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Entering the World of Nature Macro Shooting - by Ashley Hockenberry

Written By onci on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 | 7:41 AM


As I scan through literally thousands of online photo galleries, I see all types of images and collections from very skilled photographers- many more skilled than me - wildlife, bird, landscape, portrait and the like. But often conspicuously absent are macro images.



I suppose a lot of photographers have mixed feelings about macro photography. Some perhaps think it is too much trouble or that you have to have too much special equipment. Others may feel as if it is not ‘real’ photography. Still others may give it a try and get frustrated with the results. And then there is the ever-present problem of getting your little teeny subjects to cooperate with you and stay still long enough for you to set up and squeeze off a shot.
The classic definition of macro photography is where the reproduction ratio (the subject size on the film plane / image sensor to the actual subject size) is greater than 1:1, although there is now a more loose definition which I adhere to which involves photographing smaller plant, animal and insect life with either a macro lens or a traditional zoom lens which may not be a 1:1 reproduction ratio


Equipment
There is a mind numbing array of gizmos and gadgets for macro photography – everything from ring flashes and extension tubes to focusing rails and various types of reversing rings and special clips and tripods – all of which have a role to play- but I like to keep things simple and mainly shoot free hand without the aid of all these devices or may simply use a tripod and a remote switch. 

I guess the simple question is this – why invest in tons of gear for an art form that you may not be totally sold on? My suggestion is to start small – invest in a good macro lens and also a good medium focal length zoom lens with a sturdy tripod. A remote switch will reduce camera shake. I will assume if you are a serious photographer that you already have an external flash. If not, invest in one and more importantly get a simple flash diffuser which you can buy from any camera store. Now you are ready to go.

Note: A good macro lens will cost some money. Try not to compromise here because your image quality will suffer. This is the one area where you don’t want to cut corners.



Subjects
My favourite nature macro subjects are insects, spiders, butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles and frogs. Also, there are flowers, plants, fungi and lichens.

Approach
When approaching anything alive I try to move slowly and keep a certain distance and wait until the insect or dragonfly, for instance, has landed and then start to set up my shot. It is a common mistake to start blasting away with the camera only to have the subject get spooked and fly off never to be found again. So try not to get in too much of a hurry.

ISO
I like to keep mine as low as possible, say around ISO100; however, there are exceptions to this like anything but macro images will show up noisy, grainy backgrounds and artefacts pretty easily so be careful – if you need more light you can bump up the ISO but I do not like going beyond ISO400, unless it is really cloudy.



Depth of field
This can be tricky. I find that the ideal depth of field is f/10 or smaller however, this can be hard to achieve when there is minimal light or you need a faster shutter speed but to overcome this you can use flash. It is possible to shoot 1/200 second with a flash and have f/16 or f/18 and you get the best of both worlds – depth of field and light.

Stationary subjects
The ideal situation is to get out very early in the morning and photograph butterflies, insects and dragonflies while they are still on their night perch and sitting quietly waiting for the temperature to rise. Now you can use your tripod and take your time. You can set up for a long exposure with a small aperture. Again, use a remote switch for best results.

Flash
I have an aversion to flash for a lot of reasons. First of all, I prefer natural light and will do whatever I can to work with it no matter what. However, if situations demand it, then I will bring out my flash and set up accordingly, but it is not my first choice. Flash should not be overdone and used just enough to illuminate the subject and fill in the shadows.



Shutter Speed
Your lighting conditions will dictate your aperture which will limit your shutter speed. Lots of light can make for great shooting conditions and allows for the greatest flexibility. I try to shoot as fast a shutter speed as I possibly can and will vary the aperture to get different results which will allow me to move to the fastest shutter speed possible, especially if the subject is moving a bit – such as a butterfly. Try to preset your aperture whenever possible with your 

Focal Points
I have learned the hard way on this one. I know my 3 camera bodies’ focal points pretty well and use them very carefully. Setting the focal point is critical to have an ‘in-focus’ shot. Sometimes I use a pattern of focal points and at times I will use a single focal point. If you are photographing a snake or a frog you will typically want a single focal point focused on the head or more specifically the eye. 

Background
I have become almost obsessive about this. The background is almost as important as the subject. This means doing what you can to set up the shot and shooting from different angles to avoid unnecessary glare, reflections, and visual distractions. Try to aim for a clear, clean background without anything else competing for attention with the main subject. A blurred background is preferable in some situations, and of course for this you need a greater depth of field. Depth of field can be achieved literally with distance or by using a smaller aperture.



Posing subjects
Yes, I have posed snakes, frogs, insects, flowers and so on. Some may object to this practice, but I am always gentle and do this because I prefer one background to another and sometimes find a preferred subject in a less than desirable photographic setting. But each subject has a limit to how much they can be handled so my advice is to limit this and move on to the next subject. After all, we want to respect nature.

I hope this has helped and if you have not tried macro shooting in nature that you will give it a try. You may be amazed at your results. But remember it takes a lot of practice.
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