I was somewhat reluctant to do a blog post about the process of taking pictures. Whenever I read anything about this on internet forums, there is lots of flaming and trolling. However, I want to start out by freely admitting that I take ‘bad macro’ pictures. My definition of ‘bad macro’ goes something like this – most people carry lots of gear out into the wild and often take stunningly beautiful shots of the animals and plants they encounter. While I sometimes do the same, apart from taking the stunning photos that is (!), generally I am interested in seeing things and my camera acts as both an eye capable of resolving what mine cannot, and a kind of nature notebook that I can take home as a record of what was about and where, and that I can use to identify an insect or plant that I don’t immediately recognise. I carry a camera with a macro lens and nothing else….no tripod, no monopod, no flash, just a lens hood and a plastic bag to protect the camera if it starts to rain.
It seems to me that there are three ways to take macro photos in the wild. The one I describe above requires only a camera and lens and thus can only make use of natural light. The method has quite a few advantages, choose a light camera and the right lens and you can walk all day taking photos that look natural. It is easier to be stealthy with a lightweight setup. Indeed, while I can understand how on a cool and still morning or evening you might be able to use a tripod to get pin sharp pictures by natural light, I find it vanishingly unlikely you’d find many butterflies or other insects that would sit still long enough for you to get set up. Adding a flash will provide for more light and allow you take photos where natural light would not but adds significantly to the weight you need to carry around, and reduces your mobility. Plus, most insects are gone once the flash fires. Add enough flash power and put an ND8 filer on the front of your lens, and daylight can be rendered almost superfluous (though not completely irrelevant – the subject of another post). The built in flash on your camera is not usually terribly useful for macro flash, it’s in the wrong place, and most often one adds either a ring flash or a pair of dedicated macro flash guns. More of such setups another time.
I have two cameras and macro lenses, an aging Nikon D7000 with a wonderfully sharp Nikon 105mm macro lens with vibration reduction, and an Olympus OM-D EM-1 with a great macro lens, the Olympus 60mm macro. The Olympus body has built in 3-axis stabilisation. Now for a truly controversial statement – the Nikon setup is nowhere near as good as the Olympus one! Why? First, the Nikon is way too heavy for my liking. The Nikon and lens weigh in at 1571g; the Olympus at 601g. While I think the Nikon 105mm is sharper than the Olympus 60mm, there really isn’t that much in it for ‘bad macro’. Secondly, I find the focus-peaking system available in the electronic viewfinder (EVF) of the Olympus to be a fantastic boon. As soon as you hit perfect focus, the white peaking pixels light up and in a trice, I can see the antenna and eyes of my subject are in focus. Really important if you wear varifocal glasses as I need to! However, the single most important factor is simply weight and manoeuvrability, and on that front, the Olympus micro 4/3rds wins hands down. Indeed, so taken am I with it that I intend to invest in an E-M1 Mk 2.
So, a few words on my ‘bad technique’. Outdoors there are three things that move; the wind blows everything around, the thing you want to photograph may (will) move or fly away, and you, the photographer, shake and wobble around. While the latter may not be obvious when you take a picture of a landscape, it becomes very obvious when you are trying to take photos around 1:1 magnification and the object has tiny feature that will betray your slightest movements as blur. Unless you are photographing plants, where it is possible to clamp the stem, or even use a light tent to shade them from the wind, there is generally almost nothing you can do about the first two sources of movement described above other than aim for a reasonably high shutter speed, which helps a bit with movement in the plane of focus, but not at all if the movement takes the object out of focus. A small aperture will provide a bit more depth of field (DoF) but will add blur through diffraction if the lens is stopped down too far. The best solution by far is to work on a still day! A still, sunny day before the heat comes on is the best time for ‘bad macro’ shots of insects. Not only do the things like butterflies move more slowly when they are cool, but also you stay cool – getting up and down from your knees, or lying on the ground and getting up again, maybe a hundred times in a day when its 37oC is a recipe for heatstroke. The other thing that I find helps a great deal is good camera holding technique. A good macro photo doesn’t generally result from adopting a position that is much higher than the object you are trying to photograph. So, usually it is best to crouch, kneel or lie down to get on the right level. On one knee you can rest an elbow on one knee and tuck the other one into your side, focus, – hold your breath and rock slightly to get perfect focus and then hit the shutter button. Continuous shooting with a tiny rocking motion can also be used though you then have later to sort out which frame represents the perfect shot and it can be a pain to do this if you go for many frames per second. I reserve lying down for things that are likely to fly off pretty much as soon as I adopt that position – much better suited to plants than butterflies etc. If you do adopt lying down then propping your elbows on the ground will give you a lot of stability. Standing up, keeping your elbows tucked in is essential. The image stabiliser is your friend and I have it on at all times. On a bright day, when shooting insects, I usually choose an ASA that allows me to shoot at a 500th with an aperture of f8 to f16 – about 500ASA in bright sunlight. At that setting, noise is tolerable though if conditions get dimmer, I sometimes have to shoot at higher ASAs. However, the DoF will always be a small number of millimetres and it is this that means a great deal of attention to camera holding technique is necessary. With insects and other small creatures, always aim to have the eyes in focus – it always looks best.
There is ‘cheat’ that can be useful if you need a little more stability and you walk with a pole. Hold the camera as shown below, you can slide your hand down the stick to get to the right height, rock forward or backwards to get a bit closer or further away and in focus. It can really help and is far quicker than messing with a tripod or a monopod, and sticks are to be found everywhere for free!. If in doubt always hit the shutter button….the worst photo is the one you didn’t quite take.
My only other tips for ‘bad macro’ involve knowing your prey. Many people do not realise that insects are creatures of habit. Butterflies have ‘leks’ and often return to the same spot at a particular time of day, flying off and returning to the exact same spot many times. As an example, a Red Admiral we named ‘Red’ returned to more or less the same spot in our garden every evening at around 6pm for a month! Dragonflies will perch on the same twig over-and-over again. So, if at first you don’t succeed, try just waiting for your prey to return. On a bright day, shadowing an insect will often cause it to move away so get used to walking such that your shadow doesn’t pass over them. Move slowly and without sudden movement. I am convinced that once your body fills the field of view of an insect’s eye, you can get very close because you no longer cause sudden changes from say full sunlight to shadowed. Mating insects often give up caring about most other things and butterflies chasing one another are often quite easy to shoot when they alight. And yes, you are right, surely there is an advantage to using a flash but, it isn’t absolutely necessary, and taking ‘bad macro’ pictures is surprisingly satisfying – sometimes, they even look quite good!