the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “macro lenses



Phytomorphology 2 (2017). Macrophotography helps alter the memory context of familiar objects. 


AS A BOY, THEODORE ROOSEVELT TAUGHT HIMSELF THE ANATOMY OF BIRDS that same way James Audubon did, by studying birds he himself had killed. Although this coldly clinical approach may strike us as cruel today, it was accepted practice for a young naturalist in the late 1800’s, a time when even eminent surgeons, faced with a shortfall of cadavers for academic study, occasionally hired freelancers to raid graves in search of, er, manpower. And so it goes.

At decidedly less risk, photographers have also made still-life studies of dead things, from game kills to seed pods, trying to appreciate structure, design, and function in a controlled environment. But there is more to their pokings than the grand advancement of science, given that death changes things in a way that transforms their aspect, altering their usefulness as visual subjects. Objects that have gone from living to non-living reflect light differently; textures and patterns are re-shaped; in short, the thing becomes an abstraction of itself.

Add magnification to the mix, and a thing becomes completely untethered from our usual conception of it, since, among other things, we are used to viewing it from a distance of feet or inches rather than millimeters. Just as where you stand affects the impact of a landscape, the place where you park a macro lens on an object dictates a completely different story with just the smallest variation.

There is a renewed fascination in the photographic world with minimalist abstraction, in which an object is changed so much in magnification and composition as to become a completely new thing, or…if the photographer so desires, a whole new nothing, a subject with which the viewer has no prior associations, functioning as pure pattern or design. For me, that’s the appeal of macro work… take the familiar and render it neutral in meaning, allowing me to re-assign it visually, to ask the viewer to, in effect, regard it as a foreign object, one that can take on whatever significance he sees fit.

Photography is primarily about what to see but it often provides cues as to how to see as well. Viewpoint is verification, and things impart  different truths to our eyes, depending on how we approach them.


Fake macro done with a zoom at 300mm. Actual object is about six feet away. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

“Fake” macro done with a zoom at 300mm. Actual object is about six feet away. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100.


OVER YOUR LIFETIME AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT DOESN’T TAKE A LOT OF EFFORT TO ACCUMULATE A SMALL WAREHOUSE OF SPECIALIZED GLASS. Lens acquisition just may be the crack cocaine of photography, since we all know that the best picture of your life will be taken with the lens you don’t yet own.

We slobber with envy over magazine spreads which lovingly detail the bursting kit bags of the pros, which far too many of them pose for in magazines, at least once. I think it is a kind of passive-agressive attempt to scare most of us other shrimps into abandoning the craft altogether and finding honest work, like breaking into ATMs. I swear, there must be proof that a significant percentage of the second mortgages in the world are traceable to “daddy needs a new fisheye”.

One of the most expensive hunks of glass for many of us will be a dedicated macro lens. Assuming that you don’t buy a third-party bauble made from a child’s kaleidoscope in an emerging nation, the investment can be daunting, especially if macro shots are a small subset of your total output. Forced to choose between a dedicated macro and a decent quality zoom, however, I have sided with the zoom every time, since, in a pinch, it can serve as a decent sub for a macro. Detail is your big factor. You have to decide if you want to count the feathers on a robin’s back, or if you want to be able to see the mites that live in the feathers. If you’re a mite man, then apply for that second mortgage now.

Shot from about five feet out, zoomed to 220mm: 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

Shot from about five feet out, zoomed to 220mm: 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

Standing just a few feet from your macro subject and zooming out to, say, 300mm allows you enough magnification to fill your frame. Of course, you should be absent any bloodstream caffeine, since camera shake will become a large part of your life. You could default to a tripod, but since you’re improvising a macro shot, you are probably too close to the object to want to impede foot traffic (or simply waste opportunities) getting set up, so it’s better to experiment with various ways of bracing the camera against your body. And again, cut the caffeine.

Your depth of field will be shallow, which will actually help out, since the bokeh will eliminate distractions around or behind your subject. You will also be far enough from what you’re shooting to keep you from casting a shadow over it with your body. If you want a sharper image, you can go to a smaller aperture, but as you’re completely zoomed out already, you are already down to f/5.6 and its attendant light loss. A smaller aperture means you’ll have to slow your exposure, and that could give your handheld shot the dreaded shakes again. Everything’s a trade-off.

Bottom line: it’s cost-effective to make the lenses you have do everything of which they are each capable than to build a mountain of specialized glass in your closet.

Remember when golf was the expensive hobby? Ah, them wuz the days.