Humans go through life ignoring most of it. This is not a bad thing, it’s actually essential to our health and survival. If we were aware of every little thing all the time, we would have a hard time focusing, concentrating and even staying alive. Are you feeling the texture of the socks you are wearing? Hearing the hum of your electronics? Do you notice the pen on your table or the color of the floor? We filter out things that aren’t important. And people will filter out a lot of your photographs too if they don’t have much impact.
One way to create impact is to get up-close-and-personal. When we are presented with something large and “in your face,” we can’t ignore it. It’s there, we have to deal with it. We can become intrigued or interested, or annoyed and uncomfortable. But we can’t ignore it. I wrote an article on “Extreme Cropping: When less is more” about how shooting less than a whole object can be a great way to tell stories and have images with impact. It makes a great introduction as to why macro photography can be great. Click here to open that article in another window.
Here I will give you some practical tips and information for one great way to get up-close-and-personal, macro photography. It is not the only way – I will also give some tips on how to cheat and make your images look like macros without a macro lens.
Here’s what I mean when I say getting up-close-and-personal can create interest and impact:
Here’s a crocus. It’s a pretty crocus, with raindrops. Nice subject, but no one is really going to stop and enjoy this photo for long. Let’s try getting in closer:
This is definitely more interesting, and more intimate. But it’s still not great. The light portion in the upper right of the image is distracting, and there is very limited focused area – much of the image is out of focus. Let’s zoom in to the area that is in focus, and is the most interesting:
Now here is an image we can spend a bit of time looking at. We can almost feel the texture of the flower petal, and the raindrop focuses our attention on the texture and patterns of light. This is not something any of us see every day! The out-of-focus raindrops and grass are there, adding to the atmosphere, but not distracting.
Getting up-close-and-personal can create images that we can’t ignore. What exactly is macro photography and how does it work?
Well, I’ve heard multiple different definitions of what macro photography is. Technically, it means the image on your sensor is at least 1:1 the size of life. Some definitions say that it must be 5x the size of life to be considered macro. Either way, for this to occur, generally you need a lens that can get very close to your subject. The ones that can do this are called macro, and FYI they are all prime lenses. There is no zoom macro lens. Well, there are some zoom lenses that call themselves macro, but officially they are more of close-up lenses and don’t actually get to a real 1:1. But they can help you fake it! So let’s talk more about faking it.
If you don’t have a macro lens, you can try a couple of different and less expensive options than going out and buying a macro lens.
- Use your zoom lenses at a high focal length or your close-up lens, and then crop the image. This does not do too badly, to be honest, although you are probably not going to win advanced level photography competitions with the image. If you try this, you will need an excellent quality image, so follow the tips I give for macro photography below, they will apply to your set-up as well.
- Buy a close-up attachment or extension tube for your current lens. This is much cheaper than buying a new lens! The extension rings or tubes have the added benefit of not being an extra layer of glass, which keeps as much light as possible hitting your sensor, which is great with macro photography when you are often stopping down your aperture to get the best depth of field.
So here are some fakes: this image was taken with a zoom lens and cropped.As was this one:
I took these images when I barely knew what I was doing with a camera. What I’m saying is, don’t be afraid to try it out! You don’t have to invest in fancy equipment before you realize that you do (or don’t) enjoy close-up or macro photography.
Anyway, now I know more, so I’m happy to share some tips for getting the best image with your macro (or fake macro) lenses:
- while you background will be blurred, it can still have distracting elements (colors, bright spots). Choose a simple and complementary background.
- Try shooting your subject from multiple different angles.
- Different lighting will give you different effects. Front lighting may give you best color saturation, while side lighting will highlight textures. Experiment! Note: avoid using your on-camera flash – you are so close to your object that you will likely get shadows from your lens etc.
- Use a sturdy tripod. Tiny shakes are huge with macro, because of the tiny distance and magnification of your subject.
- Along those lines, shooting outdoors is difficult with macro, mostly due to wind. If you need to shoot outside, firstly, use as fast a shutter speed as possible. Then, also try tethering your subjects, such as flowers. Put a stake in the ground, and tether your flower to the stake. You can even purchase plastic tether lines. You need something stiff, not just a piece of string. You can also try putting up a windscreen. Also, even with those, you will get movement – wait for the lulls in the wind and then shoot like crazy. Better yet, if you can, bring it indoor.
- Auto-focus is often problematic. Try switching to manual focus and shoot a lot of images.
- Depth of field (DOF) will always look quite small. Even if your aperture is very closed, say 1/22, your DOF looks quite shallow because you are so close! Generally you want to use as wide a DOF as possible to try and get as much of your subject in focus as possible. Some people say you generally don’t want to open up more than 1/16.
- That being said, try using shallow DOF (wide apertures) for artistic effect. So ignore what I just said
- If you really want a huge DOF with all of your subject in focus, you may have to resort to focus stacking. I won’t get into that here, but that may take dedicated software and equipment and is a big learning process in and of itself.
So yes, getting close with macro is a great way to tell the story of an object, and make it matter to your viewer.
Here’s a decent picture of a small flower. It has some interest with the lush background and pop of purple. But it doesn’t hold interest for long. We see stuff like this every day, and while it’s nice, it’s not remarkable enough to really notice.
This image is much more engaging. We become more invested when presented with this view of a small flower – this is something we don’t see every day. So the viewer wants to spend more time looking at this image. We can’t even see the whole thing, but there is enough of it to tell a story, to engage our imaginations about what its life in this lush environment might be like. It’s probably even more intriguing because we can’t see it all: it’s larger and more in our face.
I hope this helps you get excited about trying some macro or fake-macro imagery! For some creative exercises on “shooting less than the whole” and creating images with impact, see the end of this article: “Extreme Cropping: Because less is sometimes more.”
Visit me on Facebook and share your favorite macro image with me! I would love to see what you do.
For some beautiful macro images and a few more tips, check out this site by National Geographic photographers.
P.S. I’m going to try the 20-crop image challenge myself, I will blog about that, so stay tuned! I’m excited to try this challenge out. I think.