All the pictures here were taken using the equipment and techniques described here.
It has taken me a couple of dedicated years to sift the gold from the muck with regard to getting macro images that I can say are as good as I can get – for now, there is a lot of misinformation about. And it’s a never ending evolution, old ways and perceptions fade as new emerge and the work to assimilate and realise them is done. This is the fruits of that effort.
There are basic principles and practices to getting this quality imagery and I endeavour to outline them here. These principles and practices can be applied whatever the equipment and I believe anyone who applies them can get equivalent images. But it won’t happen without practice, as with anything worthwhile, that’s the beauty of it. I give nothing away that you don’t have to work for, and some things only become apparent with experience.
I trust you enjoy this rendering of the art of Nature Macro as I do.
First of all I’ll tell you why I do it, insect and flower macro. For contact with the simple wonder of the usually unseen or overlooked beauty of form and colour at our feet. It reminds me I am a part of something great and vast that has at its foundation the mystery of creation and the inscrutable intelligence behind its infinitely variable design. And because, fundamentally, it is a pleasure.
The practical value for me in macro nature photography is in the time I spend in the nature looking closely at the fact or being in the sense of things with minimal mind work – thinking. The more time I spend in the sense of nature the more at ease I am. It’s that simple.
In my experience; if you want peace of mind fill it with the Sense of Nature.
Ok. The whole process. Since I am often asked about one part or other of how I get the shots I do, here and there – at different fora, it makes sense to put it all together in one place. Just remember, I am self taught and I don’t get into the numbers much, just the picture. And what I say is not dogma, it’s just what works for me.
I’ll keep it as simple as I can and I’ll answer any questions through the comment facility on this page, below.
Can you hear me back there?
A question already sir?
First of all, for the benefit of anyone starting in insect macro, there is no shot if the creature doesn’t show up. Nature is in charge, even with the creatures that show up at the house. And nothing shows if I am not present to see it. Which means getting out in nature, a lot. 100% of my shots are of live creatures, 95% are from the ‘wild’, 5% show up at (or in) the house and may be brought in for a few shots on a leaf or flower and fed some water and honey before being released where found – or better. I may move the creature around but that’s it. I never gas, cool, freeze, impale or otherwise kill or injure anything for a shot – I don’t see the need.
When I’m in nature (or not) my approach is simple, I let the creature show itself. This means I have to be still, inside and out, or I won’t notice the often tiny movement or flash of colour or contrast that indicates something live and unusual. Still inside comes from an absence of thinking – after the necessary technicalities have been understood – which is where I bring my meditation practise into it – very practical, for me – and either something you are attracted to do or not.
I have seen amazing stuff with this approach, and captured some of it with the camera.
The art is to see or visualise a point of view other than the actual, to ‘put yourself in the other’s shoes’. Apparently this is not a common ability but I think everyone has it to some degree and it can be nurtured when brought to awareness. Being able to see inside what shot you want is half the work, it’s the basis for the shot you get and you always end up working with what is presented anyway.
This basically means when I see a creature in a position I can get a shot of I look to see if I can get the shot I want, knowing from experience what angle works best with the creature’s particular architecture with consideration for background, contrast, lighting and reflection, the basic composition of the picture.
Insect architecture is a necessary consideration since the depth of focus is so shallow at high magnification, even with small aperture, that it is necessary to maximise it by placing the plane of focus according to the plane of the creature’s body surface/s – when the illusion of deep focus is desired or necessary.
The Approach :
First of all you have to find the little fellas. In my experience insects are everywhere but more in some places than others. It’s these ‘some’ places that I seek out since the more bugs there are the better my chances of getting a good shot. In these places there are hot spots where for some reason there is a concentration of life forms. And it all changes by the season, some places are good at different times for different creatures.
So what are the basics for burgeoning insect life? Well, it’s the same for them as it is for us, food, water and shelter. The best wild places in my experience are usually, but not always, where the clearing or field meets the bush or forest and where there’s nearby water. And it can happen on the bathroom window.
Out of a forest or bush and water everything grows, plants and animals of all sorts. Everything eats something, some things eat anything, and eating goes on all the time. I find most of this eating takes place on the edge where the clutter of the forest gives way to the open space of a clearing or field. Or, in a sense, just ‘on the edge’ – of whatever. YMMV …
But, as I said, you can find insects everywhere. In the garden, on the wall, under a log or stone, even in the letterbox – I’ve got a Gecko living in mine – or on a power pole – as below. There is no end to the possibilities of finding insects and often all it takes is to sit down (or stand still) in appropriate places and wait for them to show themselves.
So, there are insects and other small creatures everywhere and I want to take their picture, how to do it? With respect, is the short answer. Creatures, again, have the same basic instincts as us. Though they don’t reason or analyze as we do they are still sensible, because sense doesn’t depend on thinking. And those senses are of their environment so the less impact you make on it the more likely you are to get close enough for a shot or two.
The fundamental instinct of all living creatures is survival, and anything that threatens or appears to threaten that will trigger the fight or flight response. This is why when shooting stinging or biting creatures I always leave them a way to run or fly away. Never trap a biter or stinger unless you are willing to endure the possible consequences.
Insects sense what they do, probably not very different to us again even if not exactly the same. Some taste with pads on the feet, others smell with the antennae, feel through air pressure hitting sensitive body structures such as hairs or skin and I don’t know it all – that’s for sure. They can hear, see, smell, taste and feel the vibrations of wind and movement. So it pays not to offend or shock any of their senses.
Does that make sense?
To get up close with any insect I generally approach it slowly, lowering myself to its level to minimise my appearance and not overshadow it, avoiding sudden movement or striking its perch. But most of all I don’t get anxious so as to keep the experience a pleasure. It is a kind of hunting, or stalking at least, which essentially is a form of self discipline. Control of mind with regard to being present to notice the slightest sign of ‘prey’, and control of the body to minimise the footprint in the creature’s sensible domain. It also takes considerable discipline to evolve through the learning of what is and is not viable and its application in the process of capturing the image. Self discipline, for sure.
There is no substitute for experience.
Physical size, weight, expense, image noise, processing speed and the size of the frame are the primary differences between what I use and the ‘average’ dSLR. My present camera is the Panasonic FZ50 (still – March/2013) which is small, light, relatively cheap, a bit noisy – digitally – most of the time and has a small sensor so the frame is small. It has other attributes that make it ideal for me, regardless of its obvious (to me) failings. I don’t think it matters what you use as long as it does the job for you, as long as you are comfortable with it. My camera is called a ‘bridge’ to note its similarity with a dSLR and it has the equivalent of a 400mm internally zooming lens on which I mount a variety of achromats of varying dioptre strengths.
I am now also using the Panny G1, with Oly macro lenses and the famous Kiron 105/f2.8 1:1 manual lens, an antique but very good glass, as I want better resolution and IQ – sharpness, clarity, etc. Some of these pictures were taken with some variation of them.
With bigger sensors comes the ability to print bigger without the distraction of noise in the image, or the loss of detail from the use of noise reduction software. Plus the articulating LCD’s – my cameras must have – make them indispensable for the angles you can’t get with a viewfinder. Much of the so-called modern, and expensive, dSLR is actually old technology with a digital sensor. Various camera companies come out with such incremental changes most of the time it is hardly worth the time keeping up with it. I just keep an eye out for an upgrade, or the equivalent, to my FZ50 – I will recognise it when it comes, if it comes.
An achromat is a two or more element magnifying lens that screws on to the lens just like any filter and they come in varying dioptres or strengths, just like reading glasses. They work best on long focal length lenses since they magnify what is already there and they effectively shorten the working distance – from lens/filter to object – according to dioptre #.
I generally use three achromats. Each is made of quality glass and has a different dioptre strength. One is a +2 dioptre that gives me a working distance of around 18 inches and is good for Butterflies – don’t see many of them – and Dragonflies, so I can get the whole creature in the frame. Another is a +4.5 dioptre with a working distance of around 8 or 9 inches that I rarely use on its own these days and is good for larger insects. The third is a +8 dioptre with a working distance of around 4.5 inches.
Very often now I stack the +4.5 on the +8 which gives me a working distance of 2.5 inches. This is considered to be too/very short by some but I find it very comfortable as it gives me more control over the scene and especially the lighting, but it doesn’t work for everything since, obviously, I have to get closer to the creature.
I have a fourth achromat, it’s a +20 dioptre and I only use it where I can take my time and have absolute control, as much as it’s possible anyway, since the DOF is less than wafer thin and so difficult to work with – as with the fruit fly above. Each achromat or combination has its time and place, depending on the situation – size of the creature or object, its tolerance or awareness of my presence and the physical limitations of the environment.
Macro magnification is something you get used to working with over time. I graduated through increasing magnifications, each increase giving a corresponding decrease in the depth of focus (DOF). And like any exercise it gets easier with practise.
The more you practise the easier the muscles involved in maintaining position or balance do the job. Remember, you’re working with very shallow focus that is not easy to place where you want it, it takes time.
Do you understand?
Or, how deep is your focus? The very big advantage of small sensors for macro is you get the same image in a smaller frame, relative to the bigger sensors of dSLR’s. Small sensor equals small frame, relative to the object at relative magnification. Though if the M4/3rds makers would produce a decent internally zooming macro lens with good AF I would be happy to use it more.
What is macro is simple for me. The way it works, as far as I am concerned, is this : Macro magnification is generally regarded as 1 : 1 or 1x, this means 1cm of object width (for instance) takes up 1cm of sensor (or frame) width. So, if your sensor is 7mm wide and the object is 7mm wide the frame is filled with the object. If your sensor is 21mm wide and the object is 7mm wide then the object covers 1/3 the width of the frame. Both are macro, or 1 : 1, or 1X because the object is ‘life’ size on either frame.
There are complicated arguments about this matter and I take my pictures without knowing or understanding all the convolutions, it just doesn’t matter to taking pictures in the field – except to the mentally adjusted, anyone who has to know the math.
99% of the time I use flash, only one picture here is without flash. And again, I am a minimalist, I don’t like big and bulky. It gets in the way or just gets complicated. So I use a DIY snoot/tube/cone … On the first picture below you can see the snoot is over to the left. I can rotate that over to the same position on the right, and fix it at any point in between by the use of Velcro strips – not shown.
You get the idea …
… to deliver the light to where I want it and diffuse it according to my taste – which changes with experience. I use flash nearly all the time since at macro magnifications motion blur can be a real and pervasive problem.
Effectively I let the flash be my shutter speed by keeping it to the minimum pulse duration required for adequate exposure – can be as fast as 1/20,000? sec – and eliminating or minimizing ambient light – which is one reason I get sharp pictures. Slower SS can be used to allow ambient light if the situation allows and the shot calls for it – as above at dusk.
Shadowing from directed light gives depth and interest to an image.
For composed and sharp pictures at macro magnifications with DOF often less than 1mm deep, stabilisation is a must. I don’t use a tripod or monopod since all my subjects are alive and usually on the move or about to be. They don’t wait for ‘pods to be set up. Usually there is a very short window when the shot can be had and it helps to have some quick method of very mobile stabilisation, especially if I can’t hold the objects perch. My primary solution is a stick.
A smooth polished wooden stick about five foot long and no thicker than my thumb. I use it gripped between left fingers and cam (or somehow or other) so if I release the pressure it slides easily up or down at will for vertical stability at any practical height. It can also be planted in the ground at different angles to maximise horizontal stability at any height. In fact, between my knee on the ground and my other foot planted away for stability, the stick acts as the third leg of a very articulate tripod.
Don’t think about how you can make a stick work for you, try it out and its working for you will unfold as the necessary mechanics to maximise stability. Just feel free to use it any way that works for you, for stability. Your keeper rate will probably double immediately.
The stick is the third leg of the tripod, you are the other two, or three or however many points you use to brace for a steady shot. It also doubles for walking, snipping spider webs cast across the track, a warning to snakes in the long grass – whatever it is to you.
You don’t need a picture of a stick, do you?
Another way to stabilise with very short working distance is to hold the leaf (or whatever) the creature is on in left hand and rest the lens on the same hand. Both on the same platform means if one moves so does the other = stability, relatively speaking. It’s all relative, isn’t it.
Working distance is relative to magnification and the actual size of the object you want to capture an image of.
You have to get creative, which is where relaxation and meditation helps greatly, in my experience.
As already indicated, I use flash and largely exclude ambient light for sharpness. I use manual mode and my shutter speed is kept at dSLR specs (for when I use the m4/3 – so I am used to the slower SS) and my aperture is usually as small as I can have it within diffraction limits. In all but the strongest sun this is enough to eliminate ambient light so the flash is the effective shutter speed – very fast = sharp. The maximum synch flash speed on most DSLR’s is around 1/250 which is enough most of the time, it’s also a serious limitation when you need faster and don’t want the multi exp of high speed synch.
If I want ambient light in the scene, for effect, or because the creature is dark and there is no immediate background to bounce light off I will use aperture priority or just lower the shutter speed. On my camera I never leave base ISO for anything, another restriction of small sensors – presently.
I usually set the camera to underexpose using flash compensation through ETTL, to keep the highlights from blowing – being able to vary the angle of the light helps too – with reflection. This underexposure also has the effect of saturating the colours.
I have to say it again, there is no substitute for actual experience. Any guide or book should only be to help define that.
The first focus you need is inner, focus of your attention. If you don’t have that you won’t get it in a lens. And the kind of focus you need to actualize your potential can be developed – gradually.
Probably the single most important aspect of any picture, focus, for without focus where you want it you don’t have a picture worth looking at. It’s normal to focus manually in macro but I believe that is only because the equipment most people use doesn’t auto-focus very well, and/or they don’t know how to use AF for macro – apart from the fact every macro lens I know of extends with magnification, which takes time.
I use AF with the (1.5 inch) LCD on 5 year old technology – it’s now end of 2010 (March 2013 – Jan 2015) – known for its poor low light performance so it can’t be bad, can it? I do it this way basically because I find it easier than using the viewfinder – back injury, and an unwillingness to strain my neck. Poor eyesight too.
I’ll tell you how I do it. First I have a look over the top of the camera to see which part of the creature I want in focus first, and then I aim at that point through the LCD, having single centre point focus set on the camera. As soon as focus is locked I press the button the rest of the way – without delay – and voila, I have the shot – usually.
Any delay at all and the creature has probably moved through the field of focus and you won’t get what you aimed at, or you have moved and the result is the same.
Of course there are misses, as with any technique. And there is back and forward focusing issues with some lenses but not mine, up to 2 : 1 magnification. Everything can be compensated for, gotten used to.
Another consideration that has to be made when using AF for macro is the fact the focus point has before it an area of acceptable focus that can be better placed more on the object. This requires the smallest of movement towards the object to achieve it, resulting in the optimum use of the field of acceptable focus, with a bit of luck – because I can’t actually see it. It’s what makes the difference between something that’s just in focus and something that looks like a focus stack or deep focus.
Or, taking the objects architecture into account, I aim for a point just behind where I want focus to ‘begin’, is another way of doing it. And different methods work best at different times with different shapes and structures. With this way I need to be able to judge minute distances, a kind of intuition that requires refined muscle control – since it only comes with experience and understanding.
Either way, at times it’s not unlike shooting an arrow from horseback at a moving target, it’s an art. I find if I have inner focus the outer happens more easily.
Auto Focus works, as you can see from my pictures, so don’t knock it.
Manual Focus : Or MF, is necessary on most macro lenses attached to a DSLR, as with my Oly macro lenses attached to my Panny G1. I still use the articulating LCD and the way I do it is the same as for an optical viewfinder except the view is not so resolved. So it is a matter of judgement.
The action is, with lens in MF and at the appropriate WD (working distance), move in to the object to be imaged until the area you want in focus first loses focus – it becomes blurred. Then move out from the object until that same area comes back into focus and shoot – press the shutter button. Timing is critical.
Processing or PP :
I aim to get the picture as near as I want it from the camera so when it comes to processing I am minimalist again. And I always shoot in JPG with camera on minimum picture settings, contrast, saturation, etc. So I have more control over the picture. I have seen some mastery of the processing of some RAW files but not enough to tempt me, yet.
I use Picasa, except for sharpening, and usually spend no more than 20 – 30 seconds per image. I might one day learn something more sophisticated than Picasa but I rarely see enough advantage to justify the time I’d have to spend learning. But I never say never, life has a way of contradicting me.
And you know what happens when life contradicts.
With macro, unless the object is absolutely still and not likely to move, and the camera is well braced, I frame with the option to crop for composition. Many of the shots I take are of moving targets so this a necessary compromise. It’s a compromise because I don’t like losing the pixels or resolution.
Then I’ll saturate with an eye on the reds or yellows in particular since they seem to blow first and I lose detail. I usually underexpose a tad so I will then bring up the brightness with an eye on the histogram to keep the highs from blowing. And may darken shadow for contrast.
I also de-noise and sharpen in a dedicated program. And that’s usually it. Maybe a little cloning now and again.
The Shot :
Getting it … Here, after all else is taken into consideration, it’s a case of the more you shoot the more keepers you will have. Don’t mind the people who say if you don’t get the shot in a few frames you’re no good, they haven’t tried macro of living creatures in their own habitat. Macro may be the most physically demanding photo discipline so practise is imperative for the often minute control necessary at high magnification – shallow DOF.
My keeper rate varies from 90% in situations where nothing moves and the positions are comfortable, that’s about 10% of the time, to 5% or so where the light, physical position or whatever are just not conducive. The more usual keeper rate is between 30% to 50% since I just love capturing the small creatures in pose or action, or both. So I bin a lot. (It is now over three years since I first wrote this and the keeper rate is much higher than previously stated.)
And they are never better than from the wild where you never really know what you’ve got ‘till you get home.
A few words :
There is no quick route to expertise in macro, it takes practise which takes time. Not least because of the absolute need for stabilisation, the quirks of macro lighting and the limitation of DOF. And of course the physical demand of posture takes time to develop the necessary control of the muscles involved.
And don’t forget patience, or the absence of impatience more like, which can be helped with a simple and practical meditation. You’ve just got to slow down, inside and out, to enter the wonderful and often beautiful world of bugs at our feet, to see what’s going on and capture an image of it.
As you can see, a lot of how I do it is contrary to the accepted wisdom. Especially I use Auto Focus effectively from the articulating LCD, two taboos broken in one go. As I said, whatever works for you.
And last, as it was first, be easy and enjoy the action and the pure and peaceful sense that nature is. By putting it first in your practise and giving up any anxiety about getting the shot.
Relax! It’s enlightening – of the weight of mind.
Insects, our neighbours as ourselves :
This wouldn’t be complete without a word about the attitude of society towards nature in general and insects in particular. We really think it’s ok to exploit nature for short term personal and financial gain, and we are reaping the consequences – though we aren’t really feeling it yet in Australia (Jan 2015 and there is more talk of climate change, temps are rising and weather conditions are reportedly more extreme than previously observed). I understand the disappearance of the usual native, and introduced, pollinators is alarming many in some circles. What to do?
I still run across people who think insects are pests, ugly or dangerous. Something to be destroyed, judged and feared – when all they need is respect. This is not a sane attitude on a planet where those same insects – and others – are intrinsic to our survival. And, in truth, are born of the same mystery and the same earth.
The fact is we can’t do without insects. If they were to die out the soil would become infertile, rotting matter would cover the earth and we would starve, if we lived long enough to.The earth’s ecology would break down, it would cease to be a functioning organism. Earth, as we know it, would die as far as we humans are concerned – long enough for the problem to rectify itself.
Look at it as if you are the earth and your digestive and immune systems stopped working, how long do you think you’d last?
If we are not to ruin the Earth it is imperative we stop killing what doesn’t need killing.
If we die out we won’t be missed by any other creature on earth, except those closest to us, the dogs and cats. They don’t need us, for anything. Except perhaps, being the highest expression of life or intelligence on earth, that we become more intelligent and start to see the beauty and wonder of the whole creation, including the insects.
Do you think it can happen?
It’s a Setup :
My primary consideration when moving a creature, that is easy to move, is to not harm or kill it, then to shoot it no more than necessary – I wonder about the effect of a lot of flash, and usually give it some water/honey before letting it go where I found it – or similar location. Often I find a couple of hitchers when I get home from the local rainforest remnant. Today it’s a Louse fly, a spider and a small bug. The spider is too small, the bug flew away but the Louse fly is like a yoyo – always returns when I flick it away, when I can find it – so it’s an opportunity and might be good for a few shots later when it cools down. I haven’t had a Jumper in except the one that lives on the outside bathroom window, that I encourage.
During the now passing winter here often the only creatures I saw were the ones that showed up at the light at night where I kept flowers and leaves for platforms and backgrounds, and late at night the relative cold kept them still for easy manipulation – coaxing onto a leaf or such. But setups don’t demand full engagement of my attention beyond a few minutes and are largely without the essential element of the creative unknown – essential to me.
That’s what I love about shooting bugs in the wild nature, you never know what you’re going to get and something always shows up – here anyway – even if it’s just a magnificent fly. Some of it couldn’t be devised in the lab, the angles, backgrounds, comps, colours and light. I prefer to let nature set it up and be ready to shoot when it presents.
Ethics? Truth is what you live, or can live with, and if you set shots up why not? And why not tell what you do, if you are asked straight. But then there is the matter of how you go about it. Some don’t see any harm or wrong in immobilizing creatures, by various means, for a shot or stack but the fact is I don’t need such a shot so bad, and I don’t stack – can’t see the point. That’s my position, for now. I always have to qualify my position so because you never know what you might have to do next. But respect for the small things is important to me.
I find it’s best not to think about the ones that get away or I can’t have, except for how I might be ready for it next time or manage a way, if there is one.
The ideas here are not claimed by me to be original. Some were born or realised of necessity and experience of getting it wrong, rightly said to be the mother of invention, or intuition. And others were necessarily harvested. Ideas are universal, they don’t belong to anyone but who realises, develops and uses them.
If I bring anything unique to the field of endeavour and exploration that macro is, it is the idea that nature is its own value and has its place first in the order of things. Before the ‘photographer’, the gear, the techniques and settings, or anything else that is a part of the process.
Nature comes first because without it the rest is for nothing.
And it is putting the sense before the intellectual where the real art lies. The art of being what you are doing without the distractions of personal thoughtful or emotional considerations, being in the senses. And then the art of being before the sense. Requires some negation of the personal, the opposite to what is generally practised.
Some might call this zen – no mind, but I call it being practical because it is something that can be done to one degree or another by anyone so moved and aids peace of mind in any situation. No need to make it special and put it out of reach.
And there’s nothing new about this idea, it’s as old as nature itself.
One last thing : This page is changing as time passes – last updated Jan 2015. Thanks for the feedback.
© Mark Berkery ……. Click any picture and click again to enlarge