Up Close and Personal
By Tamia Nelson
September 1, 2009
The everyday becomes exotic when you get up close. If you've any doubts on this score, just look at a kid who's got her hands on a magnifier for the first time. She'll be captivated at every turn by what she sees. The weave of fabrics, the intricate twist of fibers in string, the complex geometry of tiny flowers, the leathery texture of bark, the variegated grains on a sandy beach—all these commonplace things are transformed into something delightfully other-worldly when viewed through even the cheapest hand lens. Exclamations of joy and wonderment are certain to follow.
Of course, kids aren't the only ones to react this way. Getting up close and personal with the stuff of everyday life can be an eye-opener for us adults, too. Maybe that's why most digital cameras have something called a Macro mode. Back in the day, when photography meant film, one-to-one shots were labeled "macros." These were shots where the photographic image was the same size as the original subject. In classic macrophotography what you saw really was what you got. This had certain obvious limitations. Your subject had to be relatively small, and you had to get pretty close. But specialized lenses made it easier.
The macro label survived the transition from film to pixels, though today it also embraces the nearer reaches of microphotography: the macro settings on many digital cameras now permit magnification well beyond one-to-one. The upshot? If the small world intrigues you, and if your camera has a macro capability (it probably does, but check the owner's manual to be sure), then you can shoot close-ups that would have old-school film photographers drooling with envy. One thing's for certain—macrophotography gives you a whole new point of view. Take a look at the blossoms of Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) in the photo below. Spring beauties grow in abundance in the rich duff of northern woodlands. I spotted these along a portage trail not far from home. Each of the tiny blooms is no larger than a collar button, but that didn't matter. The macro setting on my camera reveals details of their delicate parts that are hidden from the naked eye. I had to get down on all fours to snap the shot, but it was a small price to pay.
You can also see the segmented leaf of a nearby club moss to the right of the spring beauties, while the very tip of my index finger provides an indication of scale on the left. I took the photo with my Pentax K200D and Pentax DA 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II zoom lens. You don't need a digital SLR to shoot arresting close-ups, however. My little Canon PowerShot A550 also has a macro setting. This photo of the bristles (entomologists call them setae) on the back of a woolly bear caterpillar…er…bears witness to its capabilities:
The bristles glisten in the sun. That's immediately obvious, even if the nearer bristles are blurry and out of focus. This isn't the fault of the lens. It's a consequence of my allowing the camera to set the aperture. And that decision brings us to one of the most important considerations when taking close-up photos, namely…
Depth of Field
A good lens can bring nearby things into perfect focus. Or it can do the same for far-off things. But it can't bring both nearby and far-off things into focus at the same time. Of course, "nearby" and "far-off" are relative terms. That's where depth of field comes in. It's the distance between the nearest and most distant points that a lens can bring into acceptably sharp focus simultaneously. And it's a variable quantity. In fact, for any given lens, depth of field is determined by the size of the hole that admits light into the camera. By aperture, in other words. I've already had something to say about aperture and light in an earlier column, but here's the executive summary: In photography, aperture is indicated by ƒ-number. The higher the ƒ-number, the smaller the aperture. Since aperture determines the size of your camera's window on the world, and since big windows let in more light than little windows, an aperture of ƒ/5.6 lets in more light than an aperture of, say, ƒ/22. So far, so good. But as I just noted, there's more to aperture than light. Aperture also determines depth of field, and here's where things get a bit messy. The higher the ƒ-number, the greater the depth of field. Of course, the converse is also true: the smaller the ƒ-number, the shallower the depth of field.
When I snapped the shot of the woolly bear, I allowed the camera to set the aperture and shutter speed. It chose a high shutter speed (to minimize shake), and compensated by opening the aperture. An open aperture equals a low ƒ-number equals shallow depth of field. Which explains why parts of the woolly bear's back are out of focus.
Whether or not this a good thing or a bad thing depends on what you want the final image to show. So let's look more closely at the interplay of depth of field and aperture, beginning with this photo:
The block of red sandstone in the middle of the picture is in focus, but the blue-green serpentine-marble behind it isn't, nor is the beaver-gnawn limb in the foreground. The grain of the wood table is only visible in the middle ground, too. This still life is illuminated by diffuse natural light coming from a window on the right. I shot the photo at an aperture of ƒ/5.6, with a shutter speed of 1/8 of a second, and I used a tripod. Now here's the same still life photographed at a much smaller aperture (ƒ/27):
Because I've stopped down the aperture, I've had to push the exposure to 3 seconds. (Rocks don't move fast, luckily. Still, it's a good thing I'm using a tripod!) The result? Everything in the shot is in focus.
A narrow depth of field doesn't have to be a handicap, however. It can be used to draw attention to your main subject, as in this photo of one of the toggles employed in setting up a poncho shelter:
My fingertips weren't important to the story that I wanted this shot to tell, but the role of the toggle was. So I paired an aperture of ƒ/8 with a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second to make sure that anyone looking at the picture was immediately in the loop, their eyes directed toward the object that mattered most.
Limiting depth of field can also add—wait for it—depth to a photo. Here's an example:
The cluster of chokecherries in the foreground is in sharp focus; the farther cluster is visible only as a blurry outline, hinting at abundance without diverting the viewer from the primary subject. I can't take the credit for this, unfortunately. The effect is a lucky accident. I let the camera call the shot, though the indirect lighting also contributed to the photo's emotional impact—as it did in this shot of a tiny alien invader from across the Pond, a Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria):
The blossom was only about half an inch in diameter. I let the camera choose the settings this time, too, and it married an aperture of ƒ/8 to a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. The result was—to my eye, at least—perfect. Every detail of the tiny flower is clearly visible, while the tall stem drops away into the background until it's little more than a blurry streak scrawled on a matte green screen.
Which bring us to the next topic:
Light and Background
No photographer can afford to take either of these for granted, but they're doubly important to the macrophotographer. To see why, you need only look at the following pair of photos:
These were shot on a brilliantly sunny day. The burdock burr in the picture on the left looks somewhat washed out, and the finer details are lost in the welter of neighboring burrs. The dark backdrop in the second photo eliminates this distraction, though there's still room for improvement. Diffuse sidelight would have yielded much better results.
All of which illustrates an important point: There's a world of difference between backcountry photography and the controlled environment of the studio. For one thing, when you're outdoors you can't pick and choose your subject's surroundings. But you can use a shallow depth of field to lessen the impact of background distractions. Take a look at this photo, made right after a heavy rain:
Once again, I left the hard choices to my Canon PowerShot—though I made sure it was in Macro mode first. And once again the camera chose well: an aperture of ƒ/4 and a shutter speed of 1/320th of a second. Knowing that the depth of field would be much reduced with the aperture stopped down this far, I focused on the nearest flower's most distant petals. The result? See for yourself. The water droplets on the petals stand out in sharp relief, while the daisies in the background are mere ghostly presences, the surrounding grasses little more than variegated shades of green. In the soft light from a storm-washed sky, Auto mode gave me exactly what I wanted.
Often, however, it's low light itself that's the problem. Luckily, over the decades that I've been snapping away I've collected a few…
Bright Ideas for Dealing With Dim Light
When you get close—and you don't have much choice in macrophotography, do you?—your own body frequently casts a shadow on your subject. The obscuring foliage of forest and thicket compounds the difficulty, and when you take into account the need to balance shutter speed and aperture, you're frequently left entirely in the dark. In desperation, you may be tempted to use your camera's built-in flash, but I'm seldom happy with the result. Here the problem is too much light, so much that all detail is lost in the glare. Off-camera strobes and illumination techniques adapted from the studio can be used, of course, and even a flashlight can be pressed into service in a pinch, but I prefer the simplicity and challenge of shooting in natural light whenever I can. That doesn't mean I don't try to make the best use of what nature provides, however. Most often this involves using a reflector of some sort. It needn't be anything very elaborate. Here are a few of my favorites:
There's nothing in this collection to break the budget, is there? My inventory of field reflectors includes my ancient gray felt hat, a steel Sierra Club cup, a sheet of white paper (cardboard works, too), and a dud DVD. I've also used a strategically placed light-gray umbrella, a bright yellow dry bag, a white t-shirt, and the blade of my ash beavertail paddle. Whatever your choice, the technique is simplicity itself. Just place your reflector so it directs light on your subject. To illustrate the possibilities, I set up a studio test using a beaver-gnawn limb on a dark blue sweatshirt. I then placed a small white feather in the limb's shadow. The only illumination came from the window.
To begin with, here's a shot of the feather in natural light:
Not great, eh? OK. Let's try a hat trick next:
The bottom panel shows the set-up; the top, the result. Pretty good, don't you think? My old felt hat bounced enough light into the pool of shadow to coax the feather out into plain sight. Other reflectors (and other hats) will yield different results, however, so it pays to experiment to find out what works best for you. If you're interested, you'll find the full report of my studio trial elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the old gray felt didn't fare too badly. But we don't want everyone to know our secret, do we? So keep it under your hat.
A tripod can also be a great help in low-light macrophotography, but many of the most interesting subjects—insects and tiny, wind-tossed flowers, for instance—require that you shoot fast and from the hip, pretty much ruling out any sort of prop. This is a good place to experiment with your camera's high-sensitivity (high-ISO) settings. Be forewarned, though: It's a zero-sum game. Every gain in speed is paid for with poorer resolution. High-ISO settings yield grainy images with noticeable amounts of pixel "noise." Does that mean you shouldn't use them? Not at all. Just don't expect your high-ISO shots to be as sharp as the photos you take at lower ISOs. But what's the alternative? Missing once-in-a-lifetime shots altogether, that's what. And where's the good in that?
Macrophotography used to be something that only experts did. No longer. With nothing more exotic than a typical point-and-shoot digital camera, any paddler can enter the secret world of the very small and bring back countless trophies to share with friends and family. It needn't involve black arts and incantations, either. The elements of macrophotography are easy to grasp and even easier to put into practice. So what's stopping you? Start thinking small today!
PS. To see more examples of what you can do with macrophotography, check out my "It's a Small World."
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