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.

8 thoughts on “Shooting small: I love it, and here’s why

  1. Okay, first off, great shots. LOVE that ladybug, especially.

    Second, though, periodically somebody who has some history with photography will launch into an explanation of something that reaches back into the pre-digital history of photography and I’m always lost, being a newcomer. Here it is again, right – I’m stretching my mind trying to visualize what the heck you’re talking about.

    It’s like those little snips that periodically go around FB or via e-mail about how kids today don’t know what it means to “dial” a telephone. Those always make me feel old. Or they make me feel like I’m sharing the planet with people with whom I have absolutely zero shared experience.

    And I see a post like this and realize that I’M the kid who doesn’t know what “dial” means. It’s an oddly disjointing experience. Maybe it’s good for me, though. Over the course of an adult life we gravitate more toward what we know and deeper into our specialties. When I was a college freshman I knew very little about anything and as such everything was new. More recently, my life has been all about things I KNOW – writing, corporate cultures, marketing, poetry. So I pick up a camera and I’m an ignorant kid again.

    It’s weird, but I think it’s good for me. A little humility probably won’t kill me.

  2. And I often feel like a photographic dinosaur. I miss the darkroom. I miss the smell of fixer. I miss taking a print out of Dektol then letting it sit in water for half an hour to bring up the highlights. I still have a laminated lens extension exposure correction chart that I still carry in my photo bag.

    I miss all that.

    But …

    Digital photography removes much of the guesswork of focus and exposure. Some dinosaurs might argue that “cheapens” the art. I don’t agree. I can still manipulate an image just as I did back in the day with burning, dodging, underexposing and overdeveloping film and fooling around with print exposure/development times and developing solutions.

    Just because all that may now be “in camera” or in PhotoShop does not alter the pleasure of a good outcome. I can think more about shaping the image before I push the shutter because I worry less about what my camera may automate for me.

    Anybody wanna buy a 40-year-old color temperature meter?

    • i have to say that while i agree with Denny in not missing a lot of the technical hassle, i do believe the young punks (meant with all affection) of photography are getting a raw deal in not ever getting the chance to see a photo come up on paper in the developer.

      the first time i saw an image i had shot begin to appear on the paper under that liquid, i knew the meaning of magical. you know intellectually that it was just a chemical reaction, but the emotion overwhelms you and slides uncontrollably into this sense of you being an alchemist. magical. i was hooked on photography and all things about it from that point.

      i’ve talked to other people about this, and the vast majority of them reacted to the experience in much the same way. it was something eminently sublime for nearly all of them.

      you just can’t get that printing up something on your inkjet.

      • about the term, young punks … i am replying to my own reply above, to try to defuse any discomfort anyone might feel with the term. i spent some of my youth dealing with things during the beginnings of the punk rock movement. incredible breath of fresh air. ripped your head loose from your brainpan, took it down to the river for some real rock-and-board scrubbing, and reinstalled it quite casually without any concern about whether the old neuronal pathways led to their same destinations. most often, they did not.

        punk was glory and things powerful to me. punk was the new and the creative. punk was uncompromising. punk still is. and a good young punk photographer is to be valued far and above those who merely apply the rules they learned in photo class. the term young punk is indeed, meant with all respect. and it is reserved for the creative ones.

  3. What the hell did I shoot that I didn’t see?

    Denny I just love this exploration you are sharing with us – so I ask, what are you learning from what you are seeing?

  4. That’s difficult to answer, Dawn, without resorting to cliches. There are days when I park myself in one spot — not moving more than 10 feet in any direction — and become astonished at what I eventually see. Shooting macro, at least to me, can’t be done sporadically. I’ll need to shoot for a few days in a row before I can “dial” myself into the small landscape instead of the large. It’s hard to “see” without doing it regularly. So when i miss a few weeks, it’s hard to pick up the camera again because I know I’ll have to commit to several days before anything worthwhile emerges.

  5. Pingback: ArtSunday: visit 5280 Lens Mafia, meet some great photographers | Scholars and Rogues

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