Macro magic

Rose Grape (Medinilla), Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is photographer heaven. Meandering its verdant paths through a breathtaking assortment of tropical plants, a photographer could take an hour to move ten feet. Eventually the trails make their way all the way down to the crashing surf of Onemea Bay. And if that isn’t enough to occupy you, just as you think you’re ready to exit, you stumble upon a multi-tiered waterfall that could occupy a photographer for hours by itself. I gave each of my recent workshop groups four hours to explore the garden’s immaculate trails, but I don’t think anyone felt they came close to tapping the potential there.

The first group visited the garden in rain that ranged from gentle mist to tropical downpour. Rain softens the light and adds glistening drops to every surface–if you’re prepared, there are no better conditions for macro photography. Because Hawaii’s rain is warm and (usually) vertical, an umbrella is sufficient to keep the camera and lens dry. And a person can only get so wet–you quickly reach a point where you won’t get any wetter, no matter how long you stay out. My approach to photographing in Hawaiian rain is to wear at little as possible (no cotton!)–in this case I wore a swimsuit, running tank-top, and flip-flops; my camera (on a tripod) sported a plastic garbage bag that came off only when it was time to shoot. An umbrella sheltered the camera and lens while I composed and clicked.

One of the things I love most about macro photography is the way the intimate, invisible world suddenly snaps into focus. This world is always present–all you need to do is look. And unlike many broad landscape images, no two macro images ever seem the same.

Not only is the macro world magnified, so are changes in each composition’s creative components: The relationship between objects changes dramatically with any repositioning of the lens; tiny depth of field changes significantly alter the result; the smallest miss in focus point can ruin an otherwise beautiful image; and even minuscule motion can blur a delicate line into a distracting smudge.

For these reasons, I can’t imagine attempting serious macro photography without a tripod. I start with a composition, exposure setting, focus point, and DOF that I think will work, then stand back and carefully scrutinize the result in my camera’s LCD. It’s a rare image that I don’t improve following this initial review. My changes can range from a different f-stop to change the DOF, to a complete  repositioning of the lens to alter a foreground/background relationship. Regardless, with my camera on a tripod, I can take my time identifying problems and compositional variations, comfortable in the knowledge that the image I’m reviewing is still sitting right there in my viewfinder until I’m ready to make my adjustments.

In this image, captured in a light rain, I used an extension tube on my macro lens to get as close as possible to these colorful medinilla berries. My focus point was the dangling water droplet. Capturing the scene’s miniature reflection in the drop required perfect focus, so I used my camera’s live-view, magnified ten times, to ensure precision. I clicked several frames until I got the composition just right, then several more for at different f-stops for DOF variety. Reviewing the choices on my large display at home, I decided that the wide-open, f2.8, image gave me a smooth background that allowed the berries to stand out, and was pleased to see that I had indeed nailed my focus point (thank you, live-view).

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