Diversify Your Macro Portfolio

Tips and techniques from a master that will take your macro photography to the next level
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1 Trunk of a bristlecone pine, shot at ƒ/32 with a 90mm macro

Through the steady hum of the plane’s engines, the captain’s voice came over the intercom, letting us know that it was a fine April spring day as our flight approached the runway at Detroit’s Metro Airport. For the last four hours, my mind was occupied with the thoughts of my weeklong photography trip to Yosemite National Park.

Although I had accomplished my mission to photograph all the great icons made famous by Ansel Adams, I was disappointed by the constant fight for tripod position with the hordes of photographers and their own goals to record this beautiful scenery. As a novice to photography, the mystique and originality of these images was lost as I realized that these great sites are photographed by hundreds of people every day of the year.

I want images that I can call my own that no one else has, unique images that would cause someone viewing them to say, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this before.” At the time of the Yosemite trip, I had only been shooting for a short period of time and my passion was to be a landscape photographer, but after my experience in Yosemite, I decided it was time to explore the macro world more, or what I now call “tiny landscapes.”

1,2,3 Macro Abstracts

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Abstracts are the most challenging and fun to shoot. When in the field, my eyes are always scanning for unusual subjects composed of lines, shapes, patterns, colors and interesting design. Some photographers shoot soft-focus images and call them abstracts, but I want an abstract where the viewer has to put some thought into guessing what the subject is. With all the great details in these abstracts, I want to maximize my sharpness by shooting in the higher ƒ-stop range of ƒ/16 to ƒ/32 to bring it all in focus.

2 (left) Early-morning dew on top of a large mushroom, shot at ƒ/22 with a 90mm macro
3 (right) Ice formation at the edge of a small stream in the early stages of freezing, shot at ƒ/32 with a 180mm macro

To capture some truly unique macro photographs that will impress your viewers, there are some techniques, specialty lenses, lens add-ons and software programs used to produce these special images. I crave and enjoy the diverse creativity and technology that we have in macro photography, and subjects can be found in your own backyard to the local park systems. I make my living by shooting subjects at two local parks within 20 minutes of my home, and two of my best-selling images were shot in my backyard.


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With the changes that occur throughout the four seasons, the various life cycles in nature offer the macro photographer new opportunities every month of the year. Part of the fun of macro photography is learning about the ever-changing environments we live in and the challenging hunt for interesting subjects. Most macro subjects only last for a brief moment in time and are erased forever by the environment, providing the photographer with original artwork that never again can be reproduced.

Equipment
I shoot with a Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro DSLR and a variety of Tamron macro lenses, ranging from their new 60mm macro lens to the 90mm and 180mm macro lenses. The shorter focal length works well for handholding shots and shooting in close with stationary subjects, and the midrange to telephoto macro lenses offer more working distance between you and your live subjects like butterflies, dragonflies and other critters that will flee as you get close. All my images are shot with my camera on a tripod using natural light, no flash.

Styles And Options
Macro photographers have many styles and options to diversify their portfolio of images. One style that I like to shoot is intimate scenes in nature that have interesting details, colors, contrast, textures and lines, and I shoot these using my lens’ full depth of field with everything in focus. Another style would be to photograph subjects with a wide open aperture, creating a soft dreamlike feel. My favorite style, and one that I find the most challenging, is abstract, where viewers have no idea what the subject is. Last would be some of the great technology at our disposal like the Lensbaby lenses or software programs that create unusual and attractive images.

In nature photography, macro offers the most versatility of styles and more shooting time as you don’t have to travel far to find subjects. Diversity in your macro work will have you thinking more creatively and add fun to your photography.

4 The Dreamlike Look

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4 Dandelion head, shot with a 180mm macro with a 25mm extension tube at ƒ/2.8

When I’m in the mood to shoot some soft-focus dreamlike images, I usually work with flowers. Most photographers can easily find flowers to photograph in their backyards, or if you like wildflowers, head to a local forest or field. I always shoot this style with a wide-open aperture in the ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/3.5 range. Just move the camera in close, focus on the front edge of the foreground of the subject and let the rest soften into the background. For tiny subjects, I sometimes add extension tubes between the lens and camera body, which allows the macro lens to focus in closer to the subject. The tubes come in a set of three, and the more you add, the closer in you can focus.


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5 Maximize Those Details

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5 Maple in swamp oil, shot with a 180mm macro from a low angle from the edge of the water, so I needed ƒ/22 to bring it all in focus

My most successful and best-selling images have been those with everything in focus. Viewers tend to like the all-in-focus look, as this is how we view the world. Our eyes see with full depth of field, so this style has a natural look. To shoot this style, I set my aperture to the higher ƒ-stop numbers, which on most macro lenses is in the ƒ/22 to ƒ/32 range. I know this goes against the grain of most photographers’ philosophy that shooting stopped down all the way will cause diffraction, or what most experience as a softness in the details. This isn’t a problem with digital, as we can add a little extra sharpening in Photoshop to correct any slight softness.

 

6 Lensbaby

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6 By adding the +10 and +4 Macro Kit filters to my Lensbaby, I was able to focus within a couple of inches of the tiny center of a dandelion head

On days when I want to have some fun and be especially creative, I go to my Lensbaby Composer. The Composer is Lensbaby’s latest generation of its specialty lens aimed at the photographer with artistic vision. The Composer has a ball-and-socket design that allows you to tilt and angle the lens in any direction until you achieve a desired effect; then just dial in the focusing ring. It has a small sweet spot of focus, with a soft feel of motion blurring throughout the rest of the image. I also like the Lensbaby Macro Kit, with its screw-on filters, which lets you focus on a very small scale. It features a +10 filter and a +4 filter, allowing you to focus from 2 to 13 inches.


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7 Backlighting

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When it comes to lighting, you can’t beat an overcast day for beautiful soft lighting and color saturation. When I’m shooting with bright sunlight, I carry a 12-inch collapsible diffuser to shade the subject. This gives me a nice even light and takes away any harsh sunlight and distracting shadows. There are times when the sunlight is our friend by creating backlighting. With the sunlight shining on the backside of the subject, it highlights the outer edges, causing it to glow.

7 The tiny hairs of this moth mullein stem and buds are illuminated by the backlight from the early-morning sun, giving me another unique style of shooting to work with. Low-angle morning and evening sunlight works best for this style.

 

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8 Postprocessing Creativity

Creativity in macro doesn’t have to end at the time the shutter is released. We have the technology to add some interesting effects to our images in postprocessing. One of my favorite Photoshop plug-in programs is Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro. This program has 52 creative filters with 250 effects, so there’s a lot to work with to make your images pop.

8 Nautilus shell, postprocessing done using Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro filter. This background is one of my ice image prints, and I added the butterfly mount on top of the print. I used Color Efex Pro for the bicolor effect.

To see more of Mike Moats’ macro photography, visit www.tinylandscapes.com.

12 Comments

    I agree whole-heartedly! I had the same realization a few months ago. I have been doing aerial and wildlife photograph all my life. But macro offers individuality as a result of out own creativity.

    I always look for the uncommon and creative pictures everywhere. I am tired of the same subjects, places, themes and techniques. I have the sensation that creativity is reaching the limits when I look for original images. But then, digital photography gave us wonderful new possibilities. As an entomologist and photographer I always discover new shapes, colors and “microscapes” in the small and wonderful creatures behind our feet. I will love to see more macro creativity in the magazine. Thanks for your article, it really open our eyes to new chances just few millimeters behind us; and you can avoid the “photographers jam” as an extra feature !!!.

    thanks for the creativity.

    i agree w/you abt yosemite, i did the same thing last year but am learning.

    Here elaborates the matter not only extensively but also detailly .I support the write’s unique point.It is useful and benefit to your daily life.You can go those sits to know more relate things.They are strongly recommended by friends.Personally I feel quite well.

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