Geraint Radford explains how he uses macro photography to tell the hidden stories that are all around us
All images by Geraint Radford
The natural world is simply amazing. Each season brings with it different subjects and photographic opportunities that anyone can explore.
To me there is nothing quite like delving into the macro world. I love photographing insects in their natural environments, paying close attention to how they live their lives and attempting to capture moments in photography that tell a story.
Whatever your budget may be, there are many accessories and lenses available for getting into macro photography. For DSLR owners, I would recommend using a dedicated macro lens. Having the ability to focus at 1:1 magnification right the way through to infinity really does make life much easier when photographing insects. It is worth bearing in mind that the longer the focal length of the macro lens, the further away you can be from the subject while photographing at 1:1 magnification.
Currently I use a full-frame Nikon DSLR and a Sigma 105mm OS Macro lens for a lot of my macro work. My shooting style is very active and I spend a lot of time exploring, meaning I don’t usually use a tripod. Setting it up for each image takes time, and by then the moment may have gone. However, you may find that a tripod is better suited to your shooting style, so it is worth experimenting.
As with all forms of photography, timing and composition are very important. I often use the rule of thirds as a guide for balancing my images. Remember, there are no set rules for photography and it really comes down to whether an image works or not.
Once you have found a subject, take your time and look closely at the scene. Think about angles, perspective and direction of light – any subtle variations of these elements can greatly affect your picture.
Having said that, nature is often spontaneous. While this can present a challenge for photographers, it also offers us the opportunity to capture truly unique moments.
During the summer months and early autumn, woodlands are a great place for photography. On one occasion, I had been contentedly photographing various species of fungi when a soldier beetle made a surprise appearance.
While my initial instinct was to fill the frame with the insect, sometimes a wider view can dramatically enhance the story within the image. Allowing us to see the bigger picture of a small world.
Giving the image some distance allows the viewer’s imagination to build a tale around the life of this tiny soldier beetle, who appears to be contemplating its journey through the landscape. Lying on the ground at eye level shows the world from the perspective of the subject – those mushrooms, insignificant in size to us, look like mountains from the viewpoint of a beetle.
An aperture of f/5.6 provided a nicely diffused background, removing any distracting elements from the image while maintaining an adequate shutter speed to stop any movement. Soft backlight helped to create an otherworldly atmosphere.
Be mindful when using backlighting, as the camera will expose for the brightest sections of the image. You may need to utilise exposure compensation to ensure proper lighting on your subject.
Photographing common species is a great way to hone your skills
Ants, for instance, are often overlooked as photographic subjects, but they are wonderful creatures to observe.
Here we see a world with one generation taking care of the next. The story takes place upon a single leaf.
Directing the lens straight down onto the subject gives the illusion that we are photographing from the air. Choosing a small aperture such as f/18 increases depth of field so that most (if not all) of the image is in focus. When using natural light, a higher ISO level will be required to make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the action.
Slugs are incredibly fun to photograph and much like ants, they are abundant and easy to find. During a rain shower one day, I found shelter under a tree, where I espied this carefree slug out in its element, embracing the rain while I hid like a coward.
Taking pictures in the rain can be both challenging and highly rewarding. A decent rain cover for your camera and lens will help to keep everything dry, but be careful to avoid any potential mishaps and insurance claims.
A shutter speed of around 1/60sec will show the movement of the raindrops as they fall. The subject will remain sharp if it does not move too quickly. Selecting an aperture of around f/2.8 isolates the subject beautifully, rendering the background completely out of focus.
In what looks like a scene from Mission Impossible, some species of slug will use their slime as a means of descending to the ground. Here, composing the photograph in portrait format gave the slug space to travel within the frame.
Despite slugs being notoriously slow-moving, if you see this behaviour you will need a fast shutter speed of at least 1/250 to freeze the movement. Selecting a wide aperture can help you keep your ISO levels low – accept that you may need to sacrifice some depth of field to get the shot.
Insects are far less active during the early mornings and evenings because ambient temperatures are much cooler. Not only does this help us get closer to our subjects, who will be less inclined to pull a vanishing act, it also means that the quality of light will be favourable. The resulting images will be worth the lack of sleep!
Being on location while insects are naturally cold enables us to capture images without resorting to trapping or refrigerating them – an act I actively discourage, as these are very delicate creatures and the risk of damaging one for the sake of a photograph is simply not worth it.
(A note for the arachnophobes – there are spiders below)
When you’re exploring, it can be far more productive to work in a small area for longer periods of time, rather than covering a lot of ground without really looking. I almost didn’t notice this spider as it was blending in to its surroundings.
The setting sun and warm tones are perfect for creating a silhouette. Dialling in a negative value of exposure compensation throws the mid tones and shadows into under exposure. In this case, I didn’t opt for a full silhouette because I wanted to show the translucency of the spider’s legs.
During the summer months, damselflies can be found around rivers, ponds and lakes. They often perch on tall grass and hide amongst foliage. With perhaps some of the most beautiful wings and colours I have seen, they are one of my favourite subjects to photograph.
The strength insects display never fails to surprise me; despite having enough weight to bend the stem of the grass, this damselfly is supporting itself effortlessly.
Bright and sunny days are typically not very good for macro photography so look for subjects in areas of shade as this will offer nice diffused lighting. Pay close attention to the backgrounds to make sure they are free from clutter and distracting highlights.
Sometimes to tell the story of a mini beast, we need to get a little closer than our 1:1 macro lenses will allow. To do this we must be a little creative with our choice of equipment.
This heather fly certainly shows a lot of character. The visual impact of the image relies upon the eye damage, which would have been lost in a wider composition. To achieve this high-level magnification with my Nikon camera, I reverse-mounted a 24mm prime lens to a set of extension tubes.
This kind of setup greatly reduces both light and depth of field, to the point where they are almost non- existent. Fortunately, this can be remedied with flash and focus stacking techniques. This image is a focus stack of around five frames shot with an aperture of f/8. Lighting is provided by an external flashgun which is mounted to a flash bracket.
While this is a very technical form of photography, and requires a little practice to get used to, it is extremely rewarding to see these creatures in such high detail.
If you decide to try this method, it is wise to practice with an inanimate object first. The working distance is usually just a few inches, and you may end up with a squished bug on your rear element.
(Another polite warning for the arachnophobes – more spiders incoming.)
In your back garden
The garden can be a wonderful place to find macro subjects, and the pleasant convenience of having your house (and kettle) nearby cannot be understated!
After some rain, the macro world changes dramatically. When I ventured into my garden between rain showers I found this tiny spider drinking water from a raindrop. Had this photograph been captured a few minutes earlier, the visual impact would not have been quite the same.
I must give thanks to this spider for remaining still for a focus stack of nine images.
Go and explore!
Photographic skills will continue to develop for as long as we are taking pictures. Technology advances rapidly and new doors are constantly being opened.
I find it amazing that the smallest of creatures can now be printed and displayed at many times their actual size and the images are shared around the world in an instant. Nature is there for everyone to enjoy, and no matter what level of expertise we have as photographers or the equipment we have available to us, it is the enjoyment of the process and the care for the subjects that must come first.
So head out into the woods, lakes, rivers, and your garden, because you never know what you may see.
About the Author
Geraint Radford is an animal fanatic, wildlife photographer and photo tutor based in South Wales. His macro photography work was highly commended in 2016 Outdoor Photographer of The Year competition. Find him on Instagram @geraintradfordphotos and www.bewilder-photography.com.