Mastering the art of macro and close-up photography in nature takes time and patience, but knowing the when, where and how of the art will increase your chances of finding fascinating subjects and creating successful images. For photographers who are limited on time and budget for traveling, close-up photography offers unlimited opportunities near home—or even at home. I have four parks within 20 minutes of my home with an abundance of great subjects, and my backyard has been designed with flowers and plants that attract live subjects like butterflies, dragonflies and other small critters. The cost includes just a little gas, park passes and resource books to identify the flowers, plants and bugs you have selected to photograph.
Throughout the four seasons, the life cycles of the flowers, plants and insects vary from month to month, and even by days with some subjects. Part of the fun of close-up work is not only photographing subjects but also learning about the ever-changing environments and subjects that we seek out. When not out shooting, we can be researching and learning about nature within our geographic area, which expands the fun of photography.
Our time as photographers is limited by work schedules and family activities, making it a challenge to find time to shoot. As a close-up photographer, you have the advantage of being able to photograph at any time of the day. Unlike landscape and wildlife photographers, who are often restricted to the ideal light of early morning and late afternoon, macro photographers can effectively control the available light at any time of day with diffusers and reflectors.
When To Shoot Macro
With the constantly changing environment each month throughout the year, we have an amazing variety of subjects to photograph. The tiny landscapes of the macro world are shifting by the minute, and knowing when to be in the field at the right time is key to your success. Springtime brings us woodland wildflowers, and open fields produce the taller summer and fall flowers. Some wildflowers will bloom for long periods of time, while others bloom for only a few days or at certain hours of the day.
Books about the life cycles of the wildflowers, plants and insects of your region will provide information regarding nature’s timetables to help you be in the field at the right times. There are many online resources, and local nature centers that have websites will also have helpful information. Or contact your local nature center, where the naturalist on staff will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.
The seasonal cycles of the wildflowers, plants and insects will vary by region throughout the country. For example, in my state of Michigan, the transition of the fall colors of leaves progresses in sequence from the upper peninsula to the northern lower peninsula, followed by the southern lower peninsula. Network with local nature photographers who may be able to help with timeframes for subjects in your area.
At daybreak of cool summer mornings, for example, with temps in the upper 40s to low 50s, dragonflies and butterflies will be frozen in place as the cold lowers their body temperatures, preventing them from flying away as you approach and set up your tripod to shoot. Just find a field in the daytime where lots of these critters are flying around, and check out those same fields on cool mornings and search them out in the tall grasses.
In my northern region, the month of December will start to produce ice formation at the edge of small streams in the woods, creating amazing abstract patterns in the ice, and as the ice thickens, the patterns are lost as the ice turns a solid white. Taking the time to learn the timetables of the natural world near you will increase the frequency of success.
Where To Shoot Macro
Learning where to shoot is as important as learning when to shoot. I travel a lot with my photography business and almost everywhere I go, I’m able to find a local park, nature center or botanical garden in which to shoot. Wherever you live, there should be places you can shoot. If you are not aware of places close to you, just do a Google search for parks, nature centers and botanical gardens near your location.
The best way to learn where to find subjects is just to get out once or twice a week and explore the local forest and fields. Keeping detailed notes about where interesting subjects were found will prove to be an important and useful resource for future shoots in the years to come. I’ve learned about the varied environments in my area, and each month I know what subjects are emerging and in what locations.
I also search beaches for feathers, shells and sand patterns created by wind. Swamps have unique plant life, and ponds attract wildlife like frogs, turtles and dragonflies. Open fields are where you find lots of insects for macro work. Flowers can be found in both woodland areas and open fields. If you are lucky enough to have a botanical garden near you, they generally offer a wide variety of flowers and plant life from different ecosystems. Some botanical gardens have a greenhouse allowing you to shoot in all weather, and some will have both indoor and outdoor areas.
How To Shoot Macro
Macro and close-up photography is much different than other forms of nature photography, because subjects can be within inches of our cameras. Any digital interchangeable lens camera will work fine for macro photography. My most successful image that I have produced was shot with a Fujifilm S2—a 6-megapixel camera—back in 2004, which was generations ago in the digital age.
Matching the right macro lens with the subjects you plan to shoot is very important. True macro lenses come in fixed focal length and have a 1:1 magnification ratio that, when shooting at the minimum focusing distance, you can reproduce the life size of the subject you are shooting onto your camera’s sensor. The most popular macro lens focal lengths run from 60mm up to 180mm. The lightweight and compact size of a 60mm lens makes it good for handheld shots and when shooting stationary subjects, but because this lens has a short working distance—meaning you must get close to your subject—it is not a good choice for shooting live subjects that may flee as you move in.
A mid-range focal length lens of 90mm like the one I use is a good all-purpose lens that will handle most macro photography situations. It does a great job blurring backgrounds for my flower and bug portraits. For the long-range telephoto macro lenses, the most popular is the 180mm lens. This lens gives you the most working distance between you and your subject, and is best for shooting live subjects and reaching out farther to capture subjects at a distance.
In the past few years, lens manufacturers have been producing wide-range zoom lenses with close-up capabilities. I use a Tamron 16-300mm, which gives me a wide-angle 16mm if I want to show the environment in which I’m shooting, and a 300mm telephoto range for reaching out and capturing a frog in a pond or ice abstracts at the edge of a stream. These lenses are not true 1:1 macro lenses, but they are getting closer with each generation; the Tamron 16-300mm, for example, is a 1:2.7, which will photograph an area as small as 1.5x2.5 inches, covering 90 percent of what I shoot as a close-up photographer.
When I ask macro photographers what are they struggling with, the answer is always depth of field, or how much of the subject will be in focus. Deciding what aperture to choose for the right amount of focus within the subject is always a challenge to new macro photographers. For subjects where everything in the composition is interesting and every part of the image is worthy of full focused details, I set my aperture in the range of ƒ/22 to ƒ/32. The majority of my portfolio’s images are shot in this style. If I have a subject where I only want a small portion in focus and a nice soft focus on the rest of the subject and blurred into the background, I will use apertures in the ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/8 range.
To gain confidence with how much depth of field affects the focus in an image, shoot one subject at all apertures of your lens, and then analyze how each aperture changes the amount of focus. Confusion regarding the relationship between depth of field and apertures is reduced by remembering that the larger the ƒ-stop number, the larger the amount of focus in the subject, while the smaller the number, the smaller the amount of focus.
Having control of your aperture is the most important part of macro and close-up photography. You can set your aperture using your camera’s manual mode or aperture priority mode. If you shoot in manual mode, you will also have to choose your shutter speed, but if you are not comfortable setting your shutter speed manually, aperture priority will set the shutter speed for you. Either way works fine, but make sure you are the one setting the aperture and not letting the camera choose.
With macro, we are shooting at a high magnification, so a steady camera is critical for sharp images. I always use a tripod. I do know some macro photographers who hand hold their cameras when they shoot, but I’m not steady enough to hand hold. As far as lighting, I never use a flash system, and 95 percent my images have been shot with natural available light, but I have on a rare occasion used a small LED light for a little fill.