Macro photography is brilliant. Chris Nicholls explores this strange world, one where objects large or small are seen in a totally novel way.
The truly brilliant aspect of macro is how accessible it all is. Compact cameras have had highly competent macro modes for years, allowing near-SLR quality levels. Even SLR users, who have to buy a specialist lens, only have to spend around $400 online to get a Tamron 90mm f/2.8. Given it’s arguably one of the best macro lenses out there, this is a bargain.
Right now is also the best time to get out there and shoot. Summer, even with this year’s terrible rains and the misery they brought, means all sorts of flowers are in bloom. Add in the insects keen to make the most of all that nectar, and you have two of the best macro subject matters around.
NOTE: the photos you see below were shot with my Canon EOS 50D with a Canon 60mm f/2.8 EF-S macro lens. Nothing else. No filters or the like. The dandelion and butterfly photos have both had their backgrounds darkened in Photoshop for artistic purposes.
Dealing with light and shadows
The first tip I can give you for shooting these two subjects is to wait for a clear day and head out at midday. This is because while midday summer sun may be all but useless for landscapes, it is ideal for macros.
Why? Because it macro is all about details. All the little hairs on a spider’s legs. The tiny flecks of silver in a flower’s petals. All these things make the image. And the best way to bring them out is with the most even, shadowless light there is. Which is summer light at midday.
If you can’t get out at midday, or something around your subject is either just blocking the light or casting shadows, you need a reflector to bounce what light you have into the subject. If you have the cash, you can buy a specialist 80cm collapsible reflector for about $70. If not, always remember that any white, silver or gold surface reflects light. Glossy cardboard, even a windscreen heat reflector for you car, almost anything will do the trick in a pinch.
Once you have the right light, it’s all about finding your subject matter. Don’t assume you have to get to a garden or park. The shot of the dandelion below was taken around an industrial estate at around midday while I waited for my car’s brake pads to be changed. Now, it has been extensively Photoshopped, but the original was perfectly fine as it was. I just wanted a certain special effect.
Angles and eye levels
After finding your subject, it’s time to get down to shooting. Flower macros tend to be best shot from one of three angles; straight on, top-down, or bottom-up.
Straight on means shooting at eye level. This is a useful angle because it exposes the flower’s stamen (which should always be the focal point in any shot at this angle or from top-down) and allows you to use the flower’s petals as lead-in lines. See this shot below for an example.
Top-down is literally that – looking down from above into the heart of the flower. Again, keep the stamen in focus here at all costs. Also, beware causing shadows to fall onto the subject by standing over it. You can stand at an angle to avoid blocking the sun if you position yourself just right.
Bottom-up is actually the most interesting angle of all, in a way, as it opens up many opportunities. You may not get the stamen, but looking up at the bottom of the flower means the opportunity to show all the minute, intricate textures of the leaves or petals thanks to the sunlight shining down through them.
When shooting insects, most of the same points apply. Shoot from either eye level or below. This is because humans always focus first on the eyes of another creature, and shooting at these angles allows the best chance to capture them in focus.
Also, treat insects as if you were shooting a human portrait. Aim for either profile shots from the side, or straight on to capture the eyes and face. You can even shoot from below (this is where that angle comes in) to add presence and power to the subject.
One final tip
Finally, remember when shooting macro shots to consider background colours. Unlike most other shot types, macros use very shallow depth of field, rendering any background objects either partially or totally blurred. This means all you end up with, often, is colours.
So, for example, if you have a green subject matter, try to use either the same colour (but a lighter shade) in the background to match, or, conversely, reddish shades, as red complements green. Think back to high school art classes (the complementary colour wheel).
Let me know how you go in the comments section below. Happy shooting!