Capture the details: An introduction to macro photography
Macro photography is a genre that every photographer should try at least once in his/her life. The genre teaches many great valuable lessons from which every one of us can grow and apply to any area of interest.
Macro photography teaches us patience and gives us an appreciation for detail. It helps us to slow down as we manually focus our cameras. It forces us to pay special attention to light and makes us more keenly aware of our environment. Macro photography gives us the opportunity to be resourceful and to see our everyday world with new eyes.
I find that these lessons apply not only to my regular shooting, but to all areas of my life! So let’s dive in together so that you can discover the magic that is macro photography.
What is macro photography?
Macro photograph is simply is the art of taking close-up photographs. These photos reveal details that would otherwise go unnoticed to the naked eye.
You can take macro photos of virtually anything. From flowers the tiny newborn features of a newborn to sprinkles on a cupcake; these are all worthy subjects for macro photography!
The details that you choose to highlight in your macro photographs are what make them interesting and artistically unique to you. The possibilities are truly endless.
I love to show movement in my macro photography. Therefore I am always looking for lines and patterns that imply motion. Whether that be fiddle fern emerging and reaching for the light, a snail navigating through fresh dew drops, or the last standing leaf on a tree before winter arrives, I find myself drawn to the moments where we anticipate the next move.
As you get close with your camera, look at it as an opportunity to see in a new way. Find what interests you about this new perspective and capture that.
Macro photography is defined by a magnification ratio of at least 1:1. For example, if my subject is one inch tall, it will appear as one inch on my sensor.
There are a number of high-quality lenses specifically designed for this purpose and they come in a range of prices and functionalities. Whether it’s a manual focus lens or a high-end autofocus specialty lens, you can get beautiful macro results.
I suggest you rent various lenses to see which one best fits your needs. If you are photographing insects and know you can’t get too close without fear of scaring them away, a 105mm lens might be the best choice as it allows you to have some distance. If you want to get closer to your subject, I suggest a 60mm lens where the working distance is might tighter.
I love my Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens (a deal at less than $500!). It is a manual focus-only lens but I love how it has forced me to slow down so that I can capture the exact slice of detail that I want to reveal to my viewer.
OUR MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY ESSENTIALS
Specialty macro lens
If you are ready to dive head first into macro photography, then you might want to invest in a lens made specifically for this purpose. This Nikon 105mm f/2.8 allows you to get nice and close with tack sharp focus (and we hear it also works exceedingly well as a portrait lens!).
Not quite ready to take the plunge and buy a new lens? Extension tubes work with the lenses you already have and can be used alone or in conjunction with each other to work at different focal lengths.
If investing in a new lens isn’t an option, there are other tools available. Extension tubes and reverse lens rings are inexpensive and allow you to use the lenses you already have.
A reverse lens ring lets you put your lens on backwards and thus focus closer to your subject. Be sure you are purchasing the correct DSLR mount for your camera.
An extension tube is an attachment that goes between your camera body and your lens. It’s not an optical element, so there is no glass involved. All it does is get the lens further away from the focal plane allowing you to focus closer to the object you are photographing.
Macro photography tools
While your lens and your camera are really the only tools you need to get started, there are some tools that can help boost your creativity and make things easier for you.
One fun tool is a spray bottle of glycerin. No need to wait for a rainfall or that morning dew. Spritz your subject with some glycerin (of course not an insect or live animal) and have fun with the texture and light play!
Having a goose neck clamp can also be immensely helpful to keep flowers and inanimate objects in place. The depth of field with these close focusing distances can be razor thin. Even the slightest movements can yield out-of-focus results. Having a portable little clamp to help keep things in place can make a huge difference!
The importance of background-subject separation
It is so important in macro photography to achieve separation between the subject and the background. Your subject is already on a very small micro scale. It is easy for it to become lost in the environment and thus not draw the viewer’s eye.
You will want your subject to sit a significant distance away from anything that might be distracting behind it. I almost always shoot with a very wide aperture so that I can separate my subject nicely and create a soft uniform wash of a background.
You can also use light and perspective to create a more clean background behind your macro subjects. Employing the inverse square law or shifting your position in relation to your subject can help to minimize potential distractions and allow your audience to see the details you aim to highlight.
Ideas for creating compelling macro photographs
The joy of macro photography is that it allows you to be more creative. You can capture an object in a literal way and show it as it really is. You can capture an object in a more abstract way by letting the colors, lines, and textures take center stage. Or you can fall somewhere in between allowing your audience to decipher the scene the longer they sit with your photograph.
Allow yourself to experiment and get a little crazy with your macro photography. Throw the rules out the window! Shoot from different and unconventional angles. Focus on a part of your subject that usually goes unnoticed. Try using light that is otherwise considered “undesirable.”
I love shooting macro photography right after a rainfall. The overcast skies render a deep saturation of color and the little water droplets all over everything add interesting texture and reflections.
I try to seek out a simple, darker background so that the subject is illuminated in the light and stands out from the surrounding environment. When I find the details I want to highlight, I position myself with intention to capture them.
I strongly encourage you to use manual focus as you shoot. This will give you full control over what is in focus. Especially with subjects that move (like insects), you will find that manually focusing gives you better results as opposed to having your lens hunt for focus up close.
Even more, manually focusing forces you to slow down and breathe. It allows you to really appreciate the shooting process. I find that the manually focusing trains my attention and centers me in the most wonderful way.
More than anything, look at macro photography as an opportunity to have fun and play with photography. Enjoy having a new view of the world! With its emphasis on detail, pattern, and texture, macro photography can yield rewarding and unique results.
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