Macro Everywhere

No matter what the weather, the light or the location, you always can get into the close-up world and find "the picture"
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Macro Everywhere
A native bee works a sunflower, Los Angeles, California. Canon EOS 20D, Tamron 90mm macro

Macro photography is an exciting endeavor‚ it's an entry into a world that's unseen by most people, who move blithely past the explosion of life all around us because it comes in such small packages. Photographers who find and capture that life in a picture immediately can show off images that will surprise and delight the average person just because the subject matter is largely unseen.

The best part of close-up photography, though, is that it’s possible any place, any time, any season. There always are bits of nature that can be photographed‚ a weed patch offers amazing colors and forms, a rock outcropping in close focus shows off abstract patterns that could hang in the Museum of Modern Art, a frosty window in the depth of winter brings close-up delight to cabin-fevered northerners and a night-weaving orb weaver spider offers opportunities to test your flash technique while observing a true wonder of nature.

Close-up photography is easier than ever. Even the least expensive of digital cameras has a close-up setting (even if most users never use it), plus macro lenses are affordable, and almost every zoom lens has close-focusing settings.

Focus Rules Change
Macro photography has some aspects that work differently than distant photography. The first thing that changes is focus. Perfect focus is critical up close, and the closer you get, the more this is true. If you photograph a mountain, your actual focus point is basically far away and little else matters. Focus on a grasshopper up close, and if you miss focus by a fraction of an inch, the photo ends up in the trash bin.

Focus on the stamens of a flower and miss the tips, and the photograph looks like a mistake.

We’re talking small fractions of an inch. When you’re at true macro distances, where a tiny subject is filling the viewfinder, even a tiny puff of air can knock the subject out of focus in the time it takes between getting focus and pressing the shutter. Here are some tips to follow.

1 Take your camera off autofocus (AF). AF is a tremendous technological achievement and serves us photographers well‚ except for close-ups. AF often finds the wrong thing to focus on when you’re up close. It can be used as an aid though by using it to lock focus when you press your shutter halfway.

2 Move your camera to focus. Once you’ve focused (either manually or locked AF), move your camera back and forth, to and from the subject, to get the optimum focus point. You have to be careful here, obviously, because it can cause enough camera movement to make your photo blurry. A macro focusing rail can help you move your camera into focus when using a tripod.
3 Choose your focus point carefully. As you move the camera, watch what goes in and out of focus. Each shift in sharpness usually changes the photo dramatically. It even can help to take multiple exposures to ensure you get something focused right.

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Macro Everywhere
Bluebells gain a nice contrast against a soft background with the use of selective focus, outside Anchorage, Alaska.Sony DSLR-A100, Sony 100mm macro

Depth of field also is a challenge up close‚ the amount of sharpness in depth becomes shallow, shallower and even more shallow. So why not just stop your lens down to a small ƒ-stop to get the most depth of field possible? Most lenses have what‚’s called a diffraction effect that affects sharpness up close. Small lens openings diffract light, making sharp areas less sharp. As you get to macro distances, ƒ/16 or ƒ/22 can drop image quality significantly on most lenses except for macros (which still may show the effect). So using very small ƒ-stops for more depth of field may not be an option. Basically, you often have to live with a certain amount of unsharpness in close-ups. Here’s how to handle this:

1 Be sure of your focus. Since depth of field is very narrow, you must be sure you have it where you want it.

2 Work the contrast. It can be interesting photographically to contrast your in-focus subject with a distinctly out-of-focus background.

3 Be sure that what should be sharp is sharp. That means using higher shutter speeds, higher ISO settings or electronic flash.

Light Rules Change

Light doesn’t change up close, but how you handle it definitely does. Close-ups deal with very small areas, obviously, but if you think about that, this means you can easily change the light on those areas. The only way to change the light on a mountain is to shoot at a different time. The good news is that you don’t have to accept the light on your subject as is if that light causes you problems. First, you can almost always move your position or change the angle of the light on your subject, changing it quickly from front to side to backlight. Next, you usually can shift your position enough to gain a new contrast in the background from the light.

If those steps don’t do enough, modify the light. Block the sun completely by creating shade on your subject or background. Shade can be a much nicer light on many subjects. You also can use a diffuser between the light and your subject‚ anything from a white shower curtain (cut to fit your bag) to small diffusers made specifically for this purpose. Diffused light is effective for many types of close-ups.

Macro Everywhere
Hawkweed, near Two Harbors, Minnesota. This perennial only opens during midday when the sun is out. The image was deliberately shot through other flowers with a telephoto at a wide ƒ-stop in order to gain the soft color. Olympus E-330, Olympus Digital Zuiko 50-200mm

You also can try adding your own light. This can be as simple as using a reflector to redirect sunlight onto your subject. In any situation, adding light may mean using a portable flash. Flash is a controllable light, meaning you can put it anywhere with the right cords and accessories, making it front, side or backlight in an instant. It also can be diffused or reflected to change the quality of the light.

Flash is consistent. Once you set up a close-up flash system, you can count on it delivering the same results again and again. This can be a great advantage for certain subjects, especially insects that are constantly moving. On the other hand, that consistency can be a problem when photos taken with a flash system look monotonously the same, photo after photo. This can be avoided with systems that allow you to change the position of the flash or flash heads.

Flash has some disadvantages, though. The light isn’t natural, which means the existing light conditions, good or bad, are lost. Flash also falls off quickly, so that a close-up subject can be perfect in exposure, but the background is dead black. Finally, flash systems can be heavy, bulky and awkward to handle in the field, especially if they unbalance the camera.

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Macro Everywhere
This yellow hop clover in North Carolina was shot with a telephoto lens (400mm equivalent), plus an achromatic close-up lens, to keep the ugly background from showing Olympus E-330, Olympus Digital Zuiko 50-200mm, plus achromatic close-up lens.

Macro photography offers many possibilities, and there are many great techniques for getting better pictures. Here are some tips for better close-ups.

1 Try a beanbag. This is great way to support a camera when you need to get it low, such as photographing moss on the ground. You can get small ones that easily fit your camera bag.

2 Close-up seeing. Many years ago, I attended a workshop with the great photographer Ernst Haas.
He gave us a tremendous exercise to better see the photo possibilities around us. Go to a spot of nature, from a garden to an empty lot to a park, and arbitrarily choose a small area (20x20 feet is good). Then spend an hour there finding close-ups. Most people get bored after 10 minutes, but then they’re forced to look for images—and then find that, in reality, one hour just gets them started.

3 Use a round-the-lens reflector. Take a piece of white cardboard and cut a hole exactly the size of your lens. Put this over your lens and use it for shooting backlit close-ups. You also can buy reflectors that do this more conveniently.

Macro Everywhere
Where you focus is critical with macro work, as you can see in this image of a skipper on a native sunflower in Los Angeles, California. Canon PowerShot G4, achromatic close-up lens

4 Use a waist-level finder. You can purchase a waist-level finder for most SLRs (film or digital) that allows you to get your camera lower to the ground without having to smash your face into the soil. Another option is to use a digital SLR with a swivel LCD.

5 Temper your built-in flash. To use a built-in camera flash
(on any camera that has one) for close-ups, you need to temper it. Few cameras are set up to give a good exposure for flash when used at very close-focusing distances, plus the flash itself may be aimed poorly for such use. Put any kind of diffusing material over the flash to cut its light and make the light better for close-ups.

6 Use continuous shooting for better focus. As your subject moves because of wind, you may find it difficult to get the precise focus you need. This is the time to put your camera on continuous shooting and just hold the shutter down for a burst of shots as you work to find focus. You almost always will find that at least one of these shots will be perfectly focused.

But the most useful tip of all is to grab your camera and get outside. Set your focus as close as it will go and start looking for pictures. You’ll be surprised at all the subjects you can find almost anywhere you look.

Rob Sheppard is an avid macro shooter. You can get more macro tips from his book, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography. Visit his website at

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