Photographer Jim Zuckerman discusses the tools and techniques you can use to capture close-ups of the elements of an environment in the eighth article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
An important aspect of landscape work is macro photography—filling the frame with small subjects or with small portions of larger objects. Minute details in nature are captivating. Rock textures, flowers, lichen, seashells, fungi, and leaf patterns make incredible pictures that reveal a world seldom noticed by people. In addition, when lighting or weather conditions make good landscape work difficult or impossible, it’s usually quite feasible to move in close with a telephoto or macro lens and capture wonderful photos.
Macro work inherently has one major problem: As you move in very close to small subjects to fill the frame with them, depth of field is reduced. Since the beauty and intrigue of macro work is all about the detail, it’s important to use small lens apertures like f/22 and f/32. The reduction in light necessitates a longer shutter speed, and that, in turn, means that a tripod is essential. Doing macro photography without a tripod is an exercise in frustration. You will never be able to take top-notch pictures. This is especially true when the subject has a lot of depth.
In my opinion, small subjects look best in soft light. Harsh shadows and bright highlights interfere with the subtle colors, shapes and contours of the subjects. For example, the wildflowers I photographed in Texas (top image) were taken under an overcast sky. This is the best-case scenario for close-up work. I used the same type of soft lighting in photographing the beautiful wood texture on a beach in the state of Washington (figure 8.2). Notice how rich the colors are despite the overcast conditions. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need direct sunlight to get rich and saturated color.
If the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, sometimes I will use my body to make a shadow on the small area I’m photographing. This keeps the light evenly diffused. I did that with the clover in figure 8.3. The sun was too high in the sky for successful landscape photography, so I focused on macro subjects that were small enough to shield from the sun. One reason I like to photograph in greenhouses is because the lighting is soft and diffused. The photo of the orchid in figure 8.4 is devoid of the typical unattractive contrast that results from direct sunlight.
Another reason I like to shoot in greenhouses is there is no wind. Wind is the enemy of macro photographers because even the slightest breeze will be responsible for a blurred image due to the long exposures necessary for this kind of work. Subjects that won’t be affected by the wind are easy to shoot, like the rock texture in figure 8.5. When photographing flowers, leaves, insects, seedpods, etc., the air has to be perfectly still. When I photographed the rose in figure 8.6, I did so at dawn because often the air is very still then. The tropical leaves I captured in figure 8.7 were in a very dark environment and my exposure was 20 seconds. In this kind of situation, in order to get the depth of field necessary to reveal all of the beautiful detail, I had to choose a sheltered environment that protected my subject from any kind of movement.
There is another way to manipulate depth of field. It's a digital technique that has revolutionized the way photographers approach macro photography, and at the same time it applies to telephoto compositions of landscapes and other stationary subjects. The technique is called focus stacking. You can apply it with a brilliant software program called Helicon Focus. The way it works is that you take several pictures of a subject—anything not moving—from a tripod. Each time you take a picture, you refocus the lens from the furthest point in the composition to the closest point near the camera in very small increments. It doesn't matter how many shots you take. I've done as many as 22, but usually you can get away with fewer. My average number of exposures is about 10 to 12. The software then assembles all the pictures and uses only the sharpest plane of focus from each photo, so the resulting composite is perfectly focused throughout. Since f/8 is usually the sharpest aperture on any lens, you can do this at f/8 and still have complete depth of field from the immediate foreground to the background. This can be used for macro photography as well as when using a telephoto lens. What is amazing is that if you use a long lens, you still get the telephoto compression but everything is tack sharp from front to back.
By way of example, look at the macro shots of a weevil in photos 8.8 and 8.9. Both of them were taken at f/8. Figure 8.8 was a single exposure, and it shows depth of field that is quite shallow. Figure 8.9 has complete depth of field up to the rear of the insect. I took 12 exposures that were assembled in Helicon Focus to produce a tack-sharp photo up to the point I wanted sharp. I purposely didn’t include focus behind the insect because the out-of-focus foliage background is complementary and directs our attention to the subject better than if it was sharply defined.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow