What we want in a macro shot - POV and special scenes

We are nearing the end of the 'what' section of this series. We've mentioned detail and background as critical aspects we look for in a macro shot, and now I'd like to survey two important non-technical issues.

The interesting parts of this dragonfly are its beautifully colored eyes, thorax and
abdomen, all of which are clearly seen from eye-level. Shooting from a different
angle would result in the image not containing what I wished to convey to the
viewer. It would also result in a less personal feeling, contrary to the mood I was
trying to create.

The first issue I'll discuss is point of view (POV)- and I plan to do this using a seemingly odd comparison. Let's leave the nature world briefly and step in the domain of children portraiture. As every photographer knows, the first and most followed "rule" in this field is 'always shoot children from eye-level'. This is indeed an important guideline to bear in mind, but what is its purpose? Some people may rightfully claim that shooting children from eye-level, rather than from above them, prevents perspective distortion which could make the subject seem to have a very large head and a small lower body.

While this is absolutely true, my point is that there is a much deeper motive for shooting this way. Shooting from eye level allows the photographer to show the subject as if looking at it from within the subject's own world. This ideological objective results practically in a much more natural image, and furthermore, one that contains a good, balanced view of the interesting parts of the subject.

This poison dart frog (Dendrobates pumilio) wasn't shot at eye-level, but rather from a slightly elevated position, due to environmental constraints. This has caused to the image to be less personal and to have the look and feel of a documentation by an outside viewer. This is ideologically problematic to me as a nature photographer, as well as aesthetically unappealing. The same frog gets a more personal perspective when shot at eye-level, and the image looks much better.

In the wildlife photography world, as different as it is, things are very similar in this respect. When shooting an animal, one usually wishes to display its most interesting parts, and those parts are usually seen when viewing the subject at eye-level. But when the subject is a large mammal such as a lion or a zebra, it's very natural to shoot at eye-level, since the photographer has (at least approximately) the same height as the subject. Even when shooting giraffes or elephants from far enough, the shooting angle isn't extreme, and so this also qualifies as 'eye-level'. Alas, in the domain of macro - as always - things are quite different.

Our usual encounters with invertebrates or amphibians are either from a top view (watching them move on the ground) or from a bottom view (watching them fly in the air). Thus an extremely important consideration in macro photography is that in order to shoot invertebrates both in their natural surroundings and at eye level, one must change one's normal stance of standing on two legs, and go down - way down. Depending on where your subject is positioned, this may involve lying in the mud, being scratched by painful thorns or busting your back shooting at odd angles. However, once you learn how to control subject location, it's easier to create a situation where the subject is much more conveniently placed.

Photographer Ori Saar shoots a butterfly from eye-level. Ori knows that the butterfly's low position compels him to lie on the damp earth if he wants the right angle of view.

I'd like to emphasize that the POV consideration is only part of a general attitude toward macro photography. My governing idea is that one should shoot invertebrates the same as one shoots all other animals, including humans. I shoot a fly's portrait using the same ideas of light and composition I use to shoot a human portrait. The difference lies only in the technicalities stemming from the proximity to the subject. But once we learn how to identify and overcome (or even take advantage of) these differences, macro is essentially identical to any other kind of wildlife photography.

This mantis portrait was essentially shot like a human portrait, according to the
same principles. The only difference is the shooting distance.

The second subject I'll mention here is finding and shooting special scenes. Imagine a wildlife safari in Africa. You can shoot great images of lions sitting on a rock, but they just wouldn't compare to a good shot in the middle of a hunt. When shooting macro things are similar, but with one difference: In the realm of the minute, vicious hunts, multi-partner orgies, courtship dances among many other bizarre behaviors and occurrences happen all the time, and everywhere, right under our noses. The only challenge is to find the scene and shoot it well.

Housefly sex scene, shot in my parents' backyard in the middle of a big residential city in Israel. All I had to do was to open the door and the scene was there. I don't consider this image nature photography - the flies are standing on a concrete fence - but it's useful to illustrate how ubiquitous these occurrences are. A proper wildlife shot, showing the beautiful copulation of damselflies in the wild. Still, I didn't have to drive more than 10 minutes to get to the small lake where this scene took place. In the right season they are there in their thousands.
A spider feeding on a captured moth. The poison fangs are stuck deep in the
moth's delicate connection point, making it tricky to spot where the spider ends
and the moth begins. This is an image of the very midst of a feeding - the
equivalent, in macro photography, of a lion gorging itself on a zebra. But in the
mammal world, the zebra isn't five times the lion's size!

What I'm trying to say is that a true wildlife macro photographer should put a significant emphasis on shooting interesting occurrences, not just insects standing on branches. The ability to do this depends largely on the photographer's familiarity with animal behavior, habitats and activity hours. A robber fly will never hunt early in the morning, when it's too cold for it to fly, and a nocturnal animal like a red eyed tree frog won't croak or mate during the day. These considerations must be made together with those of all other aspects we've seen so far if one wants to produce a good wildlife shot.

With over 8000 species worldwide and more than 150 in Israel, robber flies are amongst my favorite subjects. These incredible hunters will eat anything smaller then themselves (including their own!), and sometimes even prey on animals larger than they are. Words alone can't even begin to show the splendor of these beasts, and the excitement of seeing them in action. Damselflies may seem subtle and delicate, but they are ferocious hunters as well. Their favorite prey is our worst enemy: the mosquito.

But hunting and sex aren't everything. Other special scenes one might shoot are courtship dances, interactions with larger animals (a good shot of a mosquito dining on human blood can send shivers up even the toughest man's spine…), insects in flight and more – the variety is endless. 

A band-eyed drone fly caught in midair. Not an easy capture, but one that arouses wonder and emotion.
One of the the robber flies' most fascinating behaviors is shown in this image. Having spotted a female, a male robber fly will often wait until his prospective mate has captured prey, only then attempting to copulate. This can save his life, as a hungry female won't hesitate to feed on him!
Quality isn't everything – I always strive for it, yet sometimes the interest factor of the scene outweighs it. This image of aerial dragonfly sex isn't exactly what I'd call a quality shot, but still, it's a very interesting one. Even more so given the fact that the male and female are of different species!

Trying to shoot these fantastic scenes is very hard, and even more so when one remembers all the other considerations we've talked about. When wildlife macro photographers go to the field they have to think about focus, stability, proximity, DOF, light, POV and background, and do all this while hunting for an exciting occurrence and trying to compose the image well. Yet every event in the natural world is beautiful and unique, and capturing fascinating wildlife behavior is the very essence of our work. You should remember that it's worth all the hassle and give it a real, honest effort.


For further reading on macro photography have a look at Erez' previous articles in this series:

What we want in a macro shot - Background
What we want in a macro shot - Detail
The what and why of wildlife macro photography


Erez Marom is a nature photographer based in Israel and a regular contributor to Composition magazine. You can see more of his work at www.erezmarom.com and follow him on his Facebook page and deviantArt gallery.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 25
PhotoStanIII
By PhotoStanIII (Jun 26, 2012)

Absolutely spectacular shots! I just got a Nikon 105mm Micro lens that can do 1:1. I'm so excited to go out and try to get some shots. I have been reading these articles, and I may not have read them all, so forgive me if this question is addressed somewhere else, but...

I'm wondering how you manage to get the shots before the critters fly away. Are they hand-held shots? I've been reading that a tripod is essential, but I can't see how the bug will stay there long enough for me to put a tripod in position, focus and shoot.

I wonder if you ever try to anticipate where a bug would land? Then set up the tripod and wait for something to come into frame (or close enough that you can react fast). One thought I have is to "seed" the area by putting a drop of sugar-water on a branch or something like that (to attract something).

Extremely exciting stuff. I'm thinking Salamanders and things like that (in addition to the insects) will be awesome. Thanks for your tips!

1 upvote
7Song
By 7Song (Mar 9, 2012)

I have recently purchased my first macro lens, and this series is giving me insights how to go about taking better photos. Also the photos are beautiful and intriguing (and captioned), thank you.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
Freddytto Robles
By Freddytto Robles (Nov 10, 2011)

thanks for this tips ,that very good and so beautiful macro shot

2 upvotes
Lightabuser
By Lightabuser (Oct 22, 2011)

This is a wonderful series - I cannot wait for the next part! Thank you for sharing

1 upvote
wutsurstyle
By wutsurstyle (Oct 21, 2011)

I love this article and series. Thanks so much for sharing!

1 upvote
aaanouel
By aaanouel (Oct 21, 2011)

Very good tips.
Your shots are very good, I specially appreciate and like the band-eyed drone fly caught in midair, not a common nor easy shot.
Thks4sharing

1 upvote
Slynky
By Slynky (Oct 20, 2011)

Thanks for the article. Information I've never really thought about (well, partly because I'm not much of a macro shooter but...). Intersting. Thanks !

Comment edited 12 seconds after posting
1 upvote
John K
By John K (Oct 20, 2011)

Excellent article, and a subject that I've blogged about in the past. I study portrait composition and apply it to my macro work all the time.

Another aspect of macro composition is determining just how much magnification should be used. Often times just clipping the wings of the subject is a bad thing, it leaves the viewer wanting to see the whole insect. So I either go for a "scenic" shot, or just a photo of its head.

1 upvote
MP Burke
By MP Burke (Oct 20, 2011)

Very impressed by these images. Observing damselflies is a great way to experience the violence and competitiveness of nature. I have photographed damselflies with prey on several occasions, yet watching these creatures is addictive and one of the reasons I look forward to the summer.

2 upvotes
frans_vdm
By frans_vdm (Oct 20, 2011)

Thanks for the nice advise.
To capture in-flight insects the technique can sometimes help. To shoot high-speed in-flight insects I use a laser setup for several years and successfully. Many results are available on my Flickr site, including the techniques.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoopa_hs/
It remains a challenge to make good macro images.
Frans.

1 upvote
Dan Tong
By Dan Tong (Oct 20, 2011)

Your macro photos are stunning and clearly show that you really know what you are talking about. All of your articles are very well written and a pleasure to read. I'm looking forward to your discussion of lenses and DOF.

Thanks very much,

Dan

3 upvotes
madeinlisboa
By madeinlisboa (Oct 20, 2011)

There is so much life that we don't usually notice it, unless with macros. great stuff.

3 upvotes
scenario
By scenario (Oct 20, 2011)

Get the basics and get the image Good simple words
Grahame

2 upvotes
Footski
By Footski (Oct 20, 2011)

The advise is excellent. The images are simply superb. Thank you.

3 upvotes
eyedo
By eyedo (Oct 20, 2011)

Bugs creep me out..But your dragonfly shot is by far one of the prettiest I've ever seen! Nice work,thanks for the article!

eyedo

1 upvote
Debankur Mukherjee
By Debankur Mukherjee (Oct 20, 2011)

Nice reading...Thanks..

2 upvotes
Fletch50mm
By Fletch50mm (Oct 20, 2011)

Great series.
Awesome pics.
That Praying Mantis shot is incredible.
Thanks

3 upvotes
Erland Nielsen
By Erland Nielsen (Oct 20, 2011)

If I would go so close as to cut of the abdomen on the dragonfly (first image), I would surely cut of more, and bring the eyes down a bit from the edge of the image.
I am quite sure that in the last image, the male and female are of the same species. The female just lack the wing bands.
Nice images.

Erland

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Oct 20, 2011)

Hey Erland,
Please click on the images to watch the full versions - the site crops and resizes them.
About the dragonflies - a friend who studied biology and knows these species told me that - but maybe he's wrong. I have no biology training myself, so I wouldn't know.

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
OdonataPix
By OdonataPix (Oct 20, 2011)

I would have to agree with Erland and your friend. The case of males and females of different species of dragonflies copulating is very, very rare. This is because (simplified :-) there are differences between species in the shape of the specific parts used to grasp eachother.
In the case of the photo in the article, it is probably Brachythemis leucosticta. In this species females don't have a dark band on their wings.
Regards,
An emerging odonatologist :-)

Comment edited 13 minutes after posting
4 upvotes
Steven Blackwood
By Steven Blackwood (Oct 20, 2011)

Where does this guy find these critters? Bravo!

2 upvotes
Chaitanya S
By Chaitanya S (Oct 20, 2011)

just look in garden outside your house, you will find a lot of interesting subjects to photograph.

2 upvotes
qwertyasdf
By qwertyasdf (Oct 20, 2011)

Dude...nice pictures!

2 upvotes
sonorasam
By sonorasam (Oct 19, 2011)

I like the idea of shooting from the objects POV. Since this view is one we almost never see. And the idea of catching a "good moment" is critical as well. I think doing this should be called behavioral macro photography. I have learned an incredible amount about insect behaviour doing macros. One more thing: without the knowledge of the creatures it is much harder to capture those special WOW moments. One can only look at so many closeups of flowers!

Sam

3 upvotes
dtra
By dtra (Oct 19, 2011)

More amazing pictures and great advice!

4 upvotes
Total comments: 25