Maroon Bells, near Aspen, Colorado.
Normally my Two for Tuesday series is about someone (or something) other than myself. This time I’ll share a personal story, something scary that happened to me recently.
I’ve been traveling in Colorado, and made a swing through the Aspen area for the quaking aspen in fall color. I wasn’t really planning to go to the ever-popular Maroon Bells, but found myself driving up there as sunset approached. I knew there was no way I would be shooting the “Bells” from Maroon Lake. There are already about a million too-many shots of this on the internet and on walls everywhere.
Instead, I hiked past the throngs milling around the lake and on up-valley. The lake is only a few minutes’ walk from the parking lot, and is admittedly quite scenic. If you visit this area for the first time, go ahead and shoot from there. I did on my first visit. I’m really not trying to be smug. But if you’re a serious photographer, I think you’ll want to get your own take on the place and avoid the tired composition that has been shot to death.
I climbed up an avalanche chute, bushwacking through the colorful but infuriating undergrowth. I was sure I’d miss sunset, or rather the colorful skies as the sun set behind the mountains. The trees and brush were in my way and it was getting steeper. But I found a rock outcrop and, breathing hard, scrambled up. I crept out to the edge and got a great view with aspens in the foreground (image at top). I switched lenses from my Zeiss 21 mm. to the 50 mm. lens. This was a crucial decision.
Next day I drove to another part of Colorado. A couple evenings later I was shooting sunset and noticed an empty spot in my camera pack. My Zeiss 21 mm. lens was gone! This is a fairly new lens, currently the most expensive one I own. So I was devastated.
On the computer I reviewed the metadata for all my recent images. Although I had stopped and shot at a bunch of different spots to shoot, the last time I had used the Zeiss was shooting at the Maroon Bells. Hooray for metadata! Next morning I started the journey back across central Colorado, checking every place I had stopped, just in case the lens had somehow dropped out. In the back of my mind I suspected it was at either at that rock outcrop or it was gone for good.
By late afternoon I was back hiking past all the photographers at Maroon Lake. I had trouble finding the spot again. It was just a random spot on the mountainside, away from any trail. But toward sunset I recognized a tree and then the rock outcrop. I was nervous; this was my last chance. But I finally allowed myself to look down at where I’d been shooting. And there it was! It sat happily in the aspen leaves a foot or so from the edge of the cliff.
My shouts of joy echoed off the Maroon Bells. I thanked the gods that I wasn’t the type of person who shoots from all the usual spots. Needless to say, had I been at the lake that night, the lens would be long gone. But nobody would likely ever shoot from that rock outcrop. So except for the odd bear finding it and using it as a chew toy, I knew if I’d left it, it would still be there. The sun was setting. So to celebrate, I turned around and shot back toward the lake, where you can’t see but 50 or so tripods were lined up along the shore.
Maroon Lake sits in its aspen-lined valley, Colorado.
It’s a special kind of happy to find a lost $1600 lens on a mountain. But I was also dismayed at my forgetful nature, which I’ve lived with since I was a kid. Oh well, at this point in life you either accept all your failings or you drive yourself nuts.
Thanks for checking out the story and photos. Have a wonderful week!
Let’s start off with a non-macro image: morning sun on the Colorado Rockies.
As promised, here’s a follow-up to my macro series. Rails (or sliders) are devices that allow small movements of your camera without having to move the tripod. The heart of a rail is its gear/screw mechanism, and the quality of the rail is in how finely this part is made.
This post also aims to give a step by step on setting up a macro shot, whether or not you’re using a rail. Of course I don’t always follow this exact procedure. In photography like a lot of things there’s always “more than one way to skin the cat”. Sorry cat lovers!
BUYING A RAIL: As always with photo accessories, you have to be careful buying cheap. Check out rails in the shop if at all possible, using your camera and macro lens to see how they work under load. Or if you can’t do that just go a bit more expensive for something with good reviews online. I bought a medium-quality one. It’s fine but would not be okay if I used it a lot; I use it very infrequently. I spent about $50 on it.
Here are the things to look for in a rail. If when it is mounted with the camera on top the rail wiggles around, even a small amount, it’s obviously no good for macro. And if movement along the screw & gear is not slow and steady enough, that rail is probably not worth buying.
A SMALL CAVEAT: I chose a very simple shot for an example. In other words, it’s not the most spectacular subject, just a little flower in the weeds. Also, the close-ups of my camera make it look like I’ve beaten it to hell. It’s not actually that bad, honest. The crack you see isn’t the LCD screen itself, it’s the protective cover. Okay, I admit it, I’m hard on my gear.
By the way, I made sure to pick a good day for this (photo below). Notice the boring white cloud cover, mid-morning, really perfect for what I call “illustrative” macro. That means no real shadows or directional light.
Each rail works a little differently, but what follows is how mine works. It’s pretty typical.
A typical rail/slider.
- There is an Arca-Swiss plate screwed to the bottom of the rail assembly, so the whole rail mounts right on top of the ball-head (see pictures below). This isn’t the place to discuss tripod heads, but make sure you always get plates that match your head’s clamp. Arca-Swiss is sorta the standard, and is pretty simple to use.
Rail clamped down on ball-head.
- Make sure the rail is set somewhere in the middle of its range (rotate the knob to slide it). If it’s at one end of its range you won’t have flexibility to adjust it in one direction. The picture above shows mine a bit too far forward, so I had to slide it to the middle part of its range.
- Once the rail is mounted securely go ahead and screw your camera right down onto the top plate as shown below. This setup allows the whole rail/camera assembly to rotate around with the ball-head.
Screw the camera down onto the top plate of the rail.
- Now you need to get your tripod in about the right position next to your subject. Decide about how close you want to get to your subject. Your rail will get you a few inches closer or further, so you don’t need to be perfect here. But definitely decide how low your point of view will be and adjust the height of your tripod legs. The rail can’t help you with up and down movements. Just make sure the tripod is very stable (tip: spread the legs wider when the tripod is lower)
Camera on the rail. But I’m a little too high, so…
My tripod allows me to go lower by rotating the center column to horizontal.
- Now it’s time to set up the camera. Go to manual focus and pre-focus so your subject is in approximate focus (see pictures below). Use either the viewfinder or LiveView for this step, whichever is easiest for you. Again, don’t worry if it’s not perfect. If you want to get as close as possible and fill the frame as much as possible, as I’m doing here, pre-set the focus ring to the smallest focal length. But if you do this, re-check your tripod position and make sure it’s positioned so your lens is no closer to the subject than this smallest focal length (about a foot with my macro lens (see pic below).
Use manual focus.
Pre-setting focus at the shortest focal length.
- Now you can slide the camera closer or further along the screws on the rail, turning the knob as shown. Your focus is pre-set. Moving the knob on the rail is the way you are focusing now. I recommend using LiveView and magnifying as necessary to focus on the exact part of the subject you want in perfect focus.
Rotate the knob slowly while at the same time you…
…watch LiveView for the part of the subject you want to come into perfect focus.
Still in LiveView, I magnified on the flower’s yellow center and adjusted the knob on the rail to focus precisely.
- You can also use the rail at this point to fill the frame more or back off and show a little more surroundings. In other words, change the composition. So if while you’re sliding the camera along the rail you get a composition you like but you’re not in focus, go ahead and rotate the camera’s focus ring to get perfect focus. See the Bonus below for more on focus and depth of field.
- While you’re at it and have LiveView up, you should check exposure before taking the picture. On my camera I press the “info” button to pull up the histogram (see below). In this case, with a white flower, I pay attention to the right end. I want to avoid the peak on the right climbing up the right side, causing over-exposure. But I don’t want that peak to move too far toward the center. That would underexpose and make the white petals look gray. When using LiveView to check exposure, make sure your camera’s LiveView setting is on “Exposure Simulation” (check your owner’s manual).
LiveView with histogram. The histogram reads what is inside the white box, and I’m over-exposing the yellow just 1/3 stop. When I moved the box over to the petals, the histogram’s right peak slid over to the right, but not quite all the way to the right edge (which would have meant over-exposure).
- Some rails only have one screw/gear setup to move forward and back. Mine also has a screw and gear at right angles to allow small movements right and left. This can be handy to get slightly different compositions, with your subject off to one side. I can remove that part to go lighter (see images below). With my rail I also get a more stable camera mount (no wiggle) when I get rid of that extra part.
Using the side-to-side adjustment knob to move the flower off-center.
I slid the rail/camera slightly to the left, which put the flower just off to the right. This still needs a little tweaking in the computer, but this isn’t a bad final image.
Rail with side-to-side part removed, leaving only the forward-back adjustment. My hands are starting to look like my mom’s!
BONUS: FOCUS & DEPTH OF FIELD
DEPTH OF FIELD & MACRO: Macro lenses have very little depth of field in front of the focal plane, with much more (but still limited) in back. In other words, you will normally focus on the closest important part of the subject, not trusting anything closer than that to be in focus. Then you’ll play with aperture, experimenting to get the right amount of depth of field.
Remember also that the closer you get to your subject, the narrower your depth of field will be, and the reverse is also true. Get more depth of field by moving back away from your subject.
DEPTH OF FIELD PREVIEW BUTTON: You can either shoot and review to experiment, or use LiveView in combination with the depth of field (DOF) preview button. Not all cameras have a DOF preview button. If yours does, there are times when it comes in very handy. Pressing the DOF preview button closes down the aperture to the one you select (see pic below). Otherwise anything you see through the lens, either using the viewfinder or on LiveView, reflects the lens’s widest aperture (shallowest depth of field).
LiveView without the DOF preview button depressed. Even though my aperture is set to f/11 here, the LiveView shows what it would look like at f/2.8, the largest aperture for this lens.
Here I’m pressing the DOF preview button to see what f/11 actually looks like. The petals in rear are in better focus than in the LiveView image above.
APERTURE: Realize as you close down aperture for more depth of field you are doing two important things to the picture. First, you are slowing down shutter speed. So if your subject is moving, for example in a breeze as mine is doing here, you may end up blurring your subject. Raise ISO to keep your shutter speeds fast enough to freeze that movement and avoid subject blur.
The only way to see how much you need to raise ISO and check for blurring is to shoot and review. It also pays to watch closely for the subject’s least amount of movement and shoot then. If your shutter speed is fast enough (about 1/100 sec. or faster for this lens), you can just press the shutter gently. If speeds are much slower, you need to keep your hands off the camera, using either a remote switch or shutter delay.
At f/11 and ISO 100, shutter speed is 1/25 sec., which will result in a sharp picture if I wait for the breeze to pause and the flower to be mostly still.
But I wanted more depth of field so I went to f/22. I had to raise ISO to keep shutter speed up. If I had more wind (or less patience) I’d need to raise ISO even more.
The second thing you’re doing when adjusting aperture for more depth of field is of course bringing the background into better focus. Use the DOF preview button or shoot/review to get just the right balance between focus in your subject and the amount of detail in the background.
I slid the rail/camera slightly to the left, which put the flower just off to the right. This needs a little tweaking on color and contrast, but it’s not a bad final image.
Phew! That’s enough for now. If all this sounds too complicated to bother with, please don’t despair. It’s actually much simpler than it appears. Try re-reading this. But really, you just have to play around with the rail and see how it works. It also helps to get some practice shooting macro before adding a rail into the mix. As mentioned in the last post, rails come into their own mostly when you are shooting very close with high magnifications. I’d recommend skipping them when you’re doing “less-close” close-up photography.
Blooming lupine is decorated in dewdrops at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.
Some of the simplest things make the nicest photos. This is probably my favorite thing about macro photography.
Okay, this is it! The final part of my mini-series on macro and close-up photography. I haven’t explained step by step how exactly to do macro photography, but I hope you’ve gotten enough tips to be confident getting started, and that the more advanced photographers among you have gotten something out of it as well.
An organ pipe cactus once it’s dead turns into a sort of honeycombed sculpture.
Depending on how serious you get with macro photography, consider one or a few of these accessories:
- A tripod that can get close to the ground is probably the most important thing to have with macro. If your tripod has a center column, removing it can get you much lower. Some tripods have the ability to rotate the center column to a horizontal position, which allows you to put the camera pretty much at ground level. My Manfrotto does just this.
- A flash can fill shadows nicely, but you either need a specialized flash called a ring flash, or have a synch cord or other way to move a standard flash unit off the camera. A camera with a built-in flash really doesn’t work; subjects are too close. Same goes for mounting the flash on your camera’s hotshoe.
- If the sun is bright and somewhat harsh, a portable diffuser is very worthwhile having. You don’t need a super-big one because of the size of your subjects. One that spreads to a diameter of about two feet or a bit more is perfect. They fold up into a flat bag that can be clipped to the outside of your camera pack. Get the diffuser as close to your subject as possible without it being in your shot (use a tripod plus LiveView). A small reflector is nice to have as well, sometimes in combination with the diffuser. You can reflect sunlight to fill shadows on the back side of your subject.
Tiger Lily in perfect bloom: Oregon
- I’ve recommended this before, but Canon’s 500D close-up filter is a great accessory to carry. If you don’t have a macro lens, it can get you close-up without the weight and cost of an extra lens. It can’t get you as large a magnification as a true macro lens can. But when you have one of these plus a macro lens, you can screw it on to the end of the macro lens and really crank up the magnification. A caution: you also narrow depth of field even more.
- A set of extension tubes can also stand in for a macro lens, but it’s been my experience that the quality suffers a tad more than using a quality close-up filter (and the only real quality one I know about is the Canon mentioned above). This is counter-intuitive since with a close-up filter you’re adding glass between the subject and your sensor, whereas extension tubes are hollow. But tubes do move your lens further from the sensor, affecting focus as well as the way that light strikes the sensor. I consider them a little less user friendly than close-up filters too.
This is one of my favorite close-ups of mine. Shot w/macro lens but hand-held while on XC skis in Oregon’s Cascade Mtns.
- A rail is good if you want to really get close and you’re doing a lot of macro. Rails attach to your tripod head and allow you to move the camera using small, gradual movements. It avoids clumsily trying to move your tripod a quarter inch here or there, easing the whole process of attaining precise focus.
A drawback: it’s one extra piece of equipment, and some rails are not exactly small. I have one but don’t use it as much as I probably should. Genuine macro enthusiasts can’t live without them, especially those who have macro lenses that can attain greater than 100% magnification.
NOTE: In a couple days I will post a follow-up where I show exactly how to use a rail in the field.
Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!
Not the usual sunset. I was recently in the neighborhood so stopped for a brief visit at Carlsbad Caverns. This is King’s Chamber.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a beautiful stretch of desert along the border with Mexico in southern Arizona. I had not been here before a couple weeks ago. There are cactus flats and naked-rock desert mountains (The Ajos), with canyons marking the transition between the two. Best of all, it is relatively unvisited.
There are a few reasons for Organ Pipe being mostly empty of people. One is the distance from population centers. Another is name recognition (after all, Yellowstone is far from population centers too). A third reason is climate. Summertime gets very hot here, hotter than most people like. Nearly all of its visitors come during the “snowbird” season – that time in winter when caravans of retirees from the north show up in RVs to swell Arizona’s population.
Organ Pipe’s namesake cactus fruit in late summer.
But the most interesting reason for Organ Pipe being empty is its reputation for being hazardous. It’s not the animals that are particularly dangerous, though there are rattlesnakes. And it’s not the terrain, though hiking off-trail is a good way to get stuck by cactus (ouch!). Much of the terrain is flat. Actually the reason the area is considered dangerous is the proximity to the Mexican border. Organ Pipe for years was a favorite place for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants to cross the border into the U.S.
Thanks to the guy with the hairpiece (who shall remain nameless), as well as the crisis in Europe, immigration is the topic du jour right now. In the case of Organ Pipe, the flow has definitely slowed. Border patrol is a constant presence, operating out of their huge base just to the north. I camped in some lonely spots, but they always drove right on by in their SUVs, probing the dark desert with spotlights, looking for dark-skinned travelers.
Cholla bloom, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ.
Saguaro cactus ‘buds’
Organ Pipe is a classic case of a great destination being a prisoner of its past reputation. To be sure, illegal crossings still take place here. But their over-riding goal is to avoid people. The place just does not seem very dangerous to me. I never saw any immigrants or smugglers, even though I strayed off-trail numerous times. In fact, I saw only a few other people period.
I did see signs of past crossings, some of them weathered and old. I saw old backpacks, the small cheap kind you find being sold in markets throughout Central America. I found tattered blankets and sweatshirts beneath bushes, and single sneakers. I found plenty of black water bottles. These are for some reason the favorite way for immigrants to carry water. I even found a blood-stained rock. Perhaps some were reduced to going barefoot by this point. Not a pretty sight in this cactus-filled desert. By the way I could not bring myself to photograph the more disturbing of these remnants.
Another empty black water bottle: AZ-Mex border area.
For the shot of the Ajo Mtns. below I wanted to show some of the rugged country these people have to traverse, guided by the infamous “coyotes”. These nefarious guides often leave immigrants stranded without much (if any) water as soon as they are across the border. If you’re an immigrant you follow the Ajo Mountains not only because they run north, but because springs, though sparse, are scattered all along their base. But you have to know where they are, so being abandoned here puts you in a very bad spot. Thankfully some kind souls have set up water stations, marked with blue flags (below).
A water cache near the Mexican border, southern Arizona.
Looking south into Mexico from a perch in Arizona’s Ajo Mountains.
As I walked the desert here, I followed washes and used the terrain to screen myself from view, getting a feel for what an immigrant faces. But not really. I had plenty of water, was well-rested and had good hiking shoes and clothes. I also tried walking on a moonless night, when the immigrants must do most of their traveling, but I kept running into cholla (ouch again!).
Evening falls along the U.S. – Mexican border in southern Arizona. Time to travel!
This sad situation aside, Organ Pipe really is a beautiful desert. So many times I looked out and thought of a garden not a desert. The variety of cactus and other plants is simply amazing. Although late summer is hot, it also is the time of the monsoon, when common thunderstorms provide rain for blooming cactus. All this desert beauty is set off against the spectacular backdrop of the rugged Ajo Mountains. If you ever find yourself in southern Arizona, definitely consider a visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Sunset over mountains along the U.S. – Mexican border, southern Arizona.
A sunny meadow is home to a large spider in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 21 mm., 1/250 sec. @ f/22, ISO 200.
This post will explore ways to incorporate your macro photography into regular shooting. I’m of the belief that the human brain naturally desires to order the world. So we all categorize, some more than others. While this isn’t in itself a bad thing, it can lead to a sort of tunnel vision (really several tunnels). All it takes to broaden your perspective is to realize that all our categories lie on a continuum. Putting that into practice of course is a bit tougher.
So how does this apply to photography, and in particular macro & close-up photography? Well, once you are comfortable getting close with a macro lens, extension tubes or close-up filter, consider attempting to get super close to subjects while also showing much of the surroundings. In nature and landscape photography, this can be a powerful way to highlight one small part of nature while showing the landscape as well.
I’m calling this one Flying Duck Kiss. 100 mm. macro lens, 1/6 sec. @ f/14, ISO 200.
I captured the image at the top of this post last month in northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I’ve sort of fallen in love with these mountains over the past couple of years. Waking for sunrise a thick fog greeted me, so not much chance at a big landscape image. But I stayed out well past sunup, wandering through a lovely meadow. I was fascinated by the tall blooming mule’s ear all around. It was quite a bright scene, but I used my tripod anyway.
The lens I used, a Zeiss 21 mm., focuses extremely close. So close in fact that I consider it a “wide-angle macro” lens. Most macro lenses are of much longer focal length. But if your goal is to show much of the environment around your subject, a wide angle lens that focuses close is the ticket. If you don’t have that lens, consider getting the Canon 500D close-up filter. More on that accessory in Part V of this series. I think it’s much easier to use than extension tubes, especially with wide-angle lenses.
I was able to get very close to the spider web, making an already large web look even bigger. At 21 mm. not only were the silhouetted mule’s ears prominent, the landscape beyond – the morning sun filtered through the fog-shrouded forest – is highlighted as well.
A closer look at that spider web, using the 100 mm. macro lens: 1/125 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 100.
One challenge to these sorts of photos is depth of field. You’ll want to focus right on your subject, and since it’s very close, you’re almost guaranteed to blur the background to a certain extent. You can use f/22, which is the smallest aperture for most lenses. But diffraction effects introduce some softness at tiny apertures. How much softness depends on the lens. The Zeiss happens to be pretty darn sharp at f/22, though not nearly as much as it is at f/8. A tradeoff.
You could also focus-stack, taking several images (at an intermediate aperture like f/8 or f/11), focusing on things at ever-increasing distances from you. You then combine those images using Photoshop to get a picture with sharp focus front to back. Currently I don’t have Photoshop, so I’ve been collecting focus-stacked sequences and saving them for possible use later.
Of course you don’t have to have everything in focus. Even wide-angle lenses will blur things to one degree or another. If you get super-close to your main subject and use your largest aperture (f/2.8 for e.g.), you’ll blur much of the background, even if it’s not that far away. You won’t blur it as much as using, say a 200 mm. focal length at f/2.8, but that’s okay. When you do this it helps to have a very strong subject.
I’ve also used the ever-versatile 50 mm. lens with my Canon 500D close-up filter and found I’m able to limit the amount of background while also blurring it. What I suppose I’m saying is that you should never limit yourself. Use the gear you have in all possible combinations. Vary the distance to subject and point of view. Experiment!
After you’ve become somewhat familiar with operating in the space between macro and ‘normal’ landscape shooting, you should have a better ability to match the techniques you use to your goals for the images; that is, what you want to say about your subjects.
Though I’ve described combining macro and landscape here, it should apply to other subject matter as well. Can you think of ways to do this with portrait? Or sports? Other subjects? Leave a comment, don’t be shy! Okay, that’s it for today. Next week I’ll conclude the series with a look at gear and accessories for macro & close-up photography. Have a fun weekend!
“We will become…silhouettes when our bodies finally go”: Colorado. 21 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/22, ISO 200.
This beautiful mountain lies in northern Montana not far from the Canadian border. It has great significance to the local Blackfeet. It was a major landmark for trappers and other early explorers of the early 19th century heading west across the northern plains to the Rockies. Big Chief, which is 9081 feet high, is protected not only by Glacier National Park, but also by the Blackfeet. It’s eastern and northern slopes are on reservation land, and it is sacred to the tribe.
To see it you need to travel up the east side of Glacier N.P., going north from the turnoff for Many Glacier. Travel up Highway 17 like you’re going across into Canada, and several views of the peak present themselves. To get even closer of course you need to hike. Just before the border station a parking area is on the left side of the road. The trail, which is the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail, heads up the valley of the Bow River into Glacier’s heart. It’s a spectacular area.
Butterflies are notoriously difficult to catch still, so I shot this one off-tripod and using autofocus.
It’s time to dive into the nuts and bolts of this subject. I mentioned in Part II that depth of field and focus were major challenges when doing macro & close-up photography. So this post will focus on these two inter-related issues, using a few examples.
The closer you get to your subject, the shallower your depth of field will be. If you stop down to small apertures your depth of field will increase accordingly. But that will slow your shutter speed, blurring anything that is moving even slightly. It will also bring your background into better focus, which may not be what you want.
But you can go beyond simply adjusting aperture. You can choose a point of view and composition that puts the background at the right distance to blur it in the amount you want (see examples below). Also, depending on the shape of your subject, camera position will directly affect how much of it is in focus. Positioning your camera becomes a key way to control depth of field and focus, even more so than in other types of photography.
These aren’t fruit but ‘galls’ on an oak tree in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. 100 mm., 1/5 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100, tripod.
Example 1: Recently, while in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, I found the teddy-bear cholla cactus flowering with beautiful blooms. I wanted to show off both the color and the “guts” of the flower (its pistils & stamens), while at the same time giving a feel for the protecting spines all around. Flowers like this have some depth to them; they’re not flat-faced. So it’s tough to get close and still have all the petals plus the central reproductive parts all in focus.
So I positioned the camera at a sort of 3/4 angle to the face of the flower, so as to get the much of the central part in focus plus a few of the petals. I raised the tripod so it was slightly above the flower, so that a collection of cactus spines were at the right distance behind the bloom. I wanted them blurred but not too much.
The piece of blue sky beyond was a bonus, so I adjusted a bit so that it was to the side of the flower instead of right behind it. My point of focus was on the part that was closest to my lens. I had to raise ISO a bit so my shutter speed was fast enough to not allow the little breeze from blurring the flower.
Blooming cholla, southern Arizona. 100 mm. macro lens, 1/160 sec. @ f/8, ISO 400.
Example 2: In the flower below, I thought the long hairy portion was very cool, so I shot from the side to get all of that in focus. I experimented with different apertures to get most of the bloom in focus while totally blurring the background (to put attention on the flower). I also positioned the camera very close to the ground to put the background as far away as possible. The wind again made me raise ISO to get a faster shutter speed.
These flowers were blooming recently in the Chiricahua Mountains. 100 mm., 1/200 sec. @ f/11, ISO 800, tripod.
Example 3: With the bee below I had to decide whether getting all the flower, including its petals, in focus was as important as a focused bee and blurry background. Since I was shooting a living subject, shutter speed needed to be fairly fast, and that naturally led to a larger aperture (which gave me the blurred background).
Would it be better if the front petals were in focus too? Sure. But other than taking several exposures and combining them, there was no practical way to do that. I go for simple over complex most of the time, even if it means trade-offs. By the way, I got lucky with that shutter speed of 1/60 sec. Normally you’d need something faster in this situation, especially hand-held.
This bee is going to town on a cholla bloom at Organ Pipe, Arizona. 100 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.
So here’s the deal: think of moving the camera closer and further away from your subject as a way to control depth of field and the degree of blurring in your background. And think of moving your camera into different positions around the subject (side to side, low or high) as a way to not only get a more blurred background, but also to bring different parts of the subject into focus.
Next time we’ll go into some interesting ways to use macro and close-up photography in combination with other goals. I promise it will be something you just don’t see other photography teachers covering. Happy shooting!
A larger view of my recent wanderings in the southern Arizona desert at Organ Pipe Cactus N.M. This is Ajo Mountain drive, which in late summer is just too hot for most people, thus it was blessedly empty.
I wanted to show some photographs I found of Apache warriors. I often find myself in country populated by the ghosts of the original inhabitants, and it makes me realize how little time has actually passed between their time and ours. I also thought you should see some of the country these impressive American Indians roamed through.
A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.
It was almost dark when I came upon the well-done placard pictured above. It’s located near the remote Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico. It tells the story of the Apache and their battles in the late 19th century, and it does so with a perfect blend of text and pictures. These men and women gave the U.S. Cavalry all they could handle. Yes there were women in the war parties. A few were fierce warriors, fighting alongside Cochise and Geronimo. And medicine women were on hand. They were useful as healers of course. But at least one, a famous Apache medicine woman called Lozen, was said to accurately foretell the enemy’s movements.
Freely crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, the Apaches battled just as many Mexican as U.S. soldiers. I think they would not have been much hindered by today’s fences and SUV-bound border patrol. They mostly engaged in guerrilla warfare. And as long as playing field was fairly level, they usually had the upper hand. Heavy artillery was their eventual downfall.
The warriors took refuge in rugged mountains and canyons to rest and recharge. Ranges like the Gilas, the Chiricahuas and the Dragoons offered abundant shelter (including caves), water, game, food plants and medicinal plants for healing the wounds of battle. The unique geologic characteristics of the mountains made pursuit difficult. For example, the Chiricahuas have expanses of maze-like rock formations near their summits. This allowed the Indians to easily ambush parties of soldiers.
Morning breaks over Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.
There is not much to say about the character of these warriors that cannot be understood by looking at their photos. But that record is incomplete. Cochise, reported to be tall, muscular and graceful, was never photographed. Neither was Mangas Coloradas. The only way we know of what these Apache may have looked like is their sons, whose images we often do have. Geronimo was an exception, as he was both famous and not shy of the camera. But even he is only known from a few photos.
The Apache Indian wars came to an end, inevitably, when their numbers were reduced, allowing the survivors to be rounded up and sent to distant reservations. Cochise was able to live out his life in a free state, dying of natural causes in 1874. His body lies at an unknown gravesite somewhere in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains. Geronimo was not as lucky. He died in 1909 on an Oklahoma reservation, far from the mountains and canyons of his birth.
Alpine gentian growing at over 12,000 feet in elevation, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
(Since I wasn’t going to be on a computer tomorrow – Friday – I meant to schedule this post ahead one day. But I mistakenly hit Publish! Haha~so it’s a day early, what’s the harm!)
It’s time for Part II of this little series on macro and close-up photography. So let’s get right to it. Following are tips for successful macro and close-up photography:
- Composition is still king. Just as with all photography, paying attention to everything in the frame – how it’s arranged and what can be excluded to help simplify things – is the pathway to success.
- Look for interesting stuff. I know, duh! With macro, keeping an eye out for small bits of color, or really anything that stands out, will help you to zoom in (crouching or on your hands and knees) to find fascinating details that weren’t noticeable from afar. Keep an eye out for small movements in your vision’s periphery; it could lead to cool little critters.
- Patience is even more important than usual. With flowers, waiting for the breeze to pause can have even the shy among us cursing like sailors. Get the picture set up and use LiveView with focus set, then wait for the perfect moment to trip the shutter. Try using burst mode; one of the images in the burst sequence will usually be in focus.
This pretty lily blooms in very dry, desolate desert areas of southern New Mexico during late summer monsoons. The wind was trying to keep me from getting the shot.
- Depth of field will be a challenge. Macro lenses have an innately narrow depth of field. And don’t expect close-up filters or extension tubes to do much better in that regard. Specific techniques for dealing with this are coming in the next post. The caterpillar below, who was moving surprisingly quickly, I shot hand-held, with fairly shallow depth of field and fast shutter speed. The fungus below that was stock still on a dark background, so I was able to shoot from the tripod with small aperture (for good depth of field), not worrying about having to blur the background.
Shallow depth of field meant that I couldn’t get all of this caterpillar in focus, so I focused on his head.
A strange fungus grows on a charred pine tree in the high country along the Arizona-New Mexico border.
- A tripod is usually necessary. With subjects that don’t move, or with flowers & other things that move back and forth (in the breeze), a tripod is really a no-brainer. In low light a tripod is even more critical. But even when light is bright and shutter speed is faster, a tripod results in more keepers. On the other hand, with fast-moving critters, a tripod may be more of a hindrance. Last point on tripods: never avoid a macro opportunity just because you don’t have a tripod with you. It’s still worth it, though your skills and patience will certainly be tested.
Western fence lizard, El Malpais, New Mexico. Hand-held and autofocus allowed me to catch him before he scampered off.
- Focus is a pretty big deal. You’ll find yourself using manual focus (with or without LiveView) much more often than usual. It allows much more precise adjustment, especially when using LiveView. With critters and other subjects that move, autofocus may be best. Next time we’ll go more into how camera position directly affects both your selective focus and depth of field.
- Work that subject! Just as with landscapes, portraits and other kinds of image-making, moving around and changing point of view, getting shots from several different distances, and in general trying to exhaust all possibilities is the way to go. Not only will it increase your chances for more good images, it will also help greatly to tell a story about the subject.
- Related to the above point, try not to obsess about getting as close as possible. While filling the frame can certainly be effective, it’s just one way of showing your subject. Just as wildlife photography dominated by close-ups cries out for a few shots showing the animal’s surroundings, macro and close-up photography needs to mix in wider views to show context and help tell the whole story.
Although this butterfly is so beautiful it’s tempting to fill the frame, stepping back to show the purple flowers it was alighting on results in an image that communicates more.
- Find good light. Golden hour, with the sun very low, is not just a good time for larger landscapes. It can also result in dramatic macro and close-up images. But bright sunlight also presents problems of contrast, and the higher the sun goes the harsher the light. Next time we’ll look at ways to mitigate these issues. A high overcast sky, with flat, even light, is good for illuminating all parts of your subject equally.
That’s it for now. I’m about to cross the border into Mexico for a short visit and a dip in the Sea of Cortez. Have a super weekend and happy shooting!
And now for a non-macro: sunset over the Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming.