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Macro photography: The devil’s in the details

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BY COLLEEN MINIUK-SPERRY
Whether you are photographing brilliant wildflowers, bizarre-looking insects, or valuable outdoor products, macro photography opens the door to an enchanting world of minute
details often overlooked in a broader scene. This close-up style offers shutterbugs the opportunity to add a story-telling perspective to their portfolio and articles. Here’s how to make a big impact by recording small wonders with your camera:
Equip yourself properly. A macro (or micro) lens allows photographers to magnify and get closer to their subjects than with other lenses. Though some manufacturers claim their equipment has macro-like capabilities, true macro lenses enable 1:1 or 1:2 magnification ratios. These ratios indicate that the photographer can render the subject at life-size (1:1) or half size (1:2) in the final frame. Some specialty glass can magnify subjects up to a 5:1 magnification ratio, or five times larger than life-size! Those without an official macro lens can still capture fine detail with a telephoto lens or by using close-up filters, extension tubes, or bellows on a variety of different focal length lenses.
Identify a simple subject. If you don’t know what you’re trying to capture with your image, your viewers certainly won’t either, since often they are not standing next to you when you snap the shutter. Start by asking yourself, “What is catching my eye with this scene? What am I trying to show my viewers in this frame? Why do I enjoy this subject?” Pay attention to your answers, as this evaluative process assists in defining a strong starting point for composing your photograph.
Compose with harmony. Get close to a clean, healthy-looking specimen and fill the entire frame with the detail you’d like to emphasize, such as the center of the flower or a finger ready to pull the gun trigger. To create a sense of balance, arrange the key elements off-center at the intersection points of the imaginary tic-tac-toe grid described in the Rule of Thirds.
Behold the background. Set your aperture to a wide setting such as f/2.8 or f/4 to blur the background. Then check to ensure there are no bright or odd-shaped objects distracting your viewer’s eye away from your primary subject. If you cannot find a clean background, place a natural-looking green, brown, blue, or black shirt, bed sheet, or poster board at least one foot behind your subject to serve as an artificial backdrop.
Create dynamic lines with the “Dutch tilt.” Best applied when the horizon is not visible, this popular cinematography technique enables photographers to turn static vertical and horizontal lines into more visually appealing angles by intentionally slanting the camera a few degrees to the right or left while composing an image.
Stay focused on the right parts. Ensure your primary subject is sharp. This means that only the tip of a perfectly tied fly, the pistol or stamen of a wildflower, or a lizard’s eye closest to the camera may be in focus with your close-focusing range and the shallow depth of field inherent to a macro lens. Hand-holding your camera while employing the auto-focus mode will assist in reacting more quickly to moving subjects. For slow or non-moving subjects, however, minute adjustments to a focusing rail while using the manual focus mode will make it easier to find precise focus.
See the light. The contrast between highlights and shadows aids in creating the illusion of shape in two-dimensional photographs. For optimal shaping light, position your camera to record side or back light on your center of interest. Subjects illuminated with front and top light often look flat because the camera can’t “see” the critical difference in tones.
Tame harsh contrast. Under a cloudless day, natural mid-day light may appear too direct and too bright for your camera to record a well-balanced exposure. Using a reflector or artificial flash can help reduce this stark contrast by adding light to the shadows. Or, holding a diffuser over your small scene will produce muted, more even illumination, mimicking the quality of light experienced during an overcast day.
Make friends with the wind. When photographing outdoor subjects, the slightest breeze can make you want to pack up your gear and head home. Successfully record images on a blustery day by using the fastest shutter speed you can, increasing your ISO speed setting as needed to enable shorter exposure times. Then set your camera to continuous shoot mode, and wait for a lull in the wind. Create a wind block by draping a sheet over an extra tripod and place over your shooting view to reduce the movement of your subject. You can also stabilize a flower bud or plant with a Wimberley Plamp during the exposure. Alternatively, consider slowing your shutter speed to 1/30th of a second or less to convey the sense of motion and record a more impressionistic look. ♦
— Colleen Miniuk-Sperry is an award-winning and internationally-published outdoor photographer and writer. In addition to articles for various publications, working on three books, and teaching photography workshops, she is also working on pre-visualizing winning lottery numbers. Contact her at cms@cms-photo.com.
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