The wild flowers are blooming lively in the prairie, and I’m turning the focusing ring on my camera, moving closer and closer to the colorful display. As I get close enough for a single flower to fill the viewfinder, my lens reveals an intricate beauty that can’t be seen from a distance. By moving into this “macro” zone, a simple flower has become a work of art.
When I do macro photography, my eyes are constantly searching for a tiny creature or a simple composition that is not apparent from a broader view. I must slow down and be still while maintaining my focus on the subject. I also need artistry and creativity to portray the subject beyond a single dimension. For example, the closer I get to the subject, the more I really have to look for a central point of focus. I can then use my aperture (f/stop) to adjust depth of field and control the emotional impact of the photograph. With a wide-open aperture, everything around the edges of the image will become soft with only the central point of the image remaining in focus. A higher f/stop number will yield much more depth of field and therefore everything becomes in focus. In this manner, I can create, from the same subject, two images with very different visual impacts.
To give close-up photography a try, start by finding the central point of the subject you want to focus on (the eyes of an insect, for example) and start moving closer until the subject begins to fill the whole frame. You will notice that everything surrounding the subject will become soft and out of focus. Using a flash will help highlight the detail of the subject, fill in the shadows, and add contrast to the image. A tripod will give you a sharper image while allowing you to fine-tune the composition. Overcast skies are usually better than a bright sunny day, because you have a more neutralized tone and less harsh shadow being cast on the subject. This allows the image to be more saturated and richer color.
To take full advantage of macro photography, you will need a specialized macro lens that will allow you to focus the subject to its life size (1:1 ratio). Special accessories, such as a close-up filter or extension tubes can also be employed to achieve macro results. Many point-and-shoot digital cameras on the market these days also have a macro feature that will focus as close as a specialized macro lens.
The next time you are in your garden, at a nearby park, or hiking a wilderness area, take time to notice the small details around you. Can you see the hidden beauty of small insects, butterflies, or interesting shapes and patterns that are only revealed when you get close? Macro photography can be challenging. But it is a rewarding technique that can raise your photography to a new level. If you have enough patience and creativity, you will be surprised to find yourself seeing things you hadn’t seen before. And, by learning to effectively photograph these small details, you can share this experience with others.
To accentuate the beauty of this bright plains coreopsis, I decided to use a macro lens because it can magnify a subject to its life size and capture much more detail than human eyes can see. I then focused on the closest stamen of the flower and controlled the depth of field manually.
100mm f/2.8 lens — f/2.8 1/160 sec — ISO 800
A macro lens, or any close-up lens, has a very shallow depth of field. So you need to decide first where you want the center of your focus to be. For this columbine, I decided to focus right at the tip of the stamen (anther filament) and keep the composition as simple as possible. The sky was overcast, which is always helpful to bring out the best color of the flower.
100mm f/2.8 lens — f/2.8 1/640 sec — ISO 500
Midsummer can be an exciting time for any insect-seeker. My wandering eyes paid off big time when I found this giant ichneumons preparing to deposit her eggs inside a tree’s bark. When mature, they will chew their way out and begin life as an adult. With a constant-moving subject such as an insect, it is a good idea to use auto-focus to help you continue to focus as you move closer to the subject.
100mm f/2.8 lens — f/2.8 1/160 sec — ISO 800
Purple poppy mallow
Macro photography allows photographers to create works of art, for which they use their camera and lens like a paintbrush. Thus, it requires vision and creativity. For this purple poppy mallow, I wanted to create a blurry, dreamy look like a watercolor painting. I focused on the front petal of the flower and selected a shallow depth of field.
180mm f/3.5 lens — f/4.5 1/200 sec — ISO 800
Common scouring rush
Common scouring rush can be found along creeks in patches. They consist of a single central stem with multiple overlapping joints. When you see a busy subject such as this, the first thing you have to do is isolate and find a good composition. I was able to isolate just a couple of leaves that made a simple but elegant composition.
180mm f/3.5 lens — f/5.6 1/15 sec — ISO 200
One rainy afternoon, I found this big bluestem covered with raindrops. In spite of rain constantly dropping on the leaf, I decided to give photographing it a try. I kept my focus on the raindrop and let everything else get blurry. When using a macro lens, a sturdy tripod is a must to obtain maximum sharpness of the image.
180mm f/3.5 lens — f/11.0 1/15 sec — ISO 200
Spotted cucumber beetle
One evening I found this spotted cucumber beetle crawling on a black-eyed susan. I focused my attention to the beetle, placing my camera directly on the top. The petal in the background simply added more color to the image.
100mm f/2/8 lens — f/2.8 1/400 sec — ISO 400
My main focus in this image was the grasshopper rather than the foxtail grass. With a sunset low on the horizon, the grass closer to my lens became abstract and translucent. This is one of the unique features a macro lens can offer. I often call it an abstract lens.
100mm f/2.8 lens — f/2.8 1/160 sec — ISO 400