Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Tao of Macro


Critter Mix Feb 2009 series 1-3
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
I could also use “The Tao of Photography” as a title, since what I’m about to tell you applies to every photographic discipline. But it seems that there are more people hung up on technique in macro than in any other form of photography, and I shoot macro more than anything else. So here goes…

No one cares how you, or I, take our images. The way we shoot is irrelevant.

Really –it doesn’t matter. The average viewer neither knows, nor cares, how a photo was taken. Even if you were standing right next to them explaining everything their eyes would just glaze over, they’d nod their heads and mumble “oh” or “uh huh” –in one ear and out the other…

The only thing that does count is the final image. I hate making a reference to Ansell Adams because way too many people have taken his name in vain to justify their post processing –doing things in Photoshop that they could be doing a lot faster and better with the camera when they press the shutter release. But the idea that the process isn’t important comes from Mr. Adams, and he was right. People don’t come back to look at an image because of what you did or what you used to take the photo, they come back because there’s something about the photo that draws them in. That something is the composition and not the process…

The only time the way becomes important is when you’re trying to learn photography. When I write a tutorial on some aspect of macro I do so as if I’m speaking to another macro photographer, and not someone who knows nothing at all about the discipline. Why waste time writing to the viewer when they don’t care anyway…

So why am I making this post? When I first got into macro three years ago the conventional wisdom was that you had to use a tripod and a focusing rail to shoot macro. If you didn’t then most of the established photographers in the discipline wouldn’t take you seriously. Now it’s generally accepted that a lot of macro work can be done without a lot of gear –kind of hard to argue with the +2,000 images in my Flickr gallery and I’m just one photographer of many who shoots hand held.

Today there is still a lot of emphasis being placed on absolute image sharpness, with people claiming that you have to use small Fstops and focus stacking to get sharp images. I’m hoping that it won’t take another three years for the misconceptions about sharpness to die. If you view your photos at 100% pixels you’re going to see some softness in every photo –not just macro. But since people don’t print 100% crops, or save them to their desktop as wallpaper, evaluating a photo at 100% pixels is pointless. You could take the sharpest image ever, but if the subject is centered in the frame then it’s just one more poorly composed photo –no better than the average vacation point and shoot snapshot...

Moose Peterson once talked about the “8 second clock” –that once a person turns a page in a magazine a timer starts and there has to be something about a photo that will hold the viewer’s attention in those eight seconds. In my opinion the “Wow factor” of seeing a subject at high magnification lasts about 3 seconds no matter how sharp the image is. If you want to keep someone looking at your photos, and coming back to see them again, then the composition has to good otherwise the clock runs out and the viewer moves on…

Am I telling you not to use a tripod, or a focusing rail, or not to focus stack your images? Absolutely not! If you need to use any tool to produce the images that you want to take then so be it! But don’t get it into your head that everyone else must do the same things that you are doing. Or that the only way to get a good photo is to use a certain tool or technique. Don’t get hung up on the way an image was taken –the composition of the final image is infinitely more important…

One final word: I only use a camera, a macro lens, and a flash. I keep the gear count low because I want to let the subject dictate how I shoot it –to not lock myself into a fixed, rigid style of shooting. So the way that I shoot a subject changes depending on the conditions. If I were to fixate on a particular piece of gear or technique then I’d limit what I could photograph or when I could photograph it. Currently the only thing that stops me from shooting is rain –and if I really wanted to I could find a way around it. Don’t hold your breath waiting for my “critters wet and wild” series though…

The way that I shoot is a personal choice based on what I want to do with my photography. Is it the best way to shoot macro? Yes, but only when I’m the one holding the camera –my personal Tao of Macro. Find yours…

10 comments:

AB Apana said...

Great post. Still waiting for my MP-E 65 to arrive, but I know from experience that you can handhold the 500mm in low light and still get excellent images.

Apana

Dalantech said...

Have fun with your new lens Apana :)

Andreas said...

Great post John! As much as I love gear the viewer does not care. The only thing that matters is the final image.

A

Dalantech said...

Thanks Andreas :)

The viewer can't see the gear -they only see the image... ;)

Andreas said...

It is good to be reminded of that from time to time. I tend to think about gear too much...

A

Boone said...

Hi all,

My father has been tying flies (for fly fishing) for decades, and has asked if I'd be interested in taking photos of them so he can have them framed and presented about the house. These flies are no bigger than 1/2" x 1/2".

Unfortunately, I'm somewhat clueless with macro. I have the original Canon 5D body, and have been investigating the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens. I took my 24-105mm lens, set it at 100mm, and tried to focus on a 1/2" object (a helmet from my son's lego star wars figures). The lens was unable to focus closer than about 11" from the end of the glass to the object. However, I read that Canon's 100mm macro lens has a working distance of about 5.9". So, I put the helmet about that distance from the end of the lens and took another picture. It was obviously blurry, but it seemed to be about twice as large as the original. Was this experiment valid?

However, I've read you can take 1:1 photos with this lens, and given that the 5D sensor is 35.8mm X 23.9mm (1.3" x .9"), then a 1/2" object should be half the height and about a third of the width.

Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Dalantech said...

Hey Boone,
On your sensor a 1/2" (12.7mm) object would fill almost half of the frame if you used a macro lens like Canon's 100mm. You might want to find a camera shop in your area that rents lenses and give it a try.

Boone said...

Unfortunately, Best Buy is the closest thing I have to a local camera shop. :(

Aaron said...

Dalantech, great post. I've only been shooting macro for about a week, but the first thing I did was set up a tripod and used my shutter remote. Ugh. Couldn't stand that technique. Kept having to reposition the tripod to get the distance I wanted. Seems much easier handheld, with the aid of flash to "freeze action." Anyway, love your work. Another great post.

Dalantech said...

Glad you liked the post Aaron and welcome to the addiction :)