If you read my last post, you know I have been frustrated by not having time to go out and shoot. I’m still pretty busy with other stuff, but did find a few hours last Thursday to sneak out with the camera. The evening sky was partially overcast with light clouds, which provided a nice diffuse, low-contrast light. The air as still. A perfect evening for macro flower shots. Luckily, I live less than two miles from one of the nicest dahlia and rose gardens in the Puget Sound region. I grabbed the gear and headed over to Point Defiance Park.
As I was entering the gate to the garden (the garden is surrounded by a 10-foot tall fence to keep the deer out), a gardener was coming out. She told me they had just dead-headed the whole garden and it was in prime condition. I couldn’t have picked a better time. The dahlia blooms did look like they were in their prime, as were most the roses. I set up the tripod, slapped on a 100-mm macro lens and some extension tubes and lost myself in the work. Perfect!
I wasn’t the only photographer there that night, there were three portrait photographers in the garden, two doing senior-high photos and one was shooting two young children (I don’t envy that poor photog). They were making money, and may or may not being enjoying their work. I was not making money, it is highly unlikely I will ever sell any of the images I made that night, instead I was enjoying my craft and saving my sanity.
Occasionally, there was the slightest breath of a breeze, slightly moving the blossoms. I turned up the ISO a couple stops to keep the shutter speed less than a second, and kept on shooting. I ended up shooting for about two hours until the light started fading and the exposure times became increasing long. It was the perfect antidote to my pent-up need to create.
In another break from the Southwest series of posts, I recently spent several hours with the Mountaineers at the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle. My friend and fellow photographer Gerald Reed led the trip several weeks back in mid-November. This trip gave me a chance to practice with my macro work, which I don’t do nearly enough. I use a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens with or without a set of extension tubes. Using natural light through the conservatory windows, a tripod was necessary for these shots, particularly on the cloudy, rainy day we were there. However, that cloudy sky did provide a nice light without a lot of contrast to work with. Luckily the conservatory allows tripods on weekdays (we were there on a Wednesday).
Macro photography is a different world. It’s amazing what things look like when you really get in really close. It takes a practiced eye to spot good compositions when looking at a greenhouse full of plants, particularly when looking for composition of several inches or less.
The other challenge with macro work is depth of field. Even with small apertures, the depth of field is amazingly small. For example, with my 100mm lens set to f/16, if I’m shooting from 10 feet (3 meters) away from my subject (which I normally wouldn’t do for macro work, normally I’d be much closer), the depth of field is 1.81 feet (55 centimeters). However, if I am shooting from only 1 feet (30.5 centimeters), a much more typical distance when doing macro work, the depth of field at f/16 is only 0.15 inches (3.8 millimeters). Move 25% closer, to 0.75 feet (22.9 centimeters), and the depth of field drops more than 50%, to 0.07 inches (1.8 millimeters). (I used the equations provided by DOFMaster for these calculations. The DOFMaster website also contains a convenient, on-line depth of field calculator for larger working distances.)
The extremely small depth of field makes focusing very critical – you purposely need to think about where to focus and how the composition will look with potentially large areas of the frame out of focus. If you try this type of photography, play around with your aperture to see what different results you can get (as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’m an habitual bracketer, including bracketing by aperture). By choosing a large aperture, you can force most everything out of focus to create more “artsy” images. Or go for a larger depth of field with a small aperture (though with very small apertures, you lose sharpness as well; though my macro lens goes down to f/32, I almost never use that aperture because it is so unsharp). If you want a wider depth of field that even a small aperture can’t give, you may have to give up magnification and back up from the subject to increase the depth of field.
In macro photography, your subject needs to hold still. Even using fast shutter speeds to freeze movement, this is true because of the limited depth of field. It’s very easy for a flower moving in the breeze, or a wandering bug on that flower, to move outside the depth of field. This is why I am so impressed with all those photographers who get great macro shots of insects. That’s why, as a relative beginner to macro work, I like working with plants – they don’t move on their own accord. A conservatory makes it even easier, no natural breezes to deal with.