I love photographing poppies. Just sayin’…..
What is macro photography?
The generally accepted definition of a macro image is one in which the subject is at least as large on the sensor as it is in reality. When we photograph an expansive landscape, we’re cramming the entire scene (with the help of a carefully crafted lens) onto a 24mm x 36mm sensor (that’s 35mm full frame—digital cameras with “cropped” sensors have even less real estate to work with; medium format has more). But imagine your landscape includes a flower with a ladybug: As you zoom or move closer to the flower, everything gets larger as the amount of the scene you capture gets smaller. Pretty soon the flower occupies most of the frame, but it’s still not true macro. Not until the ladybug occupies the same amount of space on the sensor as it does on the flower do you have a true macro image.
A lens that doesn’t focus close enough to allow a 1:1 subject:sensor relationship is not a true macro. In fact, many camera manufactures will (deceptively) label a lens’s (or point-and-shoot camera’s) closest focus point as “Macro,” when what they really mean is just plain “close focus.” This blurring of the definition causes the macro label to be applied to many close focus images and creates confusion.
Macro in spirit
So, by the generally accepted definition, this poppy scene doesn’t qualify as “macro,” not even close. But in my mind it’s macro in spirit because when I photograph poppies I feel an exceptionally intimate relationship with my immediate surroundings. My goal in these pseudo-macro images is make you look closer than you might have had you been there, and to hold you entirely in the frame by eliminating any hint of the outside world from my composition.
An ocean of gold
In this case I was enjoying a hillside carpeted with poppies and a small sprinkling of other wildflowers. Below me was an steep, poppy-covered slope that dropped out of sight over a cliff that dropped onto the rocks of the Merced River’s south fork. Above me the poppies saturated the hillside for several hundred feet, eventually disappearing into the blue sky above the oak- and shrub-lined crest.
From my vantage point I felt submerged in an ocean of gold, but I knew that capturing the entirety of the scene with a camera was impossible. Instead, I dialed my 70-200 lens to 160mm to limit the boundaries of my frame and create the illusion of an infinite expanse of poppies. Selecting a single prominent poppy about eight feet away as the scene’s focal point, I experimented with a range of f-stops, seeking a depth of field wide enough to render a sharp strip of poppies and shallow enough to blur the closest foreground and most distant background flowers into smears of color. The large, bright LCD on my new 5D Mark III enabled me to evaluate each capture closely despite the full sunlight (something that would have been impossible on my 1Ds Mark III).
At the f-stop I ended up settling on, f8, the depth of field was only about four inches, giving me very little margin for error. Here again my new LCD saved the day–I switched to live-view mode, selected the poppy, and magnified 10x. A breeze that shifted from soft, to stiff, to (occasionally) calm required patience and forced me to bump to ISO 400 and click several frames to ensure that I had at least one frame with the poppy sharp. And processing this image was interesting–as often happens with sunlit poppies, the color was so brilliant that I needed to desaturate to achieve something credible.
One more thing
Macro/close photography magnifies everything. Not only is there virtually no margin for depth of field and focus-point error, frequent tight, awkward positions seem to expand exponentially all the standard frustrations of using a tripod. But the extremely narrow margin of error is exactly why I can’t imagine attempting macro work without a tripod.
I’m a tripod evangelist because I believe that an image is not simply a click, it’s a process: compose, expose, click, evaluate, refine, repeat. Refining and repeating a standard landscape without a tripod is difficult enough; with macro the minuscule tolerances make it nearly impossible.
Photographing this scene I clicked fifteen frames, each a slight variation (improvement) of the previous. For my initial composition I was contorted, cramping, nearly flat on the ground, my tripod legs awkwardly splayed. But once I had the starting composition I stood and stretched, then found a more comfortable position (on my knees) that gave me a clear view of my LCD. I could identify the tweaks for the next frame at my own pace, comfortable in the knowledge that my previous composition was waiting for me right there on the top of my tripod.