In the first part of our guide to Macro And Still Life Photography, we discussed principles of design and depth of field. Today we conclude this series, and focus upon finding excellent light for different situations, the advantages of working with macro on a compact camera rather than an SLR, taking great product photos, and how to bring common objects to life!
How to Create Light for Macro Situations
Getting so close to the subject can create very abstract photos. Lighting this close is challenging in many situations, because the camera is so close to the subject it can be difficult to get the light in-between the subject and the front of the lens.
One way to project light onto a subject is to position yourself near some sort of hard light source, such as a window or in the shade near the edge of the sunlight. If additional highlights are needed to give a little life to the subject, place a small white reflector or white card in the light, reflecting some highlights back onto the subject as in 2-1.
This image was taken with an exposure of 1/4 second at f/51 at ISO 100. The orange was placed just outside of an incoming ray of bright sunlight, and a small flexible reflector was placed in the light creating the highlights.
Using a reflector when a hard, direct light is involved is just as important with close-up subjects as it is with portraits. The contrast of hard sunlight is just as difficult to deal with. In 1-2 and 1-3, a sea urchin shell is placed in bright sunlight to show the challenges of the contrast. Using Aperture Priority automatic on both images, the aperture stays the same, and only the shutter changes with any light change.
The exposure in 2-2 is 1.5 second at f/51 at ISO 100. The meter averages the bright highlights and the dark shadows, with the largest problem being that the highlights are washed out.
In 2-3, the exposure is .8 second at f/51 at ISO 100. The extra fill light brings the entire exposure up nearly 1 full f-stop, which in effect darkens the highlights, with the shorter shutter speed.
In 2-2, the bumps on the little shell are very bright, and they have little to no detail on the bright side of the bumps. The shaded side of the urchin shell begins to get dark and slightly murky.
By bringing in a white card close to the edge of the shell, the entire exposure goes up. This allows the bright side to have more detail, as the additional light fills in the shaded area. The light on the dark side of the urchin shell still falls off and darkens, but with far more pleasant results.
The exciting part of macro photography is seeing things that are ordinary but getting so close to them that they become abstract and out of context and, thus, extraordinary. In many cases, the lighting may be the thing that draws you to these subjects. An object may have a glint of reflection, color, or texture that lures you into photographing it.
The bigger challenge may be just taking the time and effort to get the tripod out and shoot what is already very interesting to you. Using the ambient light that is already enticing you to shoot, just start getting close. If you are still having trouble getting the light to the subject with a reflector, it may be time to use the strobe.
Strobe Lighting for Macro
To use a strobe to shoot macro subjects, it probably is necessary to either bounce the light off something else, or get the flash off the camera. As discussed earlier, on-camera flash is not the best option for macro subjects. The flash tends to go right over a subject so close and generally overexposes the subject because of the short distance involved.
Turning the strobe to the side and bouncing the light into a collapsible white reflector makes the light relatively broad and not too harsh. The light still has direction when bounced from such a hard light source, but the reflector really evens the light out more, making the subject look more natural.
It may be necessary to get some cleaning materials out when shooting so close. When you get close to things, many times the patina of old, worn things is very interesting; other times it just looks dirty. One of the biggest problems is dust. A tiny speck of dust may look huge in your image. Be careful with using canned air as sometimes the propellant can freeze the thing you are trying to dust off!
Finding the Perfect Light for Flowers
Shooting flowers and plants is often the reason some photographers pick up a camera in the first place. The color, delicate shape, and textures make flowers a natural draw for photographers.
Using any of the styles of lighting on a flower can make great photos, but looking at things differently helps to create unusual and interesting images. Backlighting a flower makes it appear to glow as the light passes through the thin membrane that is the petal.
In 2-4, the light comes through the petal and actually creates a tiny soft box of light that helps to illuminate the yellow, lower part of the flower. Careful focus at f/8 makes sure that the central part of the flower is sharp, and the softness at the top actually helps it to appear more ghostly and ethereal.
The exposure of 1/160 second at f/8 at ISO 125 with a Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens allows for a motion stopping shutter speed needed because of the breeze. The backlight in this scene really makes this flower glow.
Using soft, overcast light can help the flowers look layered against each other, without the shadows of the different flowers getting in the way. Make sure when shooting flowers in an overcast situation that the white balance is set to cloudy or shady to keep the color and saturation of the flower looking correct.
Setting the compensation to overexpose also keeps the flowers from looking dreary and dark. A meter reading done with the center-weighted meter keeps the flowers bright and makes sure that background tones don’t affect the exposure.
When shooting other fauna, it really looks fantastic when backlit. The light comes through the thinness of the leaves and just appears to glow. Catching some of the dew still on the leaves is always a bonus, but water drops can be augmented by a squirt from a spray bottle if you feel that the photo needs that extra dimension.
Getting the light behind the leaf as in 2-5 probably means shooting very early or very late in the day as that is when the light can best come through at such an angle. As it gets later in the day, shooting through the leaves entails getting underneath the leaves, which is sometimes a challenge.
Since shooting light coming through something that is green and yellow will be green and yellow, maintaining your white balance at daylight may give you the most accurate color. Exposure set at 1/180 second at f/9 at ISO 200.
Finding flowers with just a tiny bit of direct light, such as on a hazy morning, is a great time to capture the natural color and drama. Attempting to use more selective focus to place the emphasis on one particular part of the flower is easy with the lack of depth of field when using close focus.
Using Your Macro Mode
If you simply have a macro mode or close-focus capability on your lens, getting very close may not be an option, but that shouldn’t stop you from exploring the world of macro type images.
Using the close focus ability of most zoom lenses should yield great results, but keep in mind some of the things discussed earlier. The depth of field is still diminished due to when the lens is focused to its closest setting, and the propensity for camera shake is greater when focused so close.
Images that challenge the viewer with an abstract or unusual viewpoint are exciting. Having people look at a photo saying, “what is that?” will inevitably be followed with a “how did you do that?” Finding great images in those details is easy – especially when you think about design principles and keep your macro rules of thumb in mind.
Finding simple lines and textures by getting close is important, but even more, make sure that the light accentuates those things. This often means having the subject lit from behind.
In 2-6, the backlight not only makes the thin edges and spikes of the plant glow. It also helps create a sense of layers, and the different tones of the leaves all pull together to unify the texture, line, and light of the image.
It was critical to have the one sharp spine in focus with an exposure of 1/40 second at f/2.8 at ISO 200 when shooting underneath the aloe.
When you are indoors with tungsten spotlights, the light often creates hard reflections and highlights in the scene. Making sure that the white balance is set to tungsten to combat too much of a warm cast often helps. Glass and other reflective objects are difficult work with because of those bright reflections.
When subjects are backlit and have no inherent translucence, the only way to fill in the shadows is to bring in a reflector. A small white collapsible reflector does wonders in just adding a bit of color and lightness to the shadow side of the subject, as in 2-7.
In this case the backlight is so strong, there is still a loss of detail in the rim light of the shell, but that is mostly because the shell is reflecting the light from the window. This reflection is every bit as bright at the source of the light.
A 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens is used to create the image of the shell. The exposure is set at 1/125 second at f/5.6 at ISO 400, with the white balance set to daylight.
Advantages of Macro on a Compact Camera
The macro mode on a compact digital camera is usually selected by pressing the button with the flower on it, although each camera is different. In many cases, this allows the camera to focus very close to the subject, but the tradeoff is that the lens is usually only able to do its macro setting when the lens is set to wide angle.
This wide-angle macro gives an entirely different feel to the look of the macro photos. Using a telephoto lens to do macro photography takes the tiniest slice of the scene, while the look when using a wide macro lens gives a greater perspective change than a true macro photograph, because you see so much of the scene.
Full sun in the middle of the day is generally best avoided, but because of the brilliant white of the helmet against the blue in 2-8, this abstract takes one step back to figure out what this really is.
The lesson here is that any light can create interesting photographs, so shoot anytime of day or night, because you never know when you might shoot a real winner. Moving in close to the white helmet really helps with creating the abstraction as the wide angle forces the perspective of the scene.
The only real adjustments made to this scene were setting the white balance to shady, preventing the scene from going too blue, and setting the exposure compensation to –1/3, keeping the white from blowing out. 1/1000 second at f/5.6 at ISO 100.
Using the advantage of the wide-angle macro makes the creation of repetition easier, because you can get more into the image. For example, sitting in a car may not be the best place to find good light, but thinking about it, windows all around are letting in natural light, and with the roof in place there is a natural bit of shade.
In 2-9, the soft open shade gives a perfect exposure to the map, and the windows create very bright highlights on the shiny binding rings. In fact, the contrast of those rings is the thing that creates the most interest and texture in the image.
Shooting in black and white helps to increase the contrast and the drama of the scene. The exposure here was set to 1/200 second at f/2.8 at ISO 400.
Getting so close is definitely appealing, and being able to see the layers of paper inside the holes helps to show the definition in the photograph.
One of the other great advantages of the compact digital camera is the ability to not have the camera to your face to be able to see what the lens sees. With the live view LCD on compact digital cameras, the traditional viewfinder on those cameras is virtually obsolete, and getting extreme angles is far easier.
This further allows the creativity of the photographer to flourish by working with unusual perspective and angles. Getting extremely low to a subject is nearly impossible with a digital SLR because it would mean getting your chest and chin right up to the subject, and, in many cases, that would be virtually impossible.
The fluorescent light of a subway stop creates amazing reflections on the metal work of the benches. The shapes of the holes reflect the light on the lip of each and every hole, making for very interesting pattern and shape in 2-10. Additionally, the bright reflection and the dark of the inside rim of the hole make for really interesting contrast.
The texture of the steel is accentuated with the subject so close to the camera. The exposure was 1/40 second at f/2.8 at ISO 400. The white balance was incorrectly set in camera, but the auto color correction in Photoshop Elements nailed it.
When the light source is tungsten, the warmth of the light almost always comes through. In 2-10, the hard, cold fluorescents help to “make” the photo because that light source creates those highlights and shadows. In contrast, the warmth of the subject in 2-11 is perfectly matched with the light source.
This photo was taken with an exposure of 1/30 second at f/2.8 at ISO 200. The exposure compensation was set to –1 to keep the colors very dark and saturated.
The reflections seen come from the tiniest strands of fabric, which give the texture a slight sheen. Being able to get so close to the fabric helps to create a better sense of just what this fabric is all about. The viewer can feel this yarn and the texture that is woven into it.
The wide-angle view of the compact digital camera’s macro forces the perspective and proportion of the shot. For example, in 2-12, when using some daylight as the main light of the scene, it was not until the light comes across the bridge of the cat’s nose that it is soft enough to work.
The light hitting the hidden side of the scene would be far too bright and harsh. The image is really all about getting so close to the subject and creating a photograph that is really unimaginable. Getting this close to the subject, but getting more than the tiny sliver that most macro lenses give you, opens up a new world when using compact digital cameras.
Using a wide angle as a macro changes all the rules because of the strange proportions created. Take advantage of the tools that you have, because they can help any photographer to make exciting and different images.
Using the macro mode with the camera at its widest setting, you can get tremendously close to the subject. Exposure is set at 1/1000 second at f/2.8 at ISO 200.
Taking Perfect Product Photos
Whether you are shooting products for online auctions, a church fundraiser, or a professional catalog, the biggest goal is usually to focus on the product with minimal distractions. This does not necessarily mean that the subject has to be photographed in front of a white or black background, but doing so puts all the emphasis on the subject and eliminates issues like colors clashing.
When you don’t have access to an elaborate studio full of lighting equipment and backgrounds, you have many ways to shoot great product shots right in your own home. The biggest thing to think about is to keep it simple. Simple backgrounds, simple layout, and simple lighting are going to give the best results.
When trying to just get a quick shot, you can just organize your items on a plain background like a table or counter top and aim your camera-mounted strobe at the ceiling to get nice even bounced light. Use your zoom lens to crop as many extraneous details from the shot as possible.
You don’t have to use a strobe to create simple product shots. Light tents and domes are very flexible, and you can even use household lamps, clip lamps, or halogen work lamps to illuminate the subjects inside of these simple devices.
In 2-13 the ball is lit with a lamp on either side of a light tent. If you are going to use the light tent with tungsten or halogen bulbs, be sure to select your white balance correctly. If there is no overwhelming color to the scene, use auto white balance.
Remember to select the proper white balance whenever you change the light source for the light tent. This image was exposed at 1/25 sec, at f/5.6, and used the AWB to correct for the warmth of the light.
For a minimal amount of money, you can get what is commonly called a light tent. These are collapsible nylon domes into which you can put your small products. They are made of thin translucent material that allows the light to come in diffused, leading to photos with minimal shadows no matter where the light comes from as the light bounces all around the tent.
Concluding Challenge: Use Light to Bring Common Objects to Life
Find an object around your house that has the potential to become a special image with the right light. Photograph a house plant that has great shape and different colors of green. With sun coming through the window and striking the leaves or stalk, it could make a wonderful photograph.
You might have an old bicycle in your garage that, if propped up against a tree or a brick wall, would be a great subject and exude all kinds of personality in a photo. You could direct the light to reflect off the chrome of the bike or show shadows coming off the bike. It’s up to you.
I take a lot of still-life photographs. As you develop your eye, you’ll start to find interesting features in everyday objects. In 2-14, the image was taken with a compact digital set to macro in the wide angle setting. The interest of the light mostly comes from the reflection off of the aluminum that originates from a window in the office.
I didn’t want to use the flash as I thought it would be too bright for the rest of the scene, so I used ISO 200 to get a little faster shutter speed in the darkness of my office and used an exposure compensation of –1 to make the black very black and the silver very muted. The lens is literally just an inch or two from the subject. The exposure here is set to 1/60 second at f/2.8.
Thanks for Reading!
I hope you enjoyed reading this article and looking through these images. Macro photography can be great fun, whether you’re going for an abstract close-up or a wide angle composition. Enjoy experimenting, and feel free to share any of your own macro or still life images in the comments!
- Advanced Macro and Still Life Photography: Part 1
- Perfect Photography Technique for People & Portraits: Part 1
- Ligh Painting Guide by Christopher Hibbert
- The Ultimate Guide to Working with Interior Light: Part 2
- The Ultimate Guide to Working with Interior Light: Part 1