The morning’s first light hits a blooming balsamroot in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.
I’ve been doing more macro and close-up photography lately. It’s something I’ve always loved. The details of the natural world just fascinate me. I like small critters. Some of them are so feisty! And I love wildflowers! Yes I know I don’t look the part, but why can’t a big ugly guy like to play in a field of flowers?
I think I also like the challenge of macro. All that bending and stooping kills my back. The wind blowing flowers around frustrates the heck out of me. Butterflies flying off just as I’m about to press the shutter button. Things like this are what I live for!
Blooming mule’s ear is covered with dew in a southern Rocky Mountain meadow.
So I thought I’d do a few posts on it, starting this week. A caveat: I’m not trying to be exhaustive or complete. To explain all the things you need to think about and do while getting close with your camera would take an entire book!
First off, is there a difference between macro and close-up photography? Though the answer to that is yes, you really don’t have to worry about it. Essentially, true macro is done very close to your subject and with high magnification. Generally it uses a dedicated macro lens. Close-up photography comes in when you move a bit further away, with less magnification. It can be done with extension tubes, close-up filters, or while using the macro settings on some lenses.
A caterpillar cruises along looking for his lunch.
Why do macro and close-up photography?
- It’s fun! You can spend hours in that “flow” state where you lose track of time. Afterwards you have that pleasant and incongruous feeling of having worked hard, but you feel strangely refreshed.
- This is a great way to shake things up, to break out of creativity ruts. Awhile back I did a post on ways to keep your photography fresh.
- Close-up photography teaches observation skills. When you’re always on the lookout for macro opportunities, you naturally start looking low as well as at eye level, you shift your focus close as well as far, you think small- as well as large-scale.
The spectacularly whorled and lichen crusted wood of a juniper tree in New Mexico.
- You don’t need perfect light for this. Yay! While light is still an issue, as it always is in photography, with macro you can afford to be much less rigid about what light is acceptable, especially when compared to traditional landscape photography.
- You get a deeper and more complete appreciation for nature doing macro & close-up. I often want to take those fellow photographers aside and show them this other world that they’re walking right over on the way to yet another traditional large landscape.
That’s it for now. Next week we’ll dive into all the tips and techniques for successful close-up and macro photography. Have a spectacular weekend!
Mount Hood, Oregon, at sunset.
Headwaters of the Wind River, Wyoming.
It’s time to vent again! Don’t worry though, there’s a silver lining in every cloud. I started this little series awhile back with the first installment, so check that out, at least for the photos. So here are a couple likes & dislikes I have in photography today:
LIKE: The increased quality of optics, speed, dynamic range, etc. available to photographers. Although I don’t think the best lenses today are any better than the best ones of the film era, I do think the average has come up and there are more excellent lenses out there than there used to be. With cameras the increase in quality is more obvious. Digital sensors have allowed high ISO and high dynamic range shooting that was unthinkable in the days of film.
DISLIKE: The subtle and not so subtle push to constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest. I’m okay with ads from camera companies, but when a photographer whose work I respect uses his or her blog to make it seem as if, in order to create great images, we need to buy buy buy, then I’m very disappointed.
A river otter glides along the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
A pronghorn fawn grazes peacefully in the grasslands of Custer State Park, South Dakota.
Remember a couple posts back I mentioned doing a different type of photography to avoid boredom? This is Ian, a high-school senior I photographed, on the Deschutes River, Oregon.
LIKE: The increased awareness of the value of photography. The internet has expanded the uses for images in a big way. With the increase in “screen time” for almost everyone on the planet, the need for professional images to inspire, promote, communicate, etc. has only increased. Of course there is value in amateur photography to do the same things for free, but it also serves as a creative outlet for the person pressing the shutter button.
DISLIKE: Like with music, movies, and other production put out on the web, many people still believe that if they found it on the internet, it’s free. And many people who do know photographers don’t work for free nevertheless do want to pay nearly enough to cover the time & expenses involved. Although the demand for images has increased, so has supply, and that has depressed prices.
Wind River Mountains, Wyoming.
Okay, that’s it for now. Don’t worry, I won’t be posting a lot of these. I really try to be a glass half-full type of person. Have a happy weekend!
The recent crescent moon sets over Grand Teton, Wyoming. The sky’s color is from wildfire smoke coming in from points west.
It’s been so so long since I’ve been here. Of course it’s way more touristy now than it was years ago. There’s a hotel at the base and you have to pay to park there now. But the fantastic pink granite peaks still pierce the big blue Dakota skies. Instead of joining all the tourists viewing the monument from the standard locale, I opted to wander along the spectacular road between Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park.
It’s a wonder of engineering this road, very scenic and fun to drive. It also affords straight on views of the famous monument to four of my country’s best. From this viewpoint, you might say there is room for others; say Franklin Roosevelt or Martin Luther King. I think the space left for the natural granite indicates that Rushmore’s creators, Lincoln and Gutzon Borglum, were true artists.
Some say an American Indian should go up there. But a mountain not far from here has a carving of the great Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. It’s still under construction, with only his head finished. It will eventually include his horse, if the private funding doesn’t dry up that is.
I camped not 100 feet from this view. Since it was dark when I found it, I didn’t know. I was a little lazy getting going and had little time before the sun rose. So it was very lucky that I had chosen this place to camp. Many spots along the route have “almost views” that are mostly blocked by the beautiful pine trees growing here.
Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota. Left to right: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln
Fog over the Forest, Rocky Mtn. foothills, Montana.
It happens to all of us, and we’re usually in deep before we even realize it. I’m talking about stagnation, burnout. It happens in life and it happens in photography. You’re comfortable, producing some nice shots, even a few great ones. You got this down, right?
Not so fast! One day you wake up and realize you’ve been in your comfort zone for way too long. Maybe you’re not strictly bored with photography. But you’re not happy with where you are either. You’re simply not growing as a photographer. If you’re not growing you’re stagnant. And that stinks.
This is where I’ve found myself lately. Too many landscapes. Not too much nature, but too many similar images of nature. I’ve been trying to get more wildlife images, and that has helped. But it’s not often enough. Getting back into shooting macro has also helped. But that feels too familiar. I needed a real shake-up. To find out what I did, go to the end of the post for an ‘Extra’.
A duck does some early-morning grooming at Hosmer Lake, Oregon Cascade Range. Shot from kayak w/600 mm. lens, 1/640 sec. @ f/8, ISO 400.
Shot the other day at Devil’s Lake, Oregon, this “semi-abstract” is a way to straddle the boundary (and thus break it down) between two types of photography. I like “semi-candid” portraits too. 90 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/10, ISO 400.
So has your image-making become staid or even boring? Here are a few ways to fight that tendency:
- Keep Learning: The most obvious strategy is to keep learning about all aspects of photography. Especially if you’re still a relative novice, this is a sure-fire way to stay interested. But again, it shouldn’t be about spending a lot of money. So be careful of workshops that might be more about going to a beautiful place than really learning something.
- Practice another Type of Photography: If you’ve been doing mainly landscapes, corral someone to act as a model and do some portraits. You can do a lot with natural light, so don’t think you need to buy or rent artificial lighting. On the other hand, if you want to learn about artificial lighting techniques, renting is a great option. In fact, this weekend I’m going to shoot some senior portraits of a friend’s son.
Another friend’s son, but he has quite a ways to go before his senior pictures.
- Practice with Different Exposure, etc: If you’re a nature photographer and haven’t gotten into it yet, macro (close-up) photography is a gimme. You can do it without buying an expensive new (macro) lens. Just get a Canon 500D close-up filter that fits a lens you already have (it works best with telephoto zooms, such as 70-200 mm.). Or get a set of extension tubes. If you haven’t done any very long exposure photography, get a neutral density filter or two and go for it! If you’ve mostly done standard portraits at long focal lengths, practice environmental portraiture, where you get up close with a wide-angle lens and emphasize backgrounds more.
A water lily in the same lake as the above duck, shot from boat hand-held: 100 mm. macro lens, 1/800 sec. @ f/14, ISO 500.
- Practice another Style: If you already have a well-developed style of your own, dive into another one or two that you admire. But if you aren’t confident of your style I don’t recommend this. You don’t want to be an imitator after all. You can stretch both your capture and post-processing skills this way.
- Go Mono: Shooting in monochrome (black and white) is a simple way to fight boredom. Set your camera to display what you shoot in B&W for a session or two. You can still shoot in RAW so that the capture is in color, but your LCD shows each picture in black and white. If you instead shoot Jpeg, you’ll end up with only black and white photographs.
This old lookout at Cape Perpetua on the Oregon Coast was built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the 1930s as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s jobs program. 21 mm., 1/80 sec. @ f/11, ISO 200.
- Teach Someone: If you know a budding photographer volunteer to take them out shooting. Follow up later and help them to evaluate & process their images. Playing off a newbie’s enthusiasm is a tried and true way to get jazzed back up.
I’m sure you can come up with other ways to stretch your skills and freshen up your photography. Please don’t be shy about sharing them in the comments below. Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!
EXTRA: MY SOLUTION
I recently purchased a waterproof housing for my camera, plus a kayak. The kayak is also great for wildlife, along with fishing and just plain fun! I bought both the housing and kayak used; both can be quite spendy!
But a caveat: mine may not be the best example in one respect: money. Although freshening up your photography is very worthwhile, both for personal growth and for the diversity of your portfolio, it is most definitely not about spending a lot of money on new gear. Still, depending on your particular solution to burnout, a purchase or two may be necessary. For me, taking it under water has been playing on my mind off and on for a couple years.
A verdant alcove in OIympic National Park hosts Merriman Falls. Wonder what it’d be like to shoot it from underneath!
Now I’m not talking here of shooting clownfish and coral while on vacation. Although I’d love to combine scuba diving with photography at some point, images from warm ocean environments are just too common. Standard scuba photography may not be a new enough thing to be a burnout-buster, and I can’t afford tropical getaways right now anyway.
What I plan to do is snorkel and free dive in fresh water ecosystems closer to home: clear lakes and rivers. Getting good images of unusual subjects under water promises to be difficult. But that’s the point. If it were too easy it wouldn’t be challenging enough. Stay tuned. Soon you’ll see my trials, errors and (hopefully) successes right here!
A paddle then a sunset at Lost Lake, Oregon. 21 mm., 5 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.
I’m a photographer who gets way more pumped up about the photography than the camera equipment. But I do occasionally get jazzed about gear. When I buy a camera or lens brand new, its first light is something to be celebrated. I buy used quite a lot, so when I get something that has never seen light enter it, I want to make it special.
I had just arrived in the little town of Pacific City, Oregon. I was late because of too many little detours along the way. Having not visited the piece of heaven called the Oregon Coast for a long time, I was very excited. I missed sunset at Cape Kiwanda, but while searching for a place to camp, I came upon an arm of the Little Nestucca River estuary that looked quite nice in the evening light. Since I got my kayak, I’m constantly on the lookout for cool places to park and drop it in the water. It was too late for that, but estuaries are one of my favorite environments (see below), so I stopped.
Though I really couldn’t afford it, I recently bought a new lens. It is a 21 mm. f/2.8 prime lens made by Carl Zeiss: manual-focus only, all metal construction. The very last of the day’s light was backlighting some flowers blooming on the bank of the estuary, so I decided this would be first light for my new lens. The exposure was long at 25 seconds, so the flowers have a little bit of blur from the small breeze. But the sharpness and color rendition are Zeiss-like for sure!
Estuary of the Little Nestucca, Oregon Coast. 21 mm., 25 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.
Estuaries are where rivers meet the sea. All sorts of interesting things take place in these transition zones. They’re not just fascinating in a biological sense, but also in a geomorphic and geological sense as well. Abundant sediment from the river gets strung out by waves and longshore currents into spits and bars, forming embayments. Sedimentary features of estuaries show the influence of tide, delta and waves, with of all sorts of burrowing life marking the strata. And so ancient estuaries, while fairly rare, stick out prominently in the ancient rock record.
But it’s the mix of freshwater and marine life that makes modern estuaries so interesting and productive for fishing. Life is in delicate balance, and because humans like to settle along estuaries, they are under threat worldwide. With the salt-tolerant grasses and other plants forming shelter, estuaries are nurseries for a huge number of species. Pollution hits the young especially hard. Sediment tainted by humans covers oyster beds, killing them. Overfishing and pollution both reduce crabs and fish dramatically.
I grew up near the shore of the biggest estuary in North America, the Chesapeake Bay. I remember fishing and crabbing as a kid in the summer. I can still feel the cool mud squishing between my toes as we walked from crab line to crab line. For us, a crab line was simply a thick piece of string, one end tied to a stick sunk in the mud and the other tied around an old piece of chicken (which we’d get from the store before they threw them out).
You threw the chicken in the water from shore, let a little time go by, then while one person waited with a long-handled net, the other slowly drew the string into shore. As soon as you could tell there was a crab (or crabs) dining on the chicken, you scooped them up.
Later that day you steamed the crabs live in a big pot with Bay Seasoning, the live crustaceans making a huge racket. Newspaper was spread on a picnic table. Wooden mallets in hand, we would feast on fresh Maryland blue crab! Sadly, these days crabs can’t be caught by kids along the shore using such simple methods. And the oyster beds are a tiny fraction of what they once were.
Let’s hope humans can get their act together before these precious ecosystems are rendered sterile. I would love it if, one day in the near future, young boys and girls could once again tramp down to the bayshore and make memories crabbing and fishing.
A clear, quiet morning at Bench Lake, Mt. Rainier National Park. 30 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/11, ISO 320, handheld.
Camera makers have been providing ever higher quality images, with lower noise at higher ISOs. No, I’ve not become a cheerleader for big corporations. But this little factoid is true nonetheless. By the way, a rule of thumb: the larger the sensor in your camera, the less noise you’ll have when shooting at high ISO. It’s one reason that cameras with full-frame sensors have become so popular. Size isn’t the only thing affecting noise, but it’s an important factor.
Besides sensor size, camera makers have been improving noise performance across the board, even on crop-frame sensors. It’s especially true with high ISOs, but noise has also improved for very long exposures. My last post focused on ways you can shoot without a tripod, the easiest way being to simply raise ISO. This post will cover some tips on balancing noise and ISO with your exposure needs.
A hoary marmot is getting ready to chow down on some lupine high up on Mt. Rainier, Washington. 100 mm., 1/500 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500, handheld.
The Oregon Coast Range. 135 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100, tripod.
Don’t fixate on how high ISO can be set on your particular camera model. That’s pretty well meaningless. Just because you can set your ISO over 25,000 doesn’t mean you’ll be able to shoot a decent picture at anywhere near that ISO. Think of the max ISO advertised for a given camera as a general guide to ISO performance. Real-world shooting is the only way to see how high the ISO can be set for a given situation, and still allow a fairly sharp image to be captured with low levels of noise.
So Heres a TIP: Fairly soon after buying a new camera, learn how high you can raise ISO and still capture an image with manageable amounts of noise. Manageable noise is noise that you can handle with the software you have. Lightroom does a very good job with noise, but there are plug-ins (like the great Topaz DeNoise) that can reduce or even eliminate high levels of noise. It’s going to take some practice with both your camera and your software.
I got a kayak! Here it is 1st time on saltwater on a bay at the Oregon Coast. Handheld shot with polarizer.
While you’re figuring out what that ISO ‘tipping point’ is, remember these two caveats:
- Caveat 1: As I’ve mentioned in several prior posts, the longer your focal length, the faster your shutter speed needs to be for sharp pictures. This also means, assuming you’re off-tripod, that you’ll need to raise ISO more for shots with longer focal lengths. Obviously you’ll need to raise ISO more for dimly lighted subjects as well.
- Caveat 2: This one is more subtle and refers to the shadowed or dark areas in your image. If you anticipate later filling (brightening) those areas on the computer, you will have increased noise in those areas (but not so much in brighter areas). The more brightening you need to do in post-processing, the more noise you’ll need to handle. But it’s area-specific.
Precious rain, Oregon. 100 mm. macro lens, 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, tripod.
This little guy lives along Coldwater Lake, Mt. St. Helens. 100 mm. macro, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250, hand-held & braced against a rock.
This relationship between the variable brightness of your scene and noise means, in effect, that you can get away with raising ISO more for overall higher-key (brighter) images that have fairly even illumination than you can for lower-key (darker) images that have a lot of dynamic range (contrasting illumination) across the frame. Of course, if you anticipate leaving shadowed areas fairly dark, you don’t have to worry so much about noise; it won’t be visible. That was true for the dark face of that marmot above, for example.
This leads inevitably to the differences among different camera makers. The big two, Canon and Nikon, have been competing in both the low-noise/high ISO arena and the resolution (megapixel) arena. Meantime, Sony has been working a lot on dynamic range, along with (more recently) ISO/noise. I could say a lot more about this but it won’t really help you take better pictures, so I won’t. Remember, this is not the blog for specific gear recommendations.
A monkey flower at Mt. Rainier. 100 mm. macro, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1250, hand-held & small breeze.
The important thing is to use the camera you have in your hands to its limits. Don’t hold back. Practice with it in the dark, on moving platforms (boats, etc.), in situations where it really isn’t made to produce perfect photos. It’s not your job to exactly match your gear’s supposed capabilities, and it’s senseless to wish for something with more megapixels, or more dynamic range. Rather it’s your job to stretch the capabilities of your gear. If you really work at this, you’ll invariably miss on a lot of shots. But those you hit on will shine!
Have a wonderful weekend, and happy shooting!
Back home! Sunset in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. 50 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.
Along the Little Missouri River, North Dakota. Shot hand-held, 29 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/11, ISO 250.
It’s Friday, yippee! That means it’s time for Friday Foto Talk. I’ve been out camping a lot lately so have been skipping weeks here and there. This is the conclusion to my little series on tripod use (or non-use). Check out the other three posts in the series.
Do you find yourself without a tripod and wish you had brought one? Well, that’s what this post is about. The idea of a tripod is to stabilize the camera (I know, Captain Obvious strikes again). A good solid tripod is just the best way to stabilize a camera; it’s not the only way.
In dim light, and without a tripod (or flash), you essentially have just two choices (three if you count not shooting at all). First, you can raise the ISO high enough that your shutter speed is fast enough to hand-hold the camera. Or second, you can find some other way to stabilize the camera, keeping the ISO low and allowing you to blur motion (for example water). The rest of the post is about how to put these two options into practice.
A baby grouse in North Cascades National Park, Washington. Only had my 100 mm. macro lens, hand-held: 1/160 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 400, cropped.
The first plan works pretty well in many situations, depending on the type of camera you have. Of course, anytime you raise ISO, you need to think about noise. Next post I’ll do a follow-up that goes into the issue of noise, ISO and you.
So you’re raising ISO and shooting unencumbered by a tripod. This is the time to practice your hand-holding technique. No, not that hand-holding technique. I’m assuming you can decide on your own whether to link fingers with your girl or go with the standard palm grasp.
- Elbows braced against the body, relaxed upright body, with legs slightly spread forming 2/3 of a tripod. Even better, if possible make it a full tripod by bracing your hips and upper body against a tree or fence.
- If you’re thinking of shooting from a low point of view, why not go all the way and lay on your belly with elbows forming a natural tripod. There’s a reason marksmen choose this position for very long shots.
- Relaxed but firm grip on the camera, other hand cradling the lens palms up.
- Slow easy breathing, and a gentle squeeze of the shutter. Some sort of roll the index finger across the shutter button. Just don’t jab at it.
A bluebell, Olympic Mtns., WA. Hand-held, 200 mm. w/Canon 500D close-up filter, 1/320 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200.
Foggy Hurricane Ridge, Washington, this is a selfie! Tripod, 100 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100.
Say you don’t want to raise ISO and want to go with the second option. For example, you’re after a smooth-blur waterfall, with sharp rocks and trees, and you don’t have a tripod. Or you’re in the city and you want to blur the scurrying about of pedestrians or car tail-lights and keep all the surroundings sharp.
Here’s the basic procedure:
- Set the camera up just as if it was on a tripod: shutter delay, mirror lockup, low ISO, maybe even a polarizer or neutral density filter.
- Find a flat place to place the camera: a log, a rock, railing, or just the ground. How high does the camera need to be? Prop the lens up with a scarf, hat, stone or stick, anything you can find.
Be careful! If it’s an elevated platform – rock outcrop over a river, stone wall over pavement, or a railing on a bridge – keep the strap around your neck. Remember your camera is NOT secure when you’re doing this.
- Either set the camera directly on your chosen pedestal or lay something in between as a cushion (see below).
- It’s hard to keep the pedestal out of your shot (especially a wide-angle), so you may need to do some finagling to get clearance beneath and beside the lens. I use LiveView in these situations, checking for out of focus blobs in the very-near foreground, adjusting as necessary.
- I usually set the camera on my pack or on soft clothing, but a small bean bag is perfect for this. You can buy them at camera outlets. They actually have plastic pellets not beans (which absorb water), and so are light and easy to throw in your pack.
- Finally, you’re ready to shoot as long an exposure as light will allow, with no tripod!
Barred owl, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic N.P., WA. Tripod, 200 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.
If you practice the above techniques, you won’t allow the lack of a tripod lead to blurry photos. You’ll move closer to becoming a complete photographer (who is, after all, a problem solver). I’m not saying you should sell your tripod. Just let each situation dictate whether you use a tripod or not.
Get out shooting this weekend, and, for at least one day, forget your tripod. Practice your hand-held technique. For each lens (and focal length) you use, find the minimum shutter speed required for a sharp picture, and in dim conditions practice raising ISO to various levels. Find interesting places to place the camera, keeping ISO low and shooting long exposures without a tripod. Happy shooting!
Sunset at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in SW Washington. Hand-held, 30 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400.
Subalpine firs filter fog atop Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington
I missed Friday Foto Talk, out camping. The conclusion to my series on tripods will post this coming Friday. In the meantime, here’s an image from a great time I had last week in Olympic National Park. It was taken hand-held, no tripod.
An unusual display of fog and weather greeted me when I arrived on top of Hurricane Ridge on Washington’s northern Olympic Peninsula. It had rained the previous couple days, though not hard, and a transition to drier weather was taking place. The fog and low clouds that had formed over the coast of the Strait of Juan de Fuca started rising and dissipating as the air cooled toward sunset.
The stately subalpine firs that dominate the forest near tree-line on Hurricane Ridge not only were filtering the fog as it rose up the steep slopes, they seemed to be adding their own moisture (via transpiration) to the mix too. The result was really beautiful as viewed through the low rays of the sun to the west.
As I hiked to the top of Hurricane Hill, the quick-moving fog several times enveloped me, causing me to stop and look around in wonder at the dreamy atmosphere. I’ll post some more shots in a future post. I was distracted so many times I barely made it to the top for sunset. It was a memorable evening.