Macro photography is never easy. You’re dealing with small subjects that are hard to see, and your depth of field is so limited that you know – unless you are able to do a photo stack to increase the sharpness – that a large part of your image is going to be blurred, writes Andrew James. But this is also the exciting bit. How do you use the ‘soft’ part of your image to accentuate the sharp and how do you position yourself so that the light and subject add to the story you are trying to tell?
In almost every situation I find myself in, I just want to take a photograph that pleases me. That’s all that matters. Is the image on the back of my screen something I like? Forget anything about the technical aspects, I’m simply talking about the aesthetics of the shot. I’ve lost count of the number of images that I’ve looked at over the years that are technically absolutely spot-on but creatively dull as the proverbial ditch water. I’m not pretending that some technical skills aren’t useful because they are, and you’ll find many, many previous articles on here that will help to increase your knowledge base.
Whether you are lucky enough to be photographing somewhere exotic or lying half in and out of a garden pond, as I was the other day, the ‘creativity equation’ is the same. How do I get the best from the circumstances I find myself in? If your answer to this is, ‘I just point and frame up without really thinking about it’ then I think you can do better. In fact, I know you can. We don’t often discuss the ‘vision’ aspect of photography because it’s so much harder to explain than a technical breakdown of aperture or shutter speed. But vision – your creativity to deliver the shot – is hugely important. Let’s go through a series of images I took recently of tiny frogs in my wildlife pond and see what my thought-processes were to capture shots that I like.
Frog shot 1
This frog is tiny – about the size of my little finger, so it’s one of my tadpoles from the spring grown-up (a bit). It was sitting on a lily pad, and I was able to photograph it from the side using my macro lens and an aperture of f/8. Despite this not being a focus stack, there is quite a lot of detail to get a sense of the texture on its skin and the eye stands out well. But it’s boring, right? There’s nothing about this shot that excites me. At best, it’s a record shot of a young frog. Compare it to this next image of the same young frog on the same lily pad.
Frog Shot 2
Same frog, same lily pad, same light but from a slightly different angle, shooting lower with the light slightly behind. We can’t see all of the frog so there is instantly a sense that the frog is timid or hiding, and that adds some narrative. Even the curve of the lily pad gives an interesting visual feature, and the shadow area at the base acts as a framing device. The bokeh behind could be seen as distracting but as it not too bright, it works as an extra element within the frame. Essentially, the first image is a record shot, but this one says more about the frog and its surroundings.
Frog Shot 3
This is a different frog but again I am trying to use the slight curve of the edge of the lily pad as a framing device, and by being low we almost get a sense of being in the water too, especially as the little pool of light around the frog’s head and the distortion of the body shows that it’s popping its head above surface film. The low position, gained by holding the camera and lens right at water levels has allowed me to avoid distracting reeds behind. In fact, the dark spot created by the out of frame reeds gives us a lovely dark patch at the top so we have a dark framing band top and bottom.
Frog Shot 4
Back to our little friend on the lily pad. A vertical framing makes this is a very different image. The angle of the frog and the slight diagonals on the pad itself help compositionally. Notice there is more space to the right – where the frog is looking – as this is the active space, rather than the passive space to its left.
Frog Shot 5
This took several attempts to get right and the light bouncing off the surface meant I needed to underexpose by half-a-stop to avoid hotspots of light burning out within the frame. Again, the lens is absolutely level with the surface of the water, so you feel you are right in the frog’s environment. The out of focus foreground and background frame the main part of the picture, those two little eyes popping up out of the weed.
Frog Shot 6
This final shot has the least depth of field because it was shot at f/2.8 with the focus on the frog’s lead eye. I chose this for two reasons. Firstly because otherwise there was a lot of distracting detail, particularly behind the frog, and secondly because I wanted the eye to really ‘pop’ as the main interest within the frame.
Creativity doesn’t have to be something avant-garde, although if you want to push the boundaries then go for it. For me, creativity is down to that basic recipe of subject, light, and surroundings. In other words, this is my subject, this is the light I have (or can add), and these are the elements I can see when I look through the viewfinder. It’s dealing with each of these things, often in a hurry when you are shooting wildlife, that determines the outcome and to a large degree, the success of your photo. And remember, in most cases success simply means that YOU like the result.
Just like the processing I did last week on the backlit butterfly shot, small changes can make a big difference to an image both at the shooting and post-processing stages. Angle of view, depth of field, direction of light, and position of the main subject within the frame. Think about all this information when you in the field (or pond) and you’ll capture better images every time.