Closeup photography basically requires an observant and discerning eye, as well as a willingness to witness in the commonplace a display of the miraculous.
John Shaw-Closeups in Nature
All of the photographs in this post were made on my property within a quarter mile of my house. That is the wonderful thing about close-up/macro photography: there is a world of subject matter literally at your feet.
Also, all these photographs were made with my thirty-something year old Nikkor 105mm f2.8D macro lens mounted on one of my Nikon Df bodies. I normally don’t mention gear because it seems superfluous, but in this case, I have had a long-standing love affair with this lens and it still makes beautifully sharp images, so it needs to be recognized.
I have spent hours photographing leaves; cottonwood–as in these photos, aspen, willow, oak, birch, etc. You get the picture. I never grow tired of it, and I usually come away feeling fulfilled and happy with the day’s work. The first image encased as it is in ice is a bonus for me; when I’m working in these conditions, I don’t feel the cold. I get so focused that I am unaware of anything going on around me. Not such a good thing if you’re in a crowded city, but working in a field with not another soul within a mile or more, it’s an exhilerating freedom.
The everyday patterns found in the natural world are pretty much perfect. No amount of rearranging can possibly make them better, but rather it will usually leave them looking, well…re-arranged. So I take things as I find them and rarely touch any of the elements. The only caveat is I will sometimes remove a distracting element if it can be done without disturbing the rest of the composition.
This image of a small group of seed pods required a lot of forethought and some delicate maneuvering. It is a 1:1 magnification ratio, so the working distance was about twelve inches. At that distance, depth of field is measured in fractions of an inch; I needed to be sure my camera’s focal plane was parallel to the pods, and that my aperture provided a DOF that was wide enough to keep all the pods in reasonable focus, but was shallow enough to ensure a nice soft background. Add to all that the fact that I was working just a few inches above the ground and if I bumped the fragile pods with my equipment, they would be destoyed. Enough said.
Walking along the river one afternoon I looked down to find this arrangement of cottonwood and willow leaves, twigs, and grass at my feet. I actually shot this handheld (something I usually won’t do when making close-ups), so there was really no set up involved, I just squatted down, composed the image, and released the shutter.
Out again a couple days ago, I found these red birch logs lying near the river behind my house with the leaves tucked in between them. It took a while to set my tripod in the optimal position for this image because there were quite a few downed trees close to the subject and I needed to balance the legs of the tripod on them and get the whole thing close enough to the ground to achieve the right perspective.
It’s been a while since I’ve done any close-up work and I had forgotten how rewarding it can be. Getting out and crawling around in the dirt again brought it all back to me. I hope you enjoy seeing these photographs as much as I enjoyed making them.
This is a post about gear (particularly lenses) and why I chose it (them) to make a specific image. I teach a digital photography class at a nearby college and one of the things I cover in that class is the effect that the angle of view (the angle of coverage of the lens) can have on how the image is perceived by viewers. There are four categories: broad landscapes (wide angle), intimate landscapes (normal to short telephoto), compressed landscapes (mid-long telephotos) , and macro/close-ups (macro lens).
This image of a small wash full of water was made in the Rio Puerco Valley after a monsoon rain. It is an example of a broad landscape; the depth of the image from foreground to horizon is exaggerated. I used a wide angle zoom with an aperture of f 22 to give me the depth of field I needed to keep everything sharp.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 @ 17mm; 1/30sec, f22, ISO 100, tripod
I made this image in Blue Canyon on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. It is an intimate landscape; the area covered, side to side and front to back, is relatively small compared to the broad landscape. There is a feeling of immediacy or closeness about the image, as if it could fit in your living room. I used a medium telephoto zoom set at an aperture of f 11.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8 @ 35mm; 1/25sec, f11, ISO 100, tripod
Using a telephoto lens causes an image to compress, so distant objects seem closer. A telephoto lens does not exaggerate the depth of the image the way a wide angle lens does. Instead, it causes elements to flatten, making the distance from foreground to horizon appear shorter, and making the elements in between appear more closely grouped.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 @ 200mm; 1/25sec, f8, ISO 100, tripod
There is something about the the world that lies right at our feet that is compelling. Although it is normally common and quite ordinary, given a little attention and a skilled eye it can become extraordinary. This is the world of close-up or macro photography. There is no need to travel to exotic locales when there is an unending source of interesting subjects to be found in your own back yard.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 105mm f2.8 macro; 1/60sec, f8, ISO 200, tripod.
When I go on a photo expedition or lead a tour, I take two cameras and all the lenses I could possibly need, all packed into my Lowepro AW 300 Trekker backpack with my tripod strapped to the outside. It’s a load and can sometimes become a bit much after trekking through the desert all day. But, I do it because I know I’ll have whatever I need to capture the images that I see.
Recently, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my lovely daughter Lauren. The baggage and carry-on restrictions prevented me from bringing along all of my gear, so I made the trip with one camera, two lenses, and a flash packed into a shoulder bag. As a result, I was forced to look at my photography in a whole new way, and I am quite pleased with the images I brought home.
I made this portrait of Lauren on one of our early morning dog walks. If you knew Lauren as I do, you would also know that this is the perfect setting for a portrait of her.
I made this image at Lake Mendota, the bigger of the two lakes which border Madison on the north and south. This gull was walking up and down the pier like a miniature Charley Chaplin. It was pretty comical and I made close to forty exposures of him, but when he stopped and looked over the edge, he provided the perfect counterpoint to the fisherman.
Believe it or not, this image was made in one of Madison’s many dog parks. This one has its own wetlands complete with a green heron. Luckily, I spotted the bird before Lauren’s dog did.
This last image is of a lotus flower and lily pads in the Japanese Garden at House On The Rock in southwestern Wisconsin. House On The Rock is an amazing place and deserves more than just a nod in a photography blog. If you’re ever in that part of the world, I highly recommend the tour.
So, aside from spending a wonderful week with one of my favorite people, this trip also forced me to look at my work in a different way. Art, like anything else in life, needs to evolve; otherwise it stagnates and looses its appeal.
Artistic vision is not something that is easy to define, at least not in terms of individual style. It is something that is (or should) always be changing, evolving. When I look at the work that I was doing five years ago, I am struck by the difference from that which I am doing today. That’s as it should be. If I could see no discernible change, I would be worried that my creativity is stagnating.
Vision has to do not only with the subject matter you shoot, or the way you choose to capture it. It is also about how you take the image from the one in the camera to the one that hangs on the wall. So, post processing is just as important to expressing your vision as the initial capture, perhaps more important. This first image was made one January day on the edge of what was soon to become the Valles Caldera National Preserve and after many years of learning and evolving, both in my shooting style and in my processing technique, this is still one of my favorite photographs.
I tell my Beginning Digital Photography students that they should always be looking for new ways to present their subjects and of course this extends to the work they do in the digital darkroom. I made the above image in 2002. It is a close-up of burned tree bark that I took in the burn scar of the Lake Fire. This is pretty representative of the work I was doing at that time: close-up/macro/intimate landscapes.
The third image was made several years later and it is one of the very few I made during that time that included a hint of anything man-made. All of these photographs were made using film cameras. The first two were shot with a Nikon F3, the second, a Nikon F100. All three were made using Fuji Velvia transparency film.
Sometime around 2005, I began to feel that my strict adherence to shooting almost exclusively macro/close-ups was stifling my creativity and I began to broaden my horizons (both literally and figuratively). I had also purchased my first digital camera, a Nikon D200. Looking back, I think the new-found freedom of no longer being constrained by the cost of film played a major role in my ability to experiment with a new shooting style.
This black and white landscape was an early attempt to further break from my habit of excluding man-made elements from my images. I still hadn’t perfected my B&W conversion technique, but it was a step in the right direction.
When I was shooting mostly macro, I preferred diffuse lighting; no shadows means clearer details, but as I began to see the broad landscape, I began to take advantage of the multi-faceted nature of light. In the five images above, I make use of different kinds of lighting: overcast, early morning, evening, and mid-day with partial overcast. They each paint the landscape with a different brush and each portrays a different mood.
Lately, my work has come full circle, back to the subjects I was pursuing when I first started out all those years ago, which is to say–anything and everything. The difference is, I now have the expertise I lacked back then, so I am able to show my viewers what I saw in my mind’s eye before I released the shutter. That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean that I feel I’ve reached some kind of photographer’s Nirvana; I am excited to see what kind of curve my vision will throw me next.
There was a time not too long ago when ninety-five percent of my photography was macro/close-up work. I made a conscious change to broader landscapes, and now ninety five percent of my images are landscapes. Go figure! Recently, while doing some research for a photography class I am teaching, I opened a book by John Shaw, one of the premier nature photographers of all time. One of the first things I noticed about John’s work is that he doesn’t just do landscapes, and he doesn’t just do macro/close-ups, he does it all, and he does it extremely well! So, I am now in the process of trying to strike a balance between the two.
Macro/ close-up photography has one big advantage over landscapes: you can do it in your own backyard. There is a world right at your feet. All you have to do is look.
I made this first image early one winter morning on my way to work. I was walking to my truck when I happened to glance down at the ground; there were all these amazing ice forms with some of the gravel showing through. It was just a matter of setting up my tripod and taking the shot.
Winter is a great time for this type of photography. I love the patterns that can be found in ice and snow. The image below was made in a friend’s driveway one winter afternoon. The arrangement of the leaves caught my eye, and again, it was a simple matter to set up the shot. I like the slight depression in the snow around the larger leaf; it adds a little depth to the image.
Sometimes it’s necessary to get down at eye level with your subject in order to find the image you’re looking for. I found this frozen weed stalk in my side yard one morning. The sun hadn’t hit that side yet, so the small plant was still covered with frost. I was kneeling on the frozen, snow covered ground while I framed and composed the shot, but I think it was well worth the effort.
Spring is another great time to find photos at your feet. The world is awakening after it’s long winter sleep, and there’s plenty of new growth which is still fresh, not yet ravaged by the elements or insects.
The above photo was made right next to a road in the Santa Fe National Forest, and the one below in the back yard of some friends. Both were taken with my Nikon 105mm macro lens mounted on a tripod
This last image has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It was made in my yard just after sunrise, again using my macro lens. All of these photographs, except for the second one which is a digital capture, were taken with a Nikon F100, using Fuji Velvia transparency film, and then scanned with a Nikon Coolscan V film scanner.
So, the next time you find yourself looking for subjects to photograph, don’t forget the small world which is as close as a step outside your door.
The remnants of a common weed captured on a frosty winter morning. I was taken by the way the frost seemed to outline the veins of the leaf, and the small clusters on the stem. I shot this with a wide open aperture (f 2.8) in order to throw the background out of focus and create what is called a bokeh effect.
Equipment: Nikon F100, 35–70 f 2.8 zoom lens, 81A warming filter, Bogen tripod, Fuji Velvia transparency film.
Camera Settings: f 2.8, 1/20th sec., ISO 80
Processing: Slide scanned to digital with Nikon Coolscan V–ED, Contrast, levels, curves, color balance, and Unsharp Mask adjustments in Photoshop.
I’ve felt this way a few times in my life: the loss of a loved one, a breakup with someone whom I loved (and probably still do), those melancholy moments when memories of an irretrievable past seem to burrow into my mind and won’t let go.
We were mountain biking on Cebollita Mesa. As we walked our bikes across a cattle guard, I saw this strand of barbed wire wrapped tightly around a fence post. The metaphor was obvious.
Equipment: Nikon F100, Nikon 105mm f2,8 macro lens, Fuji Velvia.
Processing: Nikon Coolscan V, curves, levels, color balance, and saturation adjustments in Photoshop
Symphony In Ice Major
Here is another example of what you can find if you just look down. I was walking out to my car one winter morning. There was ice everywhere, and there were these amazing patterns in it. I got my camera, and set the tripod over this small section of the ice with pebbles showing through. The way the pattern in the ice follows the curve of the bare pebbles reminded me of music (thus the name).
Equipment: Nikon F100, Nikon 105 mm f-2.8 Macro lens, Fuji Velvia film.
Processing: Nikon CoolscanV, curves, color balance, and saturation adjustments in Photoshop.
We were mountain biking on San Juan Mesa, and stopped for a break, so I grabbed my camera and we walked along a game trail. There were bluebells growing everywhere we looked, but it took a while to find the right ones. I was taken by the graceful curve of the stems, and the placement of the blossoms on this pair.
I only had my “all-in-one” lens with me, and no tripod, but I was able to get close enough, and open the aperture wide enough to isolate the flowers against a nice bokeh background. Luckily, there was hardly any wind, so movement was not a problem. This was the best out of five exposures. Again, processing was limited to curves, clarity, vibrance, and contrast adjustments in lightroom and photoshop.
I have a thing about leaves. I am fascinated by them. There was a time when easily 80% of the images I made were of leaves. This is the last leaf photo I made; it was taken last winter. I found the composition attractive. I like the way the small leaf overlays the larger one, and the way they are somewhat sunken in the crust of the snow.
The important thing in this shot was the framing. I used the rule of thirds and offset the main part of the larger leaf, and let the stem lead the eye down across the frame to it. I then spot metered the snow and opened up 1-1/2 stops to make the snow white. Post processing included curves, saturation, vibrance and clarity adjustments in Lightroom and Photoshop.
Sometimes just looking at your feet will yield a reward.