This past weekend we held a class on macro photography at Franklin Park Conservatory. The class was taught by Tim Neumann. Half of the class featured instruction by Tim and the other half consisted of shooting time within the Conservatory’s Botanical Gardens.
Tim provided some great insights into how macro photography, and the way macro photography makes you think, differs from other photography. At its most basic level, macro photography causes you to “think in a new scale,” Tim said. You should look at all the details, the textures and colors and patterns, rather than try to capture a scene in a conventional sense.
He also shared some gear requirements with the class. Obviously the most important piece of gear is a good macro lens, but sometimes that’s not even necessary, as you can buy either a reverse lens adapter or an extension tube and turn your normal zoom into a makeshift macro lens. Of course both these options have their downsides and don’t necessarily give you the 1:1 reproduction ratio, “flat field,” sharpness or depth of field options that a true blue macro lens does.
Other types of gear that Tim mentioned included tripods, bean bags, sliders, geared heads, and of course flashes. However, the most interesting tip that Tim shared was using driveway markers as poles to hold up backdrops when you’re shooting macro outside. Just saw the pole in half, replace the rubber cap, stick it in the ground next to your subject, and clamp your backdrop to it, and you have a $3 background stand.
After going over depth of field and focus stacking, Tim let us loose on the Botanical Gardens to try to put these tips into practice. My weapon of choice was the Tamron 90mm VC USD Macro lens. Equipped with Tim’s knowledge, a camera, a tripod, a remote shutter release, and one of the best lenses on the market amid one of the most beautiful collections of flowers and plant life in the region, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have been able to capture amazing macro images, right?
I’ve gone on record saying the Tamron 90mm Macro is one of my favorite lenses. But I use it mainly for portraits. Really, it takes amazing portraits. Sharp, crisp, great background blur—what more could you want?
One thing I learned at FPC was that macro photography is harder than it looks. My images would have assuredly looked much worse if I hadn’t been using one of the world’s best lenses (according to the EISA 2013-14 Awards).
Below are some of my images from that day. Take a look.
They aren’t terrible by any stretch, but they’re not my best work. There are some cool ones in there, but I can’t say I’d share any of these outside of my responsibilities as a blogger for MPEX. However, the silver lining to screwing up is that you get to learn something from your mistakes. Here are two things that I learned:
Macro is more about composition than I’d previously believed. I always kind of assumed that macro photography was as easy as “get close, gain focus, press shutter release.” But that really isn’t the case at all. Just because your subject is filling the frame does not mean you’re framing it correctly. Next time I set out to take some macro shots, I’m going to be conscious of my angles, my background, and my depth of field, and I’m going to push my compositions to be more dynamic and more thoughtful. My favorite shot from the above images is of the leaf because I really liked that angle and the composition.
Don’t underestimate the power of a flash. I wanted to keep it simple, and I thought that the tripod and remote shutter release would allow me to have sharp long exposures even at the most minimum aperture (most online listings for this lens, including ours, clocks the minimum aperture at f/32, but some of my images were shot at f/40 and beyond, which is INSANE). However, my false assumption was that because I could get enough light to properly expose my image, the lighting would be good. This was not the case. And that’s not a knock against the lighting at FPC! In fact, the majority of the light was external window light. It just happened to be window light from a bright, gray, flatly lit day. A flash would have been really nice to have, even just one, for better control over the dynamics and levels of the lighting.
As an addendum, my favorite shot from the day wasn’t a macro shot. In fact, it wasn’t even in focus. In fact, I hadn’t even realized I’d taken it until I was scrolling through my images later.
I love this shot. I know it doesn’t really look like anything. But that’s why I like it. It’s completely abstract, but there’s still the hint of shape and definition hidden in what looks like a watercolor. I just really, really liked this shot, and it made me want to shoot more abstract stuff like this.
Before I do that, though, I should probably return to the basics.
Did you miss the macro class? No worries. We offer classes all year round on a variety of topics. Check out a complete schedule of classes at the Learning Studio.