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

Erez Marom | Photo Techniques | Published Oct 19, 2011

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.