There is a world within a world on this planet. Human visual scale is just one perception. To us life revolves around our size, but a far more bizarre and interesting word lies within the visual grasp of photography.
Macro photography brings the realm of the insect to life for humans to marvel at. I don’t just mean insects, but anything the size of your average fly. So that’s a multitude of invertebrates and plants. Photographers have an almost unique insight into this strange and wonderful world that has spawned a thousand science-fiction films.
Now the easy way into macro photography is to buy a macro lens find a tiny subject and press the shutter button once its in focus, but apart from the fact dedicated macro lenses are expensive, they are also not the most creative of tools without some forethought to back them up, so here is five ways to help you start to think outside the macro box.
Long focal lengths and tiny distances do not make for big depths of field. Add in the often murky shadow filled world many subjects inhabit and you’ll be wishing for more light. Many macro shots fail because they are either too blurred due to camera shake or there just isn’t enough depth of field to show off your subject. So the answer is to bring your own.
Flash for macro photography is very often a given. All of the top macros photographers use flash. On a purely technical level, flashguns help macro photographers gain more depth of field, so the subjects are recorded better. But flash adds detail and can be used to great effect to isolate a subject from a messy background. Take the bee shot as a case in point. I used a flash to both highlight the bee and turn the background black.
You can buy dedicated macro flashguns which have two or three heads or ring flashes to achieve this, but it’s also easy to use a cheap off camera flash trigger and hold the light where you want it.
Use Bellows for Extreme Macro
A macro lens is just a normal lens able to focus closer than most optics. This is why a macro lens of say 105mm also doubles as a great portrait lens. However, you don’t need a macro lens to get macro photos as these next couple of examples show.
Extreme macro photography can be achieved with a normal lens attached to some bellows or a set of extension tubes thus creating a cheap(ish) way into macro photography. You just attach a normal lens to the front and are able to focus closer.
While working for Greenpeace on its Marine Reserves campaign in the Mediterranean Sea a few years ago, I used a set of bellows to obtain shots of blue fin tuna eggs from a plankton trawl off the coast of Libya. On a pitching ship, I Gerry-rigged a bellows system with my 85mm portrait lens. The bellows allowed me to finely adjust focus to capture the tiny tuna fry and other planktonic life, which was illuminated using the flash technique above.
Close Focus With a Wide Angle
People look at me strangely when I tell them I often shoot butterflies with a wide-angle lens. They expect a colourful dot in a landscape, but close-focus wide angle photography is very common in underwater photography and allows the photographer to get unusual and stunning results. Here I was on a Dorset heath chasing small chalk blue butterflies. I could have used a macro lens, but then all the images would look the same as everyone else who takes butterfly shots.
Instead I selected a 20mm fisheye lens and an 8mm extension tube. As a Nikon shooter I used the specialist PK-8 extension tube, which is slightly slimmer than the usual 11 or 12mm you find in most extension tube packs. This moves a wide angle lens forward enough for it to focus a lot closer than usual, which allowed me to get close enough so the diminutive butterfly was large in the fame, yet you can still see the background. I then balanced the ambient exposure with some flash.
To obtain the focus I used manual and when the butterfly landed on a flower close by I carefully moved into position and rocked back and forth very slightly to get the correct focus and fired several shots. With this technique I probably get about three shots in 20, so it isn’t the most fruitful technique, but it produces an unusual result. And I get some unusual looks from dog walkers.
Keep Eye Level With Your Subject
When photographing any animal it’s often best to get to eye level and the same applies with macro. Looking down on a grasshopper might be the way you’d usually see such a subject, but the difference between a good macro shot and a poor one could be the camera angle. Straight on, subjects are relatable, no matter how odd they may look.
I love shooting damselflies and a couple of years ago did a small project in a wetland habitat where the damsels were often captured by common sundews (a carnivorous plant). The plants grow to a maximum height of about 10cm if they are lucky (most are much smaller) so getting to eye level means putting my camera on the ground and either laying in a bog or using a flip up screen. Either way getting face on gave the images far more impact.
Go out at night
Drive at night almost anywhere in the world and you’ll know the macro world goes into overdrive after the sun goes down. So wherever I am I take a headtorch, a camera and flash and get outside in the dark. All manner of creatures come out and most will basically sit there and let you mess around getting the light right – I always set the flash to manual and balance it correctly as backgrounds often mess up an auto exposure. Once the exposure is dialled in, I am free to capture all manner of creepy crawlies. And show off the macro world in all its glory.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.