The Art Of Small

When, where and how to shoot better macro images

A black-eyed Susan shot on a frosty October morning. Moats maintained sharpness by using a very small aperture setting.
Fuji S5 Pro, Tamron SP AF90mm F/2.8 Di 1:1 Macro at ƒ/32


Mastering the art of macro photography in nature takes time and patience, but knowing when, where and how will make the journey a lot easier. If you’re limited on time or money to travel, macro photography is your answer. If you have only a few hours a week to shoot, you’ll find an abundance of subjects, from your backyard to the local park systems, and your cost is only a few gallons of gas, a park pass and a few books on flowers, plant life and bugs for identification.

With the changes that occur throughout the four seasons, the plants’ and insects’ various life cycles offer the macro photographer new opportunities with every month. Part of the fun of macro photography is learning about the ever-changing environments we live in. Study the different stages of plants and insects for shooting opportunities, as they vary in different parts of the country.

Fern fronds are tough to shoot as they’re close to the ground with lots of clutter. Moats cleaned up the background by cradling the fronds in a skunk cabbage leaf.
Fuji S5 Pro, Sigma 180mm F/3.5 EX DG IF HSM APO Macro at ƒ/22

As we all have busy schedules balancing work and family activities, finding time to shoot can be tough, but for the macro photographer anytime of the day will work. Unlike landscape photographers who find that the best light to shoot is early morning and late evening, macro photographers control the light by using diffusers and reflectors, so we’re not limited to any time frame.

When To Shoot
A variety of subjects can be found all year long as the environment is constantly changing every month of each season. The tiny landscapes of the macro world are changing by the minute, and knowing when to be in the field at the right time is the key to your success.

Buy and study books of the local plant life and learn the life cycles so you know when to be in the field as these subjects become available. Some wildflowers will bloom for long periods, giving you plenty of days to shoot, but some may bloom only for a few days, or at certain times of the day or night, and you need to be aware of these times to be in place as it happens. Learn the seasons of the wildflowers and any interesting plant life in your area because they vary with each region. Knowing that dragonflies and butterflies are less active on a cold morning, making them easier to approach, will help with your success, so network with other photographers or naturalists locally or online for this kind of information. In the state of Michigan, the changing of the fall colors will occur at three different times, starting with the Upper Peninsula, followed by the northern Lower Peninsula and then the southern Lower Peninsula, so study the timetables of these events.

Milkweed seeds emerge from a large pod.
Toyo 4x5, Nikkor 180mm, Gitzo tripod, 8 sec. at ƒ/22

I know that when the first ice forms at the edges of the small streams in December, it creates beautiful abstract patterns, but if I wait until later in the winter, I lose these patterns as the ice thickens. I’ve studied and learned about the subjects in my area to know each month when opportunities will present themselves.

Where To Shoot
Just as learning when to shoot, you need to study where to shoot. In the spring, Michigan wildflowers tend to be in the woodland areas, and as they die off and summer approaches, I head to the open fields. In fall, I head back to the woods to shoot the colorful leaves that fall to earth.

I like to shoot in swamps and areas that have water, as the life-sustaining water holds more plant life and attracts more small bugs and critters. Swamps, open fields, deserts, rain forest and woodlands all hold their own unique plant life and insects, and many books on these terrains and subjects are available to help you. If your local park systems have a nature center, check with the naturalist as to where flowers, dragonflies, butterflies and interesting plant life can be found. While you’re out shooting, take notes when you find interesting subjects, and note the location and time of year you found them.

How To Shoot
Macro is much different from other forms of nature photography because we sometimes shoot subjects within inches of the camera, requiring the right equipment to produce good-quality images. A digital SLR camera will work best for macro, and as far as what brand, I’ve seen them all, from the 6-megapixel to the 24-megapixel, used by photographers in my workshops with good results.

Matching the right macro lens with the subjects you plan to shoot is important. Macro lenses will range in focal length from 50mm to 200mm. The short-focal-length 50mm and 60mm lenses are good for handholding shots and shooting stationary subjects, but the short working distance between you and the subject can make it tough for capturing butterflies, dragonflies and other small insects that will flee as you get close.

The next focal lengths are in the 90mm to 105mm midrange; these good all-purpose lenses can handle most of your needs.

On dewy mornings, dragonflies hold still for photos because of the weight of the dew on their wings.
Fuji S3 Pro, Tamron SP AF180mm F/3.5 Di 1:1 Macro at ƒ/5.6

The long-range telephoto macro lenses, at 150mm, 180mm and 200mm, are your best bet when you need extra working distance between you and your subject. These longer focal lengths also blur backgrounds better than the shorter focal lengths, which is a desirable look for flower and insect images.

I recommend that you use a good sturdy tripod and a ballhead under your camera as much as possible. With high magnification, you need to have a solid foundation and steady camera to help produce sharp images. If you like to shoot handholding your camera, you need a fast shutter speed to stop any slight camera movement or use a flash system.

I use a simple style of shooting that’s easy to learn. Most macro photographers struggle with depth of field, so I’ve learned to gear my compositions to the ƒ-stops. I work both ends of the range of depth of field. I’m either shooting at the highest ƒ-stop numbers or the lowest. With the higher ƒ-stops, I’m getting maximum depth and everything in focus. At the lower ranges, I’m limiting the depth with less of the image in focus.

When I’m in the mood to shoot images with a soft, abstract look or the typical flower shots with a soft, blurred background, I shoot in the ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/8 range. With this style, being aware of the backgrounds is important, and finding the angle with the least-distracting background can help you succeed.

There are many ƒ-stop settings in between wide open and closed down that produce various amounts of focus in the image. Practice shooting an image with all the different ƒ-stop numbers to get a feel for how the depth of field works. If you get confused with the ƒ-stop numbers, try to remember that the bigger the number, the bigger the amount of focus, and the smaller the number, the smaller the amount of focus. To change your ƒ-stop, set your camera to manual mode or aperture priority. The depth of field is important, and you need to have control over setting the depth of field, depending on the style of image you’re shooting.

You can see more of Mike Moats’ macro photography at his website,


    My Nikon PC-E Micro Nikkor 85mm f/2.8D Manual Focus Lens on a focus rail is my favorite macro lens. It has a wide f-stop range of 2.8 to a whopping 32 and with the tilt/shift mechanism and on a rocus rail, I can do micro adjustments without moving the tripod.

    I live in the far South, we have Fly Catchers and Pitcher Plants and hundreds of small swamp flowers. I have found that a trip to the Bog, as it’s called, at least every other day to keep up with everything that blooms, also each day brings change in color and shapes..the key is staying in tune with nature.

    I enjoyed the article, but nothing was mentioned about diffraction softness when using higher f-stops. A deep DoF is nice when trying to get an entire bug in focus, but you may sacrifice sharpness. With my Canon 100mm 2.8L on a 40D, for example, I find f/11 gets an acceptable amount of both.

    Hey Mark, Diffraction is not a problem, it can be controlled with sharpening. The majority of my images are shot at f/32 and have never had anyone tell them they didn’t look sharp, so yes it does work at high f/stops.

    In looking at the Macro photos in the last assignment, I learned that in my “Bee,bug,& blossum” picture, I also had a “goldenrod spider” with a bee on the Orange blossom photo I took but could not enter at that time. My spider was a pale blue to go with the white orange blossom in our back yard.

    We learn much from others! Thanks!

    M.L.Blackert, Phoenix, AZ

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