The Changing Face of Macro Photography

Originally published at: https://www.naturephotographers.network/articles/the-changing-face-of-macro-photography/

INTRODUCTION

Observing the natural world as a 9-year-old was for me one of exploration and mystery. I was fortunate to have grown up in a large parkland estate surrounded by all kinds of wildlife. The 105-acre lake was a haven for birds in winter and insects in summer. I spent most of my school holidays exploring and watching the dragons and bright blue damsels congregating in their masses along the margins of the shoreline. Little did I know then that these enigmatic creatures would be the catalyst many years later for a career change, leaving a hospital profession in dentistry to pursue one with a camera.

Two photographers who were a big influence on me at that time were Stephen Dalton and John Shaw. Dalton is an English wildlife photographer, author, and a legend in the world of high-speed flash photography. He turned his lifelong passion for the natural world into a highly successful career. Insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals have all been immortalised at 1/30,000sec under his custom-designed high-speed flash units, which he still uses today, some 40 years on. His superb depictions of insects and other natural history subjects set a pictorial and artistic standard that is still respected today. Even with the advances in camera technology, much of his earlier high-speed flash imagery has never been bettered. I felt privileged when he wrote the forward in one of my first photography publications. The other photographer I followed at that time was an American called John Shaw, one of the most respected natural history photographers in the world. A legend in the states and a highly successful author and creative nature photographer who had a particular passion for macro. He has photographed on every continent and his work has featured in numerous books, and some of the most prestigious natural history magazines around the world. He is synonymous with the Nikon brand and not surprisingly they chose him as a featured ‘Legend Behind the Lens’ in 2002. Shaw’s ability to create something visually eye-catching and pictorial from rather ordinary subjects was one of his many skills. His books are still a source of inspiration today even 30 years on. 

As a professional Natural History Photographer, I have undertaken many different projects from hanging out of helicopters to working and photographing in the subterranean landscape documenting some of Ireland’s well-known cave systems. However, Macro has always been one of my main specialities and I have devoted many years to this particular genera having studied and photographed both in Ireland and in Europe many diverse insect groups, including the flora and fauna of different regions from the Alps to the Mediterranean. Today many years on as a photographer, the natural world for me is still a source of beauty, discovery, and inspiration. My enthusiasm for it has remained with me throughout my life.

UNDERSTANDING MACRO TERMINOLOGY

The word “Macro” is a term frequently misused by many, including camera and lens manufacturers who use it loosely to describe a close-up facility on a lens, mobile phone or compact. The definition of macro photography (‘Photomacrography’) in the true sense relates to magnifications from 1:1 (life-size) to around 10:1. The boundaries of where Photomacrography ends, and Photomicrography begins are often confusing as there are different definitions depending on what you read. The definition of Microphotography is different again and relates to photography using a microscope and is normally defined as images taken from 20:1 upwards.

Photographing subjects below life-size is generally referred to as ‘Close-up Photography, which is the category that the vast majority of photographers and their images fall into. However, for this article and to reduce confusion I will use the word ‘macro’ in the general context when discussing close-up photography.

EVOLUTION OF MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY

Those of us who are fortunate to have an interest in the smaller world are privileged to see and experience a microcosm of beauty and mystery, most of which is beyond our normal field of vision. For the masses who go about the daily routine of life, it’s a world unfamiliar to them. They see only the big picture and are, for the most part, oblivious to its importance in maintaining the ecological equilibrium on our planet. 

Macro photography today has evolved considerably since the 1980s. Historically it was deemed by many to be a niche or specialty, practised by those with an interest primarily in insects, plants and to a lesser extent marine fauna. That was perhaps true to a point when you look back to the 1970s and 80s. Most of the photographers then were widely acknowledged as specialists in their respective fields. Some had or came from a natural history background, their photographic careers in most cases developed from their specific interests. 

When the digital revolution hit, it was a milestone in the photographic world and marked a change not only in how we work but also in how we produce images today. Like many photographers, I eventually embraced it, but not quickly. As a committed user of medium format and an Ambassador in the UK for Mamiya at that time, I held back, not willing to part with my beloved Mamiya’s and Fuji Velvia that quickly. It took me a while to convert, and I waited until I felt digital could give me the results, or, at least, close to what was possible with medium format.

The world of macro pre-digital was perceived by many as a combination of magnification ratios, flash exposure calculations and working to very precise procedures. Reversing standard and wide-angle lenses on bellows to achieve greater magnifications was all part of the macro photographers kit at that time. TTL (‘through the lens’) flash was available in some cameras but in a rudimentary form. Shooting active subjects at magnifications beyond life-size in the field was, for the most part, challenging and restricted mainly to the studio. As photographers back then most of us were running on Fuji Velvia, which was the standard transparency film, both in the amateur and professional sectors; an amazing product, but like all transparency films totally unforgiving if you got the exposure wrong. Many photographers new to macro found the whole process perplexing, especially when working with living subjects that were frequently less than cooperative. 

Today macro has seen its popularity rise among the masses. The continual advances in mobile phone technology have, to some extent, been a contributing factor. Acceptable images can be achieved on these devices with little knowledge and effort. However, having said that, DLSRs and mirrorless cameras are still the ideal choices for many reasons. Their versatility, wide selection of lenses, resolution and the use of specialist equipment cannot be equalled, even with the best mobile devices. The rapid progression in mirrorless technology, coupled with the latest advances in post-processing software makes it possible to photograph and depict subjects in ways that were simply impossible to achieve with film. Butterflies, moths, insects, and flowers are now seen in a whole new light. Their colours, structure, and form provide a wide range of possibilities for those that are looking for a fresh perspective or perhaps a change in direction to their photography.

IMPROVED WORKFLOW PERFORMANCE

Since the evolution of digital photography, advancements in software development have seen many new techniques and workflow improvements become available. There is a plethora of programs out there that will offer you a complete workflow system. The rapid expansion in Raw processing especially in the last few years has made it possible to overcome many of the time-consuming procedures and issues that were once tedious several years ago. For example, digital editing, selection, and captioning have been greatly improved, with many software programs undertaking some of the laborious aspects, which were often repetitious. Captioning multiple images and inserting additional metadata is all possible with a few clicks of the mouse. Improvements in ISO values means very acceptable images are now possible with only marginal differences in dynamic range and image quality. Managing digital noise has also seen major enhancements with programs such as Topaz AI streamlining the process. 

GPS is an important aspect of my routine photography and provides valuable information on sites and specific location data on rare and endangered plants, this is an essential requirement for me, especially when working in other counties. It is also helpful when photographing from helicopters allowing you to pinpoint precisely where you’ve been shooting from. Having an integral GPS makes it much easier for me to caption locations in other countries and when shooting from the air. Thankfully my Z 9 has it incorporated into the camera. I would have purchased the camera alone just for this one feature. Nikon’s GP-1 unit (an obvious afterthought) was, for the most part, frustrating to work with having gone through several cables.

I can’t overemphasise the importance of having a proper systematic digital workflow program. It will not only speed up the editing process, but it’s also adding important information to your images turning each of them into a valuable resource and photographic record. You may not initially see the relevance of doing this now but 30 years on photographs can provide valuable information to environmental agencies on species that were once present in that area at the time. I have already seen the benefits of this in some of the work I did on dragonflies over 20 years ago. I have a comprehensive digital asset management structure which I implement for every shoot. I am always amazed by how many photographers lack any sort of organised structure to their editing and storage of their digital files. I have written about this before and given a simple workflow example in my latest macro book. I am, by nature, meticulous about image data since most of my photography ends up in the libraries of various government organisations. My natural history collection will eventually be archived in the national museum. A detailed captioned image is as important as a set specimen in the cabinet of a museum. A photograph nice as it may be lacks any real value if devoid of information or a story in my opinion.

TECHNIQUES TO OVERCOME CLASSIC MACRO PROBLEMS

There are many issues to consider, in macro photography. Reduced depth of field is perhaps one of the biggest to contend with. Photographing considerably smaller subjects means having to work at much closer distances compared to routine conventional photography. The zone of sharpness is therefore greatly reduced as magnification increases; in some cases, it’s down to millimetres. Retaining sharpness throughout the subject being photographed depends on two factors, magnification, and the aperture value. Choosing a smaller aperture of f/16 or f/22 for example does not necessarily guarantee complete sharpness throughout the subject, magnification also has a bearing on depth of field in the final image. Diffraction is another issue to contend with particularly when working at smaller apertures in addition to having to select slower shutter speeds or higher ISO values. These are age-old problems and were just as prevalent in the pre-digital days of analogue capture. Digital has provided solutions to some of the classic problems that macro photographers face. The most notable of these is the ability to extend the depth of field by combining individual images using specialist software to produce a single composite image commonly referred to as ‘Focus Stacking’. Recent editions of Photoshop allow you to do this but in a more rudimentary way. It has limitations in what can be achieved compared to specialist software programs such as Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker.

EXTENDING DEPTH OF FIELD OR FOCUS STACKING

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss focus stacking in any detail. I have devoted considerable time to this technique over the years testing it with many different setups and combinations, especially at magnifications beyond 1:1. I will address this in more detail in a future article as there are many different approaches to it. Most methods produce an acceptable result below life-size but are much less effective at magnifications beyond 1:1. Having said that I will give a brief overview of the basic principles.

Focus Stacking, Focus Blending or Extended Depth of Field are terms used to describe the digital image processing technique. A series of images photographed at different focus distances are combined to produce a final photograph that has a greater depth of field than any individual source image. The collective images are then processed in a specialist piece of software which analyses and blends the in-focus areas within each image to form the final photograph. One of the advantages of applying the focus stacking technique is that you can shoot at the lens’s sharpest aperture, or sweet spot while retaining maximum detail and contrast in the photograph. You can also photograph subjects from more oblique viewpoints; something that would have been difficult to achieve working pre-digital.

I should point out that focus stacking is not the answer and solution for every image that lacks sufficient depth of field. If that were the case, we would end up with a series of photographs that are uniform in appearance and lacking in imagination and style. It should be used carefully and creatively when the image would benefit from its application. It is not always necessary to have complete sharpness throughout a photograph for several reasons. For example, you may want to create an artistic interpretation, and in this context the choice of aperture and focal length of the lens are important and dictate how the final image will look. Also, photographing mobile subjects such as insects presents a greater challenge when employing the focus stacking procedure. Trying to capture multiple images of a moving creature brings its own frustrations. In my own work, I use it when I think the subject will benefit from it, or when working at higher magnifications when sharpness and resolving detail throughout is the most important aspect of the image.

Some camera manufacturers have incorporated a focus stacking feature within some of their cameras utilising the autofocus system to move the lens to different focus points as dictated by the parameters set by the photographer in the menu. However, this approach is of limited use in my opinion and best suited to images captured at lower magnifications since you have no control of the autofocus during the stack sequence. It can also be a bit hit or miss, also the degree of focus overlap is limited compared to an automated rail. Focus stacking is best carried out with autofocus switched off where you have complete control of the whole process. I do not use the inbuilt focus shift in any of my recent Nikon’s. I much prefer to use other methods to obtain a composite image.

A FINAL WORD

The photographic world at present is in a continual state of flux. New products, devices and accessories appear almost daily. Technology is moving so quickly it’s sometimes hard to keep abreast. The future of photography as a business is challenging, but also exciting. Macro photography in the past may have been seen as a specialist field with limited interest, but that’s no longer the case, it’s come a long way, and its popularity has grown immensely in recent years and continues to do so. Digital is certainly the reason, and the latest improvements in camera phone technology will drive that interest even further. The largest publisher of images is now the web; it provides a platform for all photographers (irrespective of their skill level) from around the world to share and exhibit their images with fellow photographers. The bulk of photographic business now takes place on the web, and that will undoubtedly increase in the future. Social media dominates the photo industry and is an important part of the business. It does not, however, define your skill, or ability as a photographer, but being in the social media domain is one of the most important parts of your business. 

The way photographers experience nature photography, be it macro, or wildlife, is also different than in the past. The most obvious change is access to a plethora of workshops currently being offered. Photographers are taken specifically to a location to photograph their subjects, or in controlled conditions where it has already been set up to a point. The downside is they acquire little to no experience in researching their subject or doing their own fieldwork. Does the result merit the same accolade as someone who has done all of the work himself? It’s not a criticism, but merely a point worth stating. The question to ask is how much of what we achieve today is down to technology, or individual skill and ingenuity; I think there is much more ambiguity now between both. Making your mark today in the digital world is perhaps more challenging than in the days of analogue.

The process of creating successful images irrespective of where your photographic interest lies is still the same as it was pre or post digital. It’s a combination of research, technical know-how, a creative mind and above all patience. As photographers, none of us would claim to produce visually eye-catching images with every click of the shutter. Light, composition, lens selection and an interesting subject form the core of a great photograph. Getting all these elements into a single image is challenging, even for the most accomplished photographers. For those that can amalgamate artistic vision with technical competency is the key that separates them from the rest. The photographic bar is high these days and making your mark is perhaps more challenging than ever. Learning from other talented photographers in the field is important but develop your own style and aim beyond what has already been accomplished!


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Thank you, Robert. This is a very nice article on macro. I appreciate you taking the time and for providing it to us here at NPN.

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I really enjoyed your article, Robert. I think it’s interesting that you don’t use the automatic focus stacking feature on the Z9 because it isn’t all that accurate sime or many times. When you manually focus stack so you use a rail or manually move the camera, or do you move just the lens ring, or maybe you pick incremental focus spots by touching the LCD screen? I have an old Nikon D750 and I love it, but man it is difficult to get focus points with my 70-200 f/2.8 lens with extension tubes. I imagine it would be similarly difficult even if I were to get a macro lens like the 105mm.

Your images are gorgeous! The simplest of tiny subjects, just beautifully rendered.

Thank you so much for an interesting article and one that takes me down memory lane a bit.

Oh wow, I remember John Shaw and I think I still have a couple of his books from the 80s or early 90s. They taught me so much about seeing and put me on my path to becoming a photographer of very small things. I’ll have to find them and give them another look. I bet I’ll get something out of them again.

Oh I felt the pain of failure as you described the analog hit and miss aspect of macro or close up work. I didn’t do much of it with film, but dove right in with digital and for about 10 years used an adapted 35mm macro lens. Some of my favorite images were made with it, but I think I needed the flexibility and immediacy that digital gives me. I know instantly whether I got it or if I need a do-over.

Since switching to mirrorless and buying a lens that works with my system, I’ve been a stacking junkie. It’s made photos possible that just aren’t with a single image. Mushrooms, lichen and my beloved Indian Pipe wildflowers now have a depth and lushness I could only see IRL. Plus I can keep that background smooth and beautiful. We differ that I use in-camera focus shift or bracketing and it works wonderfully for my work.

I appreciate your nerdliness when it comes to data, storage, labeling and tagging. Whenever I fall asleep at the switch I regret it because I can’t find anything!

Hi, Shirley thank you very much for your kind comment and for taking the time to reply, it is greatly appreciated!

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Hello Mark ,
Thanks for taking the time to reply. I have spent many years experimenting with lenses and equipment. I have also liaised with a major software company regarding the stacking procedures and some of the issues. It is a well documented fact that focus stacking using autofocus is not the most reliable method to achieve consistent results and can, depending on the reproduction ratio introduce more artefacts. The vast majority of photographers use it below 1:1 and in most cases it can produce reasonable results. However when you work at much higher magnifications you begin to see issues with it using in-camera technology. I tend to use the Novoflex Castel Micro which is an electronic rail when working at much higher magnifications which yields more consistent and accurate results. Idid write a report initially on the Focus Shift when it was first introduced. I have a good relationship with Nikon NPS in the UK. It would have been much better if they had introduced a starting point and and end point that way you are talking out the guesswork in how many images you need to calculate. While is does produce acceptable results below life-size I don’t normally use it except occasionally in landscape photography where I’m including something extremely close in the foreground. There are better ways of achieving more accurate results. If you are reproducing large prints you begin to see many more artefacts within the image. I will at some point write an article on Focus stacking if it is of interest to fellow photographers here at NPN.

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Hi Kristen,

Thanks for getting touch!
Yes, John Shaw is an exceptional natural history photographer. I was only in my mid twenties when I bought his first book. I have all of them and they still hold good today. He has an exceptional eye for making the simple look amazing; a skill that I think if often missing today in some aspects.

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Robert, many thanks for the enjoyable and highly informative piece you presented to us. Being new to macro photography, I found some of your points some reassuring. I discovered macro photography during the first year of COVID-19. Unable to photograph what I normally enjoyed, I began playing in my backyard. A whole new world opened up for me. Nearly three years later now, I am still learning.

Focus stacking is a recent discovery for me. What you say above is precisely what I have recently discovered. Instead of using autofocus and shifting the area I intend to be in focus on, I have found that manual focus provides me with a much faster workflow in the ability to capture my images. When coupled with focus peaking, that process assists me tremendously. Do you use focus peaking in some of your photos?

Again, thanks for a most informative article. Your photographs are inspiring. Thank you.

Hi Egidio thanks for your comments.
As I stated I don’t used focus stacking on every image. I tend not to stack images of insects or mobile subjects although I occasionally do it if it is beneficial for the type of image I want to portray and there is little in the way of movement from the subject. On some of my work on lichens I would generally use it on the very small subjects.I do use focus peaking on some occasions but not all the time. Manual focus is ok at smaller magnifications but at 1:1 and higher it is much more problematic and I resort to other approaches.

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Excellent review and fantastic images. Nature offers so many small things to photograph, but not many accept the challenges of macro photography…Jim

Hi Jim Thank you for your comment. Yes, there is a smaller world beneath our feet that mostly goes unnoticed by the masses. Macro can be challenging but when things go well you quickly forget what it took to get that image!

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