Photography is always a matter of perspective. Who’s your subject, and where are you shooting them? What’s the lighting like, and how might that affect the shot? Are you shooting from above or below? Is the subject on the move, or are you moving as you find the right angle on a stationary landscape? And then you can get into the gear-related questions. Are you shooting with a prime lens or from a distance with a telescopic lens? Or is this a live event, and do you need to come prepared to use a few lenses?
“It’s an alien world when you get into the macro level.”
Asking yourself these questions and thinking through the logistics are skills you want to build as a budding photographer. But that need is magnified, literally, when you’re changing your perspective to work on the very small level of macro photography — shooting bugs and other small items that live in a world apart from most photos you’ll shoot. “It’s an alien world when you get into the macro level,” says photographer and teacher Ben Long.
Prepare for a journey into the unknown.
What is macro photography?
Macro photography is all about showcasing a subject larger than it is in real life — an extreme close-up of something small.
A full-frame insect in a five-by-seven-inch photo and a four-inch product shot of a cornflake go well above life-size: both are examples of macro photography. (And while this premise would apply to photos taken through a microscope, that goes beyond the realm of macro into photomicrography, or photos of the microscopic.)
In macro photography, the world you know is gone, and a new one emerges.
“A really great place to start is to work your way through the refrigerator,” Long suggests. “Berries are fascinating when you get in really close. There are really cool textures — they’ve got hair on them. I shot a cornflake at some ridiculous level of magnification, and it looked like either a really gross piece of meat or the surface of Mars.”
As with all photography, exploration is what fuels your ability to understand what you are looking for in your photos. The more you delve into this new, mysterious world, the more you’ll know what you want to document.
Macro photography tips.
First things first, before any macro photography advice will be useful, you’ll need a macro lens. While most lenses shoot at a ratio of 1:2.8 and greater, macro lenses shoot at a 1:1 ratio and can focus only within the macro range of about 12 inches or fewer — essential for the super-sharp focus needed to make the minuscule larger than life.
3. Shed some light on your subject.
Much like detail is amplified in a macro shot, so too are the effects of light and shadow — and these are things you can control in some macro shoots, much to your advantage.
“I used to bring along a tiny, handheld battery-powered light — it was essentially like a flashlight,” wedding photographer Khara Plicanic explains about her practice of employing macro photography to capture artistic shots of newly married couples’ wedding rings. “I like to use that in my ring shots sometimes, just to add some dimension and drama to the scene.”
4. Consider your scene.
Beyond lighting and photo-ruining dust motes, your background is another area to pay attention to. With your focus so dialed in on your tiny subject, it can be easy to forget to check your background.
“I made this little scene with toy dinosaurs and all that,” photographer Jeff Carlson says of a shoot he did. “I was about to send it to my editor, but my wife looked at it and said, ‘There’s no way you’re sending that. There are dirty dishes in the background.’”
He continues, “That’s one of those difficult things that people overlook or need to learn. I would like to say — and I’ve been doing photography for years — this never happens to me, but no, it totally happens.”
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