When, Where, and How to Better Macro Photography

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Three simple tips to become a successful macro photographer.

Mastering the art of macro photography in nature takes time and patience, but knowing when, where and how to take these fascinating photographs will make the journey a lot easier. If you have limited time or money to travel, macro photography offers ample creative and artistic opportunities. If you have only a few hours a week to shoot, you will find an abundance of subjects in your backyard and the local parks. The cost includes only a few gallons of gas, a park pass, and several resource books to identify the flowers, plants, and bugs selected as photographic subjects.

Plants and insects have life cycles that vary with the four seasons as well as within geographic regions, offering the macro photographer new opportunities every month of the year. Part of the fun of macro photography is looking for objects and places to shoot by learning about the ever-changing local environments.

Busy schedules require balancing work requirements and family life, making it a challenge to find sufficient time to shoot. The advantage of macro photography is that any time of the day will work. Unlike landscape photographers, who are often restricted to the ideal light of early morning and late afternoon, macro photographers can effectively control the available light of almost any time of the day by using diffusers and reflectors.

When to Shoot


A variety of photographic subjects can be found all year long because the environment is constantly changing every month of each season. The tiny landscapes of the macro world are shifting by the minute, and knowing when to be in the field at the right time is the key to success. For example, some wildflowers will bloom for long periods allowing many days to shoot, while others bloom for only a few days or at certain hours. By studying online resources and books to learn the life cycles of the local plants and insect life, the macro photographer will know when to be in the field as these subjects become available. Accurate information regarding nature’s timetables is invaluable to the photographer who needs to be in the right place at the right time.

The seasons of the wildflowers, plant life, and insect cycles also vary within specific regions of an area. For example, the dates of the transition to fall colors in the State of Michigan (this author’s home) progress in sequence from the Upper Peninsula to the northern Lower Peninsula, followed by the southern Lower Peninsula. Networking with other photographers and local naturalists or conducting online research can also provide the macro photographer with important information about the natural world that will influence choices of when to shoot plants, insects, and earth formations in their unique settings. Dragonflies and butterflies are less active on a cold morning, making them easier to approach with a macro lens. In December, the first ice forms at the edges of the small streams resulting in beautiful abstract patterns, but later in winter these patterns disappear as the ice thickens. Taking the time to learn about the local natural world will increase the frequency of successful photographic shoots in the field.

 Photo ©Mike Moats

Where to Shoot

Learning where to shoot is as important as learning when to shoot. In the spring, Michigan wildflowers tend to be in the wooded areas; as they die off and summer approaches, the open fields offer more possibilities. In the fall, the colorful leaves that fall to earth bring macro photographers back to the woods. Areas with life sustaining water contain plants that attract many small bugs and critters. Swamps, open fields, deserts, rain forests and woodlands all contain their own unique varieties of plant life, insects, and earth formations.

Available resources to assist the macro photographer learn about these ecosystems include books, brochures, and online nature photography sites with forums for questions and answers regarding photographic settings. Local park systems often have a nature center with a naturalist who is knowledgeable about where and when flowers, dragonflies, butterflies, and interesting plant life can be found. Keeping detailed notes about where and when interesting subjects were found will prove to be an important and useful personal resource for future shoots in the years to come.

 Photo ©Mike Moats

How To Shoot

Macro photography is much different from other forms of nature photography because subjects are within inches of the camera. The right equipment is required to produce good quality images.  Digital SLR cameras and a macro lens are best suited for the macro photographer.

Matching the right macro lens with the subjects you plan to shoot is especially important. Macro lenses range in focal length from 50mm to 200mm. The short focal length 50mm and 60mm lenses are good for hand holding shots and shooting stationary subjects, but the short working distance between you and the subject can make it tough for capturing butterflies, dragonflies and other small insects that will flee as you get close. The mid-range focal length 90mm to 105mm lenses are good for all purpose lenses that will handle most macro photography situations. The long-range telephoto macro lenses with 150mm, 180mm, and 200 mm focal lengths are best when extra working distance is required between you and your subject. These longer focal lengths will also blur backgrounds better than the shorter focal lengths, which is a desirable effect for flower and insect images.

Because the high magnification produced by these lenses requires a solid foundation and steady camera to help produce sharp images, a sturdy tripod with a ball head under the camera should be used as often as possible. When handholding the camera without a tripod, a fast shutter speed or flash can be used to counteract any slight camera movement.

Once the macro photographer has set up the correct equipment and prepares to take a photograph, a decision must be made about what elements of the image need to be in focus. Images where everything in the composition is of interest and needs to be shown in detail will require a maximum depth of field. Images where only the main subject in the composition is of interest (because the background is distracting and needs to be blurred) will require a minimum depth of field. Therefore, matching the composition requirements to the corresponding best aperture f/stop can minimize the macro photographer’s struggle with depth of field. The higher f/stops create maximum depth with everything in focus, while the lower f-stops create limited depth of field with less of the image in focus.

By working mainly with the endpoints of the depth of field range, the macro photographer’s job is made easier. For subjects where everything in the composition is interesting and every part of the image is worthy of focused detail, the aperture settings can range from f/22 to f/36. The majority of this author’s portfolio is shot in this style. For subjects that lend themselves to a soft abstract look or for subjects that require a blurred background (such as typical flower shots), the aperture settings can range from f/2.8 to f/8. A blurred background requires taking time to find the camera angle with the least distracting background possible.

There are many f/stop settings in between wide open (f2.8) and closed down (f/36) that will produce various amounts of focus in the image. To gain confidence with how depth of field affects the focus in an image, one subject can be shot with all the f/stop numbers within the camera’s range. Confusion regarding the relationship between depth of field and f/stop numbers is reduced by remembering that the bigger the number, the bigger the amount of focus, while the smaller the number, the smaller the amount of focus. Adjustments to the f/stop are made when the camera is set to manual mode or to aperture priority.

Now that you have learned the when, where, and how, it’s up to you to get out in the field and put these tips to use.  Mother Nature creates amazing artwork, it’s up to the photographer to find it.

 

 Photo ©Mike Moats

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Mike Moats is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Mike and our photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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