The title of this magazine notwithstanding, not all great nature photography happens outdoors. Last year, I needed to stay close to home as a caregiver for Kathy and her new knee. That didn’t mean that I stopped doing my nature photography, however; I just changed the scale of the subjects.
If you’re not able to roam the landscape due to your own medical limitations, the needs of those you love, the weather or aversion to travel, there’s still natural beauty to be appreciated, new techniques to be mastered and new creative approaches to be applied to your passion for capturing and conveying the spirit and splendor of natural subjects. Here are some tips and techniques for satisfying indoor photography projects.
I enjoy flowers, insects (butterfly wings), feathers and minerals, so that’s the direction I head. It’s always spring somewhere, and the floral department at my local supermarket supplies a lot of my subjects any month of the year. Get flowers with great pigment and design or complex structure. One of my favorites is the omnipresent gerbera daisy, but seasonal examples such as peonies, gladiolas and iris are always good subjects. Flowering potted plants last longer. Orchids, while they may be a bit more expensive, are well worth the extra cost due to their detail and color.
Butterfly specimens, with magnificent color and texture, are fascinating and challenging subjects. I buy mine from a reputable supplier that does not source them from the wild: The Butterfly Company (thebutterflycompany.com) offers not only butterflies but moths, beetles and other insects. Prices vary, but less-exotic species with exquisite color can be had for as low as $5 each. (I did notice one at $1,200!)
Feathers offer color, design, texture and rhythm. When I’m outdoors, I’m always on the lookout for cast-off feathers that may photograph well, but beautiful specimens also may be found at fly shops and art stores. Again, do not purchase feathers that have been sourced from the wild or participate in the exploitation of threatened species.
Minerals can be very interesting and challenging. Crystallized rock formations offer complex depth, highlights, mysterious color and patterns. They are works of art in their own right and can be both challenging and satisfying to photograph at high magnification.
Studio macro photography has certainly evolved over the decades, with several rapid and significant advances in recent years. The problems to be solved remain the same: The tiny nature subjects we value for their complex structure and design are difficult to capture because depth of field is minimal when photographing at high magnification, and in the past it was pretty much impossible to get a subject, whether a flower blossom or crystal, in complete focus. The technique of focus stacking—and its incorporation into recent cameras—has dramatically improved high-mag capture, and it’s the next new thing that serious nature photographers need to master.
Focus stacking, also called focus bracketing, enables essentially unlimited depth of field. It is achieved by capturing a series of images at different focus points, moving through the subject from foreground to background, overlapping the depth of field from one capture to the next. Be thorough. You can take too few images but not too many. The process may be accomplished by changing the focus on the camera manually from one image to the next, which works to about 1x; by moving the subject, positioned on a microscope stand, toward or away from a fixed camera; or by moving the camera in minute increments from one capture to the next, a method greatly facilitated by the Cognisys StackShot (cognisys-inc.com) electronically controlled focusing rail. The StackShot capture interval ranges from 8 inches of depth to the high-magnification ionosphere, with movements as small as 2 microns per shot. I’ve used it to 20x.
Once photographed, the set of images is composited in post-capture software that retains only in-focus information. The three main compositing programs to consider are Photoshop CC, Zerene Stacker (zerenesystems.com) and Helicon Focus (heliconsoft.com). The result is an image with complete depth of field and astounding resolution.
Faithful readers will recall the complex and bulky setups I used to haul out into the storm to capture the intricate detail of individual snowflakes. Now, just as in-camera exposure bracketing facilitated HDR capture a few years ago, in-camera focus bracketing makes it easier to accomplish focus stacking. For the images seen here, I used the Canon EOS RP mirrorless camera’s focus bracketing feature to achieve magnification up to 2x. And it’s the perfect technique for indoor nature subjects.
Mirrorless Macro Advantage
Mirrorless cameras have a few advantages for closeup photography, with the camera always showing the image live on the LCD, having a bright electronic viewfinder when the shutter speeds are getting slow, and the afore-mentioned focus-bracketing support (available as of this writing in the Canon EOS RP, Nikon Z 6, Z 7 and D850, Olympus OM-D and Panasonic Lumix G95.) In reality, any camera will do—just do it.
In the digital era, we can check exposure, composition and sharpness on the camera’s LCD as we work. But some cameras support WiFi transmission to a smartphone or tablet, from which you can view what the camera sees and control the capture, eliminating camera contact and movement. I have for years used the CamRanger for remote capture of macro, landscape and wildlife subjects; from my larger iPad Pro, I can check focus, sharpness, exposure and even use it for focus stacking with some camera and lens combinations. The company (camranger.com) will be coming out with an improved version II by the time you read this.
Lenses For Macro
Our indoor setups are mostly aimed at close-up and macro photography, so a macro lens is the best possible solution. But a good alternative is a set of auto extension tubes. These tubes, available either from your camera/lens manufacturer or an outside source, will allow most lenses to focus closer (giving you more magnification) and still maintain the auto-exposure features of the camera and lens. Some very interesting close-ups can be done with wide-angle lenses and a small extension tube (no more than 12mm), but that’s a long story for another column. For some of the techniques I use, it’s advantageous to have a tripod collar on the lens so you can compose the image by rotating the camera and lens combination. Some macro lenses come equipped with the collar, and for others it’s an accessory.
If you’re a Canon user, you’ll want to look into the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x macro lens. This unique lens works from 1x to 5x with excellent sharpness. And don’t forget that 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x tele-extenders are great macro tools that increase your magnification by the power of the extender. With the Canon 65mm macro lens, I can get a sharp 10x image.
Your Home Macro Studio
Indoor spaces typically contain unnatural distractions and backgrounds, so you’ll need to set up a little studio for your work. Nothing large or extravagant is needed. A table or counter space backed with poster board or a mini sweep using roll paper will work. Even better is the kind of tri-fold card often used for school science projects, providing a neutral black or white background where light can be controlled. These materials are inexpensive and available at office and art supply stores.
You’ll need to hold the camera steady at higher magnifications and fine-tune its position. One of my favorite setups is a short tripod with a Really Right Stuff ballhead and a multi-purpose rail to adjust the camera/lens up and down or forward and backward.
Accessories to position your subjects include small clamps and adjustable hobby bases. Those designed for holding small objects for soldering, such as the Helping Hands Third Hand Soldering Station, are good examples at a cost of around $20 and up. For larger subjects, such as a long flower stem, I use the Plamp II, which is available from Wimberley (tripodhead.com). You’ll find many uses for the Plamp when you’re working outside, too.
Lighting For Close-Ups
With these subjects, it’s all about the light. (Ever heard that before?) Thinly sliced specimens need strong light from behind, and shiny crystals look best with cross-polarized light to eliminate the many reflections.
But we’re working small, so no expensive large studio lights are needed. You can use your hot shoe camera flashes, usually off-camera and diffused to cut back the power or soften hard shadows. Most of the camera manufacturers and some accessory providers offer macro multi-flash systems. I have generally preferred smaller macro flashes over larger hot-shoe versions. More recently, I’ve chosen LED constant lighting because in some cases flash isn’t an option. For example, in-camera focus bracketing requires a continuous light source, which also enables you to preview the effects of your lighting setup.
I’ve been experimenting with inexpensive LED photo lights and LED book lights for some time. Most use batteries or are rechargeable, which makes them mobile. All offer color rendition close to daylight, and photographing in RAW gives you the option to tweak the color temp in post process. Lately, I’ve been using Lume Cubes for a lot of my flower setups (lumecube.com). These are intense, small (3.5 ounces, 1.5 inches square) cubes with 10 power light settings and a number of accessories (diffusers, snoots, barn doors and filter holders) to put the light where you want it, and there’s a ¼-20 thread in the cube’s base to attach them to small ballheads. They last about 20 minutes at full power to 45 minutes at 80 percent, and two hours at 50 percent. Recharge time is 45 minutes to an hour. It’s a mobile light studio in a small case. One caveat is that they get pretty hot if left on for a long period of time while you set up, focus and shoot a series of focus brackets.
Another technique that will give you many hours of creative photography is to arrange a few simple subjects, take a series of rotating captures, and composite them into a final image that shows complexity and symmetry. Have I piqued your interest? The capture and composition process is detailed in an article I co-wrote or Digital Photo with fellow creative photographer Ron Palmere, Creative Capture For Clever Composites. Give this technique a try.