Macro photography: The perfect close up

By

Nabil Tahir

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PUBLISHED
July 03, 2022


KARACHI:

Have you ever tried going out in hot and humid conditions searching for bugs, flowers, or lizards? Do you think that’s erm, perhaps a bit crazy? Well, not for the Macro Photographer. For them, this is the ideal situation when they get the best and close enough shot of their subject to show the audience what can’t be seen with the bare eye. Close image of bugs and flowers, while focusing on the best point of the subject, is what macro photography is about and what macro photographers are searching for.

If we talk about macro photography, it is considered highly rewarding but not an easy genre. This type of photography is about close-ups. In technical terms, when a macro image reproduces the subject at a magnification ratio of at least 1:1, the point where the size of the image in the camera sensor is of a similar size or bigger than real life.

Macro photographers usually shoot small things like flowers, insects, water droplets or even miniature scenes, making them appear large or life-size. The unique thing about macro photography is that you can take anything small and shoot it in a way where it seems literally larger than life. Bugs of all types can be considered to top the list. They are also among the trickiest subjects to photograph because they rarely stay in one place but look so stunning up close that photographers can spend all day trying to get the perfect shot.

Beginning Macro Photography

This is not a type of photography in which just anyone can take part in. The photographer has to spend hours finding the right subject and then getting a close shot, focusing so precisely that the one-millimetre depth of the field is perfectly on the subject’s eye or a perfect spot on a flower petal. There are some subjects where the photographer might not even have the width of a hair margin of error.

One has to be really in love with nature to develop an interest in this type of photography, and the second most important thing is patience. The subject you are trying to capture is not cooperative at all, and sometimes you lose the subject you were trying to capture. Some photographers come into this genre by choice, and some land by chance, but in either case, you must have the two qualities mentioned above to keep yourself motivated.

Nusrat Ali, a macro photographer who loves to capture nature and wildlife, came into this genre during COVID times when he had ample time to kill. Nusrat used to conduct wildlife photography, and during that, he noticed the small bugs and flies around him. He tried to capture them with the lens he used for wildlife but couldn’t capture the images he saw over the internet. “I started searching on that and came to know about macro photography, and I studied that and then bought the equipment accordingly. I did serious macro photography in my backyard during the pandemic as there was a lot of time to kill,” Nusrat told The Express Tribune.

He added that the details and accuracies with which the Creator made the world can be appreciated through macro photography. “The best part is that you don’t have to worry too much about going to specific places—well, in some cases, you do. The colours, the details, and the new discoveries all inspired me to get to learn macro photography. It’s easier (management-wise), self-indulging, and fun,” he said.

Another photographer Wasif Khan started macro photography when he shifted to Olympus gear. Before this move, he had always wanted to avoid Macro photography due to the high level of patience required to get good shots, and now Macro Photography is his favourite form of photography. “Macro photography means just so much for me. Presently, every morning I visit my cosy little garden on my rooftop to have a go at some macro shots. I get to capture colour in different shades. This makes me more creative, thereby bringing positivity to my daily life. I have a small garden with different coloured flowers, and I do my best to attract bees and butterflies and other insects by managing the watering times to get the most for my macro photography,” said Wasif.

Another nature-loving photographer, Rana Shuaib, says macro photography is about capturing the insects you don’t like in real life and making them interesting to watch on screens. “Macro photography is about close up and details, not only about small subjects, like close shots of the moon, eyes etc and is also helpful in medicine.

Profession or a Hobby

Many photographers around the world consider this a profession, but in Pakistan, it is mainly done as a hobby. This is due to the limited exposure that the photographer has got or the appreciation that they get from their pictures.

Rana, for whom macro photography is a hobby and his passion, said that most photographers are practicing this genre as a hobby. But even then, the practitioner must give time to get the best at it. “In Pakistan, most people do it as a hobby, very few people are doing it professionally. Doing something from the heart needs time and complete attention because great things can’t be done without attention and passion. Otherwise, you’re just taking photos without any point. One should get the right knowledge about it, but practice makes your photos better and better,” said Rana.

Hasham, who began this as a hobby, has also done it professionally for medical purposes. “I have always seen these extreme close-up images in National Geographic magazine when growing up and the wildlife channels on cable TV later on. Small creatures and extreme close-up images have always fascinated me,” said Hasham.

“Although it takes a lot of patience and skill to capture stunning macro images, this can be done as a hobby even with a minimal budget. To an extent, one has to know a few things beforehand as it is quite different from other forms of photography. The most important thing is understanding the depth of field (the focused area) at tiny distances. Other things that are affected by the need to get the greater depth of field such as light, noise sharpness,” added Hasham.

For Nusrat, there should be a balance between a hobby and addiction. “If you go excessively deep into it, you lose the fun part of the hobby. Learning requires attention, and macro photography can be frustrating if one is unwilling to learn new things,” said Nusrat.

He explained that some essential learning will help, but before that, one has to have an understanding of their own personality. “If they lack patience, for example, they will find it difficult to shoot macro. Moving on from there, in addition, to know the correlation between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, together called the exposure triangle, one needs to know the concept of depth-of-field (DOF) because, at a close range, it plays a vital role in having a completely focused insect or just its eye,” he said.

Nusrat’s formula to get the best at macro photography is the loop of learn-practice-learn. “We are living in the Google era, and we can easily get loads of information in an instance, and the secret is to know which information is sufficient for us and which is beyond our comprehension or scope of work. Take one thing at a time, practice it, learn something new, then practice it and compare your latest work with previous so that you may get to know if you’re getting any better. This will motivate you to learn and practice more,” explained Nusrat adding that the photographer must have the eagerness to learn, knowledge of self, the gear they use, and knowledge about the subject.

For macro, other than the exposure triangle mentioned earlier, depth of field also comes under the basics. For laymen, sometimes you see a photo of a flower whose background is blurred (called bokeh in technical jargon). The same is the case with the portrait of a girl or boy. However, when we usually see a landscape photo, almost every element in the picture is in focus, such as the trees, the lake, and the mountains behind. This is what DOF does to your photos, and it totally depends on how you want to use it in your favour. Macro lenses are so sharp and have such a shallow depth of field that you can hardly get the complete eye of a housefly in solid focus. If you know what aperture does to your DOF, then you would be able to manage that.”

“Broadly speaking, the bigger the aperture (the f-number, e.g. f9.0), the more DOF you’ll have and the smaller the aperture (say f2.8), the lesser the DOF. However, there are a few techniques to get more DOF at a smaller aperture by taking multiple photos focusing on different parts of the object and then stacking them together later in post-editing. This can work for stationary objects but hardly on live subjects.

Wasif says that it can be done as a hobby, but the more the attention, the better the results are. “The more you admire nature, the more it falls for you. With time one can develop that eye for creativity for getting the desired macro shots.”

He said that at the beginning stage, one can start with macro photography, even mobile. “It’s always better to learn the art of what you like to do. With time once you begin to enjoy it, you get more creative by improving and learning from the photography community. First and foremost, you must understand how much you enjoy macro photography. It’s always better to move up slowly,” said Wasif.

A perfect shot?

Macro photographers spend hours and hours in the sun to get the perfect image with the ideal light and focus. It becomes difficult for a photographer to get close enough to the subject without scaring it away and get the perfect shot. According to Nusrat, perfect is a subjective term, but a photographer is never satisfied. There’s always that ‘just one more click’ itch that bothers every photographer, even if one gets that perfect shot the first time.

“Practically, doing macro photography of restless insects requires patience—and much of it. Sometimes you may have to spend hours and hundreds of clicks to get that perfect shot because we usually click with multiple shots per second. However, it’s relatively quite easy to macro photograph a stationary object,” explained Nusrat.

Wasif believes that getting the perfect shot depends on several factors: your experience, the gear you use and purpose of photography. Accordign to him, there are some prime reasons that determine how much time and how many shots you need to get the perfect picture. “Presently, it takes four to six shots to get the desired results. But this is possible as I give a lot of time to macro photography by visiting my rooftop garden twice daily. Come and fall in love with nature; it will change your life forever.”

Rana says that the subject the photographer is shooting plays an essential role in getting the perfect shot. “Sometimes first shots are just perfect, sometimes hundreds of photos are not up to your desired mark. When you’re taking photos of live creatures, they don’t give you more time or desired pose, so it takes more time, chasing the subjects and lot of photos.”

The Required Gears

Getting the right gears for your photography type is really important. Once you learn the basics of macro photography, the next thing is to use that knowledge and experience to get the right gear. Getting the picture without getting too close to the subject is tkey, so using a longer lens is a better option.

Wasif, who started macro photography after he bought Olympus, says he does not have the most stable hands for macro photography. “Olympus cameras have some of the best in-camera image stabilisation you can find in present times. “I managed to buy three to four different models of Olympus cameras in used condition over the past few years primarily to enjoy macro photography.”

“I can shoot handheld photos using Olympus gear, whereas this will only be possible using a tripod or other essential specialized gear with other brands. As a result of using Olympus cameras and lenses, this gave me a big boost to macro photography,” added Wasif.

For Rana, you have to decide whether you want to keep it simple or make it more detailed and perfect than you have to add a light setup and proper gear. “Like other photography fields, macro photography can be as simple and affordable or as expensive as you want to make it. Now, even more, phones can take good macro photos, but there are limits, so you have to add a proper external lens with your mobile phone and a proper light setup to give you good macro photographs.”

“Second thing is proper cameras, there are two options Point and shoot cameras or DSLRs. Some Point and shoot cameras give you the option for close focusing, which helps take some good macro photos. Advantages are innovative, no-hassle, less investment, no extra investment in additional equipment,

Drawbacks are there are limits like in details, sharpness, magnification, and quality, which you can achieve with proper macro photography setup lens,” explained Rana.

He further explained that standing photos can be taken with DSLRs. “There are two options in this too. First is a proper macro lens, and the other is lenses which you own already. Just add some equipment like reserve rings, extension tubes, and macro lens filters, which can increase the capability of simple lenses as well as macro lenses. With both options, you can produce some excellent results.”

Talking about the cost, he said it depends on how much the photographer wants to spend. “External mobile lenses range from PKR 200 to 15,000, reserve rings/extension tubes/snap-on lenses start from PKR 1,000 to 15,000, macro lenses start from PKR 30,000 and go upto millions. It all depends upon your desired result, experience and knowledge, but since Macro photography is not so famous in Pakistan, you can find a good used macro lense at a good price,” he said.

Nusrat explained what type of lenses are required for Macro Photography. “To me, the bare minimum macro lens for a hobby photographer is a 100mm f2.8, which can cost anywhere between $500 for a third party lens and $1,500. Add some money for a compatible camera body, lighting equipment, triggers, tripod and other paraphernalia. However, there are some cheap alternatives, such as extension tubes, bellows, some clip-on gadgets, etc., which cost only a fraction of the lens price,” he said, suggesting to always remember that equipment is secondary; the photographer’s knowledge is of primary importance.

Scope in Pakistan

To motivate a photographer, there are two things: his passion and the opportunities he gets in this field. If we compare the Pakistani market with the world, we see no official or national-level competitions in this genre, and there are limited groups who hold a contest with no prize money.

Rana, who got the inspiration to come into this field from a worldwide competition called the ’35 Awards’, shared that very few social media competitions happen in Pakistan with no prize, and sometimes WWF Pakistan announces by just publishing photos in the magazine.

But he said that Pakistan is rich in nature as well as with talented people. “The photographers here can take macro photos of different insects and abstracts and sell it in image stock market, provide to research fields and participating in international competitions, and win titles,” said Rana, for whom the best macro photographers are from Malaysia followed by the ones in European countries.

Nusrat sees the world of macro photography from a different lens. For him, opportunities are always there, provided one does some basic research such as the intended target market, its size, their likes/dislikes, and how receptive the market is to one’s line of work. “In the developed world, the general public is much more knowledgeable and receptive to appreciate art, plus they get sponsors for their work. So there are limitations here as there are few competitions held in Pakistan, but unfortunately, there is no set pattern and proper promotion of such events, so a lot of people don’t know about these,” he added.

However, Wasif concluded by saying, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’. He asked to create an opportunity if there wasn’t any. Giving an example of himself, he said that previously he was shooting birds from his rooftop, but the local authorities cleared all the shrubs and trees to cater for Karachi’s circular railway, and therefore, all the birds suddenly disappeared.

This was a sad moment for him, but there lies an opportunity in every adversity. He decided to come up with a garden so that he could stay connected with nature. Now he goes to his garden to get some fantastic shots of nature. “Come and love nature; it will change your life forever.”

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