Robert’s lavishly illustrated presentation on macro photography – “Small is Beautiful” – opened up the fascinating world of small things in their natural environment, including many subjects close to home.
Robert demonstrated the techniques required to make striking and creative images of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects, orchids and other flowers, and fungi.
And he started with the key question – “Why?”
Well, there are (at least) five reasons.
- The subjects are beautiful.
- They exhibit fascinating/amusing behaviour.
- There is no need to travel far as, wherever you are, there are plenty of subjects nearby.
- Diversity – there are so many different subjects (150,000 species of butterflies and moths, 120,000 species of flies, 350,000 species of beetles, 300,000 species of flowering plants).
- Some subjects are just so weird!
Robert then moved on to elucidate the most important considerations for this sort of photography.
Composition. His key tips were
- Get down to the subject’s level.
- Include some habitat.
- Try to get eye contact.
- Aim for a clear, uncluttered background, preferably well out of focus.
- Look for colour contrasts (or, alternatively, try colour matching).
Focus. This is often a tricky area as, being close up, it is impossible to get much depth of field. Ideally, you want the subject entirely sharp and the background diffuse. But some compromise may be required. Even wide-open apertures may not provide sufficient depth of field. Robert advised getting parallel to butterflies and dragonflies to minimise the depth of field required. If the subject is static (and weather conditions calm), focus stacking may be possible. But, anyway, sometimes it is better to be more creative and have only part of the subject in focus – a small area of focus creates a focal point to the image.
Light. Robert explained that sunny days are not necessarily the best for this sort of photography. It is too bright and contrasty. Better results will be achieved if it is overcast or even quite gloomy. He also talked about front-lighting and back-lighting (good for butterflies with translucent wings, such as the brimstone). And he covered black backgrounds, using one’s own shadow to darken a background, and artificial lighting. Robert sometimes uses a daylight-balanced hand torch, maybe with a reflector. And he also uses flash – he has a macro twin light, with one light set to be stronger than the other, which produces better results than ring flash which is a bit “flat”. Using artificial light allows you to use shorter shutter speeds for insects etc.
Finding Subjects. Robert identified four good habitats for interesting subjects.
- “My garden” – he has over half an acre which includes a “formal” part, a wildflower meadow geared towards butterflies, and ponds.
- Chalk downland – it always has plenty of insects, orchids, and butterflies.
- Sand dunes – they usually have plenty of interesting flowers, such as pyramidal orchids and lizard orchids.
- Woodland (especially where there are open, sunny rides) – this is good for invertebrates (such as shield bugs), butterflies, and fungi.
Life Cycle and Behaviour. Robert briefly described the life cycles, feeding habits and flight patterns of several insects (such as dragonflies and damselflies, burnet moths, hoverflies, and bees). Knowing about such matters enables you to plan your shooting, waste less time, and get better results.
The Art of Deception. One of the most interesting things about these small subjects is the curious ways in which animals, insects and plants fool others. Robert mentioned the fly orchid (patterned to attract a digger wasp to pollinate it), the wasp beetle (patterned like a wasp for protection), the bumblebee hoverfly (patterned to protect them from birds), the convolvulus hawk moth (camouflaged), the leaf-tailed gecko (camouflaged), and the sidewinding adder (camouflaged like sand for predation).
Getting Creative. Robert encouraged everyone to try for more than just record shots. And he had some suggestions for producing more creative images.
- Use a wide-angle lens. You can get very close to the subject, make it big in the frame, and also show some habitat. This can work well with insects and flowers.
- Use a telephoto lens. This will enable you to compress your perspective.
- Use an ultra-wide lens. Robert has achieved some interesting shots by putting the camera on its back on the ground with the ultra-wide lens pointing upwards.
- Use long exposures (with an ND filter if necessary) on a windy day.
- Shoot at sunset and get the benefit of golden light. Or put the subject in silhouette against the sunsetting sky. Robert has also done this against a full moon!
This was an excellent start to the New Year. Robert’s informative and instructive presentation was full of suggestions and tips. And all his points were wonderfully illustrated with his own excellent photographs. This captivating talk should inspire and motivate all of us to go out and get up close to nature. There are so many beautiful and fascinating subjects to be discovered. And they can be found almost anywhere – including in our own gardens, in local parks, and in nearby nature reserves.
Robert is based in Wiltshire. He leads photography tours throughout Britain, as well as overseas. He regularly lectures to specialist photographic audiences around the country. And he is the author of several books on photography and astronomy.