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Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series on macro photography this week. Look for a new one each day for the next 7 days. The next newsletter will have them all if you miss any!
In the world of macro photography, most of discussions seem to surround the technical aspects of this photographic art form. Amongst my colleagues, lens choice comes up a lot, along with the use of a flash, extension rings, and bellows.
I’d like to switch gears away from the technical, and share some of my tricks to help you creatively enhance your macro shots for added impact and emotive value. If you’re a photographic purist, (not that there is anything wrong with that!) you may not want to keep reading. These tricks provide definite enhancements to the natural environment – so if real is what are shooting for, this article may not be for you.
However, if you are looking to inject more creativity into your macro images, you may appreciate these easy, but high-impact, techniques and tricks.
Most macro shots seem to be of natural subjects, such as; flowers, plants, insects, webs, etc., that live under the blue sky of planet Earth. To enhance the point of view for these kinds of shots, try a using an old blue J-Cloth (it must have been washed many times to work well) as a background. You can drape it across nearby branches or rocks to provide a soft blue background that will make your flowers and spiderwebs pop.
Use a shallow depth of field (f/2.8 or less, depending on your lens) and keep the background at least 12 inches from your subject for best results. I use a Sigma 105mm for my macro work, and these settings work well for this lens. You may need to experiment a bit with your lens and subject.
I like J-Cloths because I always have one handy at home, to grab and put in my pocket when I go on spontaneous photo walks and drives, and it fits easily in my camera bag or my pocket. An old well-washed J-Cloth is the perfect shade of blue for my type of macro art. Newer ones that are out of the box, or that haven’t been used, are okay too but I find the blue is a little too dark. But try one for yourself and see which you prefer.
If you really want to get really creative, go for big bokeh, those soft round(ish) blurred shapes in the background. I like the following technique because it emulates tiny light sources and adds a bit of mystery to your photos. Using this technique, you can create ethereal micro landscapes that look like they are from another planet!
Again this involves using a background material, in this case holiday wrapping paper. Look for plastic foil with a metallic coating. It costs a bit more than paper but it works great for creating macro bokeh, and you’ll have lots left over for actually wrapping gifts (of your amazing macro photos).
First crinkle the wrapping paper – scrunch it into a ball. If it’s the plastic type it will instantly “un-ball” itself, and you’ll have a wrinkled many faceted metallic backdrop. With this set up, you may also need a light source to bounce off the reflective metallic wrap, depending on where the sun is when you’re shooting. If I need light I usually use my iPhone flashlight, but if you have any other flashlight in your gadget bag it will work just as well. Just aim your light at about a 45 degree angle to the background, out of view of your subject, compose, use Live View if you have it, and your preview button to check the depth of field and bokeh effect. Adjust as needed. Make sure you have no big hot spots of light. Try using different colors of wrap as well. I always keep this gold colored stuff in my bag because I also use it as a reflector – which brings me to trick number three.
Just as in regular photography, there are times when you’ll need some additional brightness to light up parts of your macro subject. Once you’re up close and personal, you’ll often find shadows you didn’t see from your higher vantage point. In macro photography you may find a flash is often too much light, and the close quarters between your camera and the subject make soft lighting tricky. So try using a reflector.
I often use the gold side of the wrapping paper to reflect sunlight into shadows or dark spaces in my subject. I also have (but seem to have misplaced) a 12″ square of copper foil sheeting (you can find this in craft shops or stained glass shops). It’s thicker than aluminum foil so it stands up on its own, and can be bent into angles to suit your needs each time. The copper color gives a nice warm tone to your subject, and again it’s light weight, cheap, and tucks nicely into your bag. I duct taped the edges to avoid getting cut – copper edges are sharp!
Nature photographers either love or hate these last two tricks.
There’s nothing more crushing than getting up at 4:30 am in the summer to capture the sunrise and the morning dew, only to arrive at your destination to find things dry as a bone. Fear not Grasshopper. With your handy spray bottle of water, you can create dew drops for spiderwebs, leaves, flowers, and everything else you choose to photograph.
With a good soaking of water from your bottle, colors become more rich and saturated (is this where the term came from?), making for more vibrant and rich-looking photos.
Finally, if you need large drops, drips, or tears, nothing beats glycerine and an eye dropper.
Glycerine is thick and viscous, and stays on your leaves and petals giving you a longer time to compose and shoot. The drips are syrupy and seem to stretch slower, so again you have more time to shoot. I don’t use glycerine in the natural environment though, only in my indoor macro studio. If you need thick drops for work in nature use white corn syrup, and use it sparingly. It’s super sweet and you don’t want the critters getting addicted.
To keep in your bag for your macro photography:
I’d love to know what other creative macro shots you can take using some or all of these tools and techniques. How do you feel about enhancing the environment for your macro shots?
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