Getting Too Close: The Joys, How-to’s, and Pitfalls of Macro Photography

The jungle was dark and the air thick, stagnant. No moonlight broke through the canopy, and if not for the head torch clutched in my hand, I’d have been blind. Together we crept through a claustrophobic tunnel of branches and leaves as big as car tires. Silently, slowly, we moved down the path, scanning every inch of ground and vegetation as we stalked our prey. Through the deafening cry of the cicadas overhead, did I hear something moving just beyond the reach of my light? Dark machinations filled my mind as I envisioned a jaguar’s pounce. I thought, at least it would be quick.

The foliage opened up and we entered the stream. Water as clear as air moved in small ripples from the iridescent blue shrimp swimming under its surface. Clinging from a leaf overhead, we saw traces of our quarry, an egg sack glistening in the light of my head torch. Alien and wriggling, the unborn awaited their moment to emerge. We were close.

I moved my feet slowly, so as not to create too much of a splash. Just a little too much noise, and this endeavor into the darkness would be for nothing. At the edge of my light, I saw something shining back at me, almost invisible if not for the glint of its moist, transparent skin. I whisper-shouted to my colleagues, “Stop! I found one.” All eyes turned to me as I directed their gaze to a leaf dangling a few feet above the stream. “There it is,” I said. “A bare-hearted glass frog.”

Luckily, this was not my first try at photographing this rare and beautiful tree frog, a species that has skin so transparent, that you can see its delicate bones and little organs pumping away inside its chest. All the times before, I had failed to capture an image worth a damn. But this time I was prepared. After weeks of trial and error, I had perfected my setup, my camera settings, and my approach, and this time I was going to get that frog. I leaned in close, working to get sharp focus. The frog apparently attracted to the small light on the camera, lept onto my face and stuck. I had gotten too close.

Luckily for me, the frog was relaxed and I was able to return him to his leaf and crack on with getting the photograph that had been stuck in my imagination until then. After a few clicks and soft strobes, I was content, and we headed back to camp for some tang vodka and peanut butter (a backstory for another time).

Though this telling may be slightly enhanced, it is true that I had struggled for weeks during my first year in Costa Rica at creating top-notch photos of all the small things that live in the jungle. And it is interesting to me now, after having been here, off and on, for almost four years, that so many people come here in search of the big sexy mammals, the tapir, puma, sloth, and ocelot, and neglect to notice the beauty lies just below their nose. But, exploiting that miniature beauty photographically takes time and planning to execute successfully. Here, I am going to tell you my setup and approach so that you too can stalk your own home jungles at night in search of the tiny monsters and aliens that so often go unnoticed.

Lens Choice
When I first started shooting macro, I did it by removing a 50mm prime lens and holding it up to my camera backward to photograph ants on a blueberry. My photography and my setup have come a long way since then. But, to state the obvious, for great macro photography, you need a macro lens. A macro lens is simply a lens that has the ability to focus on subjects that are extremely close to the front glass (think like six inches or sometimes less). There are wide-angle macros, mid-range macros, and telephoto macros. My preferred lens is the Canon 100mm f2.8L macro. At 100mm, this lens allows a 1:1 magnification level. The 1:1 designation means that the image of a subject projected onto the sensor is the same size on the sensor as real life, and is the minimum magnification to classify as a true macro.

At 100mm, it is a great lens for macro close-ups, like portraits of frogs, but is versatile enough for shooting objects at normal ranges as well. Nikon has the 105mm macro, which is also great, and most other lens manufactures have a macro in a similar range.

Strobes
Shooting wildlife at night requires illumination. This is one of the pitfalls many first-timers overlook; not that they will need a flash, but the type of flash setup that they will need. My first mistake was in choosing a camera mounted flash. The obvious result of this was that the shadow of my own lens would ruin the image if I was shooting something at a very close range.

There are several fixes to this, but my favorite is the ring flash. This is a flash that mounts to the front of your lens. Think crime scene photographers on CSI. This allows you to get extremely close to your subject and ensure your flash is directly on it. Furthermore, ring flashes are typically quite flattering for people, and the same is true for small critters. When the source of your flash is at the same angle as the front element of your lens, it removes shadows and illuminates texture and color. Another thing I like about the ring flash setup is that it has a small pilot light on the front to aid in focusing in the dark.

Another setup I use when wanting to create dramatic light angles and more shadows is a remote triggered flash. This is difficult at night, as it often requires an assistant to hold the flash for you, and a small light so that you can focus and compose your image. But, it can be very effective at creating some interesting angles.

My favorite technique is to use two light sources. The key, or primary, light is the ring flash. But, by using either a second flash slaved to the first, or a strong flashlight or head torch, I create a backlight to illuminate the subject’s edges.

Another simple fix for the lens shadow is to use a bracket system, but this will still require someone to help you focus by illuminating the subject until you get focus.

A word of caution, though, when using a flash at night on nocturnal animals. Their eyes are sensitive to light and a bright strobe can be blinding for them temporarily, making them vulnerable to predation after you’ve moved on. To attempt at countering this, I prefer the ring flash, because it is a lesser-powered strobe with a very short range. Also, I set it to 1-2 stops underexposed on the flash to reduce its intensity. I also attempt to bring the animal’s light sensitivity down by slowly acclimating it to a bright light using my head touch or flashlight before firing any strobes. This allows the animals’ pupils to contract before triggering the flash.

Settings
One of the other pitfalls early macro seekers will make is to shoot at a wide aperture. It seems like common sense that if you’re shooting at night that the iris of your lens needs to be wide open to allow in as much light as possible. However, all lenses have a similar characteristic, that the closer your subject is to the lens, the shallower the depth of field will be and the greater the fall-off towards the back of the image. So in the case of a 100mm macro lens, if I shot it wide open (f2.8) at its closest possible focal distance, the depth of field would be so shallow that the front of the eyeball would be sharp, but by the time it got to the eyelid, it would be soft. 

When shooting something like a small frog, and I want its entire head in focus, I shoot at a minimum of f11, and sometimes up to f18.

To ensure a good exposure, make sure to use a strobe that has TTL (through the lens) metering, also called ETTL. Set your camera to manual. Aperture f11 or greater, and match your shutter speed to the focal length of your lens if shooting handheld. So, in my case with the 100mm macro, I shoot at 1/100 of a second. For night photography, I set my ISO at 2000. For daytime macro, with strobe, I shoot at ISO 800. Then, use the EV setting on the flash to bring its intensity down one to two stops. This, for me, guarantees a good exposure that will have all the detail needed for easy color correction in your editing software.

Another benefit of the ring flash, with its very short range strobe is that you can make daytime look like nighttime, as you can see in this photo of a green parrot snake, taken around one in the afternoon. But, by choosing a dark background and using my ring flash, it appears to be night.

Go Try Macro
As with all photographic disciplines, macro photography takes time and practice to master. But, the world in miniature is full of snarling, fanged monsters, hauntingly beautiful creatures, and textures and worlds your naked eye will never fully appreciate.

Amongst my favorite subjects are, of course, frogs, spiders, and insects. The insect and arachnid world in close-up is diabolically interesting. Once you get your technique down, it will feel almost like cheating to be able to create these dramatic and stunning images at a detail that is impossible to go unnoticed.

Ben Blankenship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com


Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”

Image Review: Landscape Edition

with Matt Meisenheimer & Kenton Krueger
Tuesday, Feb 23rd, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)

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