Fstoppers Writing Sample

Fstoppers Writing Sample

The Top 5 Ways
To Elevate Your Nature & Wildlife
Macro Photography

Photographs & Writing by Matthew Cicanese

#Nature #Wildlife #Outdoors #Macro #MacroPhotography #Guide


By photographing this forest macro landscape in manual mode from a low angle while moving around the subject, I was able to shape the sunlight to illuminate, silhouette, and provide depth to the delicate and intricate moss stems.

By photographing this forest macro landscape in manual mode from a low angle while moving around the subject, I was able to shape the sunlight to illuminate, silhouette, and provide depth to the delicate and intricate moss stems.

Introduction

When it comes to nature photography and macro most people swoon over the allure of flowers, butterflies, and the typical go-to's for macro subjects. While there is nothing wrong with exploring these go-to species, it may often present the difficult situation of avoiding cliché macro photos. But the photographers who are willing to get 'down & dirty' often achieve photographs that stand out from the macro crowd.

Here are the top five ways to elevate your nature & wildlife macro photography by getting 'down & dirty'...


 

1. From Mundane to Magical

When you're out hunting for good macro scenes to photograph, don't be so quick to gravitate to areas with lush flowers and charismatic insects. That flower bed may seem chock-full of potential, but there's better findings off the beaten path. Challenge yourself by picking the most seemingly-mundane area, and take time to see what secrets unfold. If you look close enough and give the scene enough time to breathe, you'll be amazed how a place can transform from mundane to magical!

The process for succeeding in this leads me to my next thought...

 

2. Always Carry a Hand-Lens (magnifier)

Although your first instinct when you come upon an awesome macro scene may be to whip out your camera like The Lone Ranger going for his pistol, resist the urge at all costs. Instead, reach for your trusty hand-lens (magnifier) and take time to scope out the scene in close detail without worrying about pushing the shutter button. You'll be amazed how macro scenes will come to life right before your eyes, and your newfound insights will help you capture the scene in ways you may have completely missed otherwise.

The best way to do this is to look at the scene from many angles (below, above, from the side, extremely close, further back) and utilize the power of patience to watch as details 'come out of the woodwork'. 

 

Case-study: Hand-lens

One time while I was hiking in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, I came across a brilliant yellow mushroom poking its head out from the forest floor. My heart raced and before I knew it I had subconsciously turned on my camera and taken my lens cap off. But then I decided to slow down, set my backpack on the ground, and get my hand-lens out instead.

As I peered through the acrylic lens at the bright yellow gills of this U.S. quarter-size mushroom cap, I saw a tiny spring-tail about the size of this period (.) emerge from the macro abyss. It crawled from beneath the cap up onto the surface, and it's bright orange and purple speckled body was a little jewel that I would have completely missed if I had simply snapped a quick-shot of the mushroom and continued on my hike. 

 

3. Unique Perspectives

Capturing macro landscapes and subjects from unique angles and perspectives is (in my opinion) the best way to take your nature and wildlife macro photos to new heights. The easiest way to achieve this is to dress for the occasion, and be willing to step outside your comfort zone.

Instead of wearing standard clothing when you go out to shoot macro, head to your nearest thrift store to pick up a pair of ski/rain pants and a similar jacket. Because these are waterproof they act as a great barrier that allows you to lay on the forest floor and get unique perspectives of your macro subjects without getting yourself covered in the elements. Just make sure before you lay on your belly to get the shot, that you aren't about to lay in an ant nest or stinging plants! 

Some of the best perspectives for macro subjects occur when the lens is at the same eye-level as the subject – however, this can prove to be a rather difficult task in the macro world. I often have to bury my camera in the leaf litter to get just the right angle, but finding that 'sweet spot' perspective makes all the difference when telling a story through photographs. 

Case-study: Perspectives & Angles

Overhead Shot

Looking at your macro subjects from directly overhead can provide details about what's happening on a larger scale than the intimate angles of other perspectives.

dsc_0078_15335881943_o.jpg

Finding the Sweet Spot

Getting low and on-level with your subject is really important, but sometimes simply putting your camera flat on the surface isn't enough. Keep trying different maneuvers with your camera body to achieve the best angle for each scene.

The Intimate Angle

Getting your lens at the base-level of where your subject is interacting can provide a larger-than-life experience for your viewers. Although this ant was only the size of this comma, the perspective of this shot makes viewers feel as if they themselves were an ant standing right next to this one.

Letting Time Pass

Work the scene until the event happening is over. Once you find that sweet spot and intimate angle, don't stop shooting. Each frame tells a different part of the narrative, and letting time take its course allows for scenes to progress and help tell the story in a more dynamic way.

 

4. Shape the Subject using Flash

Macro photography in natural light can provide beautiful shadows and contrast to subjects, but often-times you're left hung out to dry waiting for the perfect overcast day or non-harsh sun to hit your scene just right. In addition to timing, there's also the issue of where your macro subjects reside. If the coolest creatures in the world are underneath a dark log or thick forest canopy, there's no way that sunlight is going to help you get the job done. This is where using flash/strobes/speed lights comes into play.

When used properly, flash has the ability to blanket your subject in a soft, even light. In the best case scenario, flash can mimic the same quality of natural light in places where natural light wouldn't normally be able to exist (i.e. – beneath a rain forest canopy). By using diffusers and flash modifiers to control your light's direction, strength, and characteristics, you can achieve a variety of results depending on your goals for each subject and scene. More information on macro lighting setups can be found in this article {hypothetical link}. 

 

5. Shoot in Manual Mode

The hardest method in creating better nature and wildlife macro photographs is combining all of the above techniques while also shooting in 'manual mode' on your camera. This combination provides the widest gamut of flexibility in telling the story of your subject through utilizing the best angle, light source, how that light interacts with your subject, and how your camera records the scene. 

The photograph at the very top of the article (the same as the next one below) is a good example of this, and leads us now into the concluding thoughts...

Conclusion

When the five techniques above are practiced over time and combined with each other, it creates a harmony that allows for unique, intimate, and visually powerful images that show your subjects in their best light. By being patient, looking closer, waiting to shoot, finding a sweet spot perspectives, shaping your light sources, and shooting in manual – you can create narrative images that illuminate the intricately beautiful microcosms right beneath our noses.

Summary:

  1. Seek out the mundane, practice patience, find the 'magic'.

  2. Carry a hand-lens, look closer, EXPERIENCE the scene without your camera before shooting it.

  3. Get low, get dirty, get your lens eye-to-eye with your subject and its world.

  4. Shape your light by learning about and using flashes with various light-modifying techniques.

  5. Combine these practices with 'manual mode shooting' to achieve best results.

 

Good luck, and happy macro shooting!
–Matt


Headshot Courtesy of Randall Scott.

Headshot Courtesy of Randall Scott.

About the Author

Matthew Cicanese (sick-uh-neez) is a deaf-blind National Geographic Explorer, Emerging League Photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers, and freelance documentary artist who travels the world to produce stories about wildlife, people, cultures, and our interactions with the earth. He works to show the beauty of our planet in effort to inspire people to explore, protect, and conserve the planet. To learn more about Matthew, visit www.MatthewCicanese.com or follow him on Instagram at @MatthewCicanese