Approaches to Macro Photography

How many paths to macro photography?

Perilampid Parasitic Wasp by Sam Droege, USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

Perilampid Parasitic Wasp by Sam Droege, USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. (CC BY 2.0)

Let me count the ways…

  1. the impulse shooter:  “Wow. Quick, grab a picture of that beautiful/weird/yucky bug!BugGuide receives many examples this kind of image every day.
  2. the natural approach, photographing the subject in situ, making a distinct effort to find good composition by searching for the best angles and backgrounds without moving the subject. The subject is revealed in its environment, showing natural behaviors. “Nature is enough, naturally.” (e.g. Nicky Bay, Kurt Orion)
  3. the scientific approach, those who stage the technically perfect shot, often in sets that show dorsal, lateral and frontal views with maximum depth of field. The subject is moved and placed on a suitable background and they may be dead, pinned or alive when photographed. Techniques such as focus-stacking or scanning may be used. “Look: correct exposure, fine detail sharpness, accurate colour: just right.”  (Sam DroegeAlex Surcică)
  4. the craftsmen who strive to craft images using a formula, following rules of composition and providing perfect creamy-soft, non-distracting backgrounds and sharpness where it matters. These shots may be staged in some way, by moving the subject to more appropriate locations with less distracting backgrounds, or to make the sky a backdrop.  In some instances, natural sets may be created. Focus-stacking techniques may be used. “Competitions, publishers, documentary production? This is for you!” (e.g. Colin HuttonJohn Hallmén)
  5. the artist, who have no need to follow rules, and perhaps cares little about bug ID or realism, but uses a variety of skills (from traditional darkroom/software manipulation to mixed media) to communicate ideas or emotions in the image: “My compulsion, my expression…you may have to work to appreciate it, or not.” (e.g. Jo Whaley, Rick Lieder)

The arrangement of  the approaches does not indicate a progressive worth or value, and the divisions are not strict: most regular macro photographers work across at least two of these approaches, while others, having a mainstream in one approach, will dabble in all the rest. I mention only a few photographers in the examples, there are many more excellent photographers out there, and most of them work across categories. (Check the side bar for links to more excellent photographers!)

Why try to pigeon-hole approaches to macro photography at all?

A newcomer to macro photography, with shiny new camera and lens, perhaps agog at the diversity of amazing photographs now visible on the web, may wonder, “Where do I begin?”. Being able to categorize different approaches to macro photography can help you to better understand the photographer, and give a starting point for your own development. Decide which approach you would like to start with, and make it your goal to be proficient in that before moving on to another method. Seek out books, web articles and mentors to help you along the way;  your growth as a photographer (and in any other endeavor in life) will be enhanced by clearly understanding your goals.

NB: there is another approach that I have chosen to ignore, the highly staged studio work that involves manipulating the live subject and placing them in unnatural positions, situations and associations as if showing a natural occurrence or natural behavior. They may spritz their subjects with water or glycerine to cover them with droplets, they may use wire or other props to create un-natural limb positions, they may turn the images upside-down and/or and apply a variety of Photoshop techniques to add or subtract elements. They span a zone from the downright deceitful through schmaltz to gaudiness…and these are places I don’t want to go.


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  1. Sean McCann 11 March, 2014 at 1:02 PM #

    I think you have made a great summary of the trends I see out there! Focusing on what you like and what inspires is a great way to improve, no matter what your skill level. I am considering my next photographic aim is to try basic replication of inspiring looks. This will hopefully expand my range as a photographer and may also lead in new directions.

    • Adrian 31 July, 2016 at 1:57 PM #

      (Wow! I don’t know how I missed this comment. Apologies.)

      I do the same. I will try all the latest techniques and ‘looks’ at least until I feel competent at consistent results. It’s good to know what is going on in other areas of our amazing pastime, It also gives me some new ideas to introduce to people during workshops!

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