Soft And Beautiful Macro

Take a different approach to creating outstanding close-ups

Summer Shooting Tips: Soft And Beautiful MacroComposing close-up photographs for the first time is like discovering a new world. By magnifying the fine details of nature's most amazing creations, our eyes awaken to the splendor of the world around us. Yet it takes more than a macro lens or a close-up filter to create an exceptional close-up photograph. The "new world" of macrophotography requires a different way of seeing, especially when done through the camera. Here are some techniques I've discovered for creating some unusual and exciting close-up photographs.

Starting Simply: A Close-Up Filter Macrophotography is challenging, especially when using medium or large format, and I was looking for a method to get closer to the subject. Prior to this experiment, I had avoided single-element close-up filters because their quality doesn't match that of extension tubes, multi-element filters or macro lenses. But I knew I'd be spending a lot of time with flowers on a specific trip and I wanted to try something new. I added a +3 close-up filter to my bag.

Looking through the viewfinder of my Mamiya RZ, there appeared to be an alien world on the other side of the lens. With the +3 close-up filter attached to a 250mm lens, nothing looked sharp and the edges looked distorted. I tried focusing, but with no success. I tried a different angle and then a different subject. Finally, an appealing composition started to come together.

As I've always done with macro subjects, I used the lens' depth-of-field preview to fine-tune the focus and composition, but this time the pleasing composition disappeared. I figured stopping down wasn't the way to go and I photographed this particular Texas bluebonnet with the lens wide open. I was concerned how this would look on the light table since there would be virtually no depth of field and close-up filters need to be stopped down to be even somewhat sharp.


Maybe out of frustration, I started rotating the camera right and left, and tilting it up and down. Suddenly, another composition caught my eye; it was soft, distorted and not focused. I released the shutter and the game began. Moving the tripod only a few inches, I started looking for the next "fuzzy flower" composition. I spent the rest of the morning moving the tripod a few inches one way and then another, looking through the viewfinder as if looking into a bizarre forest of color.

Shooting Softly
Soft macro compositions are exceedingly difficult to previsualize since they don't resemble reality. Yet exploring through the lens has continued to be my favorite approach to finding these images.

One technique that can yield interesting results (and at other times poor results) is photographing through foreground objects. I'll choose a portion of a flower as a subject that's partially obscured by other leaves and blossoms. Since the lens is left at a wide aperture, the plant parts between the lens and the subject remain so out of focus that they appear as a translucent frame. This method doesn't always work, attesting that every photographic situation is different. Still, the successes more than make up for the failures.

One technique that can yield interesting results (and at other times poor results) is photographing through foreground objects. I'll choose a portion of a flower as a subject that's partially obscured by other leaves and blossoms. Since the lens is left at a wide aperture, the plant parts between the lens and the subject remain so out of focus that they appear as a translucent frame. This method doesn't always work, attesting that every photographic situation is different. Still, the successes more than make up for the failures.

Several factors determine how soft or how sharp the photo will be. First among these is the focal length of the lens. While a close-up filter on a standard lens (45-55mm in 35mm, 80-110mm in medium format) will create a reasonably sharp image, even at large apertures, the same filter on a telephoto lens will produce beautifully soft images. My favorite combination of lenses and filters to use are a +3 filter on a 35mm lens. If using a digital SLR with a lens-magnification factor, 1.5x, for example, I'd probably still use the 70-200mm lens, but without the teleconverter and start with either a +3 or +4 filter.

The second factor in determining sharpness is the strength of the close-up filter. All other things remaining constant, a stronger filter will make a softer photograph (a +4 filter will be softer than a +1 filter).


The third factor is aperture. Although I usually leave the aperture near wide open, when using a combination of filters,
I sometimes close down a little to reduce the softness. The photo will be soft when using a +4 or stronger filter on a long telephoto, even with the lens stopped down to ƒ/16. Experimenting is best and the depth-of-field preview feature gives a good indication of how the photo will look. If you're shooting digital, you can evaluate the image on the camera's LCD.

The fourth factor is the focal point selected. Changing focus can change the composition significantly, and there are times when simply nothing appears to come into focus. One method I use is to stop down the lens to ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 and then focus with the depth-of-field preview button depressed. Another useful method is to move the tripod slightly ahead and back while looking through the viewfinder.

Handling Motion And Light
When applying macrophotography in a traditional way, even the slightest breeze can cause big problems, but subject movement is less of a problem with this method. Since large aperture settings are the norm, corresponding shutter speeds are regularly fast enough to stop a little motion. Besides, nothing is actually sharp in the photo anyway, so what's a little blur going to hurt?

I still favor soft, diffused light with this technique, but some sunlight can add interest. Direct sunlight shining on droplets of morning dew often makes glittering starbursts while sidelight can give a feeling of sunny brightness.

For me, this style of photography is more about photographing concepts, feelings and shapes than about photographing flowers, petals and leaves. Technical perfection means little, while communicating in a way that reaches others is paramount.

Essential Gear...
Close-up filters are an easy, inexpensive way of entering the world of macro-photography. Available in strengths of +1, +2, +3, +4 or higher, these filters attach to the filter ring of your lens. They offer moderate image quality when the lens is stopped down, although you'll get the soft, dreamy effects Clint Farlinger describes when the lens is wide-open.

 

 

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