Tag Archives: Digital single-lens reflex camera

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 Vegas gaudiness…and these are places I don’t want to go.


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New Canon Ring Flash–Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II

Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II

Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II

20140211_hiRes_eosrebelt5_lensring3qTucked away in the press release for the new T5 entry level DSLR (11 Feb 2014) was the announcement of Canon’s Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II. My very first response when viewing it was, “Does that mean a better Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX will be released soon?” And the second was, “What’s with the fat heavy-weight cord? Why isn’t this unit wireless and more compact?”

With macro photography more popular now than ever, will Canon ever grow their macro system up?

Regardless, what does the new MR-14EX II have to offer? From the Canon website:

Redesigned as a perfect complement to contemporary digital SLR setups, it is the most advanced macro flash Canon has ever produced. It has a maximum Guide No. of 34.4 ft./10.5m at ISO 100 and a twin-tube design where both flash tubes can be directed to fire independently or together. Sophisticated white LED focusing lamps and two forms of modeling lights make for easy and accurate previewing of lighting effects. Infinitely adjustable in any lighting condition with its illuminated dot-matrix LCD, the Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II has 12 custom functions and supports E-TTL wireless autoflash when linked with one or more Speedlite 600EX-RT flashes. All this in a refined, compact design with shorter recycling times than its predecessor makes the Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II a reliable, customizable choice.

20140211_hiRes_mr14exii_backlcdIt is hard to say if this is a macro flash worth investing in. Until I see more details on it, I can see no justification for switching over if you already have the older model. Because it is still a ring flash with the limitations of a ring flash (circular highlights, lack of adaptability, lens compatibility, and the cord…), you will still have a creative advantage with other off-camera flash set-ups. However, if you need a flash for shadowless lighting (within a certain range) while producing consistent, repeatable results (i.e for science or technology imaging), or if you have just entered the Canon system, this may be the flash for you.

Visit the Canon website for more information, and B&H if you want to pre-order.

(Images from the Canon Press Kit)



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Macro Photography: what’s it good for?

Ladybug on autumn flower.

What is close-up and macro photography really good for?

  • getting closer to nature…real close! Macro photography is a great way to explore insects, fungi, mosses, lichens in their habitat.
  • contributing to science through citizen science projects such as eButterfly and the Lost Ladybug Project.
  • documenting the biological sciences: lichenologists, entomologists, mycologists, bryologists etc.–what better to augment your research than photographs?
  • knowledge and learning–there is so much to learn about techniques, identification, natural history…macro strengthens the brain!
  • meeting fascinating people–there are many communities out there that share your passion. Check out your local nature club and specialist societies.
  • exercise–walking, kneeling, crouching, bending, crawling and even some running are all part of the macro photographer’s workout.
  • enhancing dexterity–handling equipment, changing lenses, manipulating subjects, DIY projects…all can help maintain dexterity.
  • an infinite amount of subjects–there is really no limitations for the macro photographer.
  • a winter pastime… macro can be practiced indoors and out, no matter where you are.
  • expanding your hobbies! Macro is a great way to share images of your collections, crafts and art online.
  • unlimited avenues of artistic expression. From realism to abstract–unlimited.
  • exploring a single subject: discover the universe in a flower (or a marble, or an insect…)
  • staying close to home…you don’t have to travel to do macro photography.
  • rediscovering awe and wonder: macro photography has the power to awaken the child in all of us.

There are many paths to achieving macro with a camera, and limitless opportunities to practice it. If you want to learn more, explore the web, visit the library for a book and/or take a workshop! There is no end to the engagement you can find once you begin to enter small worlds with macro photography!


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Book Review: Digital Macro & Close-up Photography by Ross Hoddinott


New in 2013

Matt Cole first brought this book to my attention, and with his recommendation, (and having borrowed the first edition from our local library a few years ago) I did not wait long to order a copy of  Digital Macro & Close-up Photography through Amazon UK.

Ross Hoddinott is a professional nature photographer hailing from the Cornwall/Devon border area in south-west England. He is well-known for his landscape photography, but also–as you can tell from this book–for his excellent close-up and macro work.

In Digital Macro & Close-up Photography he opens with chapters on digital cameras, the benefits of DSLR‘s, lens choices and accessories. The chapter on technique is solid, working on the basis that macro is a very precise style of photography and then providing lots of information on how to achieve that precision. It opens with the essentials of understanding exposure and moves on to offer helpful tips on depth of field, composition, orientation (horizontal or vertical) and perspective (lens choice and the relative position between the camera and the subject).

The section on lighting is useful, beginning with methods of using and enhancing natural light, and moving on to advice on flash use, which now has much more detail than the first edition. There is a new chapter on the Outdoor Studio which is delivered with the very able help of  Matt Cole, who provided some striking Meet Your Neighbours-style photography.

In Still Life section covers common items and techniques:  food, colour, B&W, cross-polarization, flowers and water droplets–all illustrated with excellent photographs–but it left me wishing (perhaps due to the long winter that is looming ahead here!) that there was a more thorough exploration of ideas for indoor close-up and macro photography.

The following two sections–Natural-history subjects and Texture, detail, shape and form–are the heart of the book, providing  pertinent information on macro techniques for bugs, plants, fungi, mosses and lichens. As an example of the approach taken, I’ll take a closer look at just one chapter: Spiders. In this chapter he covers how to approach spiders in the web, how to align the camera, watching for intrusive backgrounds, photographing from both sides of the web, taking advantage of natural light, getting to eye-level and where to focus. There is a fine image of a Dolomedes water spider on the water surface, and a spider’s web bejeweled with dew, set in front of a mauve background. There is one inset ‘Pro Tip‘ advising to be careful when photographing potentially venomous species. The other chapters are delivered in a similar way, with subject-specific advice and supported by outstanding images.

The last chapter, Post-production, provides a basic introduction to some of the most important aspects of any type of photography: image processing, workflow and archiving. He offers basic information on RAW workflow, cropping, adjusting colors, focus-stacking and producing B&W images–all with just enough detail to get you started on your own path.

The new and larger format of this revised and expanded edition greatly improves presentation of the photographs. The chapter Close-up Top Tips, in which Ross uses prime images to illustrate important skills, is particularly striking (although, as one butterfly image reveals, I would not want to see  bright-red backgrounds become a fad!). Digital Macro & Close-up Photography has a strong leaning towards natural subjects and is rich with inspirational photographs. Anyone beginning to enter the fascinating field of macro photography will not go wrong if they select this book as a guide. This revised edition is a step-up from the first release and is now a real stand-out guide to macro–definitely a book that I will recommend to new photographers.



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Posted in Accessories, Arachnid, Art, Book Review, Bugs, Camera, close-up, Composition, Education, Equipment, Flash, Insect, Inspiration, International, Lenses, macro, Odonata, Overview, photography, Review, Technique | Also tagged , , , , , , , , Comments Off

The Bigger Picture: Close-up, not Macro.

Scarlet Malachite Beetle on Daisy

Scarlet Malachite Beetle on Daisy

Sometimes it pays to take a step back from our subjects and place them clearly in their environment. A compact or 4/3 camera would have no problem taking a similar shot, and even with a DSLR no macro lens would be required–a regular kit zoom with 1:3 or 1:4 ‘macro’ capability will be enough, and if not, a small extension ring added to the lens will do the job quite well. Be sure to keep your aperture fairly large to limit the depth of field so the background does not distract. And , of course, having a bright and dapper subject on display–a scarlet malachite beetle in this case–will certainly will add to the success of the image!

(27 June, 2013. Canon T2i with 70-300mm F4.5 L lens. ISO 1600, 1/4000 sec. @ f5.6)

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Posted in Alberta, Camera, Canada, close-up, Coleoptera, Edmonton, Equipment, Insect, Lenses, Melyridae, photography, Season, Summer, Technique | Also tagged , , 1 Comment

The Return of the Week on Sunday

Summer is beginning to burn-out into Fall, the nights are becoming pleasantly cool, and Splendour Awaits will change with the seasons and return to The Week on Sunday.

♦ Spiders in the News? Nora Bryan spins an article on spiders in the garden, giving them the PR they deserve! Check out her article and the slide-show in the Calgary Herald.

Misumena vatia on Aster

Misumena vatia on Aster

♦ And speaking of spiders, go and check out Sean McCann’s post on Spider Fieldwork at Island View Beach, Part 1. He has some fascinating photos of one of the most feared (and misunderstood) spiders in North America – the beautiful black widow!

♦ There has been a lot of attention paid to the approach of certain photographers in Asia who are manipulating their subjects in unnatural ways and then promoting the images as natural. The practices of many of these photographers have been exposed by a Chinese photography site, and then translated into English at Within the Chronicles’ Frame in the article Pseudo-nature Photographers. Alex Wild has also pointed out some of the macro-trickery that can be seen online in his posts This… I… um… What? and A Fake Makes it to the Smithsonian’s Photo Contest Finalists.

♦ And speaking of Alex Wild… Over at Compound Eye, Alex triggered a debate on insect photography and the ethics of bug killing. I have been asked many times to provide specimens of insects or spiders I have photographed so that the correct ID can be determined. I have yet to do this because…

1. … a lot of my photography is done in National, Provincial Parks or Natural Areas where bug collecting can’t be done without a permit (never mind that my car has probably blitzed dozens, if not hundreds of bugs on the drive to, and in the park)

2…. I don’t particularly like the idea of deliberate killing! This is a personal foible – I love and respect the collections built-up by entomologists, and I understand their importance†. However, as one who appreciates them for the fantastic beauty and complexity of their lives, I find it hard to bring myself to remove the light from their eyes! Just call me spineless…(but that’s not an insult anymore)

But he laid out some scenarios, and here is my response to each:

  1. The insect is a mosquito, and you are photographing her as she feeds from your arm. After snagging  a decent shot, do you squish the mosquito? If not, do you typically avoid swatting mosquitoes?
    Ans: I don’t squish mosquitoes – I perform a mercy-killing to save them from the agony that would result from dining on my chocolade-laced Dutch blood! (Actually? I flick them off.)
  2. Your insect is so active it makes Speedy Gonzalez look like a Sunday driver. Yet, your project requires a close-in face portrait. Do you kill the insect to arrange in a lifelike manner so the resulting image appears alive? Would your answer change if you were being paid for the image?
    Ans: I don’t photograph dead insects, and I definitely would not pass them off as live if I had done so!
  3. You receive an inquiry from a pesticide company’s marketing department requiring a photograph of their product killing a cockroach, so the point of the photo is to show the death of the insect. Do you accept the assignment?
    Ans.: No.
  4. The insect is a species you have never seen before. Do you kill it to take a specimen for easier identification? After all, specimens are usually preferable to photographs for identification.
    Ans: I might
  5. The insect is a species you recognize, but you suspect it might not have been recorded from that particular location before. Do you take a specimen as a physical record of the observation, even if you already logged the coordinates of the photograph?
    Ans.: If I have a definitive photograph or photographs of the species, I would not then kill it for a record.
  6. The insect is a species you recognize, the location is new, but you also know this species is especially long-lived and may take three or more years to reach maturity. Does the biology of the animal affect your decision?
    Ans.: Yes. If I had such knowledge I would not take a specimen.
  7. You know enough about your subject to suspect it may be a new, undescribed species. Do you kill the specimen for taxonomic research?
    Ans.: Yes. In the unlikely event that I would ever have enough knowledge to ascertain that a bug is an undescribed species, and that it is not possibly subject to the biological limitations as mentioned in #6, I would take the photographs first, and then, if  I could collect the specimen properly, I would indeed kill it for taxonomic research.

I don’t know if any of these responses are good enough to prevent me being struck down by the God of Invertebrate Macro Photography, but I am pretty sure the God of Entomologists will go easy on me. :)

♦ From Why Evolution is True: one of the most amazing optical illusions ever:


I should mention in closing that August was a good month for me:

♦ On August 10, I  participated in the Bug Jamboree at the Ellis Bird FarmLacombe County, Alberta.This is an afternoon festival celebrating all things buggy. Along with John Acorn, Dr. Charley Bird, Dr. Ken Fry, Joe LeBlanc, Joey Temple and Margaret Stevenson, we shared our particular buggy specialties in this family-oriented event. Read more about it in the Lacombe Globe.

♦ Then, on August 24, and also at the Ellis Bird Farm, I held the Macro Photography with  DSLR  workshop  This was my first ‘class-size’ workshop (rather than my usual ‘small-group’ workshop), with 11 participants attending. The location was perfect – the visitors centre was in the centre of lush, blooming gardens, and farm was closed to the general public for the day. Although my drive down from Edmonton had a portent of doom, with overcast skies and scattered showers, the day soon opened up to be fine and sunny with partially cloudy skies. The participants ranged in experience from DSLR newbies to veteran photographers all of whom were eager to learn more about how to get ‘closer to nature’. After a slide-show and introductions, I gave a presentation on the different ways of making macro, how to use natural light as well as the use of macro flash. Then I worked on setting-up  every participant with the ability to focus closer and use diffused flash, creating diffusers on the spot. Later, I shared lenses and flashes to let all those interested so that they could try different set-ups. After lunch I made a presentation on how to approach the subject in terms of the photographic frame, followed by advice on composition and technique. Then there was more practical photography time outside.  I tried to spend time with each participant – helping solve problems and showing various little tricks and techniques that make the craft easier. Later in the afternoon we closed with another slide show and some parting advice . As the evaluation forms indicated, the workshop was very successful, but it still needs elaboration and expansion in certain areas. I want to thank Myrna Pearman for inviting me down and for all the wonderful support she has given. She captains a great ship with a great crew at the Ellis Bird Farm, and it is a pleasure to be associated with them.

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