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Macrophotography for Beginners
"I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?" - Chuan Tsu
What do you see? Do you see complexity, intelligence in design, or beauty? If so, macrophotography may be for you. Macro-photography is a branch of photography that captures the essence of the small world: insects, flowers, lizards, mice, coins, stamps, etc.
More than a skill, macro-photography is a combination of art and science, for me it's therapy. For the sake of this article, I will be referring to nature macro-photography; taking photos of insects, small animals, plants or flowers.
Macro-photographers have a zealousness for nature that compels them to pay attention to minute details in the smallest things; things hardly noticed by the rest of the population. To the eye of the macro photographer, a butterfly, a bumblebee, or a wasp are not just mere insects, but integral parts of a delicate ecosystem that depends heavily on their unique services, and thus deserve to be acknowledged. Even flowers, wild shoots, and grasses, are looked upon as possessing individual personalities, and effort goes into capturing their best features. My husband refer to flowers and trees as having faces. Macro-photographers are always on a mission to obtain quality photo-shots that capture the individual and unique characteristics of small critters.
Regardless of your particular interests, following are a few tips that will set you on your way to great macro-photography. A word of caution, though: macro-photography is extremely addictive!
Macro as understood in photography refers to the ability of a camera to take close-up photos at a ratio of 1:1, or in other words, close to life size. Fortunately, most cameras today have a macro mode. If you own a point and shoot, look at the mode dial, the macro mode is usually depicted with a flower icon. The macro mode tells the camera to focus on the subject framed, and to ignore the distance around your focal point. Some SLR cameras that claim to come with a macro lens, can only take good close up pictures, but usually at a scale of 1:2, which means they can get really close to the subject, but at half life size. So which camera works best for macro-photography?
Well, like my mentor in photojournalism class always use to say, "It's not the camera, but the photographer, that makes the photo." If you have a SLR or DSLR it may be easier to turn out better quality photos with less effort, however if you learn how to work the settings and lighting conditions of your subject, a point and shoot camera may work very well. Keep in mind, though, that when working with SLR or DSLR's you may have to interchange lenses. Macro lenses can range from 50mm to 200mm. Depending on how much distance you would like to keep between you and your subject, and the nature of your subject (a butterfly may dart off a flower if you encroach in its space with a 50mm), will be the type of lens you will be working with.
There are many gadgets that can be used with a DSLR camera to bring about creative, individual results; reversing rings, filters, extension tubes, bellows, reflectors, diffusers etc. It's really a matter of taste and budget.
Identifying Your Best Light Source
As in other types of photography, the "best features" of a subject, be it a bumblebee or a petunia, correlate with the best lighting. For beginning photographers learning about the way light affects a subject is of utmost importance. Briefly, there are two types of lighting conditions that macro-photographers need to know how to work with, depending on the effects that they may want a particular photo to display. These are: soft light and harsh light. For me soft light always works best; early morning or right before dusk. However, if you try photographing a subject during midday, the sun may cast shadows on your subject that may be undesirable. For this reason, many macro-photographers like using a flash to neutralize the effects of pronounced overcast shadows. But everyone is different, it is a matter of taste, and what is it that you are looking for. In the photo of the wasp, for example, it was midday, and I wanted the wasp to appear as if "seeing" his own shadow, so I didn't use the flash.
When photographing small things, especially small animals or insects take in account their "lifestyles". Learning as much as you can about the individual habits of small critters will go a long way in helping you capture those fleeting moments with precision. For example, dragonflies are incredibly fast and difficult to photograph in flight, but if you know that dragonflies tend to shoot upwards when taking off, this will put you in a better position to take that challenging shot.
Research can also help you to contribute important data to the scientific community. Take the case of a volunteer participating in the Staten island Dragonfly Atlas program, her random photograph of a dragonfly turned out to be the very first sighting of a Spatterdock Darner ever recorded in Staten island. There are also sites that appreciate macrophotography contributions to teach their visitors identify different species of insects. One such site is gardenwithwings.com, who encourage macrophotographers to submit butterfly photos to help the public correctly identify butterflies in their gardens.
If you are serious about photography, especially wildlife photography, there are now many traditional colleges offering concentrations on photography under their Fine Arts curriculum. If you don't have time for college, there are online photography schools that meet high standards of professionalism, and that offer personalized feedback from award winning or professional photographers with many years of experience. You can also interact with a community of aspiring photographers just as yourself, making the experience very rewarding. Taking a photography course will definitely take your photography to the next level.
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