Friday, 28 March 2008

Macro Photography | Help | Tips | Advice | Perils | Physical Exercise

The Perils of Macro Photography
In my last post I talked about shutter speed and how it can be used to freeze or blur the action in your photographs. I have also discussed aperture and depth of field in my previous post and also covered ISO and some aspects of getting a good exposure. I have decided to take a break from the technical aspect of macro photography for this post and take a look at the physical side of macro. This is an often over-looked factor of macro photography which can cause all manner of problems. A high percentage of macro photography is conducted in outdoor conditions. Some of the most popular subjects for macro and close up photography are insects, spiders, wild flowers and fungi. Getting these images can be a real challenge. Setting up the equipment can also be difficult. In addition some photographers have to cope with health problems and disabilities. I know of some excellent outdoor and wildlife photographers who are disabled. Something that you can not buy that is needed for photography is patience. This is very important and without it you will probably fail or just get very average results. Persistence may not always pay off but there is always a chance that it will and it is this that makes the whole process worthwhile. There is no feeling in the world to match getting an absolutely stunning shot. This is why macro photography is one of the best forms of art to be associated.

The Physical Challenge
Believe it or not Macro Photography can be quite a physical past time. Some of the awkward positions you have to get into can be a real challenge. The physical side of macro photography is often overlooked or dismissed. Just spending a long time behind the camera can cause all kinds of aches and pains. There is a price to pay for carrying all that heavy equipment for miles around the countryside. Do not be fooled into thinking that macro photography is an easy option. To get some of the really interesting photographs you will need to get into some fairly strange positions. A contortionist would make the perfect macro photographer! Some days it is like playing the children’s game “twister”. I suppose we should all do some warm up exercises before attempting those close to the ground awkward shots. It is however, a pointless suggestion because who is going to take this advice? A tweaked back muscle can be very painful though and is well worth avoiding.

I once tried to photograph a spider in my garden which was nestled quite deep in a large prickly bush. I carefully manoeuvred my camera equipment into position. I was working at a height of approximately 1 metre which is a good comfortable height. I was working hand held at the time and just had to get close enough. There was a nice gap to get the camera though safely and I was all set to get started. I took one shot and then moved slightly to the left for a better composition. I large Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica brushed against the side of my face and neck. This took me by surprise and I leapt backwards landing on the ground with my camera firmly clutched to my chest. On this occasion no harm was done apart from the painful rash all over one side of may head and several small cuts and bruises. It just goes to show that one minute you are minding your own business and the next you are rolling around in pain wondering what has happened! What really annoyed me about this whole incident was that the only picture of the spider that I took was all fuzzy!

Outdoor Photography Advice and Tips
I enjoy working outdoors but sometimes it can be a very challenging. The weather conditions can be beneficial and a total nuisance all at the same time. Wind, Rain, Cloud and Sun can all influence the results of photography. This could be in a positive or negative way depending on the situation. It is a well known fact that water adds interest to the composition of many subjects. It is really useful to find yourself a fine water sprayer. Give some of your subjects a fine spray of water to see the effects of this technique (or take a look at my apple experiment). Nature does this for you in the form of snow, rain and frost which can result in some good opportunities. If you plan to work outdoors for long periods in cold weather conditions you will need some addition gear. You should think about adding a high quality waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers and some decent boots to your shopping list. In recent years I have started wearing base layers as well. I would also recommend a good quality camera bag and your feet will thank you for a pair of good hiking socks. In summer weather you also need to look after yourself. Wear a high quality sun hat (Tilley Hats are excellent), sun glasses and use sun block to protect yourself from the suns harmful UV rays. This advice applies even when the sun light is not direct. In hot weather always carry water and make sure that you drink plenty of fluids. In basic terms look after yourself otherwise you will not be able to take any macro photographs!

Field Craft
I am very interested in wildlife and nature and this is how my interest in macro photography began. Field craft is an essential code of practice for anyone who works or spends time in the countryside. Good field craft skills will enhance your chances of getting better wildlife photographs (not just macro). Land owners are more likely to grant permission for you to work on their land if they see you have good field craft skills. Respect all living wild animals and plants and their natural habitats. Try to have as little impact on the environment as possible as this will help conserve the area. This means you can come back each season and get similar or better shots of the same species. Wildlife photography is a very rewarding field and well worth the effort. Here are some important points to consider before venturing into the countryside.

  1. If you go through an access point always close gates behind you. If you open any doors or slots in a bird-watching hide close them when you leave.
  2. Never throw litter – people who throw litter spoil the countryside. Litter can cause horrendous problems for wildlife. Put your litter in a litter bin (if available) or take it home and recycle it. Litter bins on nature reserves attract vermin such as rats. It helps in the management of nature reserves for you to remove your own litter from the site. This will also benefit the wildlife.
  3. Do not light fires unless allowed to do so. If you do light a fire, maintain it and put it out afterwards. Avoid damage to the environment and do not burn toxic materials.
  4. It is important when attempting botanic photography to avoid damage to the plants and their habitats. Never pull up wild plants or take seeds, berries or fruit from the site.
  5. Be compliant with all local rules and by-laws for the area where you are working.

Camera Bags
Now a good bag is not just to protect your camera equipment, it is also to make carrying all that heavy camera equipment easier. This will take some strain off your back and make walking more comfortable. I do harbour one concern with regard to some expensive camera bags. Some designs stand out more than others which could attract attention to the expensive gear you are carrying it. I often see photographers with the brand name of their cameras splashed across the entire bag. The last thing you want to do is advertise the fact that you have some items with you that are worth stealing. My tip here is to try and look like you are a walker or bird-watcher and keep a low profile if possible. If you are concerned about being out in the middle of nowhere make sure you have a phone or a radio. If you clip a radio to your belt it looks like you are part of a team of people. I’m not trying to scare anyone, but people do occasionally get attacked so always be alert and keep an eye on your surroundings. Most people you meet will be polite and civilised and take an interest in what you are doing. Binoculars are useful for spotting potential problems for example some large energetic dogs charging towards you along a barren cliff top! It’s time to collect up your gear and make a run for it, now do you see how important it is to be physically fit?

A Rubbish Idea
I have a friend who takes a bin liner with him when ever he goes out. He uses this to keep his equipment dry (no, no, no, his camera dirty minded souls). It is a good idea to put a bin liner (or any other waterproof material big enough for the job) in your camera bag. Instead of buying a waterproof camera bag just grab the bin liner and place your entire camera bag inside it when the rain comes. My friend also uses the bin liner to protect his clothes when lying on the ground. I usually forget to take a bin liner (or two) with me and usually go home caked in mud, sand and grass stains! So there is another great idea on how to keep your expensive camera equipment dry. This post is actually turning out to be quite useful after all! It is easy to make camera covers from plastic food (freezer or sandwich) bags. Always protect the body of your camera from harsh elements (such as water) and protect the lens from sand, dust and grit. It is easy to damage the lens when hunting for your subject, due to disorientation. Some people use a filter that screws into the end of the lens which acts as protection. A lens hood will make it more difficult to scratch the glass but will reduce the amount of ambient light. So you are on your own with this one…just take care where you stick your lenses!

Things with Stings
Some people like taking photographs of wasps and hornets. You have to be careful when working with some wildlife subjects. I know of plenty of photographers who have returned with stings and bites from wildlife shoots. There is a small minority of people who react badly to insect bites and stings due to an allergy. In such cases it is important to find medical assistance as soon as possible. If you suffer from an allergy make sure other people know about it before setting out. My advice would be to keep your distance with stinging and biting subjects. There are some areas where you would be considered insane if found absent of insect repellent, so throw some in your kit bag. There are lots of poisonous plants and fungi as well, if you are unsure just take care about what you touch and always wash your hands before eating food.

A few last thoughts…
Who would have thought that Macro Photography could be such a dangerous and physical activity? Obviously with the correct planning and some common sense macro photography is a perfectly safe pursuit. I hope you enjoyed this less technical post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. For quite a long time I have debated (with myself) whether or not to make an online portfolio of my photographs. Now that my website is up and running I am thinking of joining Flickr which is owned by Yahoo. This would make it easier for me to post examples of my own work using web-links. My next post will address some of the problems of exposure. If you have any questions, queries, suggestions or comments please feel free to use the comment box or send me an email. I promise that I will not SPAM you ever. Nobody hates spam more than me. Thank You for visiting my Macro Photography for Beginners Website, I hope you found this article insightful and interesting. Please remember to look after yourself and the environment, most of all enjoy taking your macro photography. Good Luck and happy shooting!

Marvin Africa


Anonymous said...

Good information! Here is what I learned one day....I had checked around before laying on the ground but got lost in shooting only to have something catch my eye. It was a Snake that had decided to come along to see what I was doing and he was only about 18 inches way! So I would say glance around every few mins just to be safe.

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Rosemary

That is an interesting story. Did the snake pose for a photograph? Do you know what species of snake it was that came to inspect you?

I had a look at your website and it looks like you are enjoying your photography. I liked the leaves with the water droplets. I am going to write a post about "photograph collections" in the near future. Hopefully you will find this an interesting article.

subhashini said...

This is such a great article. I just got myself a Canon 1000 D and love taking pics of animals, specially small ones like butterflies. I have seen such nice shots taken by others and wanted to learn how to take a nice clean pic. will try some of the tips given here. thanks for sharing this knowledge so freely.

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Subhashini

Welcome to the world of macro photography. I am now writing articles for my new website,

I also enjoy taking photographs of butterflies and moths. I recently got a great shot (in my opinion) of an elephant hawk moth. Also got some good images (in my opinion) of some hummingbird hawk moths. Hope you are not scared of moths!

Good Luck - with your canon 1000D (I've had a bit of a fall out with Canon since writing this blog, but not related to their DSLR's)

Marvin Africa