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.