Shooting small: I love it, and here’s why
I like to photograph small things. I’ve been doing that since 1966. I’d always had a juvenile interest in photography. I learned about it, and especially the darkroom aspect of black and white, by working my way through college as the darkroom technician for the geology department (yep, I was a rocks-for-jocks major). As part of that job, I had to learn to photograph rock and mineral samples for professors. Many were small fragments (the rocks, not the profs).
I first used a Minolta SR1-s bought mail order from Japan and some rather dicey extension tubes attached to a 55mm lens. Exposure was always bracketed guesswork. Extension tubes required adding exposure time. After a while, I learned to be consistent in lighting setups so I could nail the exposure more often.
A few years later, I was hired to shoot nails, nuts, bolts, tacks, and screws for catalogues. I made enough money to buy a Hasselblad. (Be still my beating heart). I attached three extension rings to a bellows to a 150mm lens. That’s nearly 12 inches of extension. I needed a powerful light source to deal with the exposure compensation. And I hated strobes. So I used flashbulbs — big ones — as large as 100-watt light bulbs (pictured at left).
I once shot a macro of a dandelion this way. The blast heat from the flashbulb blew apart the seedpods milliseconds after the image was captured. That … was fun. Later in life, I shot macro with a 4×5 view camera. Lovely results, but the setups were murder, and the weight of the damn thing was even more murderous.
As usual, I digress. Mea culpa. Fast forward, please, to my elder statesman years.
I bought a Canon and a magical Canon 100mm macro lens. (Don’t buy shorter; a shooter needs a little stand-off distance so the lens doesn’t cast a shadow on the subject.) But they gathered dust for a while. Then I saw this short TED talk by Matt Cutts: “Try something new for 30 days.” It reinvigorated my desire to shoot. It reminded me of the satisfaction I once gleaned from having a camera in my hands and using it.
Last summer I shot every day for 30 days. Much of what I’ve posted at Lens Mafia comes from that time. In the digital era, shooting macro is a helluva lot easier than in my old Minolta days. The Canon calculates precise exposure. One headache gone. It autofocuses. Lens have stabilization technology, allowing ridiculously slow shutter speeds. I don’t have to advance the film with a mechanical lever. I can shoot faster.
But … what do I point the lens at?
You know the feeling. An itch to shoot. You take a walk, or go for a drive, looking for something “interesting” to shoot. It’s that itch last summer that goaded me to go looking, but it also impeded my ability to find a target.
In western New York, looking for a macro topic from my pickup at 60 mph is dumb, dumb, dumb. After a while, the roadsides seem to be the same collections of six different kinds of weeds. Shooting macro requires me to slow down. Narrow the vision. Look at smaller and smaller things: first the bush, then the leaf, then a part of the leaf … and what the hell is that bug? That fungus? You begin to see at last.
The macrophotographs that accompany this post I shot last week within a few hundred yards of my university office. I walked alongside a small cornfield. I used a stick to draw a line in the dirt, walked 10 paces, and drew another line. All these photographs were shot in a space about 30 feet by 5 feet.
I use a tripod, but only with one leg extended. I attach a remote shutter release, the kind with a button that you can push half way (to autofocus) and hold. It’s like sniper training. Breathe out slowly, embracing the tripod. Find a focus point and hold it, then carefully lean in and out to match the plane of focus to what you wish to capture. It works wonderfully.
As I’ve mentioned in comment threads, I wear trifocals. The Canon’s viewfinder is small. I don’t always see what’s really in the image until I open it in Camera Raw. That’s the exciting part of shooting for me these days: What the hell did I shoot that I didn’t see?
I’m glad Sam cranked up Lens Mafia, and I’m glad to be part of the crew. Each morning now, I see what you’ve all posted, and it’s exhilarating. May we all have a long run here.