In just a few weeks, green leaves and blossom bring new life to stark tree branches, birdsong bursts louder and earlier in the dawn as the days reclaim the night hours, and the first bees arrive to forage on flowers in our gardens and parks.
With the longest days of the year to look forward to, it seems like the best time to take longer excursions and day trips with the camera. However, spring is also the best season for the photographer to operate closer to home, or to spend more of the day in one location, focusing on subjects that demand closer scrutiny.
In short, spring and early summer are the best months for macro, when the photographer can discover the natural secrets of the garden.
Macro involves focusing closer to get a magnified view of a small subject like bees, butterflies and other insects, as well as flower and plant details. However, what many people don’t realise is that close focusing on these subjects requires a specialist macro lens. Yet many of us only know of macro when buying a zoom lens that is described as having a macro capability, but this is a misuse of the word.
True macro is the term used to describe the reproduction of a subject at life-size on a camera’s image sensor. This is measured as a ratio of 1:1, but many so-called telephoto macro zooms offer a maximum magnification ratio of around 1:3 or 1:4 – just a quarter life size.
A true macro lens will have a fixed focal length of around 50mm, 100mm or 150mm, and enable you to focus to within a few centimetres of your subject. It is a lens that is tailor-made for natural history subjects such as flowers and insects, and provides plenty of creative scope through framing and choice of focal point to produce an image that is uniquely your own.
The beauty of close-up plant and insect photography at this time of year is its accessibility – there is a wealth of possible subjects to be found in your own back garden or a local park. In cities and towns, carefully arranged gardens add brilliant natural colour to offset the otherwise dull background of city office blocks. By adopting a low viewpoint and moving right up close to the flowers, their natural colours and shapes fill the frame. As a result the location of your composition becomes virtually irrelevant.
This perspective works extremely well when using an ultra wide-angle lens, where lens distortion exaggerates the size of the plants closest to the lens.
Unlike, a macro lens, an ultra wide-angle produces much greater depth of field, particularly when using a small lens aperture. But isolating a single plant or bloom in the frame requires a totally different approach and this is where the macro lens comes into its own. Because of the image magnification capability, you can focus on a flower stamen or petals to such a degree that with the addition of extension tubes an image several times larger than life-size is possible.
However, the price for such intimacy is a lack of depth of field – macro lenses give a very shallow focus plane, so critical adjustments to focusing are a huge test of a camera’s autofocus sensitivity. As a result, many macro photographers prefer to switch off the camera autofocus and make fine focusing adjustments manually.
Because depth of field when using a macro lens is so shallow – even with the aperture stopped down to f/32 – fast shutter speeds are unlikely on anything than the brightest of days. You should therefore mount your camera on a tripod and use a remote release or the camera self-timer to ensure your camera and lens are absolutely still when the shutter is open.
Many people think a bright clear day with the sun high in the sky is the ideal time for photographing plants and insects. While such conditions will bring out the colours, the intensity of reflections and darkness of shadow areas in the resulting images will suffer from too much contrast.
The telltale proof lies in areas of ‘burn-out’ – the complete loss of detail in image highlights. A reflector is a handy accessory to fill-in dark shadows, by reflecting light to the area of darkness, but burn-out is virtually impossible to correct. Therefore, the best lighting conditions for garden macro photography is an overcast day where the clouds diffuse the sun to create a low contrast, even shadowless light. With your camera set up on a tripod and with little or no breeze in the air, you can have all the time you want to photograph, varying your point of focus and composition, altering the height and angle of your camera, and experimenting with apertures and shutter speeds, to see the effect of depth of field and image blur.
There is another reason to give yourself plenty of time on one subject: even the softest of breezes can exaggerate the movement of flower petals and leaves when viewed through a macro lens in the camera viewfinder.
Patience is therefore key to garden macro photography as you wait for things to become still again and take care not to knock your tripod or lens with hasty and clumsy adjustments.
The past decade of digital innovation has witnessed a huge benefit to the macro photographer, particularly for those who use cameras with cropped sensors, which are about two thirds the size of the full-frame sensor found on professional body cameras. When using a full-frame macro lens on a cropped sensor camera, the focal length of these lenses increases by a factor of 1.6x, for example a 100mm macro becomes 150mm. The advantages are twofold: the lens to subject working distance increases, and the 1:1 macro ratio multiplies to 1.5:1 – larger than life-size.
Of course, the down side of such image magnification is that any movement of the lens or alteration to the focus plane will also be magnified. Therefore, using a tripod and remote release to ensure your camera is completely still and vibration free is a mandatory requirement of macro work!
To further reduce the chance of image sharpness being affected by internal vibrations, many macro photographers use cameras with a mirror lock-up facility. This holds up the mirror used to reflect the light from the lens to the viewfinder before the shutter is opened, an operation that otherwise happens simultaneously. Of course, this becomes an irrelevance if you use a mirror-less camera, also known as a compact system camera (CSC), which have gained in popularity in recent years, and also among macro photography enthusiasts.
Technical considerations aside, one of the pleasures of embarking on a garden macro project this spring is the wealth of discoveries to be made about the natural world on your back doorstep. Keen gardeners may think they know everything about their flowers, but when looking at the small plant details through a macro lens, it can be like peering into another world. The colour, texture, line and shape of even common plants become aesthetical elements in an artistic composition.
By becoming a keener observer of single small subject, you will also notice the other life forms that the flowers and plants attract as a food source or shelter. Lookout for butterflies, bees, ladybirds or even dragonflies alighting on the plants. If you miss them first time around, chances are they will return, and with your camera and lens already set up and focused, you are better placed to succeed. After all, the secret to photographing so many natural history subjects is not to give chase, but to wait.
By definition the macro world may be small but with the right lens and set up there is much to discover.
Use a tripod for added stability. It is essential to the result that the focal point of your image is sharply focused. And fire the shutter with a remote release.
Remember the minimum focusing distance of the lens you use. Macro lenses have the closest focusing capability and the incremental distances require precise adjustment.
Take a spot meter reading from grass or leaf foliage. Natural greens make a perfect mid-tone. Use the camera’s AE lock button to lock this reading when recomposing, or simply set the exposure manually
Use direct flash for macro subjects, certainly not at full power. The shadows and direct light burst will be too harsh for an evenly exposed image. Far better to work with the available light and use a reflector or two to direct sunlight into shadow areas.
Rely on the camera’s autofocus. When focusing a macro lens it is best to make precise adjustments manually.
Always shoot on a bright sunny day. Cloudy overcast days produce even shadowless lighting that is ideal for close-up images.
Digital Macro & Close-up Photography by Ross Hoddinott, Ammonite, softback, £15
Digital Flower Photography by Sue Bishop, Photographers’ Institute, softback, £16.99
Close-up & Macro, A Photographer’s Guide by Robert Thompson, David & Charles, softback, £12.99
Accessory option: Compact tripod
Benro’s Travel Angel series (from £140) has a design that sees the legs fold back 180 degrees to close in on the centre column, making them small enough to fit in aircraft hand luggage. When fully extended the tripod reaches eye level and by unscrewing one of the legs and attaching it to the center column, you have 180cm monopod!
Camera option: Cropped sensor DSLR
‘Cropped sensor’ cameras give greater magnification with full-frame lenses – an advantage when working with macro optics. The D7100 (£900 body only) features a weather-sealed body that makes it ideal for unpredictable weather. It includes a 24Mp image sensor, 100-6400 ISO, 51-point AF system, 3.2in LCD screen and 6fps continuous shooting.
Lens option: Macro lens
Whatever make of SLR camera, you’ll find a specialist macro lens with focal lengths of up to 200mm available. An example is the Sigma APO Macro 150mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM lens (£680). Available in all Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Sony camera mounts, it offers true 1:1 life-size magnification, a detachable tripod socket and full time manual focus override for making precise adjustments.
This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine