It’s a Small World After All
Samira Pillai delves into the world of close-up and macro photography and suggests how you can bring back stunning images of tiny creatures and plants in nature.
This story was originally published in August 2009.
Trees and plants are not true close-up subjects when you look at them as a whole. But look closer and you will find that their leaves, barks, flowers and fruits make fantastic subjects. Tiny creatures like insects and outgrowths like fungi, moss and lichen are perfect for macro photography too. Their fine details, colours, patterns and shapes offer several choices of frames, even for the most untrained eye. Whenever you set out to take a closer look at the natural world, keep some of the following techniques in mind.
Look for Complementary Backgrounds
Nature offers a range of backdrops that you can work with. The neutral tones of twigs, tree barks or just the earth allow the focus to be on the main subject. A pile of green leaves or pebbles too, can be pleasing.
If your subject has bright colours, its impact can be strengthened by shooting it against a background that is dark or has complementary colours. But you may not always get the backgrounds you want. In such cases, change your shooting position to get a different tonality; or use a shallow depth-of-field to blur out the background so that it is out of focus.
Get the Exposure Right
The reflective bodies of some insects and the brightness of backgrounds can fool a camera’s meter. Bright subjects like yellow and white flowers need slight overexposure, while darker subjects like black butterflies need underexposure to retain details. Thus, even a slight change in camera settings can affect close-up photographs.
The key is to use Spot Metering for the main subject. Then compensate for bright and dull tones. If the colours and brightness levels are conflicting, then use Evaluative Metering and bracket the shots.
Vary the Position You Shoot From
You can look at nature from different viewpoints—the bird’s and worm’s eye views, a side-view or a straight-on approach. Considering these will make you aware of the bustling, thriving life forms that exist around us and understand a whole new perspective of them.
For instance, if you are shooting flowers, fungi or ferns, go down to the ground level and point the camera upwards. This will help give you clean backdrops and can even make your subjects look imposing.
Play with Depth
Where you place your camera can affect the depth in a macro photograph. With flat subjects like the open wings of a butterfly, the sensor plane should be parallel to the plane in which the wings lie. This will help achieve the best sharpness. While shooting a plant, keep the camera at a 45° angle and place it slightly above or below the plant to highlight its structure.
If you want to show the subject in context of its surroundings, use a wide-angle lens; but you will need to pay attention to the distant elements in the background. Depending on what you wish to emphasise, choose an aperture that restricts or expands the depth-of-field.
Wait for the Right Kind of Light
Angular shadows in a macro photograph are important as the relief caused by the play of light enhances sharpness. Shoot at a time when the light is oblique and the shadows are soft rather than at midday. Direct, late afternoon light is great to shoot translucent subjects like flowers and lightcoloured butterflies, as the backlighting reveals fine details.
A cloudy sky diffuses light and is ideal for capturing the richness of contrasting colours like in a butterfly; while on rainy, dull days, the colours of flowers pop out.
If you are working in poor lighting conditions, like in a thick forest, or at night, using your flash at a low intensity will introduce punch in your photographs.
Apart from filling in light, using your flash allows you to use smaller apertures and obtain a greater depth-of-field. Flash is also useful for freezing action when shooting active, fast-moving insects and small animals.
You can also use handy, translucent diffusers to soften your flash or harsh sunlight. Similarly, you can also use small reflectors to fill in unwanted shadow areas.
Mix Artificial and Natural Light
Flash can be used even when natural light is sufficient. Use the flash off-camera (remotely or with a sync cord), place it at an angle and vary the intensity of light. By positioning it slightly above the lens, light will hit the subject at an acute angle and allow the uneven surfaces to cause tiny shadows. This enhances details in textures while giving you a natural looking result.
Shoot at the lowest ISO available to avoid noise or grain, capture maximum detail, and get the largest tonal range.
If you wish to emphasise only a portion of your subject, use wide-open apertures like f/2.8-5.6; but choose your point of focus carefully. When you want sharpness throughout the frame, use narrow apertures. You may need to use a flash to avoid slow shutterspeeds.
Show Motion Blurs Too
Though this goes against the norm, you can use slow shutterspeeds for interesting shots. Capture the movement of flowers in the wind or the blur of bird’s fluttering wings while keeping its body sharp.
Ultimately, it takes a keen eye, patience and the willingness to experiment to shoot small plants and animals effectively. The trick, therefore, is to learn to look for the opportunities and explore them well.
Choosing the Correct Focal length for Close-up Photography
Macro and close-up photography requires a careful choice of lenses. They play an important role in determining how your photographs turn out.
Close-up photos can be achieved with any kind of lens. It largely depends on what you wish to achieve—a life-size reproduction of your subject, a simple close-up, or a tiny creature in context of its habitat. So when you are packing gear for a session of macro photography, choose any of the following:
A standard macro lens (50 to 60mm) is ideal for flowers and subjects that will not fly away when you go close to them. Portrait macros (90 to 105mm), on the other hand, are best for insects and small subjects that tend to be active. If you are looking for a flattened perspective or a longer working distance for shy subjects like dragonflies and butterflies, longer telephoto macro lenses (150 to 200mm) are ideal.
With longer focal lengths, you can not only zoom in to your subject to get a decent magnification, but you can also use it to deal with a confusing background. Step away, and while keeping the size of the subject the same, use it to include less of the background.
The inbuilt close focusing ability of wide-angle lenses allows you to shoot subjects from very close while including a background for context. The resultant distortion, when used effectively, can be a great compositional tool, especially for flowers.