Nature Macro Photography Tips

Spring is in full swing and summer’s almost here, and that means the time is absolutely perfect to get outdoors with a macro lens in hand. From flowers in bloom to bugs and bees and bits of beauty everywhere, there’s a lot to be enjoyed with a macro lens in nature this time of year. To that end, here are five tips for making the most of those outdoor macro photography adventures.

Keep The Camera Steady

When it comes to macro photography, the surest way to make sharp images is to stabilize the camera with a tripod. This does make maneuvering a bit slower and more difficult, but the tradeoff is tack-sharp photos of non-moving subjects. Short of carrying a tripod, simply steadying the camera on a backpack or sweater or anything that will hold it can really help ensure the camera is stable and the shots are sharp. When the subject is moving, however—be it a bumblebee flying or a flower swaying in the breeze—handholding the camera might be necessary.

For such a scenario, there’s nothing more useful than a macro lens with optical image stabilization (or vibration reduction) in order to help keep the camera steady. Even at fast shutter speeds, because the macro lens amplifies everything, it’s also going to make the smallest movements seem massive. And that’s a recipe for blur if you’re not taking care to steady the camera as much as possible. The better the image stabilization, the sharper the picture, so if you won’t be using a tripod it’s best to invest in a dedicated macro lens with image stabilization built in.

Flying honey bee collecting bee pollen from apple blossom.

Steady The Subject Too

Any photographer who has ever tried focusing on a delicate little flower in the slightest breeze knows how frustrating it can be to use a macro lens outdoors. When your frame is only a few inches wide and depth of field just a few millimeters deep, even slight movements can be a real headache. That’s where a plant clamp comes in. Using a device such as Wimberley’s Plamp, photographers can steady delicate foliage or flower stems without risk of damaging them. The Plamp II clamps to the leg of a tripod while the articulating arm can be positioned to gently clip and hold foliage in place.

Another model, the Ground Plamp, has a spike on one end to stick into the soil while the business end uses the same adjustable clip to persuade the subject to stay where you’d like. Along with holding things in place, such clamps can also hold other useful things for the macro photographer too. For instance, they can be used to gently move other foliage out of the frame or to position a reflector or flag near the subject in order to control the lighting more precisely. For outdoor macro photography, a Plamp (or two) is practically a must-have.

Wimberley Ground Plamp for macro photography
Wimberley Ground Plamp

Examine The Background 

New photographers tend to see only the center of interest and forget to examine background details. With macro photography, those background details can become more of an issue because the tiniest changes in camera angle make huge changes to the background. Sometimes a photographer may want to focus on a colorful foreground flower and allow the flowers in the back to form a colorful, out-of-focus blur. But other times, a simplified, detail-free background might be called for; it’s a great choice by default, in fact. In each case, achieving this requires first seeing what’s happening in the background, then choosing to move the camera—or the elements in the foreground and background—accordingly.

Look For Edges Of Light To Divide Subject And Background

Speaking of moving the camera based on the background, if you first look for areas where bright light and deep shadow are in close proximity, you’ll have the opportunity to move the camera such that the subject is brightly lit, for instance, and the background is in shadow. This not only helps isolate the subject, but it also makes for visual drama. Likewise, the opposite works too, where a bright background and dark subject provide for interesting silhouette opportunities. The key is first seeing the subject and background independently, then finding places where an edge of light divides the two. These scenarios almost always make for interesting photographic opportunities.

group of small, wild, protected and very rare purple pasque flower / Pulsatilla Pratensis, spring flower growing on the mountain, with grass and stones surrounded, dark background

Bring Your Own Light For Macro Photography

Since we’re thinking about lighting, remember that just because you’re working outdoors in nature doesn’t mean you can’t bring along your own lighting tools to get creative in a scene. This could be something as simple as a white card or collapsible silver reflector positioned out of frame to bounce light into the shadow side of the subject—a great way to control contrast and improve color. It could also mean using a handheld LED light or strobe to improve on what Mother Nature might be providing.

On an overcast day, for instance, a strobe positioned near the subject could deliver a more specular, directional illumination that accurately mimics a sunny day. On a real sunny day, perhaps the opposite is needed—a collapsible silk to provide a bit of diffusion for even illumination that reduces contrast and softens the lighting. Flash is always useful, but for those who want something even simpler, consider a pocket-sized LED light. A little battery-powered LED, such as the Lumecube, isn’t only inexpensive and compact but can be easily positioned by hand to provide backlight, sidelight or any other lighting position a creative macro photographer may want.

Lumecube for macro photography

Perhaps a shot just needs a kicker—an edge light from behind that helps to set off the subject from the background. Such a thing can be easily achieved by holding a Lumecube LED above the subject and just out of frame. The company also makes hot-shoe-mounted LEDs—as do many other manufacturers—and these are ideal for frontal fill and contrast control. In either case, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature of LED lighting can make such little lights an affordable option for photographers who want to easily upgrade their macro lighting capabilities.

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