Shadowlands: Five Tips for Capturing the Beauty of Back-Light Macro – Guest Article by Steve Russell
How is it that one can walk by, even photograph, the same thing thousands of times year in and year out – and not really see it? It’s happened to me. I shot small subjects for years in soft front-light and side-light or with flash and have had great results, but it wasn’t until I was stuck shooting at mid-day in harsh light recently that I looked toward the sun and noticed the grasses come alive with color and the bugs on the sun-side casting amazing shadows on the vividly striated grass. Not only that but any limbs hanging over the edges became brilliantly translucent. I began to notice this effect on any wide grass– contrasty shadows, bright colors and the amazing luminescence of my subjects created by back-light, especially at mid-day.
Shooting at mid-day in harsh light not only became possible, but preferred for this type of shooting. But to shoot this way there are a few things to know that may help you if you are interested in doing the same.
1) Look for background first and subjects second. This is the reverse of what I’m used to. Look in the direction of the light for wide grasses or leaves. Walk toward the light so you can spot the silhouettes of the bugs on the plants in front of you and because they are less likely to see you coming and get spooked off.
2) No flash needed or wanted here. While flash does an incredible job for detail and saturation, in this case it eliminates shadows and darkens backgrounds that can otherwise create a brilliant bokeh. Besides, there’s plenty of light on a sunshiny day.
3) Forget the tripod (no time for it), but make speed, aperture and image stabilization a priority for handheld shooting. Plan on a minimum of 1/60th sec but really 1/500th sec or faster is preferred as is an aperture of f/11-16. To get these settings it is the ISO that may have to get bumped up and fortunately I have a camera that can handle it – most of the shots below were at ISO 1600, but my 5D Mark III shows little or no noise. My Tamron 90mm macro lens has Vibration Compensation (VC). I use a hiking pole if I can to help stabilize the camera, as well.
4) Keep the lens parallel to what you want in focus. I would suggest several years of intensive yoga so that you can contort yourself in position to shoot from behind bent grass. It ain’t easy sometimes. I’ve been looking through the viewfinder but if there’s time you could use live view (and a loupe no doubt) and magnify the image to get the best focus.
5) All these rules are made to be broken so have fun and experiment with the settings and techniques.
Mid-day sun is now my friend and I have added a whole new way of shooting to my macro repertoire. I shake my head when I realize that these opportunities were there all along and I hadn’t really seen them until now. As much as I enjoy the detail and the balanced light of my normal shooting, I equally appreciate the beautiful lines, shapes, colors and contrasts that back-light photography can generate.