Delving into macro photography opens up a fascinating, sometimes strange, new world. The ultra-close up views of flowers, plants, insects, and even otherwise unremarkable household items reveal a novel perspective, a depth of existence that people are usually quite unaware of. Most of us already dislike (hate) spiders, but their creepiness factor multiplies exponentially when viewed at life size magnification through a macro lens. Thanks, macro lenses.
I think it’s safe to say that we all enjoy and appreciate macro photography to varying degrees; staring into a spider’s eight cold, distant eyes may not be your thing, but it’s captivating nonetheless. Perhaps you prefer the delicateness of a tulip or the texture of a leaf. Regardless of the subject, it is one’s appreciation of a good macro shot that inspires them to try their hand at it.
The problem is, there’s a significant learning curve for macro photography and many people find it to be a frustrating venture at first. Even once you’ve progressed a little bit, you might find that your shots still lack a certain something, something that you feel is keeping your macro photography from really standing out.
If this describes you at all, have a look over the following checklist of mistakes to avoid when doing macro photography.
- Not Getting Down to Your Subject’s Level – Perspective matters. Just like you would crouch down to take a portrait of a child, you should also shoot your macro subjects from their level. This, of course, means that you might end up on the ground; you’ve got to get right in there and share space with whatever you’re shooting. The working distance (the distance between the front of the lens and the subject) of the lens you’re using will dictate exactly how close to your subject you need to be, but by shooting at your subject’s level — as opposed to shooting down on it — you’re using visual perspective to increase the interestingness of the photo.
- Neglecting Composition – Novice macro shooters sometimes feel that composition can afford to take a back seat. Not true. It’s undeniably cool to see such small subjects so close up and in such great detail. Again, even ordinary objects can appear extraordinary through a macro lens. But that doesn’t mean you can sacrifice interesting composition just because you’ve captured the amazing details of a bumblebee. Sure, the view of the bumblebee may be great, but is the photograph itself any good? The answer to that lies not so much in what the subject is, but more in how it’s presented.
- Failure to Stabilize – Camera shake can be a real concern with macro photography. For those who have never attempted macro photography, think of some of the issues that come into play when shooting with a telephoto lens, namely the fact that the more your focal length increases, the more you have to account for camera shake. Even with lenses that feature built-in stabilization you need to practice good technique in order to get sharp images. A large part of good macro photography technique involves using a tripod. Of course, this doesn’t apply if you’re shooting moving subjects such as insects, in which case you’ll want to use flash to freeze their movement. Otherwise, a tripod is your best bet for mitigating the challenges of working with a macro lens.
- Missing Focus – Missing focus can happen anytime, anywhere, while doing any kind of photography, but focusing becomes increasingly difficult when shallow depth of field and high magnification are introduced to the equation. In macro photography, you can’t really rely on autofocus to get it right all the time; nothing is more frustrating than thinking you focused on the right part of your subject then, after viewing the image, realizing you got it all wrong. This is one genre of photography in which manual focus should be the first thing on your mind; precision is of utmost importance here and manual focus put you in total control, allowing you to adjust your point of focus without having to readjust your composition.
- Underestimating the Importance of Light – Given that light is absolutely necessary for photography of any kind, this may seem rather obvious. But new macro photographers might fail at first to understand that much more light than usual is required for macro work. This is due, in large part, to how close the lens needs to be to the subject; you always run the risk of the lens blocking out the light, whether natural light or on-camera flash (which isn’t typically recommended for macro work). Not only do you have to consider how much light you’re getting, you should also take into consideration the quality of light. Just as with portraiture, you want to avoid harsh shadows and flat lighting. The general principles of portrait lighting and how to soften it also apply to macro lighting.
The above mistakes are some of the most common culprits of bad macro photographs and we’ve all made them. So, don’t wallow in frustration; as with all mistakes, if you learn from them and correct them — and get plenty of practice — the end result will be everything you want it to be. Keep shooting.