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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

New Ways To Think About Macro

To get a unique close-up perspective, think beyond the usual macro lens

This Article Features Photo Zoom

In Southern Utah, Welling frames purple geranium nicely against yellow tall goldenrod solidago plants.
I was creating nice photos, but noticed my macro images all started looking compositionally similar. They captured something of the environment, but they were mostly straightforward record photos. I needed to expand my macro creativity, so I broadened my lens selection. I began using all my lenses, from wide-angle to supertelephoto, to capture macro images with different expressive feelings. The wide-angle lenses have the benefit of a broad depth of field while allowing close focus on a subject. I could create impressionistic images of wildflowers by placing some flowers near the front element of the lens, creating out-of-focus swaths of color to frame a wildflower, yet still have enough depth of field to keep a specific flower sharp and make it the main element of the image. The wide-angle approach provides a completely different perspective I couldn't achieve with longer telephoto lenses.

I gained an additional benefit using wide-angle lenses for macro work. I often hike some distance to photograph grand landscape images, and having wide-angle lenses for macro work, I can eliminate the weight of a macro lens in my backpack, but still create interesting, intimate, small-world images. I give up working distance with this setup, so I photograph insects and small animals differently, usually capturing more of an environmental image rather than an isolated close-up.

A robber fly perches on a dead stalk near Hornsby Bend, Texas. Telephoto macros are great tools for staying away from dangerous animals and skittish creatures while still providing the ability to get close to the action. Welling has employed several telephoto lenses with macro abilities and extension tubes for achieving even more range.
I also began using superzoom telephoto lenses for small critter macro photography for several reasons. One issue is depth of field. You almost always want the eyes of the creature in very sharp focus, but how much else is in focus is determined by your creativity and lens selection. And you need to get close enough to emphasize your subject in the frame, but not so close that you scare it away. Telephoto lenses provide greater working distance. With live subjects, you also need to make quick decisions regarding your overall composition, and a zoom lens helps tremendously. I prefer subject isolation, making the background as out of focus as possible. Medium telephoto macro lenses have two drawbacks for macro—not enough working distance and too much depth of field for the aperture I usually need, which results in too much background detail. I now use two supertelephoto lenses for this work, one with a 1.4x converter for magnification and one with extension tubes.

I started photographing odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) several years ago, and the Nikon 200-400mm ƒ/4 AF-S VR with a 1.4 teleconverter was my workhorse setup for many years. While I captured superb, frame-filling images of many small creatures with this outfit, it's heavy and requires a tripod, making it somewhat hard to use for macro work. I began searching for another lighter, quicker-to-use setup. Recently, I started using the Sigma APO 50-150mm F2.8 EX DC OS HSM zoom telephoto with Kenko auto-extension tubes. The sharpness is exceptional, and the working distance and zoom range are great. I photographed a new species of spiketail dragonfly with this setup. At 100% magnification, you can see the individual hairs on the dragonfly. Although 1 stop to 11⁄2 stops slower than my other supertelephoto lens, the 50-150mm is much lighter, so carrying it on long treks is much easier. With its stabilization capability, it can be used handheld in many situations, eliminating the need for a tripod. It's definitely in my macro gear backpack.

One trick I also use is image cropping thanks to the resolution of my Nikon D3X. This gives me an extremely large file that lets me get tighter framing after taking the shot. For example, if my subject is small in the frame (a low reproduction ratio), I can crop to emphasize the subject. Even cropped, these files usually are large enough for publication and print work. For more options, the Lensbaby Sweet 35 Optic lens attachment also provides extended selective-focus abilities and utilizes click-stop aperture adjustment. This setup gives me another way to experiment with bokeh and selective focus.

You can see more of Dave Welling's photography by visiting www.strikingnatureimagesbydavewelling.com and www.agpix.com/davewelling.

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