To this day I think my biggest ‘ah ha’ moment in regards to learning the craft came about 5 days into a 3 week stint of using nothing but my 105mm prime lens to shoot with. Still to this day, it’s my favorite lens to shoot with. During the 3 weeks when I used nothing but the 105, and a ‘composition is important’ light bulb turned on in my head.
I’d never used a prime before. I always had some type of zoom lens. If something was too far I could flick the little switch and voila, the subject zoomed in closer for me. If something was too close, flick the switch the other way and voila it zoomed out farther. Easy peasy — no mess, no fuss. Then came this awesome yet frustrating ‘prime’ lens. Where’s the zoom? What do you mean some lenses can’t zoom? That’s preposterous. When I got it I was looking for a macro lens because I was becoming increasingly frustrated with not being able to get a really close up shot of things. I surfed the net for about 20 minutes, became familiar with what macro lenses Nikon sold and headed down to the store to pick one up. I had no idea I couldn’t zoom, I just knew that I could get really really really close to stuff now in the 1:1 range. This was going to be sweet. I brought it home, tore open the box, mounted it on the camera and off to the backyard I went. No reading the manual, no idea what the two buttons on the side of the lens meant. It was heavy and it was supposed to do what I wanted. Good enough for me. I put the view finder to my eye and closed in on a rose went to zoom in closer and nothing. Okay, WTF! I was a good six feet away from the rose and dialed it into focus, but it wasn’t closer. I didn’t see any of the amazing macro details, that they showed on the website.
This sucked for about 2 minutes, when dumb luck showed me the way home. I was in a deep state of depression, roaming around the backyard, staring at this lens I just bought, and wondering what the I ‘d just done. Trying to make the best of the situation, I once again focused on the rose — just for kicks got about six inches away and dialed in the focus. BINGO!!!! WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER!!!!. There there was the macro details I was hoping to get. I could actually see the detail of the pollen on the stamin. WOOT!!!! My deep depression warp drived into elation in a matter of micro seconds. I was in heaven.
What I learned to do during those three weeks was to compose more thoughtfully. Mindful composition, if you will. By having to physically move my body to get the shot I wanted, I became more aware of how composition plays such an important role in an image. Now it could be argued this happens with non-prime lenses as well, and yes I would agree, but I think it takes a more prominent role when you are using a prime as opposed to a zoom. Mindful composition is something everyone should learn how to do. With digital photography this becomes relatively easy to do. You can take 20-30 shots of the same thing from different angles and see what works the most for you. Likewise, the Rule of Thirds is something we should all learn. You don’t always have to follow it of course, but it is something you should be familiar with as it will, at the very least, give you a foundation upon which to build your composition.
What I love about macro photography is that it opened up a bigger world for me. I can walk the whole length of the vine covered fence in my backyard two or three times and see things I missed on the way. I notice the ant trails and where they go. I notice the way the sun hits the leaves at a certain angle that allows me to see their veins. When I have my 105mm on, my brain automatically switches into macro mode. I start to look closer at things. Flowers, spiderwebs, insects, leaves, you name it, my mind just somehow knows that that’s what I need to find. I don’t have that with any other lens. I don’t slap on my 10-20 and look for crazy far out angles automatically. I don’t throw on the telephoto and rent a hotel room to spy on the people in the next building over. There’s just something about the 105mm that flips a switch in my head and I see things differently. Do you have a lens that does that for you?
One of my biggest challenges was learning to still tell a story with a macro shot. If you get too abstract with something, it loses some of it’s ‘wow’ factor. Zooming in on the eye of a fly is, in and of itself, very cool, but going in too much you lose some of the context of what the shot is about. Zooming out too much you lose the detail you need. Finding that happy medium is where it’s at. This flows into all areas of photography not just macro. Composing your images to tell the best story they can, it what’s it all about.
Without a tripod, breathing becomes paramount in getting a nicely focused macro shot. Most people use a tripod when doing macros as even the slightest movement can be the difference between a great shot and just an OK shot. If you don’t happen to use a tripod, learning to control your breathing is a must have skill to have. Like a sniper who takes the shot in between breathes, a macro photographer without a tripod needs to learn the same skill. If you are inhaling or exhaling most likely your moving. Practice, practice, practice. Practice holding the camera as still as possible and take a shot, do it again, do it again. Learn what parts of your body movesw hen you breathe. Learn to anticipate your own habits and compensate for them and/or correct them to get that great shot. Do you sigh heavily when you don’t get the shot and take the camera away from your face? Do you know your camera well enough to changes settings without having to move the viewfinder from your eye? Do you look at every single shot you take in the preview screen before shooting again or do you just keep shooting while adjusting settings on the fly based on lighting and weather conditions. Speaking of weather conditions. — nothing will kill a macro shot more than the wind. Even the slightest breeze at the right time can have you pulling your hair in frustration. That’s all part of mindful composition. Mindful composition isn’t just about how you are framing your shot, it’s also about being aware of what’s going on around you.
Are there clouds in the sky? Will they move in the next 5 minutes to block out your awesome lighting you got going on right now? Will the wind pick up when you least expect it? Will that semi five miles down the road, blare it’s horn at you as you line up your shot and scare the beejeezus out of you? Open up your other four senses when shooting, don’t rely on just your sight, listen to what’s around you, smell what’s around you, touch what’s right next to you and yeah even taste.
Here’s a couple ways you can open up your other senses that may help you compose a great image.
- Go outside with your camera and close your eyes and just listen. Find a sound that intrigues you. Open your eyes go to that sound and see if you can visual compose an image that relates to what you heard.
- Go outside again with your camera and close your eyes, but this time concentrate on what you smell. Where is it coming from? Can you identify it just by smell? Go find it and see if you can visually capture that smell. Can you visually capture the sweet smell of jasmine at dusk?
- Go find an appealing texture. Be it an old piece of leather, a cobble stone street, the bark of a tree and run your finger tips over it. Feel all the little ridges or it’s smoothness. Can you visually capture the essence of what that texture felt like? try it
- Your breakfast or lunch or dinner or snack time etc….. Can your skills of lighting and composition capture the taste of your food? Can you visually give me the sweetness of a fresh picked strawberry or the tangy sensation of a dill pickle?
It’s all about being aware of your surroundings and finding the best way to compose your image in such a way that whatever the story is behind the image just jumps out at the viewer and that takes practice, practice and even more practice. There are no film developing costs with a digital camera — all it requires is your time. If you feel like your images lack something be it good composition, nice lighting, exposure errors, etc….then set aside time throughout the week to just work on that area. Do one thing at a time, and work with what you have. All the professional lighting setups in the world will not help you if you can’t compose an image. Just work at it. Be mindful and your images will start coming to life.