Macro photography provides a challenging photographic experience, and the opportunity to capture a portion of the world so rarely observed. Too often, however, new shooters are put off by images of complex, expensive setups featuring several flashes, and lenses costing the same as your average used car. My goal for the past year has been to show that these setups are not requisite for stunning macro images. Indeed, a strong image requires more creativity, more an appreciation of the subject, than it does a deep wallet.
Wanting to get up close and personal with a fly or spider is only half the battle. To do so, you need the gear.
Often overlooked by new macro shooters are the benefits brought through the use of lens reversal rings and extension tubes. Both options provide a way for anyone to enjoy the macro world when used in concert with a cheap lens. I prefer using a 50mm prime lens for its low number of elements and general sharpness. Others have written much on the pro’s and con’s of using extension tubes versus a reversal adapter, and deciding which option suits you best should be an informed decision. If you don’t have a lens with a manual aperture ring, you should also look up how to “trick” the lens into staying at a specific f-stop when removed from the camera body. For Canon users, this is frequently called the “DOF Preview Trick.”
For several reasons, I prefer old-fashioned extension tubes. “Tubes” are notorious for their light-falloff. Most consider this loss of light a detriment, but I prefer it when supplementing with an inexpensive speedlight. Together, the two pieces of gear provide me with complete control over each and every bit of light reaching my sensor, and in that, a great degree of creative freedom. Backgrounds can be made pitch black by limiting flash to just the subject, or you can bring out beautifully vibrant background colors by spreading the light lovin’ around a tad and perhaps bumping your ISO.
You don’t need a tripod. You don’t need expensive lenses. You certainly don’t need expensive flashes.
What’s the best part of shooting macro? Well, if you enjoy insects or spiders, then you will never run out of subjects. Simply put, the critters are everywhere. If you don’t enjoy insects, I’d advise you to step outside of your comfort zone, just for a few hours, and take the following advice to heart. As someone who suffered from arachnophobia since childhood, I can tell you that you will never view these wondrous creatures the same once you simply get to know their world.
Every time I post a photo online, or show a friend during a casual study break, I get the same question. “How do you get so close?” I always reply the same way.
Nothing is more important when photographing denizens of the small worlds within our own than to recognize that their lives happen at a different pace. As a student studying Ecology at UC Davis, I’m trained not to anthropomorphize, but I simply can’t help it. The small creatures we enjoy photographing lead fantastically complicated lives, and if you want to get close enough to take a photo, you need to appreciate that. This is especially true with extension tubes, where your working distance is usually somewhere on the order of 1-2cm from the front element of the lens.
Take the time to get to know your subject’s life history. Do a Google search, read a book, or simply spend time in the field observing. I’ve found nothing to be more helpful in getting close than the last of these. Spending half an hour watching a single subject, camera still in bag, is nothing short of the norm. Several of my best images have resulted from sitting beside a single flower for upwards of three hours, watching as various insects come and go. The intuition these observations nurture will help ensure that you get out what you put in.
Tiny World, Big Perspective
In my experience, insects and spiders, especially spiders, are something most people are taught to dislike. Folks get the creeps; get genuinely uncomfortable, at the idea of most insects crawling on them. So when first entering macro photography I wondered, how can I fix that? How does a viewer build a connection to a subject, and how can I bring that to my macro work? The answer was simple: Portraits.
I am a firm believer that the old notion of eyes being a window into the soul doesn’t end at arthropods. So, I’ve pursued my subjects with just that in mind, sometimes obsessively so. If I want viewers to build a connection with an insect, I have to not only bring them down to the level of a spider, or hoverfly, but also provide them with a point through which the two can connect.
Somewhat biased, this is where I’ll mention what I believe to be the most important aspect of making great macro photographs. If you don’t get down on the level of your subjects (literally), if you don’t provide the viewer with a point of connection, they will never look at your beloved critters with anything more than mild curiosity.
So you have what you need to go out and shoot. You have the gear, and you have the concept that macro work requires a great deal of patience and appreciation. Now all you need is to simply go out and shoot. Aim for the warmer portions of the day. Look under rocks, watch flowers. Take your time, and realize the beautiful complexity of what goes on around you. With a little bit of luck, you’ll get to enjoy the curious company of a jumping spider, or perhaps the flighty gaze of a Hover Fly.
Austin Greene is a fourth-year majoring in Ecology at UC Davis. In his second year of enjoying photography, he hopes to bring viewers new and intimate perspectives on the unique nature of the biological world.