Capturing Meaningful Macro Compositions

On the day of our 25th anniversary, I bought my wife a large bouquet of red roses, which I also incorporated into my photo shoot. In this photo of a single rose, I included a small transparent ridge from the plastic wrapping that the bouquet came in, which let me add another layer of complexity to the composition by juxtaposing an artificial pattern with the organic shapes of the flower petals.

In the 19th century, the physician, writer and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote, “Life is a great bundle of little things.” And while one could easily apply the insightful aphorism to many other scholarly, scientific or artistic pursuits, I believe there’s something about Holmes’ pithy observation that connects it to the art of capturing close-up photographs, or what is more technically known as macro photography.

Here’s why this observation resonates with me: Holmes is suggesting that in life, we so often keep our focus on the big things, like births, weddings, graduations and other important yet infrequent milestones. Yet we tend to miss the little ordinary moments taking place every day, which means we’re overlooking the details that really define who we are. This became very apparent to me recently when I was trying to use my photographic and artistic skills to commemorate an important milestone in my life—my wife’s and my 25th wedding anniversary.

As you can see from this photo, the XF80mmF2.8 Macro lens has a very narrow depth of field when using it to shoot macro photos, but it served me well in this image of my 12-string guitar. It gave the guitar strings sharp focus in the middle of the composition but gradually blurred them toward the top and bottom of the photo. For me, the bokeh adds a sense of paradoxical visual poetry, since the strings almost appear to be vibrating in the image.
As you can see from this photo, the XF80mmF2.8 Macro lens has a very narrow depth of field when using it to shoot macro photos, but it served me well in this image of my 12-string guitar. It gave the guitar strings sharp focus in the middle of the composition but gradually blurred them toward the top and bottom of the photo. For me, the bokeh adds a sense of paradoxical visual poetry, since the strings almost appear to be vibrating in the image.

Taking A Close Look At Macro Photography

But before I discuss that still-life setup, it’s important to understand what macro photography is.

First, for those who may not know, shooting a close-up or macro image is a type of photography that’s achieved by using cameras and lenses that allow you to get up close to very small objects and to capture them with an extraordinary amount of detail. Such equipment allows you to produce photos that provide a 1:1 ratio between the subject and image capture. In other words, the image you capture of your subject—whether you’re shooting jewelry, plants, bugs, stamps or other items—is actually recorded on the sensor at the same size as the object itself.

There’s often something humorous about setting a non-human subject in front of a microphone, as if there is a Baroque-like tension in the space that surrounds it. Also, the vivid color and organic shape of the flower contrasts nicely with the monochrome tone and geometric shape of the mic.
There’s often something humorous about setting a non-human subject in front of a microphone as if there’s a Baroque-like tension in the space that surrounds it. Also, the vivid color and organic shape of the flower contrasts nicely with the monochrome tone and geometric shape of the mic.

It’s important to note that technically speaking, macro and close-up photography aren’t actually defined as the same thing. A macro image is anything that produces an image at a magnified ratio of 1:1 or greater (2:1 and higher), while close-up photography refers to images that fall just shy of that ratio. Nevertheless, since many people use the terms synonymously, we’ll do that as well in this article.

Finding The Right Macro Gear

Because of a variety of changes in technology and in competition, if you’ve never had the chance of shooting close-up or macro photos, now is a great time to get started. That’s because there are many ways to get up and running quickly. Here are several options:

  • For starters, there are a number of point-and-shoot digital cameras that come with macro scene modes or settings. Just enable that mode or setting, and start shooting.
  • If you have an interchangeable-lens camera, you can purchase inexpensive lens adapters that let you reverse your lens and use it as a macro lens (although using the adapter will disable features like autofocus).
Here's a non-macro image of the Mexican bowl and flower used in several of my still lifes on this shoot.
Here’s a non-macro image of the Mexican bowl and flower used in several of my still lifes on this shoot.
  • You can even buy accessory macro lenses for your mobile devices that clip on to your phone or attach in other ways. They may not have the quality you’ll achieve with an interchangeable-lens camera, but you’ll get a feel for what’s possible. (I’ve included two images in this article using an Olloclip macro lens with an iPhone 6s smartphone.)
In this macro photo of the Mexican bowl, I used the same flower that I used in the microphone image. I wanted to show how the pattern on the flower petals echoed the pattern of the Mexican bowl.
In this macro photo of the Mexican bowl, I used the same flower that I used in the microphone image. I wanted to show how the pattern on the flower petals echoed the pattern of the Mexican bowl.
  • For best image quality, consider getting a high-quality macro lens for either your mirrorless camera or DSLR. For example, for most of the images in this article, I used Fujifilm’s new mirrorless 26.1-megapixel X-T3 and paired it with Fujifilm’s Fujinon XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro lens. Both are pricey, but they offer excellent quality and are quite versatile. Because the X-T3 has an APS-C-size sensor, the crop factor on this lens is 1.5x, which provides you with a field of view of what you would see on a 120mm lens. It’s also a bit heavy, but I liked several things about using this lens. First, it has a short, 9.8-inch minimum focusing distance, so I could get comfortably close without bumping into the objects I was shooting. Also, the optical image stabilization in the lens worked very well, which was key. Because you have a very shallow depth of field, you can quickly find your shot out of focus. So, for these handheld images, the optical IS system was essential.
For this close-up of the Mexican bowl, I added a small purple flower to the composition.
For this close-up of the Mexican bowl, I added a small purple flower to the composition.

However, while it’s important to thoroughly know your gear, I like to spend a lot of time figuring out how to compose an image. So, next, I’ll discuss my thought process in setting up my special anniversary still-life photo, as well as some other tips on shooting macro photos.

Focusing On The Phrase “Vous Et Nul Autre”

For my wife and I, this year, 2018, marked our 25th anniversary. As a still-life artist and photographer, I started imagining how I might create a setup to commemorate this milestone.

A non-macro photo of my daughter’s drawing and my wedding ring, used for my 25th anniversary still-life image.
A non-macro photo of my daughter’s drawing and my wedding ring, used for my 25th-anniversary still-life image.

As I often do when beginning projects, I started brainstorming to come up with ideas for shooting the still life, but the first ones didn’t strike the right tone. Often, I like to capture images of quirky, humorous setups, which, at times, may even include a touch of political or social commentary. But for this image, I wanted to be simple and direct, not clever or oblique.

That’s when I started to mull over the Oliver Wendell Holmes aphorism and how I might use it to help me find the right setup.

Then it struck me. I’d focus on shooting my wedding ring, which might literarily and figuratively allow me to create a nice statement since on the inside of each of our rings, my wife and I had the following phrase inscribed: “Vous et Nul Autre.” In French, that means, “You and No Other.”

For this and most of the other shots in this story, I paired Fujifilm’s Fujinon XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro lens with the Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless camera body. In this photo, created for my wife’s and my 25th wedding anniversary, I primarily focused on two details: The first was the phrase inscribed on my wedding ring, “Vous et Nul Autre” (which means “You and No Other”). The second are the lines from a drawing created by my daughter when she was a little girl. You can see how shallow the depth of field is by looking at the ring—it’s narrower than the width of my wedding ring.
For this and most of the other shots in this story, I paired Fujifilm’s Fujinon XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro lens with the Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless camera body. In this photo, created for my wife’s and my 25th wedding anniversary, I primarily focused on two details: The first was the phrase inscribed on my wedding ring, “Vous et Nul Autre” (which means “You and No Other”). The second are the lines from a drawing created by my daughter when she was a little girl. You can see how shallow the depth of field is by looking at the ring—it’s narrower than the width of my wedding ring.

To complete my setup, I searched through the countless drawings my children produced when they were little and chose several, most of which were darker or more colorful. But when I placed my wedding ring on top of one of my daughter’s drawing, which she made when she was about 5 years old, the simple line drawing of a hotel suited my composition best: Compositionally, the curved red and yellow lines echoed the shape of the ring as they came in and out of focus in various sections of the photo. Her drawing also added another layer of meaning to the still life: Time.

In the end, when I took this shot, I used the available light, late in the day on a sunny autumn afternoon. This time of the day is often referred to as the golden hour because it produces a warm, soft illumination, which really enhanced my subject matter for this still life.


Tips For Creating Masterful Macros

This is a close-up photo of the ceramic Mexican bowl, which included a beautiful pattern of colorful calligraphic-like marks.
This is a close-up photo of the ceramic Mexican bowl, which included a beautiful pattern of colorful
calligraphic-like marks.

While I chose to photograph my 25th-anniversary ring still life indoors in my art studio, there are many opportunities to get powerful macro photos of nature. To help you make the most of any macro photo, follow these tips:

  • Experiment with backgrounds.
  • Look for small, intriguing patterns.
  • Examine your depth of field.
  • Use single-area autofocus (instead of continuous AF) for stationary objects.
  • Consider the best background for your shot (and bring colored paper if you want to change it).
  • Take extra care in how you light your subjects.
  • If you’re not using a tripod, you’ll need a steady hand or a camera and/or lens with excellent image stabilization.
  • Be calm and patient when shooting your photos.

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