What we want in a macro shot - Detail
In the first article of this series, 'The What and Why of Macro', I talked about what macro photography is and explained why I shoot macro in the wild. My next goal, which I will tackle in this article and the next one, is to introduce you to the elements I consider paramount in a macro image. I'm not necessarily referring here to the criteria for judging an image, but rather to the fundamental things a macro photographer should try to bear in mind when producing it.
So what is the number one, most important element in a macro photograph? The easy answer is that there aren't any. There are several qualities a macro image should have, all of which are important. To make things more complicated, photographers don't always agree on which ones those are. However, when I think about macro photography, the first aspect that comes to my mind is detail. Detail is almost what makes macro what it is, in the sense that shooting up close is the very means to obtain what the macro photographer wants to show the viewer: the unseen-yet-everywhere-present elements of the miniature world. What got me first interested in macro photography was my fascination with insects and my desire to unravel their mysteries and see them as they truly are.
|Caption: An example of a detailed shot. Too small to really examine closely |
with the naked eye, this robber fly is rendered in extraordinary detail with a
You might rightfully claim that I haven't done much by simply asking for detail. The meaning of the word is quite clear, but how do we obtain it? More precisely, what determines the level of detail desirable in a macro shot? In this article I will list the top factors.
First and foremost, focus is paramount in a macro photograph. This may seem obvious, but focusing is more problematic in macro than it is in any other field. The reason is that one of the consequences of shooting at a close distance is shallow depth of field (DOF), so shallow in fact that it is often quite hard to get accurate focus.
|Here, although focus is off by only |
1-2mm, the fly in this image is soft,
and theimage unusable.
|Limited DOF caused this robber fly |
portrait to lack important detail in the
proboscis and antennae areas. Even
the eye is only partly in focus.
In most cases, as with all other kinds of animal photography, we want good focus and sharpness on the eyeof the insect that we're shooting. But with depth of field of less than a millimeter, getting any part of the animal in focus can often be quite a challenge.
Accurate focusing and sufficient depth of field are thus especially significant in macro photography. Depth of field is so fundamental that I'll dedicate an entire section to it in a later article. As for focus, for now I'll just say that when shooting macro, we have to focus very carefully and accurately, because even the slightest movement, either that of the camera or that of the subject, can throw the image out of focus. I use manual focus exclusively, since AF simply isn't reliable or accurate enough for my needs, or is not available, at least with some of my favorite lenses. When focusing is technically difficult, trusting your eyes is always better than trusting the AF sensor, especially when one can use magnified live-view to focus perfectly.
|Live view shooting can free us from having to bend over to look through |
the viewfinder, and help us achieve better focus by enlarging the viewed area.
In addition to focus and DOF, light is key in a macro image. Naturally, overexposing an image or underexposing it completely will result in blown-out highlights or blocked-up shadows, both of which harm detail, but there's more than that. Hard directional light can produce excessive contrast, or cause a part of the object to cast a shadow on other parts of it and harm detail, even if the overall exposure is 'correct'. This is especially noticeable when the subject is very hairy, has protruding body parts or both (which is very common when your subjects are invertebrates!). Thus one must also consider the quality and direction of light in order to capture sufficient detail.
|Very harsh sunlight caused this (otherwise technically acceptable) image to severely lack detail in many places due to excessive contrast.||In this shot, soft light allowed this praying mantis larva to be shown in all its beauty and detail.|
While the aspects of correct focus and quality of light play a similar role in macro as they do in most other kinds of photography, the next two aspects are quite different in that sense. As I've mentioned before, in order to achieve a good level of detail when shooting a tiny subject (in other words - if we want the subject to be big enough in the frame), one must shoot from a very close distance, even when working with relatively long focal length lenses. Thus proximity is another important aspect. Since your subject is likely to be very small, shooting from too far away would result in the subject filling only a very small portion of the frame.
|Shooting from a very close distance is challenging, but can produce amazing results.|
Getting close to an invertebrate can often pose a challenge. If you've ever tried to approach an insect with a camera in your hand you'll know that often, your nervous pray will run or fly away the second you get close enough. Yet we must get close enough if we want to get the shot. This is a problem, but one that can be solved using a little knowledge of animal habits, behavior and activity levels during different times of the day, in combination with a level of care and delicacy when approaching them. I'll talk about this in more detail in future articles.
The final important condition is that of stability. In other fields of photography, like landscapes, for example, the sharpness or level of detail isn't compromised if part of the scene (a tree branch, or blade of grass) moves by one millimeter. This is because one millimeter, compared to a huge subject such as a lake or a mountain, is a meaninglessly small amount of movement. But if the entire width of the subject is only five millimeters a movement of one millimeter during exposure would result in severe motion blur, destroying the image altogether.
|Although very slight, subject movement has badly compromised critical image quality in this photograph of a spider only a handful of millimeters in size.|
Note that stability is only required in relation to other image parameters. By this I mean that if you shoot a relatively long exposure, you have to use a tripod (not to mention your subject, which must be perfectly still). But if flash is your main light source, the very short duration of the actual light burst can freeze even moderate subject movement.