Introduction to Macro Photography: Technique
In Part 1 of our Introduction to Macro Photography we looked at the type of kit needed to shoot close-ups of nature. While a macro lens is the best choice, there are various cut-price close-up attachments available that will also do the job nicely, making close-up photography a genre accessible to all. In Part 2, we will look at how to take better close-ups.
Light is a key ingredient to all photographs – and close-ups are no different in that respect. However, light can be in short supply when working so near to the subject, so you may find it will need supplementing. Why is light reduced in close-up? Well, a degree of light is naturally lost or absorbed at higher magnifications. Also, when working in such close proximity to the subject, it can be difficult to avoid your body or camera physically blocking light. It is not all bad news, though. When shooting macro photos, arguably photographers have a greater degree of control over light than with other types of wildlife.
The light’s colour, contrast and direction naturally plays an important role in enhancing the appearance of miniature detail, but when working in such close proximity to the subject it is easier to manipulate light by using flash or reflectors. Personally, I favour using natural and reflected light. While flash can be essential for certain miniature subjects – particularly when a fast shutter speed is the priority – when possible I rely on using available light in order to achieve natural looking and authentic results. You can buy dedicated ring, twin and LED flash units for close-up photography, but they require a high level of diffusion and careful use to achieve a natural feel – something I believe is essential for wildlife photography. With the latest crop of DSLRs having such good higher ISO performance, relying on just natural and reflected light is far more practical than ever before.
I tend to use reflected light a lot in my work, as bounced light produces very natural-looking results. Basically, reflectors are circular disks – with either a white, silver or gold side – which can be positioned near to the subject in order to bounce light onto it. Small foldaway versions are all you need for small subjects – the likes of Kood and Lastolite produce them, costing in the region of £15.00 – £20.00. Alternatively, a piece of card covered in tin foil, or a mirror, will do the job. A reflector is a must have accessory for close-ups in my opinion, allowing you to control the light and its direction. You can alter the light’s intensity by moving the reflector closer or further away and – unlike flash – you can see the effect of what you are doing instantly and adjust the reflector’s position accordingly. Using one, it is possible to relieve dark, ugly shadow areas and add extra illumination to small subjects in shady or overcast conditions. The difference they make to a close-up image can be startling, as shown in the comparison below – the first image is without a reflector, and the second is using one:
As with any type of wildlife, the light’s direction can really alter the look of your results. Side lighting is well suited to close-ups, enhancing surface texture and detail and giving images a more three-dimensional feel. Beware strong side lighting, though – shadows can appear too exaggerated, resulting in too much contrast. Personally, backlighting is my favourite light source – particularly if shooting translucent subjects, like butterflies, foliage or flowers. Backlighting highlights intricate detail, shape and form, and is capable of creating truly magical results. It does have a habit of fooling TTL metering systems into underexposing results, though. Therefore, keep an eye on histograms and apply positive exposure compensation if required. It can be worthwhile attaching a lens hood too, as this will guard against flare.
Further Reading: “Backlighting in Macro Photography“
Don’t overlook dull, overcast light. You don’t need strong directional light to capture good macro photographs. Clouds act like giant diffusers, creating flattering, low-contrast light that enables close-up photographers to capture fine, intricate detail and record colour with greater accuracy. Dull conditions are particularly well suited to photographing flowers and fine detail.
Without doubt, one of the main incentives of working in close-up is the added control you have over the subject, its surroundings and light. All types of light can suit close-ups, so you are not just restricted to shooting within the golden hours.
Technique and Depth of Field
Regarding technique and camera set-up, there are few things you will need to change from your normal set-up for wildlife photography. Control over depth of field will normally be your priority, so opt for Aperture Priority or Manual exposure mode.
If your subject is static and you are using a tripod, keep your ISO set to its lowest setting to maximise image quality. However, for handheld work, it is worth increasing ISO to achieve a sufficiently fast shutter.
AF has a habit of struggling to lock-on to nearby objects – particularly in low light or if the subject is low contrast – so it is normally best to switch to manual focus.
Quite simply, your focusing needs to be pinpoint accurate. The biggest technical challenge you face when shooting close-ups is the inherently shallow depth of field. At higher magnifications, the plane of focus can literally be wafer thin. This can also be advantageous, though. It is possible to manipulate this naturally shallow depth of field in order to isolate your subject against a beautifully diffused, out of focus backdrop. This is something I regularly attempt to do, as it will highlight the subject’s shape and form and help make it ‘pop’ from its surroundings, effectively creating a more three-dimensional feel.
I tend to opt for the widest possible aperture that will still keep my subject acceptably sharp – often f/5.6 or f/8. While smaller apertures will indeed generate a larger depth of field, they also provide a slower corresponding shutter and can bring too much distracting background detail into acceptable focus. When possible, I use a tripod to aid precise focusing and composition. LiveView is a wonderful focusing aid for macro photography, allowing you to zoom into small, specific areas of the frame – typically the subject’s eye or your intended point of focus – in order to check and fine-tune focusing. Maintaining a shallow depth of field will help reduce distracting or messy background detail to an attractive haze of colour.
With depth-of-field being so shallow, it is important you don’t waste the plane of focus through poor camera positioning. To maximise the depth-of-field available at any given aperture, keep your camera’s sensor plane parallel to the subject. Why is this important? Well, there is only one geometrical plane of complete sharpness, so you want to keep as much of the subject as possible within this zone. That said, there might be times when you wish to do the complete opposite. For a more abstract look, deliberately align the plane of sharpest focus so that it is perpendicular to your subject’s surface. Doing so will highlight a specific point and create more creative looking shots.
While a shallow depth-of-field works well for some subjects, it isn’t suited to all. When you want your entire subject rendered sharply, extend depth-of-field by selecting a smaller aperture – for example, f/11-f/16. At high levels of magnification, this still won’t generate a particularly generous depth-of-field, so you will still need to focus and position your camera carefully.
While you are still new to macro photography, select your subject carefully. Wild flowers and plants are among the best subjects to hone your close-up technique on – after all, they are not going to run or fly away while you set-up! You can experiment easily with different viewpoints and try different f/stops to see how depth of field alters at different apertures. You can also learn the effect of using a reflector without worrying about disturbing your subject. Spring is full of new, vibrant growth, so woodland is a perfect environment to visit with your close-up gear. Also, woodland provides shelter, which is useful while you are learning. Wind is one of a macro photographer’s biggest enemies, as at high magnifications even the smallest amount of subject motion appears greatly amplified. Still, windless days are typically best for shooting close-ups.
Having got to grips with your macro kit shooting static subjects, you will soon want to try photographing more challenging things. Insects and reptiles are great subjects to shoot, being colourful and interesting, yet still being a reasonable size. Many of the skills you already apply to your wildlife photography will prove useful. The first objective is to not disturb or scare your subject away. When stalking subjects like dragonflies and butterflies, keep your movements slow and deliberate. Be mindful of your shadow – if you cast it across your subject, it will likely run or fly away. You need to try and avoid disturbing nearby vegetation, as this will probably frighten your subject away. You won’t necessarily need camouflage clothing for insects, but do avoid wearing noisy materials that rustle. You will often need to shoot from low-angles, so be prepared to get down and dirty. Some insects, like dragonflies, are quite territorial. They will often return to the same ‘perch’ time and time again. Therefore, it’s worth observing such subjects – you will then learn where to stand and wait ready for them to return.
Don’t forget to read Part 1 to this guide: Introduction to Macro Photography: Equipment