On Wednesday 27 May 2020, club members enjoyed a generously illustrated talk on “The Art of Macro”, with some bonus landscapes thrown in for good measure. A record-breaking 39 devises (43 members) logged in when Tony North BPE3 CPAGB “Zoomed” in from Manchester to tell us how he goes about taking macro images of natural subjects.

More of Tony’s work can be seen at https://www.artofmacro.com

Although interested in photography for most of his life, Tony acquired his first DSLR about four years ago and has been doing “serious macro” only for the last three years.  Nevertheless, he already has many competition awards to his name.  He has been interested in both nature and art since childhood and it seemed natural to want to make works of art out of macro.

As he explains on his website, “I love revealing the amazing beauty of the world of miniature beasts, and sharing that with others.  I also enjoy competing, whether in BPE Salons or in major competitions such as the International Garden Photographer of the Year, for which one of my shots got a highly commended in 2019, or Amateur Photographer of the Year, for which another image got 3rd place.”

Tony’s main gear is a Nikon D500 (a professional quality crop-sensor camera) with a 105mm Nikon f2.8 macro lens and 1.4x teleconverter (equivalent together to a 150mm lens or, on a full frame camera, a 225mm lens).  He likes to add the teleconverter because it both magnifies the subject and allows him to be further away from it.

Tony explained his approach to photography.  He said there are three elements to consider.

First, there is the tension between the narrative value of an image and the pictorial value – expressed another way, story versus beauty.  Both are important in art.  But in certain art one may be more important than another.  For example, impressionist painters were more concerned with the pictorial than the narrative.  On the other hand, FIAP (the International Federation of Photographic Art) in their nature competitions etc consider that “the story telling value of a photograph must be weighed more heavily than the pictorial quality”.  Tony’s natural bias is towards the pictorial as his main aim is to depict the beauty of nature.

The second element is competitions – he enters all sorts of competitions, from the humble club competition (he is a member of South Manchester Camera Club) to salons and, for example, the International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) and the Close-up Photographer of the Year (CUPOTY).  Also, he achieved his CPAGB in November 2019 and is now working on the DPAGB.

The third element is originality and creativity.  Both are hard to achieve but Tony feels he is “sliding towards” them.  Overall, he wants to ensure the subjects are sharp and well lit, well positioned in the frame, and all the wonderful details are clear.  He greatly admires the work of Henrick Spranz.

Then Tony turned to what he referred to as “the seven challenges of macro photography”.

The first of these challenges is finding and getting close to the subject.  You really need to know your locations and visit them repeatedly.  Tony’s favourites places have plenty of biodiversity.  Lots of different plants usually means there is a wide variety of wildlife.  Apart from butterflies Tony likes to shoot other insects, spiders, fungi, small flowers and things like frosty leaves.  You also need to know your “flying times” – for example, comma butterflies are around in March and again in July, the common blue in May and June, and the painted lady in August.  Tony recommended the Butterfly Conservation website for information about butterflies and moths.

The time of day is also important.  Insects are ectothermic and so need warmth to be active.  When temperatures are below certain levels they become quiescent and more docile.  This creates a “Catch 22” situation.  Look for insects in the early morning when it is cooler and they will be less active and hence easier to photograph but harder to find.  Look for them when it is warmer and they will be more active and hence easier to find but harder to photograph.

The second challenge is depth of field.  You want sufficient to cover the whole subject – for example, to get a fully sharp insect pictured against a blurred background.  But a macro lens has a limited depth of field.  A longer focal length, being close to the subject, and using a wider aperture all lead to a smaller depth of field.  There are three possible solutions: using the narrowest aperture you can get away with without introducing softness, shooting with the camera perpendicular to the plane of the subject (so that you need less depth of field), and focus stacking.  Tony uses Photoshop to put together this focus stacked images.

The third challenge is camera movement.  Shooting handheld is flexible but can be unsteady.  Using a tripod is very steady but less flexible.  Using a monopod is somewhere between the two.  You should use whatever suits the situation.

The fourth challenge is subject movement.  Subjects may not sit still waiting to be photographed!  Tony recommended avoiding windy days, subjects which will not stay still, and subjects on tall plants which sway about.  Otherwise, go early when it is cooler and insects are more quiescent.  Tony’s other tip was that “mating subjects move less”!

The fifth challenge light/shutter speed.  This obviously links in with the depth of field challenge.  A wider aperture allows for a faster shutter but reduces depth of field.  A higher ISO also allows for a faster shutter but can introduce grain/noise depending on the camera used.  So, if you need a faster shutter speed, try to shoot in better light and use the widest aperture and highest ISO you can get away with.  And take lots of shots!  You can also use artificial light (although that can be cumbersome and look unnatural, it does work particularly well with fungi) or use reflectors.

The sixth challenge is composition/bokeh.  The main elements of macro shots are the subject, the perch and the background.  How they are arranged is of course a subjective matter.  But you want the subject to be sharp with clear details, well exposed, in a good position, and a good size in the image.  Similarly, you want the perch to be sharp, well exposed and in a good position.  But it also needs to be attractive and complement the subject in both colour and size.  And you want the background to be blurred (sometimes referred to as “bokeh”), complementary in colour, with some variation in colour/pattern, but no distractions.

The ideal way to achieve all of this is to use a narrow aperture, a distant background, and ensure the camera is perpendicular to the plane of the subject.  Tony also stressed the value of getting down to the level of the subject.  Beyond all that, normal compositional rules remain relevant.

The seventh challenge is post-processing.  Tony begins his post-processing in Lightroom.  He adjusts the levels of Exposure, Contrast, Highlights and Shadows etc in Basic.  He may also adjust the Colour, make some local adjustments with the Adjustment Brush, and apply some Clarity.  He finishes off in Photoshop.  He may make more adjustments to levels and the colours, do some Spot Healing, sharpen using Unsharp Mask, and then make a final crop.

Macro photography in the natural world is a genre in which it is easy to get great pictures.  The key to success is overcoming the various issues inherent in macro.  Tony’s detailed explanations, illustrated with his own superb artistic images of butterflies, other insects and flowers, showed us how to address these challenges.

Tony also treated us to the bonus of a selection of his landscapes.  These included rural, coastal, astronomic, urban, and creative images.

This was an excellent presentation, beautifully illustrated, providing us with another instructive and stimulating evening of photography.  Members should now be inspired to give macro a good try, even in the current lockdown circumstances.  There are plenty of subjects to be found in the domestic garden.

NB: Members can watch Tony’s talk in full on the ‘Member Only’ section of the website.