A Quick Guide to Close-Up Photography (Macro Photography)

I’ve had a number of requests to post something on techniques for close-up photography (macro photography).  To keep long technical details out of a short blog post, I’m presenting some basic tips here and providing a link to a more detailed PDF document for those interested in it.

Carrying a camera with a good macro lens is a fantastic way to explore prairies.  I notice things I wouldn’t otherwise see when I’m looking for close-up photos because my mind has developed a search image for small objects.

This tiny katydid nymph is sitting on cutleaf ironplant. I never would have seen it if I hadn't been carrying my camera and looking for small things to photograph.

Rather than looking for specific subjects (such as dragonflies or violets) I try to look for things that are well-lit and have interesting colors/backgrounds/patterns.  Early in the day, I often work the edges between shadows and light, trying to find flowers or insects that are catching the warm light but have shadows behind them.  On bright overcast days, everything is evenly lit and saturated with color, so I look for appealing patterns and colors – but just about any subject is fair game.  I rarely pull my camera out on bright sunny days unless I’m documenting something.  The light from a bright mid-day sun is just like the color of the sun – harshly bright and colorless.

This Canada wildrye seed head is reflecting beautiful golden early morning light.

Close-up photography doesn’t require a lot of equipment, but an SLR camera with manual focus and aperture control, a good macro lens, and a tripod are all necessary items.  Slow shutter speeds (the amount of time the camera’s shutter is open) allow small aperture settings, which helps maximize depth-of-field (the amount of space, front to back, that’s in focus) – something that is very important when focusing in on small subjects.  In order to shoot with slow shutter speeds, it’s impossible to hold a camera still without a tripod.  It’s also difficult to use slow shutter speeds on windy days, so calm wind is a close-up photographer’s best friend.

This photograph of ice along a creek was taken at a shutter speed of 1/6 second - much too slow to hand hold (especially with shivering hands). A tripod was a must for this photograph.

The most important – and often overlooked – aspect of a close-up photo may be the background.  When photographing an insect or flower, photographers tend to focus solely on that subject and forget about what is behind it.  An errant grass leaf or stem has been the downfall of many otherwise very nice photos.  An experienced photographer is always conscious of what’s behind the subject, and knows how to make slight adjustments to the position of the camera to create the most interesting (or least distracting) background possible.

A bumblebee on pitcher sage. I positioned my camera to get the blurred sunflowers in the background as texture and context.

I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to share my photos with others through multiple avenues – magazines, books, slide presentations, and now this blog.  I enjoy being able to show people animals and plants they might not otherwise have seen on their own.  It’s also educational for me because I can’t identify many of the subjects at the time I photograph them, but a good photograph allows me the opportunity to research both the identification and ecology of those species later.  I’ve learned a tremendous amount about prairies just by photographing its small citizens.  If you enjoy photography but don’t own a macro lens, I encourage you to look into getting one – it’s a ticket into a whole new world.

For more photos and tips on macro photography, click to see a PDF of more detailed guidance (macro photography 2010) or a short article I wrote on the same subject for NEBRASKAland magazine back in 2007 (Macro-June2007).

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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5 Responses to A Quick Guide to Close-Up Photography (Macro Photography)

  1. Gary Zamzow says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for the Macro Photography information, and
    the great photographs. I especially like the Bumble Bee
    and Salvia photo.

    There is a Nebraska Bumble Bee site called the
    Bumble Boosters that you may already know about.
    http://bumbleboosters.unl.edu/

    Bumble Boosters also have a Bumble Bee Identifier where
    one can click on the various parts of the bee to get the correct
    color pattern. Lots of fun.
    http://bumbleboosters.unl.edu/ident/identify.htm

    It looks like the Bumble Bee in your photo might be a
    Bombus auricumus(?) http://bugguide.net/node/view/70401
    or,
    Bombus pensylvanicus(?) http://bugguide.net/node/view/114531
    Not sure which. I’m just learning the Bumble Bees.

    Close focus binoculars really opened up the insect world to me.
    Also, great for looking at wildflowers.
    A great Holiday gift. Best $120 I’ve ever spent.
    Pentax Papilio 6.5×21 Butterfly Binocular
    They close focus to 18 inches. Cost: $119.00
    http://www.eagleoptics.com/binoculars/pentax/pentax-papilio-6-5×21-binocular

    Thank you for your Blog and take care,
    Gary Zamzow

    • Chris Helzer says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the information and photos. Yes, I’ve seen the bumbleboosters site – and agree it’s very useful. I haven’t spent the time that I should using the helpful identification key to figure out the species of the bumblebees I photograph. I do remember being impressed with the number of bumblebee species that Nebraska has (17, I think?).

      Also, I like the word bombus. It’s just fun to say.

      Thanks for the comment – keep them coming!

      Chris

  2. James C. Trager says:

    Here’s a nice video on spider and insect photography with a somewhat different take on the matter. The guy shoots hand-held by using a diffused flash and higher shutter speeds.
    http://thomasshahan.com/otherpages/videopages/introvid.html

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Fantastic photos!! Thanks for passing this on, James. I’ve added his Flickr site to my blogroll. There’s nothing wrong with his techniques at all… You were asking about tripods in an early comment, and he sure shows that you can get great photos without them. I think it comes down to stylistic preferences. He gets closer views of insects – especially the eyes! – than I do, but the flash illuminates things up close but not so much the background. The added flash allows him to use a faster shutter speed and still get the depth of field he needs – and overrides the ambient light, making it easier to shoot in the middle of the day. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to show the insect in context with its environment, I think, and the flash light (even diffused) still looks like flash light, rather than natural. Neither is right or wrong – in fact, it makes me reconsider my lack of motiviation to learn about using flashes… Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  3. James C. Trager says:

    You (/and I) are more in the vein of natural history photographic illustration, it seems, while his work might be called arthropod potraiture. Very different approaches – Both beautiful!

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