The what and why of wildlife macro photography

Whenever I teach macro photography I begin with a statement and two questions. The statement is that I, as a nature photographer, teach macro photography in the wild. The two immediate questions that stem from this statement are:

  1. What is macro photography? 
  2. Why do I choose to shoot macro photographs in the wild?

In this article, the first of a new series here on dpreview, I'll try to answer these questions, as well as elaborate a little bit about the essence of macro photography as I see it. I'll also try to give you enough information about the upcoming articles to keep you interested!

What is macro photography?

In simplest terms, macro photography is shooting your subjects from a close distance. 

Photographer Gilad Mass shoots a
praying mantis up close and personal.

What is a 'close distance'? Anything from half a meter down to 4 or 5cm away from your subject.

A crab spider shot from a distance of 5cm. Such a high magnification reveals details which are invisible to the naked eye. Even when shooting a relatively large object, such as a pair of butterflies, the shooting distance is still much less than a meter.

Why shoot in the wild?

As for the second question - why shoot in the wild? - there are three answers, but they are personal, rather than technical.

Firstly, in my opinion, shooting insects and tiny animals is the most fascinating, exciting, forget-all-your-troubles experience a photographer can have. These minute creatures are not only crucial for our existence here on earth, but their colors, structure, behavior and interaction with the living world are unparalleled. Shooting earrings or sushi is considered macro photography, and a lot of photographers make a good living doing it, but does that even begin to compare to shooting a hovering dragonfly or a spider in the midst of a vicious hunt? I seriously doubt it.

A dragonfly hovering in midair - a very close and exciting encounter of the third kind!

The second reason for why I choose to shoot in the wild is simply that it is very challenging. And like all challenges, it is extremelt rewarding. Shooting outdoors in an uncontrolled environment is signficantly harder than shooting in a controlled environment, such as a studio. In nature you can't tell the sun when and where to shine, or tell the wind to stop blowing. You cannot predict which species you encounter and whether or not they feel like staying around for a quick snap. You cannot prevent a bird from snatching a praying mantis just when you finished composing and focusing (true story). Nature is essentially uncontrollable and as such, when you adopt is as your working environment a lot can - and does - go wrong. Once you've mastered shooting in the wild, taking pictures in a studio is easy.

Don't get me wrong though - have a lot of respect for the art of studio photography. Some of my favorite shots were taken in the studio, and the results obtained in a highly controlled environment can be nothing short of amazing. Yet in a studio there is no sun, no wind, no shifting clouds or rain, and you can pretty much control everything except animal behavior. That makes shooting in the studio easier, at least in principal.

The third reason why I shoot in the wild is that I don't feel that I have a choice. Ultimately, in my opinion, nature and wildlife photographers need to shoot in the wild. Nature photography is all about showing the beauty of the world surrounding us, its intricacy and diversity. And that just cannot be done in a studio, high-tech as it may be. Personally, I believe wildlife photography should be done in nature, nowhere else.

Photographer Shy Cohen doing what he does best: shooting in nature.

A quick yet important statement: All the shots you will see in this article, and in the rest of the series, show animals that are:

  1. alive (unless being eaten by another creature)
  2. absolutely free and unharmed
  3. in their natural surroundings

These three rules are especially important to me, so I will elaborate. Alive - well, that is pretty much self-explanatory, but there are photographers out there who shoot dead subjects. I am OK with that in principle, as long as the subject is not claimed to be alive, and is not killed on purpose just for the shot. Some special kinds of photographs, such as those taken using a scanning-electron-microscope (SEM), require the subject to be gold-plated or cut in cross-sections, so of course it needs to be dead. I personally don't do that kind of photography, but I have no problem with it. There is something I do have a problem with though - animal abuse, and that’s where rule number two is important. Believe it or not, some 'kind souls' have the gruesome habit of abusing subjects, just to get a shot! Needless to say, all of the photographs you'll see here are abuse free.

A red strawberry poison-dart frog (Dendrobates pumilio), found in the jungle on Bastimentos Island, Bocas del Toro, Panama. Local children capture these delicate creatures and offer tourists to take picture for a dollar. I cannot tolerate this behavior toward wild animals, and so I had to chase this frog for about 2 hours before I could get some decent shots.
A robber fly is in an especially compromised situation while feeding. If we get too close and frighten it it will often abandon its hard-earned prey and run for its life. This can mean death instead of life for this magnificent hunter.

As for natural surroundings - it is important to remember that you can really hurt an animal if you pull it away from its habitat. Lots of insects are dependent upon the plants you find them on, so even if you have to move them for a photograph, put them back on the same kind of plant when finished. The same goes for amphibians, and practically any other kind of animal.

A spittlebug nymph, 3mm in length, sucking the fluid out of the plant it's found on and secreting it out of its backside as foam. Removing the foam gently for a short time does not hurt the creature, as it starts producing it again immediately. Yet removing the nymph from this branch might result in its death, since it wouldn’t be able to produce this protective substance anymore.

By now we have a good starting point - I have given you a basic overview of what macro photography is, and how and why I do it, but a lot remains unexplained. What exactly it is that makes shooting up close so different? how do I persuade insects into cooperating for a photograph? What equipment should you use? How do you light a macro shot, and how should you manipulate it post-process? These questions, among many others, will be answered in the articles to come, so stay tuned for much more.


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.

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: 46
anandhavalli
By anandhavalli (8 months ago)

Very sincere article which is the most conscious in the way of saving the life of wilds,while photographing ! Good tips.

2 upvotes
genghishahn
By genghishahn (Jun 9, 2012)

I just finished reading all the the articles you've posted so far--I wanted to take a moment to say thank you =) I've been bitten by the macro bug, and have been trying to learn as much as I can to improve the quality of my photos. I really appreciate that you're taking the time to share your knowledge. I will be eagerly awaiting your future articles =)

Best regards,
Scott

3 upvotes
Shashikant
By Shashikant (Mar 14, 2012)

Really stunning pictures. The author could have given brass tacks data. I have Nikon7000 camera plus Nikkor 105mm ED VR AFS f/2.8 G lens but I fail to get good pics. It might need a lot of patience and also some learning as use of tripod and correct focusing and correct distance from the object. Any further teaching is most welcome.

0 upvotes
spencerberus
By spencerberus (Feb 17, 2012)

Awesome, I think I replied to another of your articles asking about how you handle the animals, I found most of the answer here, nice to see they aren't in any way harmed, and yet good macro photos are still a possibility in many cases. I shoot a lot of bees - I think they're fascinating, plus they aren't hard to find - but they move a lot. I find I can get the best images when they're busy doing something - generally when they've found a good deal of pollen on a flower. Are your subjects mostly slow moving or otherwise occupied, or do you have some technique for dealing with 'active' subjects?

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Mar 7, 2012)

Hi Spencer, sorry for the late reply.
I'll elaborate on all my techniques for dealing with insects in a future article.
Best regards,
Erez

0 upvotes
r_hossain
By r_hossain (Jan 3, 2012)

Thanks for your article

1 upvote
kyrontf
By kyrontf (Dec 6, 2011)

I'm very impressed by the respectful attitude towards wildlife presented in this article! I think wildlife macro photography is unique in revealing to us a whole world of fantastic creatures -- creatures that too often are overlooked and disregarded.

Great photographs and inspiration! I look forward to following the series.

3 upvotes
g persi
By g persi (Nov 12, 2011)

Thank you for the insight and i lok forward to reading your other articles

1 upvote
ChaosPhotgrapher
By ChaosPhotgrapher (Sep 24, 2011)

thanks for the tip, i wish i could take photos like you...

1 upvote
Dan Tong
By Dan Tong (Sep 22, 2011)

Excellent and well written article. Clear, straightforward, and done with a heart.
Great job!

Thanks,

Dan

1 upvote
dholl
By dholl (Sep 9, 2011)

I am in complete agreement with this article and photograph my night spiders in much the same way.

1 upvote
MP Burke
By MP Burke (Sep 8, 2011)

I am pleased that Erez Marom is promoting such an enlightened approach to photography of small wildlife. I was initially attracted to dragonflies by the photographic challenge, but have become increasingly interested in the ecology of the insects themselves.
Even if invertebrates seem to be present in huge numbers, we should be aware that there are billions of us as well and we should each try to minimise our individual impact on the animals and their habitats.
Hopefully articles like these will promote an awareness of how to observe nature without interfering with it.

2 upvotes
Peet Venter
By Peet Venter (Sep 8, 2011)

Thank you so much!

1 upvote
Nathan Hoover
By Nathan Hoover (Sep 8, 2011)

This seems like it will be a great series and I like your photos. I can't wait to see more. There is one typo I noticed: extremelt.

1 upvote
jfelbab
By jfelbab (Sep 7, 2011)

I love macro photography for many of the same reasons you stated. I live in what easily could be called a nature preserve. I love walking through the place with my camera (not a very good one) and trying to slowly get close to the insects, birds and whatever else I can creep up on. I'd like to get a better camera but I don't think that my old Konica/Minolta point& shoot is the weakest link. That would be my lack of knowledge and experience. Thanks for your article, that should help me a good deal.

Some of my Macro shots: http://gallery.mac.com/jfelbab#100257

Any suggestions on how I could improve my macro shots would be appreciated.

2 upvotes
Heath McDonald
By Heath McDonald (Sep 7, 2011)

Excellent introductory article Erez and will be very interested to read more, particularly on your techniques for lighting macro shots. I have been taking macro images of insects etc for a couple of years now and I do have a preference for natural lighting. I had a look at your website and really like the composition and colours of your images, it goes to show that geographic location has a large bearing on the lighting conditions. In the UK the light can be quite cool and this comes through in my images. Looking forward to the next article, my images can be found on http://www.mendipwildlifephotography.co.uk

1 upvote
Mr Gurf
By Mr Gurf (Sep 7, 2011)

Great timing! I am closing in to buying a macro lens, although not sure which one yet (my camera is identical to the one on the first photo in the article ;).
I'll wait a little more for more detailed advice until the question "What equipment should you use?" is addressed !
Hopefully my macro-photography aspirations match the budget for the lens :)

1 upvote
Antao Almada
By Antao Almada (Sep 7, 2011)

Great! A share the same passion for wildlife photography macro. I started recently and I still have a lot to learn and maybe better material... ;)
I found his article when I was looking for macro lens reviews.
Please check my Flickr gallery and comment: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aalmada/sets/72157621941784741/
Thanks,
aalmada

0 upvotes
Mikeincusco
By Mikeincusco (Sep 7, 2011)

Great article Erez. What are your favourite photography areas in Israel - my brother lives over there & my parents will probably go next year.
Please have a look at my site http://www.mikeonlocation.com and let me know if you are ever intersted in running workshops in the Peruvian amazon - I live in Cusco & promote responsible travel to the nearby Tambopata rainforest.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 11, 2011)

Hey Mike, sorry for the late reply!
May favorite location for macro is the Ben-Shemen forest area. It's just packed with insects, I you could spend a lifetime shooting there. But you can find good macro subjects just about anywhere where there's water andqor vegetation.
Let me contact you privately about the workshops.
Best,
Erez

0 upvotes
Adrian Harris
By Adrian Harris (Sep 7, 2011)

Great article starter thank you. I also enjoy macro in the wild and even more with night macro with moths !
I do get upset when I hear that phtographers capture them and put them in the fridge till morning so that they can place them on a different bush or flower. What challenge is that?
Because of the special requirements of shooting in the wild I have developed some interesting camera systems - which is also excellent fun :o)

1 upvote
Martin Cerny
By Martin Cerny (Sep 7, 2011)

Very nice article. Just a note what to consider as "close distance". I think it depends a lot on the lens. I use a 300mm (+ 1.4TC sometime) so I can get "very close" to a critter being actually quite distant :-).
I love your DIF (Dragonfly in Flight) - I have been trying some for a while (http://www.dragonflies.cz/galleries/01_DIFs/) and I know it is not an easy task.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 7, 2011)

Yeah, the 300mm + teleconverter is a great combo for this task.
You have some really good shots there. I'd suggest trying to capture them in softer light- it's hard but can give the images a special look. Also, I'd consider posting only the top images - so the audience sees your very best work. Great job! :)

0 upvotes
lamah
By lamah (Sep 7, 2011)

I've seen the foam of spittlebugs many times before, but I had never seen the bug itself, it's fascinating! Did you clear the foam by pouring water on the bug, blowing away the foam, or pulling it away with fingers?

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 7, 2011)

Pouring water is too much, this guy is tiny (3mm in length).
I usually use a soft part of a plant to pull the foam without touching the insect.

0 upvotes
nizios
By nizios (Sep 7, 2011)

Fantastic article ! Fantastic photos !

2 upvotes
jpr2
By jpr2 (Sep 7, 2011)

for anyone interested in macros, there is a weekly of very long tradition:
http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1029&message=39250035

0 upvotes
sxlalan
By sxlalan (Sep 7, 2011)

Thanks for the intro Erez. The photos here and on your website are fantastic. Looking forward to the next instalment.

1 upvote
mbaginy
By mbaginy (Sep 7, 2011)

Very good article describing ethics and some technique. Very nice images. I'll be eagerly awaiting a follow up. Toda raba Erez!

1 upvote
Arnoldus1942
By Arnoldus1942 (Sep 7, 2011)

I like the article and the pictures.

1 upvote
Karl Gnter Wnsch
By Karl Gnter Wnsch (Sep 7, 2011)

I like your ethics of not harming the animal - but how does this allow chasing a frog for two hours to get a shot. Or were you trying to say something different like you had to search for the frog for two hours?

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 7, 2011)

Hi Karl.
Indeed, a rightful and justified question.
One always affects the natural world when stepping inside it for any reason, and this includes photography.
However, if one wishes to shoot live animals one must get close to them somehow. Some do it by capturing animals and/or harming them. I do it by chasing them around on their own terms, letting them decide when to move and when to stop. This stresses and harms the animal far less then capturing it, and this is especially true with animals accustomed to human presence, such as these frogs.
By the way, by "chasing" I don't mean runing and thumping around brutally. I just follow them carefully. Maybe the original phrasing was too harsh :)
I hope that answers your question.
Best,
Erez

0 upvotes
Karl Gnter Wnsch
By Karl Gnter Wnsch (Sep 7, 2011)

I know what you mean now - maybe it was just my interpretation of the word "chasing" because of the things I have witnessed over the past years. Here in Europe many interesting areas for macro photography happen to be nature reserves or quite vulnerable environments so pursuing the hobby of macro photography needs special considerations on ones impact on these areas (staying on the path is a must, not disturbing the insect in question another, as you pointed out for the robber fly) but I have witnessed people chasing (litteraly) after their subjects in harsh light with the camera hand held - to the detriment of both environment and animal.
The worst I have seen in this regard were some people chasing after an Adder and trying to get it to pose for them - an action that usually lands a few photographers per year in Hospital after being bitten by the venomous snake...

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 7, 2011)

I guess that gor what they deserved :)

0 upvotes
luben solev
By luben solev (Sep 7, 2011)

This is a good and entertaining article from Erez. I'm looking forward to reading the follow-ups from him!

1 upvote
dtra
By dtra (Sep 7, 2011)

The hovering dragonfly and the robber fly shots are super. I've never managed to capture anything in flight, I'd be ecstatic with something close to that dragonfly.

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 7, 2011)

Thank you.
With knowlegde, technique and patience, there's no reason you wouldn't be able to capture such an image.

0 upvotes
casualShots
By casualShots (Sep 7, 2011)

Great article and great photos. Eagerly waiting on the how of insect macros, in the next article in the series.

Love the hovering dragonfly. People who have not shot dragonflys in midair, do not know how hard it is to capture one in midair. They hover for about 1-2 sec before jumping upto 10 feet in any direction. Damn but they are fast.

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 7, 2011)

Thank you very much.
Indeed flyling objects are hard to shoot, but one of my goals is to let people know that it's not unachievable if one invests time and effort in learning this craft.
In my view, art, any art, is a mixture of technique and emotion. To convey one's emotion, one must first have technique.
Best,
Erez

0 upvotes
Thom_vee
By Thom_vee (Sep 7, 2011)

Here`s something for macro lovers http://www.naturemagnified.com/search/label/Macro

0 upvotes
Neloy Sinha
By Neloy Sinha (Sep 7, 2011)

I take macro photos very often for my clinical materials in Dermatology with my FinePix S9600. But I do not have a ring flash. So it is difficult to go very close to the subject. The Super macro mode helps to take photos without flash. But again flash light, however controlled, sometimes burn the macro detail. So diffuse light is the better option. Being a camera of another era (in terms of digital photography) it is almost unuseable to capture detail beyond 400ISO.But the camera is giving me satisfactory result, if not the best. I am eager to learn more to improve my learning curve through your forecoming series of articles.

1 upvote
jkrumm
By jkrumm (Sep 7, 2011)

Nicely done. An enjoyable read.

1 upvote
AimishBoy
By AimishBoy (Sep 2, 2011)

more more more more!

1 upvote
NancyP
By NancyP (Sep 1, 2011)

Love the spittlebug!

You didn't mention directly one of the best parts of macro or other nature photography : the study of biology and ecology (and geology) pertinent to your subjects.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 2, 2011)

Indeed, yet there are so many other faces to wildlife photography, if I wanted to discuss them all, the series would go on for years... :)

2 upvotes
Philippe R
By Philippe R (Sep 1, 2011)

Good introduction to your macro photography indeed !
I'll be looking forward to read more articles on your subject.

2 upvotes
Total comments: 46