Join Ben Long for an in-depth discussion in this video Understanding depth and composition in macro, part of Foundations of Photography: Macro and Close-Up.
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One of the things that I like about macro flower shooting is that it can feel like landscape photography. When you get in real close, you'll find yourself gazing across vistas of petals, and fields of weird textures, and strange formations, and things. The problem is, because of this super shallow depth of field that's inherent in macro, you won't necessarily be able to see all of those things at the same time in your viewfinder. This can make composition tricky, because you can't actually see all of the elements that you have available to compose with.
Now, you can try studying the flower with the naked eye to determine what might look interesting, but the fact is a lot of this stuff is just so small that you really can't see what might be interesting or not, until you get it magnified. Now, this is true of all macro subjects, not just flowers. Anything can end up being far more interesting and landscapey, once you get in close. So, when trying to build a macro composition, you often have to do some exploring through focus, and camera or subject position changes, as you try to find the things on the subject that are interesting.
Here is what I mean. I've got this new flower up from what we were working with before. As you can see, it's got a lot more depth in it. It's going to inherently be a huge depth of field problem. But I've framed up a shot here. I am still at ISO 1600, because it's pretty dark in here. And, I am in so close with my extension tubes, and my extension tubes are cutting a little bit of light out. Fortunately, my meter is compensating for it, so I don't have to do any thinking, or anything like that. I am at f/4 here. Just because it's kind of a mid-range aperture here, I'll go on up to 5-6.
I am just seeing what I can see. Okay, now that's a lot cooler than it looks like in real life. I can see all of that pollen that's on there. I like the shapes, and the way that they're interacting. I didn't really notice that so much just by looking at the naked eye. But watch what happens as I refocus. I am going to now focus way out here onto the background -- at least I am going to try to, -- and take this shot. Aha! Looking back there, there are all of those dots on the petals. I like those purple lines, but the stamens up front have blurred out completely. I can't see both at the same time.
This is what I was talking about earlier; you've got to remember that what you see in the viewfinder is the shallowest depth of field possible. So, what I need to do is start trying to look around the flower, and just assess what I have to work with compositionally. I want you take a look at one other thing before we start doing that. Here is the first image that I shot, and here is the second image that I shot. Back in that first image, in the upper right- hand corner, you can see a tiny bit of green. That's a space between two of the petals. As I show you the second shot, now look at that tiny bit of green; it's much larger.
When we are at macro distances, even a slight change in focus is actually an effective change in focal length, and that changes our field of view. This is actually a much wider angle shot than our first shot. So, this is something else that I am trying to balance. Sometimes, getting the focus that I want won't actually give me the field of view that I want, because focus changes so dramatically. Change my field of view when I am at macro distances. So, I want to see what else is in this flower. And, what I am going to do now is just turn on video recording on the camera, so that you can see what I am seeing in my viewfinder.
And, that's going to let you see just what it is I am doing here. I am just going to pan around, and see what else might be cool in this shot. Maybe I'll do a little refocusing here. Look down there, down all of that stuff. That could be really cool-looking, maybe. I really like those black dots; that's kind of cool. Oh! Oh, this is interesting. The interaction of how the petals overlap . . . that could be interesting if it was played up some more. Really playing the graphical elements of those lines. And, as I change focus again . . . yeah . . . see, some of that stuff could be interesting.
What I don't really know yet is can I get . . . how much can I have in focus from all of these different things? And, the only reason, the only way I can do that is to do what we already did is, is just start dialing down my aperture, or taking different kinds of shots. Well, I like this too. The petals there in the background; that's kind of cool. So, here I am just exploring the flower. If you don't have the cool, geared head, there is another thing you can do, which is actually just move the flower around. One thing that's nice about moving the flower is you can easily focus on different areas by moving it forward and backward.
Oh look at that! Now that's interesting. All those shapes together look like a claw of some kind. But when I get to that distance that I can see that whole kind of claw thing, I lose the background. It goes completely out of focus. Now, it's completely out of focus in my viewfinder. I don't really know if it's in focus or not, if I was to use a deeper depth of field. So, I am gong to dial up to the f/16 real quick, and just do kind of a quick ballpark composition here. Maybe something like that. Oh, okay, look. At f/16, I actually can get those things in front, and the things in back. And, you might be saying right now, "Well, no. The whole thing is out of focus." The whole thing is out of focus, because I was jiggling the plant.
Again, I am just kind of . . . it's like I am sketching. I am just roughing in a composition here. So, this is interesting. I had been thinking that I couldn't play that front element against the back element, but I can, if I dial my depth of field so it is deeper. This is the type of exploring that you often just have to do, in this really manual, kind of brute force way, as you look for a composition. Macro photographers often speak of magic angles. This is the angle that maximizes the depth of field that you have. Maybe you turn the camera or the subject in a way so that a particular plane comes into really deep focus.
These are the kinds of things you can only experiment with by looking in the viewfinder, and moving your camera, or your subject, doing test shots at different apertures to try to see how much depth of field you get. And, from all of these different exercises, you can start to try to piece together a composition. You may not be able to see your finished composition in the viewfinder. You may just have to go, "I think this is going to play against that. I can balance this against that. And, I can have enough deep depth of field to bring in the background." And then, you take the shot and see. What I am thinking about right now, as we move in, is I do like this claw sort of thing that's going on.
And, the only way that I am getting this composition is, if you look right now, I'm holding the thing right here. I'm not going to be able to get as sharp a shot holding it, because I am jostling it around. I need to be able to change the position of my subject here, and to do that, I am going to need to employ some more gear. And, you know how I love more gear. So, we're going to look at that in the next movie.
After touring the possibilities of macro photography, the course details essential gear at several price levels, including lenses, flashes, and other accessories. Next, Ben explores the special challenges of macro photography: dealing with moving subjects, working with extremely shallow depth of field, focusing, lighting, and more.
The course also explores advanced close-up tools and post-processing techniques, such as using Adobe Photoshop to "stack" multiple shots to yield wider depth of field than a single shot can convey.
- What is a macro photograph?
- What is a macro lens?
- Finding good subject matter
- Evaluating macro gear like extension tubes and tilt-shift lenses
- Composing and framing shots
- Exploring depth of field
- Lighting macro shots
- Working with light tables
- Editing macro shots