When I picked it up at 15, photography was just the latest in a long string of hobbies that had flamed up and died out pretty quickly, so I certainly wasn’t going to spend a ton of money on it (and neither were my parents). After a couple of years though, I decided that I had better buy at least one good lens if I hoped to become competitive. Austin, Texas is not exactly the High Sierra so I decided against a pro landscape lens, and the cost of a good telephoto made me sick, so I sort of chose macro by default. It turned out to be a great fit for me though, because i’d been interested in the critters that scurry and slither around beneath our feet since I was little, and had become really knowledgeable about their behavior just in the course of being a kid. For $500 I bought Minolta’s 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, and it opened up a whole new photographic world. At first it was just about the lens and I would point it at something small and be happy with the result, but over time I became a better photographer and my ability to find compositions improved. Your lenses are your eyes, and you are limited by what they can see and how well they can see it, so it’s extremely important to have equipment you can grow into. Unfortunately, after that purchase it would be 8 years until I would pony up more than $500 for a lens, which is not a course I recommend.
Back in the film days I used a tripod for almost every photo I took, but it was especially necessary for macro work. The amount of light entering the lens decreases as you focus closer, and that combined with the low sensitivity of film meant that most shots were in the 1 to 10 second range. Nowadays, with digital cameras capable of shooting clean images up to ISO 1000 or higher and many pro lenses coming with some kind of internal stabilization, I find myself using my tripod much less than I did before. I still carry one of course, because limiting yourself to shots you can handhold is a serious handicap.
At first I had to get over a strange feeling that images shot handheld were somehow not as good as those shot from a tripod, but I managed to do so and couldn’t be more enthusiastic about ditching the tripod for macro work if at all possible. I’ve found two main advantages: the first is that it takes a while to set up a tripod and often the moment will pass while you’re fiddling with the legs or trying to work it into place, and the second has to do with the vast difference that results from changing your perspective even a tiny amount while working at a small scale. When your camera is mounted on a tripod, it’s not easy to move it around and experiment to find the best angle, and even if you take it off the tripod to find the best position, trying to find that exact spot once you’ve re-mounted the camera is not easy. With the camera in your hands, on an ISO of 400 or more and using Internal Stabilization and Live View to compose the shot, it’s far easier to move the camera around and find the best composition. Sometimes it’s still too dark out or I’m zoomed in too far to handhold shots, but i’ve been surprised how often I can take clean, we’ll focused photos without a tripod. In addition, my Canon 5d Mark ii allows me to zoom in really close while using Live View so I can get the focus exactly right.
To sum up what i’ve learned about macro photography over the last 15 years, I would just say that, like with cooking, the devil is in the details. Anyone can take decent macro photos, and almost anyone can take good macro photos, but relatively few people can take great, award-winning ones and in my opinion it’s partially due to not paying enough attention to the details. One reason I love it is because you have so much control over the scene and total freedom of movement. If you’re shooting a bear with a 600mm lens, you pretty much stay where you are and hope that the bear moves into a good position. If you’re shooting a praying mantis with a 100mm macro lens, you can come at it from every conceivable angle, including underneath looking up. Try that with a bear. This greater freedom means that you’re much more likely to find an excellent composition where everything comes together, and personally I’m just as impressed by a beautifully done image of a mantis or butterfly than by one of a grizzly bear or bald eagle.
Live View is incredibly useful in another way as well. I love shooting into the sun and using it’s light and color to take unusual photographs, but it’s pretty painful and damaging to look directly at it through the viewfinder. I shudder to think of all the times I stared at the sun through the viewfinder until the scene wasn’t that bright anymore and I could set the exposure and compose the shot. Now I can use Live View to do those things, and let the sensor take the brunt of it. I was concerned at one point that I would damage the sensor by exposing it to the sun so much, and found a story or two online about it happening, but it seems that unless you’re using a long telephoto lens that can really concentrate the sun’s light, and leaving the shutter open for a long time, it shouldn’t cause any damage.Once you’ve found a subject, the process of shooting it often feels to me like sketching. You experiment with angles and distances, taking shots when what you see through the viewfinder looks right. Often i’ll find myself getting closer and closer to the subject and lower and lower to the ground, paying as much attention to the background as to everything else. Any spots of light coming through brush or trees can be used to great effect, as can grass or something that partially blocks the subject from the lens. The most important thing is just to experiment. Don’t pack up and move on after 10 minutes because you’ve gotten a decent photo, hold the bar high and spend as much time as it takes to get an image you’re really happy with. Sometimes it won’t happen of course, and sometimes it’ll happen fairly quickly, but generally I find that it takes me an hour or so with a subject to feel satisfied that i’ve gotten as good a photo as I can, and after reviewing the progression of images later on they almost always get better and better the more time I spend, and i’ll often choose one of the last few as the best.Using spots of light in the background is one of the most useful things i’ve learned, and it’s not that hard to pick up. Again, experimentation is best because the way pinpricks of light appear in the viewfinder is not at all how they appear to the naked eye, so it takes some experience before you can visualize how something will look. The diaphragm inside the lens is roughly circular, and so a spot of light will take on the shape of the diaphragm. If the shot is taken with the aperture wide open, say at f2.8, the diaphragm will be a near-perfect circle and that’s how the light will register on the film, as in the photo below.
If on the other hand the aperture is stopped down to f5.6 or lower, you’ll get a wider depth of field but the aperture blades will contract and you’ll get more of an octagon shape. To see what I mean, just look into your lens with a light and hit the aperture preview or live view button to see how the diaphragm changes shape.
The size of the circle of light depends on the lens you are using, the longer the lens the larger the circle. So if I want to frame the subject, say a spider or butterfly, within the circle of light, i’ll use a longer lens like a 300mm f/4 ($900), instead of a shorter macro. If you’re focusing very close, however, the circle will be plenty large with a 100mm.
Shooting through vegetation is something i’ve started doing fairly recently, but if sort of feels like the next step for me with macro. It reduces the overall clarity of the photo, but can give it an ethereal quality that isn’t often seen. You can keep the subject crisp and clear if you want, just find a small gap in whatever you’re shooting through and frame the subject in it.