To many, nature is noteworthy only for its grand displays: a spectacular array of autumn foliage, a brilliant bloom of wildflowers or a tumultuous waterfall. But beneath this sometimes dazzling facade, in a place where few deign to look, is a world much smaller and more intimate. This mysterious place is filled to the brim with fascinating creatures and intriguing oddities. Slithering snakes, fragile flowers and industrious insects are just some of the denizens of nature one can find on the macro scale.
It is perhaps the very fact that this tiny world is so often overlooked that draws me to macro photography. This nature photography niche offers the opportunity to showcase countless seldom-seen species and phenomena. A single, delicate flower petal may become a poster-sized wall hanging, or a spider’s four pairs of eyes might stare back at your one. In either case, you may get the chance to notice something about nature that you never noticed before.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to the realm of macro photography is its accessibility. Photographing birds requires a hefty investment in large telephoto lenses, cumbersome tripods and expensive flashes. Capturing epic scenery shots mandates an in-depth knowledge of filters and the money to travel. Macro photography, however, can be accomplished in your own backyard and requires almost no specialized equipment. Certainly there is a plethora of expensive gear available to satisfy the wealthy, would-be macro photographer: expensive lenses, extension tubes, ring flashes and the like. But for those not swept away by a bad case of gear-addiction, beautiful and satisfying macro photography can often be accomplished using a simple, digital, point-and-shoot camera.
These days, for only a couple of hundred dollars, it is possible to buy an extremely capable point-and-shoot camera with all of the necessary features to get started in macro photography. Many of these cameras are equipped with automatic macro “modes”, some of which will focus on subjects as close as 1cm from the camera lens. These features allow the user to focus on details such as shot composition and subject position without worrying about pesky things like shutter speed and aperture settings. For a few hundred dollars more it is possible to take the leap into the digital SLR realm, and this can afford a considerably higher level of control for those seeking the challenge. In either case the keys to shooting good macro are fundamentally the same.
Almost certainly the most important aspect of any photography is a knowledge of your subject matter. When photographing living creatures this facet is especially important. Will that frog react to the sound of your camera shutter? Which flower will that butterfly land on next? What effect does the angle of the light have on the visibility of a damselfly’s wings? Knowing your subject allows you to make better decisions more quickly, which is often vital to capturing a fleeting moment. In order to learn your subject, there is undoubtedly no substitute for time spent in the field. The more you observe, and the more you shoot, the more likely you will be prepared to grab a stellar shot when a window of opportunity arises.
One of the best tips that I received when I was beginning to photograph wildlife was to photograph from the eye-level of the subject. In macro photography this often means getting a little dirty. Photographing from the eye-level of a toad may mean lying face-down in the mud, but imagine the difference between the toad’s perspective and your own! Eye-level shots are almost always more intimate and interesting than shots from above, but there are no hard-and-fast rules here. Experimenting with different angles and perspectives can often yield exciting results.
Possibly the greatest benefit in the advent of digital photography is the ability to shoot round after round of photos without worrying about wasting film or money for developing. This frees up the burgeoning photographer to shoot at will, and there is undoubtedly no better way to develop as an artist. With each photo you have the chance to see what works, and what doesn’t, so that you can improve your shooting in the future. Experimenting with new techniques and ideas will allow you to grow, and set you apart from other photographers
The world of macro photography offers the opportunity to see the remarkable in the ordinary, and to exhibit a world unseen. Your subject matter can be found anywhere: insects in your garden, frogs at a nearby pond, or wildflowers in a local forest. And the best part of it all is that anyone can do it! So next time you’re out for a walk, take the camera along. You never know when the perfect opportunity may arise.