Macro Photography- Taking Photos That People Like

I suppose I do not need to tell you how great and ubiquitous the internet is nowadays: you see it anywhere, anytime in our lives. Thanks to the internet, we get to communicate, buy, sell, share, teach and obtain knowledge regardless of time and place- Tasks deemed impossible in the past.

Cute DIY Scorpion~

Everybody loves a beautiful picture of a cute subject, even if its fake! But it did caught your attention now, didn’t it? XD A wonderful gift from my dear sister, thought I would share it with you all over here~

Of course, one of the reasons why people cannot get enough of internet is because of social media like Facebook, Tweeter etc., platforms where people not only catch up with one another, but also to share their opinions, talents and artworks. Photography (including Macro Photography) is one of the aspects that gained tremendous boost in popularity because of social media, and I am rather pleased with it.

Here, we all love Macro Photography (or any form of Photography), but I’m pretty sure our motives behind the learning of the subject differs from one to another. Some pursue the skill for self-enrichment, some for competitions, sharing, earning a living and some for science and research etc. I, for one picked up Macro Photography because I really love cataloguing the amazing creatures I’ve encountered and try and group them accordingly (I’m a scientist by the way XD). Anyway, regardless of your motives, it is undeniable that the internet is often used as a tool to promote, share or even sell our photos and work.

Banded bullfrog- Kaloula pulchra ♀

The internet is an awesome place for you to share your talents and work; but it requires a some amount of skill and knowledge if you are to really stand out from the rest in Macro Photography. It is not hard actually, you just show people what they like to see.

Since virtually every Macro Photographer is using the internet to promote their work, competition can be stiff when it comes to getting your photos noticed. Thus, this article is dedicated to share some insights that will help gain viewers attention. Most of the contents have already been covered in previous articles but I suppose it will be a good thing to link them all up here.

So, how do you produce photos that people like?

1. Invest in a suitable camera, lens and accessories

Okay, this particular point may sound ridiculous, but I noticed a huge increase in Macro Photographers who take macro shots using smartphones with clip-on macro lenses. Now don’t get me wrong, some of the resulting photos are so good that I was actually surprised!

That said, smartphones were not really built as dedicated, primary cameras; at least not yet:  The small camera sensor (detector that converts what you see into a digital image) size, poor ergonomics and accessibility, lower overall performance etc. will affect the final Macro Image you get. It will be extremely challenging, if not impossible to take a good and highly magnified Macro shot using only a smartphone.

Both cameras take photos, but the quality differs greatly

Smartphone cameras have improved drastically over the years, but they are still no where near as good as dedicated mirrorless or DSLR cameras, at least not when it comes to Macro Photography.

Granted, you may get away with a decent (but not highly magnified) Macro Photograph if you are very skilled in Macro Photography and (especially) post-processing; but for serious or enthusiast-level work, it will be a better idea to invest in a proper DSLR and Macro accessories to get the job done, more so when DSLR cameras are getting more and more affordable now: at this juncture an entry-level DSLR actually costs cheaper than a premium-line smartphone! Newer generation Mirrorless Cameras will do as well, though the accessories option may not be as wide as those of DSLR.

Harvestman-Opiliones; Tithaeus sp. (?)

A harvestman which is only 1cm across; it took a Nikkor 105mm macro lens, a 36mm Extension Tube and a Raynox-250 Macro clip-lens plus some cropping in order to get this image. Yes, it may not be impossible for smartphones to snap highly magnified photographs, but it certainly isn’t cost-effective to do so at this time.

The following are some advantages of using a DSLR camera for Macro Photography:

  • Larger sensor size result in better recording of details and colour
  • Higher Megapixels (MP) count (accompanied with the larger sensor size) allows better image cropping, a technique often used in Macro Photography
  • DSLR, although bulkier and heavier, has better ergonomics and easier access to buttons and dials, allowing the user to shoot efficiently and for a longer period of time
  • Certain DSLR cameras are weather-proof.
  • Wide range of accessories that will help in improving your Macro Photography i.e. flash diffuser for softer light, Extension Tubes for higher magnification etc.

I won’t go into the details here, but should you require more info on selecting a good DSLR setup for Macro Photography, please read Getting Your First Macro Camera AND Five Aspects In Choosing The Best DSLR (Body) For Macro Photography.

2. Honing Macro Photography skills

Taking a good Macro Shot is fairly easy, so long as you cover these FIVE aspects which all attractive and great images (not limited to Macro Photography) will have:

      • A good subject– The moment you decide which creature to photograph you have already determine (indirectly) the potential popularity of your shot. Whether you like it or not; a beautiful, colourful OR bizzare-looking creature will always be more popular than an ugly, dull-coloured OR rare one. In addition, viewers are always interested in subjects doing something rather than nothing. For more details, please read Taking Better Macro Shots 1- Choice Of Subject.
Stalk-eye Flies (Teleopsis sp.) mating

Stalk-eye Flies mating (Yes, those are their eyes!). People are always fascinated by bizzarre or beautiful creatures of the world. All you need to do is find, photograph and present them XD

    • Composition– An image with a good composition will attract viewers to focus on a subject or feature in particular that you want them to look at. Considering Macro Shots usually do not involve too much background, composition should be fairly easy for Macro Photography. You can’t go wrong with following the standard Rule-of-Thirds. For more details, please read Taking Better Macro Shots 2- Composition.
Scorpion Spider- Arachnura sp. ♀

Unless if your subject is symmetrical in shape, try not to always put your subjects in the middle of the frame. For starters, the Rule-of-Thirds will help alot!

  • Lighting– The manipulation of light is the core principal of Photography and the trick to getting great shots is to ensure you have good quality soft light. Macro Photography using Natural Light is simple but tedious: you just need to find a place with decent amounts of sunlight (best taken under shades during a very sunny day), get a tripod and patiently wait for a shot. The resulting shot will usually be awesome SOOC provided no movements occur during the capture. On the other hand, Macro Photography using Artificial Light (flashguns) requires more effort in light diffusion but generates efficient and often greater results once mastered. The trick is to design (or just copy) a great DIY light diffuser to get super soft light. Once you do this, everything becomes a piece of pie! For more details, please read Taking Better Macro Shots 3- Lighting.
Stag Beetle- Aegus parallelus

A Stag Beetle, note the eye-flattering light reflections from the carapace. Lighting is the core aspect of Macro Photography, once you get it right, your photos will really pop!

    • Background– One of the best things about Macro Photography is the resulting background Bokeh when you get really close to your subjects. This blur often get rid of messy backgrounds, enticing the viewers to focus on the subject instead. Getting awesome Bokeh in  Macro Photography is very easy; you just have to ensure that there are little or no distractions (e.g. leaves, branches etc.) near your main subject. Here, knowing how Aperture and Depth-of-Field works will give you an added advantage. In general, the lower your aperture (F) value, or the closer you are to your subject, the more blurred the background Bokeh. For more details, please read Taking Better Macro Shots 4- Background. Also, you can learn more about minimizing dark backgrounds in Flash Macrography by reading here: 5 Ways To Minimize Dark Backgrounds in Macro Shots.
Tree-Stump Spider moulting- Poltys cf. illepidus ♀

Everybody loves Bokeh (background blur), it helps separate the subject from the background, so viewers will focus more on the subject. The smooth background of this shot is actually of the morning blue sky!

    • Sharpness– Viewers like to look at the details of creatures you photograph, creatures that they cannot usually see. Hence, your images have to be sharp in order to bring out the details. To do this, use a tripod, suitable DSLR settings or use Flashguns. All these will help reduce movements or effect of movements for a sharper and clearer shot. Of course, learning a little bit about sharpening in post-processing will also help. For more details, please read Taking Better Macro Shots- Sharpness.
Ladybird vs. Aphid

It is only when your photos are tact sharp that viewers will be able to see the minute details of a photo, which in this case, is a very tiny aphid!

Now, don’t be frightened by these long and windy points. As a Macro Photographer, these are some of the many things you will learn indirectly as you improve. I am just listing them out so that it helps you to realize them earlier and level up faster XD

 

3. Extra tricks

Now, by fulfilling point (2) above, you will have the skills to take good Macro Photographs on your part. However, playing your part well alone often won’t cut it when it comes to photographing live subjects that don’t understand you. Uncooperative (running or fleeing etc.) or shy subjects will affect your final images as well; so it helps to learn a bit about them to get the great images you want. Please read here for more info Becoming A Better Macro Photographer- Understanding Your Subjects.

Here are some insights that might help you get better photos:

  • Learn more about your subjects, know where and when to find them. The less time you spend looking for desired subjects, the more time you spend photographing it, which translates to better chances for great photos. For example, active flying cuckoo bees are a hell lot easier to photograph at night when they are “asleep”. Of course, there are loads of different creatures out there with their own specific behaviour, habitat and niche, so start from the most common or the ones you like most. Here’s an article on where to find some of the most popular Macro Subjects: Where To Find What- A Beginner’s Guide.
Ground Beetle

Not every insect, spider or animal can be found behind your backyard. Reading up a bit on your coveted subject will help increase the chances of finding one.

  • Photograph large subjects. Larger subjects i.e. frogs, butterflies, lizards, dog’s eyes etc. are much easier to focus on and photograph, and since most of their facial or body features are large as well, blurred shots will not come up that obviously. Most seasoned Macro Photographers are so engrossed in the field that they actually “forget” to take less magnified photos when required: always remember not to use too much magnification when shooting a large subject, as the shallow Depth-of-Field (DOF) may not be able to take in all the details.
Malayan vine snake feasting- Ahaetulla mycterizans

A Malayan Vine Snake biting a Common House Gecko. Larger subjects are easier to focus on and snap, so don’t forget to photograph them from time-to-time.

    • Displacing subjects, only if appropriate. Wild creatures are unfamiliar with humans and will likely flee when approached. Smaller creatures can be placed onto leaves of a lone plant to be photographed. That way it will be easier for you to track it and thus take better photos of it. I suppose I do not need to tell you not to meddle with fragile, dangerous or potentially dangerous subjects. Also, if you are going to displace subjects, ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOU PUT THEM BACK TO WHERE THEY BELONG! Don’t be like the many, many irresponsible and cruel photographers who value their photographic works more than the lives of their subjects.)
Jumping Spider ♂, ready to jump!

This cute little male Jumping Spider kept hiding beneath the leaves and I had to move it i.e. let it jump onto my hand (not all spiders are that cooperative unfortunately) to a higher leaf before I could take this shot.

    • Take artistic shots. Macro Photographs can be pretty dull since you cannot manipulate much in terms of shooting angle, lighting and magnification; the only thing that keeps changing is the subject. That said, there are a few shooting angles i.e. from the front (aka face-to-face Shot) and side, though not very useful scientifically, that never fail to attract attention of viewers. In addition, you can also try out UV or infra-red Macro Photography, which not many people are doing at the moment, thus less competition! A comparison between Artistic and Scientifc photographs can be found here: Macro Photography- Scientific And Artistic Shots.
Telamonia dimidiata ♀ with prey

Face-to-Face Artistic shots are often the most popular in the Macro Photography world. I suppose people are drawn towards the attractive eyes of the subjects.

  • Doing something different with your photos. Now most people know how to upload their photos onto social media or photo sharing sites i.e. Flickr, 500px etc. However, most of the time they are simply photos with a photo title (some don’t even have a title!). Many people enjoy reading a bit about the subject you have photographed, thereby learning something from looking through your photographs. I personally love to identify and describe all the subjects I found: most info can be found from the web (though one should take caution that information from the web are not always 100% correct- best to cross-reference).
Ladybug Life Cycle

It appears to be the blooming season of ladybugs now and I managed to take a lot of photos of them in different life stages. I’ve since decided to present my photo differently by joining each stages up to form a Life Cycle image of ladybirds (not species-specific unfortunately). As expected, most were surprised that ladybirds have an ugly larva stage XD XD I am glad viewers gained knowledge from my photos.

  • Chilling subjects. This is a controversial and somewhat cruel method used to photograph insects, a method used even by experts like BBC. The main idea is to cool down the bodies of organisms e.g. < 5 minutes in 4⁰C so that they become less active and move less, making photographing them easier. However, this method has been misinterpreted and misused by a lot of cruel and irresponsible Macro Photographers who, upon too much chilling, kill the subjects. I admit that I have used this technique a few times when I was a beginner (not something I am proud of), and found it cruel and unnatural. I have since then moved on to shooting live and well subjects. As an alternative, try going on Macro Sessions during the night with a couple of friends, most diurnal creatures will be inactive then, and easy to photograph.
  • Taking extreme Macro Shots. People are always fascinated by things that they have not seen before, and highly magnified photos are one of them. However, in order to take these shots you usually have to kill and pin your subjects, so as you might as expected, its not something I am very keen of. Photos such as these usually only display the heads of the subjects, so you won’t see the distorted appendages of the subjects after dying. That said, extreme Macro Shots are actually valuable if you are using them for scientific publications, but most of the time they are not, and lives are simply wasted.
Blue Dasher- Brachidiplax chalybea ♂

This is the resulting photo from my final try on Extreme Macro Photography, which obviously I am not very good at (not magnified enough). Although the dragonfly is not dead (half dead when I found it), I don’t like how unnatural the shot is.

Well that is all that I could think of at the moment. I will make sure to add on more tips and tricks as I improve my Macro skills 🙂 I hope this article will be able to help you take better Macro Shots that attract more viewers.

In the meantime, keep on Macro-ing guys~ Try and go out with a group of friends who share the same passion, that way you will keep your passion burning, and improve at the same time! You can also try asking for advice or comments from good Macro gurus (avoid the mean ones!); I am pretty sure you will be able to learn one or two new tricks from them~

Golden-Coloured Tortoise Beetle (Aspidomorpha sp.; Cassidinae)

Last but not least, I dedicate a gold-coloured Tortoise Bug to all Macro Photographers for good luck! Happy shooting!

Until the next article, take care guys!

PS: Damn this is a long article; almost burst my bladder writing this :p

Taking Better Macro Shots Part 2- Composition

Hihi! I am back again to continue this series on how to take better macro shots! I hope you have learnt the importance of the subjects you choose to photograph after reading this first article on Choice of Subject.

Today we are talking about composition, one of the most important aspects to any genre of photography. Composition (in Photography) basically refers to the way in which different parts are arranged to make up the final photo. Of course, our aim here is to produce photos with good composition, where subjects are “arranged”, or “presented” in such a manner that they look attractive to viewers.

Argiope versicolor ♀

A good composition will significantly increase the attractiveness of your photos, as you “deliberately” lead the eyes of viewers towards your main subject of the photo, which in this case, is a young female Argiope versicolor.

With great control of composition, you would be able to make your photos stand out, even when your subjects are not-that-great. Although this skill may take plenty of time and practice to master, but once you get the hang of it, it can be applied to any other types of photography, and even videography- definitely worth honing!

Olive Tree Skink - Dasia cf. olivacea

Composition is a form of art: Just because I think its good doesn’t mean you have to agree with me 🙂

So, before we start, I would like to point out that whether a photo is properly composed or not (to a certain degree, of course) may be subjected to personal preferences, so you might not always agree with another. Different people have different tastes and perspectives after all; learn to accept and respect that and you are good to go!

Alright! Shall we begin?

1. Don’t compose your shot with your subject directly in the middle of the frame, unless if it is a “symmetrical” shot

Beginners tend to take photos with the subject at the centre of the frame, and you can’t really blame them as most are not familiar with the term composition. What’s more, most started off with simple digital cameras which only focuses at the centre (at least during my era lol), so it is only normal that they continue to photograph similarly even when using DSLRs.

Composition 2- Ladybug

Unless if you are taking a “symmetrical” shot; a subject placed at the centre of the frame will be less interesting to look at, even if the subject itself is nice.

People looking at your photographs will think that your shots are monotonous if each and every one of them have the subjects centred, regardless of how attractive your subjects are. On top of that, with so many other beginners taking shots like this, your shots can hardly stand out, which is not good.

So, the idea is rather simple, don’t frame your subject at the centre of the photograph. But where exactly should you frame the subject then? Please read Point 2 below for more details.

That said, there are instances when framing your subject in the middle works well in terms of composition. This is especially true when you are photographing your subject from an angle such that it looks symmetrical i.e. the left and right sides look similar to one another (see photo for better understanding). By composing your shot this way, you present your subject in a more orderly fashion, and thus more pleasing to the eye. Nevertheless, these shots are not easy to come by in reality.

Waterlily

Centred composition works best when the subject is in somewhat of a symmetry: The lily flower here looks more or less similar towards the left and right. However, shots like this are not easy to take, especially so with a moving subject.

2. Using the Rule of Thirds as a guideline

Where should you position your subject (if it is not a symmetrical shot)? Now would be a good time to bring in the Rule of Thirds– a general guideline which will always be brought up when it comes to artistic composition. This guideline sees the division of an image into 9 rectangles (see photo for better understanding) by one set of equally-spaced horizontal lines plus another set of equally-spaced vertical lines; and by placing your subject of interest along these lines or intersections, your photos will be more attractive to a viewer- magic!

Rule of Thirds- Grasshopper

Adhering to the Rule of Thirds: Note how the grasshopper was “purposely put” on the two centre vertical lines and the lower horizontal line? The shot looks better this way 🙂 Of course, it doesn’t always have to be placed specifically on the said lines.

Please don’t ask me why it is doesn’t come out as the rule of forth or fifth as I really don’t know haha, but I do know that the Rule of Thirds work in general, and it will help you produce much better shots.

So how do you take better composed shots in practice?

Composition 1- Ladybug

Taking a look back at the same ladybug shown earlier. By simply composing based on the Rule of Thirds, you get a better shot! 🙂

Now that you understand the theory behind the Rule of Thirds, you should also understand that you don’t have to compose your subjects perfectly to fit that rule. This is because it is often hard to control subject, wind or hand/body movements during shooting sessions; as long as the subject is somewhere near the lines that follow the rule of thirds, it is already fine as you can always crop during post processing to better the composition.

Focusing Trick

One of the easiest ways to adhere to the Rule of Thirds is to select ONE of the four blue circles as your main focus point (regardless of how many AF points your DSLR has, as long as its in that area), then frame your subjects on that particular AF point before shooting! This method is applicable to both manual and auto macro systems.

Of course, it is not an easy task to “estimate” where the Rule-of-Third’s line is when viewing through the optical viewfinder of a DSLR. So what I usually do is switch to manual selection of Autofocus (AF) points, that way I can place the AF point to the spot where I want the subject to be in before I start focusing on it. This method is applicable regardless of whether you are shooting with autofocus or manual focus, as the point will still serve as a guide to where you should place your subject.

3. Proper placement of subjects

Okay, now that you know what is the Rule of Thirds, you might notice that there are actually four main lines or intersections (see photo) where you could place your subject. Which one do you choose?

Well, this depends on how you portray your subject. Usually, if your subject is “looking” at once particular direction, you can compose in such a way that there are more space towards that direction. For example, if a subject is looking towards the left, you can compose the subject on the right end of your photo, so that you can show a bit on what the subject was “looking” at, so that the photo makes more sense.

Kitten 2

Proper positioning of the subject: You can see clearly from this photo that the shy little kitten was communicating with its mother. What will happen if I framed the kitten on the right (without showing its mother) and showing more plants and leaves on the left? If I do that, you wouldn’t know what the kitten was meowing or looking at- a photo weak at storytelling.

Of course, things may not always be that simple, especially when you are shooting at an uncommon angle. it is therefore up to you to decide where you should place your subject so that it makes sense, yet looks interesting.

Also, when you shoot some highly magnified shots, sometimes it might become uncertain as to where and how to follow the Rule of Thirds. When this happens, think about the main focus of your shot (see photo below for details), and frame it according to the rule of thirds. 

Composition highly magnified shots

Remember your main focus of a photo: I wanted to show the unique eye arrangements of one of the oldest living spiders on Earth, which is why I’ve placed them according to the Rule of Thirds.

4. Break the Rule of Thirds

Once you have mastered the basics of composition in photography which includes the popular Rule of Thirds, ironically, the next step is to try and break that rule. As aforementioned, the Rule of Thirds is merely a guideline to aid people in getting better shots- it was never obligatory. That said, learning about the Rule of Thirds is still part and parcel of learning about photographic composition: You cannot break the Rule of Thirds without understanding the concept first. It is also unlikely that a beginner will be able to consistently take superb macro shots that disobeys the Rule of Thirds.

Breaking the Rule of Thirds

It won’t be easy to “disobey” the composition rules that you have been adhering to all these while. It will take some “unlearning”, and definitely a lot of creativity to think out of the box!

Breaking the Rule of Thirds requires a lot of creativity in my humble opinion. To be honest, I am still having troubles not following the Rule of Thirds, probably because I am so used to the rule already haha. As a result, I am not able to share much on this point at this time. Anyway, will keep on trying! I do hope I will be able to take really creatively composed shots one day!

Taiwan 165

Composition is not something one masters over a few days. So let’s keep shooting and improve together!

That’s about it for composition in (Macro) Photography. By truly understanding the basics about composition, you would be able to take superb shots, even out of smartphones or digital camera, which goes to show just how significant composition is to photography. Again, I need to stress that there is really no Right or Wrong when it comes to composition, so long as you manage to convey your message through a photograph that is visually attractive.

That said, I still have much to learn in this aspect, so let us all work hard in improving our macro skills! If you have some extra tips that would help improve shot compositions, please do note hesitate to share it with us, I am sure there I have left out something there haha!

Cheers guys!

The next article is on Lighting, which is one of the core components of Photography: Taking Better Macro Shots Part 3- Lighting.

** All photos in this website are taken and owned by me. The use of any photos here is not allowed without my permission.