and less depth of field. Now the background isn’t so busy and the light is even. Still not my favorite composition but quite a learning experience.
I decide to buy cut flowers and start there. I love the soft pastel colors of peonies and the layers upon layers of pedals. Perfect. Now that I had a subject I assumed that I would move inside and macro would be cake. I placed the peony in a vase by the window. Window light is soft and fairly even so this location reduced my chances of high contrast images. I started on the face of the peony and bracketed my depth of field by starting with the widest aperture and then moving to the smallest aperture. Since I wasn’t as familiar with the equipment and the LCD is too small to make final composition judgments, I decided I would bracket the heck out of each composition then download the range of images to my computer and go through them after the shoot. I bracketed the images this way as I tried all of the different macro equipment options. I tried my macro lens and was immediately aware of the limitations of the 1:5 ratio. Then, I switched to the Tamron 1:1 macro lens followed by the magnifying filter. Out of all three I definitely liked the Tamron and the magnifying filter the best. I was pleasantly surprised by how close I could focus with the filter. Of course, you can still get so much closer with the 1:1 macro lens. Once I determined that I liked the filter and the 1:1 lens I just went back and forth between the two.
1:5 Macro LensWatch the background when you can’t get very close!
1:1 Macro Lens.
Neil was right. I suppose he would be after 30 plus years of teaching. Composition is by far the hardest part of macro. Even when I controlled the environment inside my house, there are just so many things to consider. Do I want great depth of field or shallow? What do I include or exclude? Who knew that including one petal would change the photo completely! I had to constantly be aware of the angle of my camera as an additional control of my depth of field. If it wasn’t completely parallel with my subject, portions of the subject would fall out of focus even at f32.
Honestly, my first seventy photographs are pretty much toss outs. I was photographing so literally, documenting the flower. To give myself a little credit I was focusing on the depth of field, but still. After about seventy images I almost packed it up but decided to try a different angle. Instead of shooting the face of the flower I decided to shoot the backlit petals from behind the peony. Wow! A whole new world opened up. I took another seventy photos just in this area. Thank goodness for digital cameras. I had the freedom to play and experiment without having to worry about the cost of film or processing.
As I changed the angle of my camera I became lost in macro. For the first time I understood how people can become completely absorbed in this process. I was on the floor on my hands and knees, then practically bending backwards. Every time I changed the angle of my camera I discovered something new. New relationships between light and dark emerged. The petals started to look like the fabric of fine silk gowns and I found myself composing to enhance this quality. Before I knew it hours had passed and the window light was starting to fade. I almost pulled out a lamp but my dog patiently reminded me that the world outside of the peony is equally important and now hunger was setting in. It was then that I realized I was hooked.
I thought I would never have enough patience to really give macro the attention it needed. The thing I had never realized was that it truly sucks you in to the small world. My lack of patience transformed into a determination to explore that I hadn’t experienced before. It’s like the poppy field in the Wizard of Oz. It seems ordinary enough at first glance but the further you walk into the poppies the more enchanted you become. You just want to crawl into your camera and lay down in the little world you see through the lens and forget all about getting to OZ or Aunty Em.
To view more of Page's Images from this project and her own comments and critiques please visit the Macro Experience Gallery (this is a Flash gallery and may take a moment to load).
What’s Your Workflow?This month the series on workflow continues with a breakdown of Page Orb’s workflow in regards to her Macro Experience. Since the focus of the article was on the capture of macro photography, this interview will jump straight to the processing of those images.
ProcessBriefly describe your process after downloading your images from the camera and before you get into local adjustments? What software do you use? Do you edit right away? Etc. I downloaded the images from the compact flash card using Lightroom’s ® Import tool in the library module. Lightroom has become the first step in my image processing because it’s the ”one man band” for my photographs. After I import the images I can catalog, organize, edit and make global adjustments that I couldn’t do before in one sitting. After importing the images from my macro shoot, I made a collection that I named “Macro” so I could find the group of photographs easily later. Once the collection was created I did a quick edit. I threw away images where the exposure was completely wrong or the initial composition was terrible. For this project I kept many more than I normally would just to show when things worked or didn’t in the gallery. I also did some cropping (I couldn’t help myself) and a minimal amount of color and contrast adjustments.
How do you name your files? I use collections and the library in Lightroom® for organizing my images and not the names. The Lightroom import tool files them in a folder based on capture date, and then maintains the original file name assigned by the camera.
Do you do much work on your images in Photoshop® or do you perform the basic adjustments (contrast, saturation, and crop) and call it good? As much as I love Lightroom, I couldn’t live without Photoshop. Okay, I could live without it but I would be miserable. Photoshop is always the second major step in my workflow. After I have gone through my editing and basic overall adjustments in Lightroom, I fine tune almost all of my images in Photoshop before my images go into their final output, whatever that may be. In the case of this assignment, however, I did not bring the images into Photoshop. I wanted the images to be as close as possible to the original photograph that I shot.
How often do you edit your images?I am constantly editing my images. I do an initial edit when I import them as detailed above. Then every couple of days I will go back and work on collections or groups of images that I’ve been thinking about. Once a month I go back over my library of images and work on random images that catch my eye. With the Macro Assignment I edited the images, just global edits, every day for a week. Because it was a project that had an end date, it moved to top priority on my editing list.
What are your greatest challenges when processing your images?Walking away from the computer is one of my greatest challenges in editing. I could sit for hours on end, and do, in front of my photographs. Letting go of mediocre images is also difficult for me. After a week of editing I was able to trim the collection of Macro shots from over one hundred to forty six. It still could use another edit.
OutputWhat is your most common form of output: print, web or multimedia? I print my photographs and upload them to the web.
Do you print your own images or do you outsource your printing? I outsource and print my own images. When I outsource them I use White House Custom Colour. When I print my own I do it using the Canon Pixma Pro9000 or Pixma Pro9500 mostly.
Do you have a website? Who/What company created your web site? I do have a website that was created by Livebooks, www.pageorb.com. The gallery I used for this project I created in Lightroom® using their templates.
Are you a member of photography/artist social networking sites? I’m working on joining uber.com but its been on the backburner for awhile. This is a great place to show portfolios and network with other photographs. Flickr.com is also a great, simple way to share photographs.
Do you maintain a blog? No, just the RMSP newsletter for now but a blog may be in the future!
How often do you go through your output process?I output a minimum of three times a week in one way shape or form.What’s your favorite tool, gadget, resource or website?Bookmaking companies are my favorite item on the web right now, namely Blurb books. If I were going to make my macro experience into a photo book I would use them. www.blurbbooks.com
Gallery Saintonge invites all RMSP students, instructors and friends to submit work for our first ever JURIED EXHIBITION! Juror Hipolito Rafael Chacon, Professor of Art History and Art Criticism at The University of Montana, will be making the final selections for the exhibition. Extremely knowledgeable, published and respected, he is sure to include an eclectic range of work in the show. This is an excellent opportunity for emerging to established, North American photographers and artists working with any form of photographic media to submit work for review and to participate in a group exhibition in Missoula, Montana. Detailed information can be found on our website at www.gallerysaintonge.com. For questions or concerns, please email us at email@example.com. Thank you and we look forward to seeing your work soon!
If you have caught the Macro bug and would like to spend time working on your new-found passion, take a look at these workshops that give you an opportunity to learn more about it.Photography and the Creative Life- July 19- 25, 2008Instructor, Nancy Rotenberg. This class has 2 spots left.Oregon Coast- August 17-23, 2008Instructor, Nancy Rotenberg. This class has 2 spot left.If you have never taken a workshop with Nancy you are in for a real treat!Advanced Photography in British Columbia- October 12-17, 2008Instructors, Elizabeth Stone and Tony Rizzuto. This class has 2 spots left.The Art of Macro–This is full for 2008 but call to get on the waiting list or look for information on our 2009 offering of this course in September.
Haven’t made summer plans yet? Spend some time with us in our beautiful hometown of Missoula, Montana …
Sunrises, Sunsets and Flowing Water- August 9- 15, 2008Instructor, Doug JohnsonPhotoshop for Photographers- August 17-22, 2008Instructor, David Marx
…or maybe California sunshine is more your cup of tea… Northern California’s Rugged Coast: Marin to Monterey- June 14-20, 2008Instructor, Tim CooperTravel Photography in San Francisco: Creating a Sense of Place- June 21- 27, 2008Instructor, Brenda Tharp