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Having it large: the art of macro photography

Philip Smith
28 April 2014

As IGPOTY opens its ‘Macro Art’ photo project category, Philip Smith looks at the emergence of macro photography as a major photographic technique – and offers insights into what makes a big close-up an award-winner, illustrated by finalists from last year's macro competition.

I just love the way photography gets itself into a tangle with what it calls things. Lenses with a long focal length are called ‘long’ but lenses with a short focal length are called ‘wide’. Shutters have a ‘speed’ but the shutter comes down at exactly the same speed each time – it’s the amount of time it’s open than matters. My wife often says I’m pedantic – I can’t think why.

Big close up of a flower

Drosera capensis by Adele Spencer, finalist 2013. ‘A galaxy not so far away’

Micro or macro?

So to start with a question: why are some lenses called ‘macro’ (which means big) and some called ‘micro’ (which means small)?

The answer is that this is a bit of a red herring because only Nikon label 'micro' the lenses that every other manufacturer calls ‘macro’. So let’s stick with macro. Macro implies that these are lenses that make small things larger. They magnify them.

Well, yes and no.

Close-up

I find it easier to think of a macro lens as a ‘close-up lens’. You can get closer to your subject than you can with a non-macro lens. With a non-macro lens, as you get nearer to the subject it will become impossible to focus on it. With a macro, you can focus at a very close distance from the subject AS WELL AS being able to focus at infinity. Brilliant.

That’s why most of the lenses that professionals use are macro lenses – whether they have a long focal length (185mm) or a shorter length (55mm). They offer fantastic flexibility when you are photographing a garden. Not so useful for photographing the Cup Final.

The longer focal length enables you to be further away from the subject and yet still be a ‘close-up’, therefore the lens is also magnifying the subject. This is useful for flowers when the bloom you want to capture is in the middle of a precious flower bed in a stately home. You don’t want to be ejected for tramping all over the dahlias.

This magnification is also really useful for creating very blurred backgrounds – where background detail is blurred to a colour wash – as the depth of field with the longer lenses is so narrow.

Photo of lavender

Illuminated lavender by Rachel Chappell, finalist 2013 - with the background forming part of the colour palette by being very out of focus.

(There’s another one of these ambiguous phrases – 'narrow depth of field' – we should really be referring to shallow depth of field.)

So to get into macro photography do I now have to wait five years to save up for a top-of-the-range lens? Well, not really.

Most small compact cameras now have a ‘macro mode’ which will enable you to get close to subjects. You will have less control over depth of field with this set-up – but it's really useful if you actually want more of the subject in sharp focus.

Or you can have a look at extension tubes. All these do is extend the distance between the sensor and the lens – thus giving you a longer focal length – greater magnification – if fitted to a standard lens. They can be very useful and a fraction of the cost of a new lens.

Tips for macro photography

Here are some tips when thinking about macro photography for plants and flowers:

  • If you don’t have any other lens, a 100mm (roughly) macro lens gives you a very effective lens for close ups and general photography.
  • Always use a lens hood to maintain image contrast.
  • Use a cable release or electronic shutter release to avoid camera shake.
  • Always use a tripod as even a 100mm lens is heavy and difficult to keep steady when hand-held. Image stabilisation helps but is not fail-safe.
  • Always use a tripod – again – because when you are set up on a close-up of a flower – you may need to adjust exposure without moving the composition.
  • Always use a tripod – again – because detail matters in close-up work and you need time to contemplate what you are doing and the images you have taken. Tripods slow you down. A good thing.
  • Use a white card or a reflector to adjust the light and to bounce it into dark areas of the picture. Don’t use flash unless you really know how to use it subtly.
  • Hope it’s not too windy as with shallow depth of field plants go in and out of focus without telling you.
  • If focusing is tricky – use manual focus. It can make things easier.

Photo of a flower

Lathyrus Waves by Sarah-fiona Helme – winner of Macro Art 2013

The world of the macro imagination

Macro photography has the capacity to take you into the world of imagination like no other kind of photography. We can see the world in a different and exciting way. In fact the world can dissolve into a whirl of abstract shapes and textures that connect with us on an emotional and instinctive level. And that’s what the IGPOTY ‘Macro art’ category is all about.

To see what I mean - and to get inspired - take a look at last year’s winners of the IGPOTY Macro Art category.

The deadline for the category this year is 30th June – so get snapping!

- Philip -

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