Why Patience is a Virtue: 3 Essentials for Shooting Macro Photography

Why Patience is a Virtue: 3 Essentials for Shooting Macro Photography

As anyone who’s worked in macro photography knows, successful shots largely depend on a great and sometimes grueling deal of patience. Alex Hyde – a professional natural history photographer by trade – has worked in macro photography for years, specifically with invertebrates. Based in the UK, Alex’s images have been published in newspapers, books, and magazines such as The Times  and BBC Wildlife.

Photo by Alex Hyde

So how do you get close-up photos of subjects that are literally smaller than a grain of rice, let alone get those creepy crawlers to sit still long enough to take their photo? Straight from the expert, here are Alex’s 3 essentials for shooting macro photography.

1. Be genuinely curious about your subject

Alex will tell you that he’s actually more interested in his subjects than the photography itself. That might sound surprising coming from someone who makes a sizeable chunk of his living taking photos, but it actually makes his work that much stronger. “To be a good nature photographer, you first have to be a good natural historian,” says Alex. “Knowledge and understanding of your subject are key.”

Because of Alex’s science background (he has an MSc. in Biological Photography and Imaging) he can write comprehensive captions for his images. He’s a stickler for accurate species names and supporting descriptions – and for good reason! “Half the value of these images [to clients and buyers] can be in the associated caption and keywords,” says Alex. “Often I try to show a biological concept in my photos and the supporting explanation is crucial.”

Photo by Alex Hyde: Labyrinth spider {Agelena labyrinthica} waiting in funnel web for prey.

Beyond just understanding his subjects, the majority of which are teeny-tiny invertebrates, Alex also genuinely cares about their welfare. “I have a responsibility to make sure they don’t get damaged or stressed out. Many invertebrates are fragile and require careful handling. For some of the smaller subjects, I use a fine paintbrush for maneuvering rather than picking them up directly.”

2. Make the flash your best friend

“When I started off in macro photography, I would often get frustrated with the available natural light,” Alex says. “I still find it very satisfying when natural sunlight provides everything I need to light a macro photograph, but often that’s not the case. There’s rarely enough natural light to photograph tiny subjects with a good depth of field and freeze the movement, and that forced me to understand lighting with a flash.”

Especially because he does a lot of work placing insects on white backgrounds, knowledge and experience shooting with a flash has been critical. For most scenarios, the challenge is to get the light to be as soft and natural as possible, while still avoiding harsh shadows. “Actually, it’s really no different than putting together your typical fashion shoot on a white background,” he laughs.

Photo by Alex Hyde: Jumping spider {Salticidae} covered in iridescent scales photographed on white background, tropical rainforest, Masoala Peninsula National Park, north east Madagascar.

First, Alex tapes a piece of your standard white printing paper to where the wall meets his table so that it forms a curve (keep in mind that his subjects are 5mm, not 5ft). Then he clamps his Canon speedlights to laboratory retort stands (which are inevitably always around his lab) for added height, and fits on diffusers that he makes himself with white plastic. Alex also keeps tinfoil and white card handy to create reflectors, helping bounce light back onto the subject to soften the shadows.

Then Alex sets up his Canon 5D Mark II on a macro focusing rail with his go-to lenses – the Canon EF 100mm and Canon MP-E 65mm macro lenses.

He then carefully adjusts the power of the flash units so that a clean white background is produced whilst preserving intimate details of the insect. “Often, I like to leave a shadow under the subject as it echoes its delicate shape and gives a sense of orientation. By moving a small reflector closer or further from the subject, I can control how dark the shadow appears. If I want to remove the shadow all together, I just position a flashgun underneath the paper that the subject is sitting on.”

Photo by Alex Hyde: Swallowtailed Moth {Ourapteryx sambucaria} photographed on a white background. Peak District National Park, Derbyshire, UK.

Many of the white background images are ready to go straight off the camera, although on occasion some post-production can help remove any small blemishes on the background and ensure that the image has a good contrast. “It’s a nice simple workflow if you get the flash power right,” he says.

But how on earth does he get those little critters to stay still? “I don’t create any walls around the insect, so I’ve certainly had quite a few escapees!” he muses. “But if you place the subjects on the paper with patience and care, they usually stay calm.” Just like a fashion photographer knows how to work with professional models, so Alex knows how to handle these super small critters. “I take the time to understand their habits and that helps me get the right shots.”

Photo by Alex Hyde: Dead Leaf Mantis {Deroplatys dessicata} in threat display, Photographed on a white background. Captive, orginating from South East Asia.

3. Always stay aware and think critically

Beyond straight up photo technique, Alex says that successful macro photographers also need to be critical in their image composition.

“If you move your camera even half a centimeter in macro, then you can dramatically change your composition,” he says. “So it requires you to slow down and inspect your composition to be absolutely sure you’re satisfied with the alignment, background and subject position. Only then do you press the shutter.”

Some images also take considerable advanced preparation. Alex is a big fan of showing creatures’ natural processes – for example, a moth’s life cycle. He calls these “sequence shots”. “I have my camera set up so that I can take shots throughout the sequence, and of course it’s important that the first shot is perfectly exposed so that the sequence of images looks consistent. Then I’ll work in Photoshop to bring all the separate images into a single sequence shot.”

Photo by Alex Hyde: Sequence showing wings of African Moon Moth (Argema mimosae) expanding after emerging from cocoon.

Another type of shot that needs a critical eye is that which shows camouflaged creatures. “I’m actually trying to hide the critter in my image,” says Alex, “to show off its excellent camouflage. I find this quite refreshing, as the aim in photography is more often to do the opposite and emphasize the subject in the composition.

Photo by Alex Hyde: Moth {Eupterote naessigi} camouflaged as dead leaf.

How I got that shot

After talking about his general tips for making good macro photography, Alex got down to business and took three of his favorite images to explain just how he made the shot.

Photo by Alex Hyde: Brown Stew Fungus {Kuehneromyces mutabilis} backlit. Tirol, Austrian Alps.

“I wanted to backlight this clump of toadstools to show off their translucent structures and emphasize their graceful shape. To do this, I placed a pair of flash guns behind the subject, just out of frame, one on each side. I use a Pocket Wizard radio trigger system with my flash units, which means I can adjust the power of individual off-camera flashes from the top of my camera. This is very useful for macro photography as one is often lying flat out on the ground and it saves having to get up every time you want to adjust the lighting! After taking a fair few test shots, I decided to add a reflector in front of the toadstools to bounce a small amount of light back into the subject to reveal a little more detail.”

Photo by Alex Hyde: Jumping spider {Euophrys frontalis} male amongst flower petals, Peak District National Park, Derbyshire, UK.

“This is a tiny Jumping Spider [Euophrys frontalis] that lives in the UK, but you only see it in the spring and summer. This one is a male, about 3mm long, and because of its size it’s difficult to plan a shot – especially if it’s running around. So I scattered some flower petals and allowed it to run over them until it settled on top of them. I was tracking it with my camera the whole time, so when it eventually paused it was as if it decided how I should compose the shot. I chose to leave quite a bit of space around the spider, and selected a shallow depth of field to get these gradients of color running into one another. I think it has an interesting abstract effect. Jumping spiders are fun subjects, but can be tricky to photograph because they have an inquisitive nature and a habit of jumping onto my lens!”

Photo by Alex Hyde: Violin Beetle (Mormolyce sp.) in rainforest habitat. Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia.

“I wanted to show this violin beetle in the context of its rainforest habitat. Close-up photography doesn’t always mean sticking to macro lenses, and for this shot I found my 16-35mm wide angle lens was the right tool for the job. The problem I faced was that my camera position, teetering on top of a tripod, was casting a shadow over the beetle. To get around this, I used some off-camera fill flash to pick out the beetle (as usual, with a nice big diffuser attached). Balancing flash with available natural light like this can take a bit of experimenting and I often have to take a few shots before I get it right.”

Alex also lectures at University of Nottingham on digital imaging, and offers one-on-one tutoring in macro photography techniques and Adobe products.

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There are 10 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Sunday Round-up 6 | Splendor Awaits
  2. Alex Hyde at 2:48 am

    Hi Paula,

    When backlighting a subject, I operate the flash units in Manual mode as I find the camera’s metering system can struggle to give consistent results with such a high contrast scenario. Whilst I will have an idea of the ballpark flash power I want to use in advance, it will vary based on the distance and angle of the flash guns from the subject and the translucency of the subject. The most important thing to consider is that everyone has there own taste when it comes to backlighting. Mine is usually to take the highlighted edges of the subject as bright as possible without blowing out detail. With the flash in manual mode, I can fine-tune the flash power until I achieve this.

    As for how I stop the insects crawling away, I must confess that sometimes they do! However with slow, careful, movements one can often get the critter to stay where you put it for a short while. Another thing that can help is to get to know their habits. For example, if a species is active by day, you could try photographing it after dark.

    I hope this helps,

    Alex

  3. CharlieJ at 2:18 pm

    Paula,
    Sometimes it’s about waiting for them to come back rather than worrying about them walking away. For instance, a dragonfly likes to light in the same spot, if provoked to fly. Approach and when it flies, STOP. Stand still and wait. Most likely, it will come back to the same spot. Move a little closer… I usually try to get into position without making the dragonfly take off more than twice. Then, I focus on the spot where it was sitting… and wait. MOST of the time, it comes back… and I get a good shot. [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/char1iej/4764006509/ ]

  4. Matt Leamy at 3:17 pm

    Most helpful article and some wonderful work. I’d love to know if you’re using focus stacking on any of these. And if you do how important a tool is that. If no, then how on earth did you get the Dead Leaf Mantis?

  5. Alex Hyde at 7:19 pm

    Hi Matt,

    Whilst I do use focus stacking in some instances, I didn’t with the dead leaf mantis image. I shot it at f22 and accepted that the overall image quality would soften slightly from the diffraction associated with such a narrow aperture. I would have preferred to use f16 if possible, but this subject was just a little too deep.

    It is always important to remember that your depth of field extends both in front and behind the point you focus on. Therefore I manually focus slightly past the front of the subject. Autofocus often picks the closest part of the subject, wasting all of the depth of field in front of your focus point. Apologies if you knew all of this already, I just thought it worth mentioning!

    Lastly, if you were to look at the high res of the dead leaf mantis shot, the very back does fall slightly out of focus, it just doesn’t notice at the size it is reproduced here.

    I hope this helps,

    Alex

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