Macro photography is a popular, albeit outlying and smaller genre of the medium. However, it is rich in useful and transferable skills that mean it's an important discipline, valuable to all photographers.
I didn't start photography to shoot beautiful women, cars, or landscapes. I started photography because I was captivated by a few macro photographers' work on a motoring forum known as Pistonheads. There was a thread where a handful of photographers showed their images of insects and even before I owned a camera, I would check every new post. Before long, I was trying to create my own with a heavy obsession and it was the gateway drug that lead me to a full-time addiction to photography, and then a career.
What I never expected is that the years I had spent doing macro photography of insects would lead to any sort of paid work, let alone the primary focus of my career. But, it did. Anyone who is familiar with what I do knows I shoot a lot of commercial product photography, with a specialty in watches. I do, however, also shoot portraiture for magazines and other purposes and I'm certain that the skill set I developed learning macro photography has served me very well, not only in commercial product photography, but in all areas. Here are 10 reasons why I believe all photographers would benefit from learning to shoot macro.
I'm not sure there is any type of photography that requires more patience than wildlife. Photographing insects shares all of the same frustrations and limitations that come with being at the mercy of things you cannot control, just with a few more frustrations. The patience you need to capture the perfect shot of an insect can range from parent with irritable child, through to Tibetan monk. Here's an example:
Below is a beefly (Bombyliidae) in flight. It is not actually a bee, but a fly, and four years ago I had one of these unusual creatures near my house. They move erratically like flies do, but they also hover, and so I wanted to try and capture it in flight. It took over 1,000 missed shots, but I finally got what I presume is one of only a handful of in-flight beefly shots in existence, particularly this close up. The only issue was, it took two hours straight to get this shot in my garden, which is overlooked by at least five other houses, and there's zero chance those neighbors could see a beefly from any of their vantage points. All they saw was a 20-something guy, in shorts and shirtless, with a massive camera and flash guns, crouched and waddling around a small patch of lawn for hours, stopping occasionally to fire the flashes at, for all intents and purposes, nothing.
2. Greater Understanding of Light
Lighting macro photography is a steep learning curve. When your proverbial toe first dips in the pool, you quickly realize that your lights need to pack quite the punch to correctly expose the scene. Also, unless you're in direct and harsh sunlight, available light might as well not be there. The closer you go, the more blindingly bright you have to have your flashes or strobes and the quicker that light falls away. If you want to shoot a scene which is lit all the way through like you might see on National Geographic, you're going to have to know exactly how to light that and it isn't easy. I would often use an on camera flash, a reflector, and a continuous LED light source to make sure as little as possible is pitch black.
3. Nailing Focus
We have all had the heartache of slightly missing the perfect focus on a shot with narrow depth of field. The momentary internal debate over whether you could localize some intense sharpening to within an inch of its life and pass it off as in focus, before moving on. It's frustrating, but most of the time you have to take the blame entirely on your shoulders. With macro photography, that sliver of focus is tiny even with a narrower aperture, and your subject is usually uninterested in staying still. You learn to develop techniques for nailing the focus on the move, not relying on autofocus incase it starts hunting, and having this spidey-sense for when you got it just right, and sadly, when you didn't. Seldom do I return to my computer, open Lightroom, and realize I actually missed the shot I thought I got.
4. Shooting in Manual
I'll be honest here: I'm not sure if this is just me, but I shoot almost exclusively in manual these days, whether it be of watches, wildlife, or celebrities. I would almost always shoot in aperture priority, other than with macro some years back. The problem with macro photography is that your camera is pretty stupid to begin with, and very close-up photography accentuates that fact tenfold. Your understanding of how much light you need and what shutter speed will keep everything sharp needs to be better than you camera's ideas on the subject, and so you learn — by necessity really — how to control all components of the exposure triangle yourself.
5. Shooting on an Out-Breath
When I first started with macro photography, I really struggled to hit focus very often on moving targets. I would hold my breath when I started shooting to stop my inhaling and exhaling from affecting my accuracy and causing any shake on the camera; it just made sense. However, a marksman friend of mine gave me advice based on what he used for shooting a rifle, and it helped no end. Small caveat: I'm from England, I've never fired a gun, I don't own a gun, I don't know anything about firing guns — please don't barrage me with corrections on being a marksman. The technique my friend told me is that he was taught, when firing his rifle, he should take a few breaths to relax, then exhale fully and pause his breathing momentarily when fully exhaled while he takes the shot. This would ensure the steadiest of hands and so I gave it a go. The difference was more than noticeable and I now use this when photographing macro, narrow depth of field, or with a zoom lens.
6. Not "Chimping"
For the uninitiated, "chimping" is the practice of looking down at your camera's screen regularly and potentially missing some of the action. It doesn't matter if you've just picked up a camera for the first time, or you're a seasoned veteran, if you think you just got a great shot, you have a look. Macro, as well as most wildlife photography, is more punishing than most for missing some action. Get your settings right, and then shoot for as long as there is reason and opportunity to do so. Otherwise, you might just miss a magical and intimate moment like this:
7. Attention to Detail
The original allure to macro photography for me, was the detail I was missing. These tiny insects I'd swat out of my way were actually intricate masterpieces; I couldn't believe it. Once I was regularly capturing this detail, I gained a new insight in to attention to detail: taking in your surroundings. I had this little mantra with macro where I would say "if I can't find anything to photograph, I'm not looking closely enough" and 99 times out of 100, I'd be right. Macro photography taught me to not only scrutinize every detail of my subject for things to accentuate, or to siphon focus away from, but also every detail of my surroundings too.
8. Not Disturbing the Scene
This has to be one of the more profound impacts on the way I photograph anything, which is quite unexpected. When you're shooting tiny, skittish insects, you have to move silently, slowly, and with absolute precision. On the face of it, that doesn't seem much of a transferable skill unless you're an unwanted voyeur or stalker, but it is useful. An increased level of self-awareness leads to being markedly less clumsy, and more in control during a shoot.
When you're stripped of a lot of control over what you're shooting, where you're shooting, and how you're shooting, you have to overcome, improvise, and adapt (cheers Mr. Grylls). Suddenly, everything can be of use; from a shiny leaf as a reflector, a gap as a frame, to the gentle flapping of wings as a makeshift backdrop. Being confident in utilizing everything at your disposal is always a skill worth having.
10. Shooting With Primes
With proper macro photography, you're invariably shooting with prime lenses. Too often we have zoom lenses glued to the front of our cameras and make use of their reach so we don't have to move to get or frame a shot. That's simply not possible with macro and as a result, you find yourself going up, down, left, and right constantly to get the right angle. This sort of movement is fantastic for countering a boring shoot or when your creativity is grinding to a halt.
TL;DR / In Closing
Macro photography is a difficult sub-genre of our beloved discipline which requires a comprehensive understanding of not only how your camera works, but how light plays its role too. To be an effective macro photographer you need a level of comfort with your equipment that is founded on thorough experience and a balance but diverse skill set; a skill set that is directly transferable to other areas of photography.
Do you ever shoot macro? Although most of these images are years old, I still love to see macro imagery and I'll be watching the comments!