Okay. After some mesmerizing about gear here is the more important part of this diptych on macro photography: the technique I use. Having said this, I really don’t know where this epistle will end... What I mean is this: of course I use technique, but there is no real pattern in it. Probably there are some less obvious points though, that are lightly overseen. Therefore, I will concentrate on 3 points, and I hope I can tell you in these 3 points what is worth to be told. In case you wonder which points I want to discuss: a.) the best place to shoot, b.) the best time to shoot, and c.) the best way to shoot. And let me tell you in advance: there are no best places, times or ways. The only thing I will tell you is what works for me.
The best place. I guess there is no best place to shoot macros. However, I make 80% of my macros in my own backyard, even when I am a field biologist, and I bring my camera everywhere. Are there more crawling creatures in your backyard than in other places. Don’t think so. But you have two advances when you decide to shoot macro in your backyard: a.) it’s nearby, so you can do it whenever you want, even if you have only a spare 10 minutes, and b.) you can get to know your backyard real quickly, so you know soon where the insects are at what time of day. The two principles behind this are: shoot often and shoot much, and get to know your subjects intimately. It takes some time to get to know your gear, and having your hunting ground nearby gives you the opportunity to shoot as much as possible, so the learning time will be shortened, and the learning curve steepened. And once in your garden, you will experience that your subjects are not evenly distributed, but every species has it’s own place and preference. In my garden, the red currant bushes and my prune at the south wall are perfect places to shoot flies and bees in spring. The flowerbed in the border is a very good place in summer, and the Eupatorium plant in the border hosts many insects in late summer and autumn. And today I discovered the front yard, with one particular rich place for flies. This photo was shot here .
You don’t have a garden? Find a park nearby, a parking lot with trees and bushes, a stream, as long as it is nearby. I think macros can be shot everywhere, but when you want to practice: shoot in your vicinity, and when you want to learn where the insects are: shoot in your vicinity.
Second one is the best time. Time of the year, or time of the day? Yes. Both. Of course the best time of the year to shoot macros depends significantly on the place on the globe where you live. In winter, there are not many bugs around here, but in other places summer can be burdensome for a macro photographer. But you know when you have your best macro season better than I do.
Regarding the time of the day, there are two things to remember. With the magnifications reached with macro photography, the Depth of View (DoF) is very low, so you need a small aperture to maximise it. With small apertures, light is always scarce, and when shooting hand held, without a tripod (as I always do, as you will discover as you manage to read this whole story), and without a flash, you are convicted to the time of day with a maximum of light, so around noon. This has one big disadvantage: it’s the time of top activity of most insects and other arthropods, and they are fast in the sun! These cold-blooded creatures start up slowly in the morning, receiving their body warmth from the air and direct solar radiation. THIS is the best time to shoot insects: when they are warming up in the sun, early in the morning. They are slow, easy approachable, and they give you lots of opportunities to shoot nice crisp macro photos. So these are the two things to remember: do you want to shoot with natural light: you are most likely convicted to the time around noon, with lots of light. But if you want to use flash, the best time is early in the morning, when the insects are slow....
The best way to shoot. This is the most personal note, of course, because what works for me doesn’t necessarily have to work for you... But these would be my tips.
1. Avoid tripods. Tripods are good for all kinds of photography, but I wouldn’t know how to shoot my macros with the help of a tripod. Insects are always under leaves, hiding in strange holes, asking to shoot in strange angles and half-heights etc. In the time I’d manage to bring my tripod in the right position and focus the camera, a next generation of insects is on the doorstep most likely. A tripod kills flexibility, a thing you need desperately when shooting insects! So you have to shoot handheld.....
2. Move slowly, and low. This has nothing to do with photography, but it will give you opportunity to approach most insects without scaring them. Fast movements, and movements from above make you look like a predator, and they won’t sit down and wait what happens. Slow movements, and movements at eye level (from the insects view of course) will pay eventually.....
3. The background is as important as the subject. If you want to make attractive macro photos, you have to pay attention to the background. A smooth background makes your subject stand out, a busy background makes your photo a puzzle. This is where the question of natural light versus flash light comes in. When using flash, the background is very easily changed into a black hole. When used with purpose, this can be very nice. However, on the internet you can find loads and loads of photos where the background is a mix of green leaves and black holes. With natural light, the background is usually way better than when using flash. If you use flash, find a position where the background of the insect is lit too. This can be a leave, a brick, whatever, but best is to find an even coloured background.
This brings me to an important technique I often use. Most of the time, I handle the camera with only one hand, my right hand. With my free left hand, I try to bring the leave or branch with the subject in a right position, in front of such an even coloured background. When this is impossible, I often take a green leave or such a thing and hold it with my left hand behind the subject, to get a nice background. I think this is impossible with shutter speeds below 1/100” or so, so this is why I use flash most of the time.
4. Avoid shots from above. They are boring in my opinion. Probably good for the ID of your subject, but I prefer frontal shots, or shots from the side at eye level.
5. Be creative. Do things no one does. There are lots of things to learn from others, but that doesn’t have to keep you on the same track, does it? In the end there are no rules, as long as you make attractive photos. Go out, shoot, find your own way to do it! Have fun, and enjoy creation!