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Our chief photographer shares his insights.

Macro Photography

By Earl Nottingham

Tricks for capturing tiny treasures such as butterflies and flower petals.

Looking at nature close-up gives us an opportunity to ponder its delicate details — little masterpieces of symmetry and beauty that are often overlooked by photographers in search of the grander landscape. Macro photography lets us see a whole new world of tiny creations, each an artistic composition in its own way. With a little patience and some of the great camera optics available on today’s point-and-shoot and SLR cameras, getting great macro images has never been easier.

Sometimes called close-up photography, macro photography simply means that an object is the same size (or larger) on a piece of film as it is in real life. Thus, if a bug is one-inch long, it will reproduce as one-inch on film. There are several ways to magnify objects to a 1:1, or greater, reproduction. Most often, magnification is increased by simply moving the lens further away from the film plane. Most macro lenses have longer barrels that allow additional travel space for the lens. This is referred to as “bellows-extension” and can also be achieved by using extension tubes stacked between any normal lens and the camera body. Also available are close-up filters that attach to the front of a lens. These filters are available in several magnifications (diopters) and can be stacked for maximum strength. However, they are generally not recommended because of their potential for increased lens flare and degraded image quality.

Here are some tips for better macro photos:

Aim for sharpness — The number-one problem that seems to pop up with macro photography is an un-sharp image. I’m always amused at the sight of a photographer kneeling excruciatingly, swaying back and forth and trying to maintain focus on a wind-blown flower. A hand-held macro photo is an invitation to disappointment because of the limited depth-of-field and inherent slower shutter speeds. Try instead to stabilize the camera by resting it on the ground, a camera bag, or by any number of tripods and mini-tripods made for that purpose. Also, if your camera allows, use a cable release to minimize vibration. If photographing critters, always focus on the nearest eye. Sharp eyes give a subject a sense of reality and presence.

Get down and dirty — Macro photography is usually a ground-level experience. Try to photograph subjects at eye-level (or petal-level) whenever possible, avoiding the urge to point the camera down. This may involve some contortions on your part but will pay off with that “up close and personal” look. Serious macro buffs will invest in a right-angle finder that allows the camera to be set directly on the ground or support while the photographer looks down into the viewfinder.

Simplify the background — Macro subjects invariably seem to get lost in busy backgrounds such as stems, twigs, leaves, etc. In addition to physically moving in closer and filling the frame with the subject, try “manicuring” the scene by removing distracting objects or by making minute changes to the camera angle. Also, a longer focal length lens will narrow the angle of coverage, eliminating much of the clutter as well as letting you shoot at a further distance from the subject. My favorite macro lens is a 100mm that allows me to shoot at a distance comfortable for both me and subjects that like to jump.

Lighting — Proper lighting on any subject, large or small, is what creates the impression of shape and texture. By using light to our advantage we can bring out important details unique to the subject. For instance, delicate flower petals generally look better when the light is coming from behind them (backlighting) and making them appear to glow with color. If texture is what you want to show, then have your main lighting at about a 90-degree angle to the camera. When backlighting or sidelighting your subject in strong daylight, you may also want to try reflecting a little light into the shadows with nothing more than a small piece of white paper held just out of the frame.

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