Natural history photographer, author and conservationist Robert Thompson shares his top tips on the world of macro photography.
Robert has over 25 years experience in the field of natural history photography. He was awarded a direct Fellowship by the Royal Photographic Society in 2012 for his work in the field of macro photography. He has also worked on a number of high-profile natural history projects in Ireland for both governments and television and had several solo exhibitions of his work, including the aerial landscape collection from the highly acclaimed ‘The Natural History of Ulster’.
In this blog Robert shares his advice on how to get the best macro images. His tips include the best equipment to use, how to take advantage of modern day technology and overcoming the challenges of shooting natural subjects. As well as tips and tricks Robert shares his secrets on how to be a successful macro photographer…
Evolution of Macro Photography
Exploring the natural world as a photographer reveals a source of beauty, discovery, and inspiration. Those lucky enough that have a fascination with this micro cosmos are privileged to see and experience one of beauty and mystery beyond our normal vision. For the masses, it’s a world that’s unfamiliar to them. Most go about the daily routine of life and see only the big picture and are, for the most part, oblivious to this other world beneath their feet and its importance in maintaining the ecological equilibrium in our own.
Macro photography today has evolved considerably since the 1980s. The digital revolution was a milestone in the photographic world and marked a change in not only how we work, but also how we produce images today. Historically it was seen as a specialist field, practised mostly by those that had a natural history knowledge or background. Magnification ratios, limited depth of field, manual flash exposures and working to very precise procedures were off-putting for some. Shooting active subjects at magnifications beyond life-size in the field was, for the most part, challenging and restricted to the studio. Many beginners often found the whole process perplexing, especially when working with living subjects that were frequently less than cooperative.
Having a Photographic Plan
If you’re a photographer who wants to expand your knowledge in this field, then it’s important from the start to define what your aims and objectives are. Breaking into a photographic market that is already heavily saturated is more challenging today. Having said that, it is not impossible. Technical competency is only one aspect. Developing a discerning and artistic eye for detail are qualities that come with hours of practice in the field. There are no shortcuts that I’ve discovered! Studying the work of others and identifying what has already been done is helpful, but developing your own style and approach is, in my opinion, the most important aspect.
If you are serious about this photographic genre and plan to shoot a lot of close-ups, then a macro lens is the best option. The most popular focal lengths are around 100-105mm and 180-200mm. The longer focal length macros have a greater working distance between lens and subject and are ideally suited to photographing shy and wary creatures such as insects. Their narrower angle of view also helps with background control, creating a cleaner, more diffused backdrop. One of the downsides of these longer lenses is their weight, making them a bit more cumbersome when shooting mobile subjects.
Macros are designed to deliver their optimum performance in close-up, but most can be used for general photography as well. They are one of the few lenses that offer dual functionality. Major brands tend to be more expensive, but many independent companies produce excellent macros in a range of focal lengths that won’t be as painful on the pocket. if your interest in macro is only casual there are cheaper alternatives. For example, Raynox manufactures a series of close-up achromatic lenses that clip unto the front of a telephoto or zoom lens, allowing it to focus closer than normal. The quality of these optics is excellent.
Useful Macro Accessories
Not everyone owns or wants to invest in a specialist macro. In this case extension tubes are one of the most important accessories to have. There is no loss in image quality and no perceptual difference between them and a macro lens except towards the edges of the frame. There are many situations where medium and longer telephotos combined with extension tubes can produce a very pleasing result. I frequently use a 300mm f/2.8, sometimes longer when I want to be creative, or when photographing timid insects such as dragonflies.
Today, modern digital sensors have a much greater dynamic range than film ever had. But no sensor currently can emulate the tonal values of the human eye. These shortcomings are apparent on a bright sunny day when the contrast levels are high. Sunlight early in the morning and late in the evening is warmer and much less intense and with skill and an understanding of light can be used effectively. Intense sunlight causes dark shadows within the image if not properly managed.
One way to overcome the problem is to use a diffuser. It softens the light and reduces the contrast and is an important accessory in close-up photography. Although, what photographers often forget, is that you need to diffuse not only the subject but the background behind it otherwise you can end up with a split exposure.
Wind is the macro photographer’s nemesis. Dealing with a persistent breeze can be exasperating. Sometimes there is little you can do except return another day. One of the most popular macro accessories is an adjustable clamp, which helps to stabilise moving subjects in the wind. The Wimberley Plamp is one example, but I find it far too cumbersome, especially with small plants. I use my own design of stabilising device. I always carry it with me and consider it an essential part of my macro kit. For further information on its design, refer to my latest photography publication entitled, ‘Close-up and Macro Photography (Its Art and Fieldcraft Techniques)’.
Polarising filters are widely used in landscape photography for saturating clear skies and removing reflections. In close-up photography, they are particularly useful for removing surface reflections from plants, foliage, water, and rocks, especially after rain. They also add vibrancy and impact to your subjects in the right situations.
One of the biggest advancements in macro photography is the ability to extend the depth of field by combining individual images using specialist software. A series of images photographed at different focal distances are blended together so that the combined image has a greater depth of field than any of the individual source images. This technology means it is now possible to photograph subjects from more oblique viewpoints.
It is beyond the scope of this blog post to talk in detail about the pros and cons and the various procedures in applying this technique. There are many published articles online regarding the subject.
Other useful accessories
I also carry a few other bits and pieces in my bag, including clothes pegs, small crocodile clips and string for holding back thin branches from the field of view. A small paintbrush is also handy for removing small bits of debris from plants. Inexperienced photographers frequently overlook these in the field, but they can diminish the aesthetics of the image. Removing them in advance will save you time in Photoshop cloning them out.
Photographing in the Field
I shoot virtually all my images in the field except for a few subjects that require special conditions, such as high-speed flash or to illustrate a particular sequence of behaviours. I take virtually every image I can on a tripod and there are several advantages in doing so. First, it allows you to compose your subject accurately and provides stability. It can be tiring on the arms and virtually impossible to maintain accurate focus and composition when handholding for long periods of time. Second, you can work at the camera’s optimum ISO and choose and maintain a precise point of focus, thus keeping consistency in your images. Finally, you can use any combination of aperture/shutter speed. This is especially significant when working in woodlands, where light levels are naturally low.
One of the great advantages for macro enthusiasts is the wealth of subject material available all year round. Gardens are an excellent place to start your exploration. It’s amazing how productive they can be. Flowers, insects, and many other creatures spend their day visiting and foraging even in the smallest gardens. The most diverse and productive environments are naturally woodlands, meadows, and various wetland habitats. Finding your subjects is a good start but some degree of knowledge and understanding is essential if you want to portray them in a way that reflects their biology and behaviour.
Photographing through the Seasons
The coming of spring marks the start of the macro photographer’s year. A plethora of flowers bring an explosion of colour and emerging insects get the “photographic sap” rising. Many insects have a relatively short flight period, and likewise, flowers a short blooming period, so it’s important to plan in advance. I do a lot of my research during the winter months. Summer marks the high point in the macro calendar, when insect diversity is at its peak, temperatures are frequently high, and daylight hours are long. Early morning and late evening light is more favourable. Autumn is the annual migration season for the macro photographer; insects and flowers are now past their best and fungi begin to emerge. Fallen leaves in a variety of shapes and colours, along with autumnal reflections in water, provide endless possibilities for abstract compositions. Exploring rockpools and the shoreline will reveal an abundance of subjects to keep you motivated through the autumn and winter months.
Photographic Tips and Suggestions
It has been said that photographing static subjects such as flowers and fungi presents little or no real challenge. I disagree; I find these subjects considerably more challenging to create something that is visually and graphically strong rather than a typical record shot.
When photographing flowers, it is always good practice to take a little time and look at the choice of specimens available. Pay attention to the overall condition and structure of the plant, its position in relation to the background, and whether it’s in contrasting light. It’s easy to become carried away and photograph the first plant you see, only to walk thirty yards further on and discover a much better specimen in a more idyllic setting. My approach when arriving at a location is to spend fifteen minutes evaluating the site and the quality of the material before I reach for a camera. Aim for relatively isolated subjects with attractive vistas or an interesting habitat behind them. They often have the strongest impact. It’s worth paying attention to the general appearance of the habitat around your subject carefully removing any bits of foliage that would create a distraction.
Photographing insects requires a lot more patience and a little forward planning. You generally have little control over the background if you’re photographing them in a natural setting. If there’s a distracting element, then often a slight positional shift with the camera can make the difference in eliminating it from the frame. Many images these days are contrived, and the subject is manipulated into a more favourable position. This is fine if the insect is unharmed. Inexperienced photographers often place insects on vegetation that they would naturally avoid resting on, primarily because it looks good. Such photographs bear the hallmarks of unnatural setups and are easy to spot by those who are conversant on the ecology of the subject.
Photographing early in the morning or late evening is more productive for insects. Visiting a meadow or woodland ride at these times reveals roosting butterflies and insects, which you can easily approach with a tripod and photograph. It is also the best time for getting atmospheric shots when the temperature is cooler and the light softer and more directional.
Overcast conditions are also ideal for rendering detail and texture in subjects. I try to avoid photographing in full sun but in these situations, I target individuals that are relatively well isolated from surrounding vegetation to reduce shadows on the foliage. Also, don’t place yourself between your quarry and the sun, it will either reorientate itself or fly off!
A Final Thought
The process of creating successful macro images is a matter of practice, technical know-how, a creative mind and, above all, patience. Don’t expect to get it right every time. As photographers, none of us would claim to produce visually eye-catching images with every click of the shutter. Light, composition, lens selection and an interesting subject form the core of a great photograph. Getting all these elements into a single image is a tall order even for the most accomplished photographers. Learning to recognise subjects that are pictorially or graphically strong comes with practice. Photographers that can amalgamate artistic vision with technical competency become successful photographers and separate them from the rest. The photographic bar is high these days and making your mark is perhaps more challenging than ever. Learning from other talented photographers in the field is important but develop your own style and aim beyond what has already been accomplished!