It’s true—flowers aren’t exactly blooming in bright colors in most of the U.S. this time of year, but that doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of interesting natural elements to be photographed with a macro lens. From the patterns in dried leaves to frost, snow and ice crystals or beautiful wood bark, the remnants of seeds, leaves and other finely detailed natural elements—all tolled, there’s plenty to be photographed outdoors for a macro photographer willing to brave the elements. Sunny days are certainly interesting, but for a lot of macro subjects this time of year, lightly overcast skies may actually work better in order to prevent the photographer’s shadow from interfering with the tiny subject matter.
If there’s snow and ice on the ground, you’ve got a built-in reflector as well. Consider shooting late in the day—at least, late in the illuminated part of the day, which could be as early as 4 p.m. in the afternoon this time of year—and you can still get some subtle direction from the light, even if it isn’t direct, sharp sunlight. And because colors have become subtler, that vivid saturation from bright sunlight isn’t quite as necessary. The soft, diffused light of a lightly cloudy day will actually help put the emphasis on shapes and patterns and textures rather than bright, vivid colors. Keying in on patterns and textures is a great way to make the most of these non-traditional outdoor subjects in winter.
The nice thing about shooting macro subjects inside in the middle of winter is that you keep your fingers and toes toasty warm, and you don’t have to worry about frostbite or windburn or any of those unpleasant things. The bummer, of course, is that the wealth of natural subject matter is a bit limited indoors.
That’s why I keep a collection of interesting things to photograph for those times I won’t be able to get outdoors. Many of these things, in fact, are actually tiny little subjects that are perfect for macro photography. I’ve got a limited selection of butterfly and moth specimens, the perfect kind of thing to photograph in the comfort of an indoor studio in these cold months.
I’ve also got quite a growing collection of printed paper items, like old playing cards, foreign stamps and currency that also make for interesting close-up macro subjects. I suggest you collect small items of personal interest to you in warmer months to be photographed when proceeding outside is a less than appetizing idea.
Where can you shoot summer-style outdoor close-ups in the middle of winter, but where the subjects don’t quite know it’s winter? Think of the facilities that prolong summer all year long—places like arboretums and butterfly houses and botanical gardens, or really anyplace that maintains a hothouse for growing plants in a warm environment even when temperatures outdoor plummet. These places are also typically full of bright, natural light, which makes them even more like shooting outdoors, but with the added benefit of frequently directional light thanks to structures that limit the directions from which light is entering. The point is, if you’re really interested in photographing the natural world this time of year, you can do so in many American cities by stepping into a facility filled with blooming beauty—from butterflies to orchids to plants of all kinds.
Lighting Macro Subjects
For my recent macro studies, I wanted to augment the lighting to ensure I wasn’t sacrificing image quality just to stay warm. To that end, I used the new Polaroid LED Macro Flash Flexi Light. This hot-shoe-mounted LED light might call itself a flash, but it’s really more suited as a constant light source—and that’s just fine with me. (It does have a flash setting, but it’s a “flash” in much the same way the bright LED on your smartphone is a flash—nothing powerful enough to compete with the kind of real strobe power most of us are familiar with mounting for our hot-shoes.) The Polaroid LED Macro Flash Flexi Light sort of looks like a flash with a pair of bug antennae growing out of it. At the end of each antenna is a circular panel containing the LEDs that illuminate the subject. Positioning them is extremely easy and intuitive: just pull, twist and turn the lights to put them wherever you’d like. That might be from either side of the lens facing forward, or to the sides of the subject facing in from left and right, positioning both lights on the same side of the lens—a technique I particularly like for giving shape and direction to my lighting—or even stretching the lights out to get them behind my close-up subjects to provide a hint of backlighting, perfect for translucent subjects like my little moth sample.
The nice thing about using the lights in constant lighting mode is you can see the lighting change right before your eyes. This way, you can position shadows and highlights wherever you see fit, and you don’t have to worry about washing out the detail with glare or simply by flattening the light too much by making it simply full frontal. The real value in a light like this is the subtlety it offers, even when working with a small subject. A big strobe in a softbox, for instance, isn’t very easy to get close to tiny items without becoming somewhat omnidirectional, whereas these small lights can easily be positioned practically anywhere around the subject, adding key and fill lights as needed, and ensuring you won’t sap all the drama and interest from your lighting. I also tried the Polaroid setup outdoors, and it can certainly work, in particular, as a fill light or to warm an otherwise shaded scene. But because the light is fairly low output, it doesn’t work as well when it comes to balancing with bright ambience. What it does do well in those situations is warm up otherwise cool light from overcast and shade, and it does provide directional fill as needed—although I find it too easy to add too much light when working this way. For my needs, the LED Macro Flash Flexi Light is much more useful indoors, or when working away from bright sun. It’s a unique, fairly inexpensive tool that makes lighting macro subjects intuitive and, frankly, quite fun.