Why I Love Macro

When I first started to dive deeper in the world of photography, my choice of photography genre was macro. It was not so much of a long debate of which to decide or take on, as macro photography called out to me and I really felt myself wanting to give it a try, and I saw myself enjoy doing it thoroughly. There was the stage of experimental techniques and all sorts of DIY equipments as an alternative to the ever expensive real macro lenses to achieve enough magnification and do the job in macro shooting. I found insect photography to be the most astounding of all, and I have always loved doing macro photography ever since.

100% crop from previous image. That little insect is a parasite of the larger spider.

The benefits of macro to a new-comer in photography is unmeasurable. It is by all means, NOT an easy genre to delve into. The challenges usually can be quite intense and put off most first-timers. However, those who stay persistent will reap the fruits in the end. You need to get almost all your camera basics right: the understanding of the exposure (shutter speed, aperture, ISO), the control of depth of field (to achieve adequate zone in focus), the creative use of artificial light (how to control the flash and how to diffuse it), the execution of pin-point accurate focusing (manual or auto-focus, you need to find a way to make it work) and doing all that, in most challenging body bending yoga positions, because your subjects may hide in most unexpected places. To be able to produce acceptably good results in macro photography, the photographer already possesses a certain degree of proficiency in the technical side of photography.

There was once I was being questioned by my readers, and I did agree with my readers about how technical macro was, that it is actually void of artistic side in photography. I understood my readers intentions, and their feedback has encouraged me to started to rethink my outlook in photography in general. After all, we cannot deny that photography is art, and the fact that I was not putting much effort in developing the artistic sense in photography was quite troubling. Therefore, I decided to temporarily halt my macro adventures, and to pick up something fresh and new. I sold off my precious Olympus Zuiko 35mm F3.5 (gosh what a marvelous lens that was) to ensure that the temptations wont get the best of me in vulnerable times. Yes, it was a desperate, but necessary measure to force myself to push forward into new directions, hopefully for the better. I started roaming the streets, and I found a new genre which I have gone crazy into: street photography. In street photography, I have learned not just to see everything technically (on how to shoot and what camera settings to choose) but also consider my subject content, the emotions and hidden stories of the subjects. I too, have truly enjoyed shooting on the streets, and I have done so almost every weekend without fail. Nonetheless, I cannot help but wonder why I have missed macro photography so much, and what it was about macro that seems so pure and untainted.

Macro does not pretend to be Art

Recently I have come to a realization on why I chose macro and fell deeply into it. In macro photography, it is almost always clear on what is good and what is not. The rules are there, and you may break it or bend it in any way you like, but if your outcome is not in focus, lacks DOF, wrongly exposed and not achieving sufficient magnification to reveal the details, that is not a successful macro photograph. Coming from engineering background, this is certainly something I get accustomed to rather easily. I find macro to be straightforward, simple and direct. There are no dramas. There are no layers and layers of hidden messages to "read", it does not expect the viewers to scratch their heads and see things that are not there.

What you see from a macro photograph is pretty much what you should see. If it is a bee, it is a bee. If it is a butterfly, it is a butterfly, and it should not go too far beyond that. Macro photography does not pretend to be art, because it is not exactly art, it is mostly technical, and it has its place in this world, a rather important one I must say. Why can't we just accept something for what it is rather than making assumptions and speculations about what could have been or imagining things that are not there? Unlike many other photography genre, in macro photography you cannot tell people that "you do not see the art in the photograph".

It is a transparent form of photography, and you convey 100% of what you saw through your viewfinder before you capture your image to your viewers. Simplicity works best, and I have always believed so.

It is about the HUNT and the KILL

One huge part of the fulfillment factor in macro photography was HUNTING. Finding those little creature the hunt and successfully execute the shots was the kill. The joy of finding something new, seeing something different, being able to "kill" that subject and permanently store it as a trophy is the ultimate joy in macro photography. Hunting has always been a trait that defines a huge part of humanity. I believe same goes for birding, or wildlife photography. The instant orgasm happens not when you "develop" your films or see your digital image on your computer screen. The explosion of joy occurs at that instant moment you encountered your photography subject in the field, something so uncommon to usual sightings, and it (whatever it is, spider, crocodile, lion, dinosaur) was ready for you to make that click happens. And when you know it works, you know everything is right, and the shutter release happens, the satisfaction is beyond anything that you can imagine, because you know you have accomplished something magnificent.

In this particular macro photography session, we went for a night hunt at Kemensah forest reserve with Amir (go to his blog here), a great macro photographer who has inspired me much and helped me through my growth in photography in general. We went into the jungle just before 10pm, and got out of it bear 2am in the morning. The experience being in the jungle was really amazing, there was total absence of artificial sounds, and you only hear the sound of insects. The air was heavy and extremely humid, we were all sweating like crazy and even my camera bag felt like it has wet as if it has been dipped into a pond. Why did we do the things we do if it was not because of the "craft of photography" or because it does not touch the "art of photography?" Why go through all the trouble braving the forest in the middle of the night just to execute technical side of photography? I guess, if you have not tried macro, or if you have up too easily because you thought it was too difficult to handle, or if you are too brash to quickly brush it aside, you will never understand the thrill and excitement.

Now onto some technical notes. Olympus E-5 and 50mm F2 macro were used throughout the whole shooting session. I held the E-5 with 50mm macro attached to it on my right hand, and the FL-36R with a torchlight attacted to its top on left hand. The torchlight was pointing the same direction as the flash head, hence if I see my subject being brightly lit by the torchlight, I know the the flash is pointing to the right direction. The flash was triggered wirelessly, which provided me freedom and flexibility to move the light direction to wherever I like. Hand holding the E-5 and 50mm macro with just one hand was not easy task, especially when you stand on sloping and uneven ground, bending your knees and back in most extreme positions to get close to the subject. General camera settings: Manual exposure (Shutter speed 1/80-1/100sec, ISO200, F8-16), noise filter low, manual focus, wireless TTL flash. These techniques were not easy to master, and it took practice after practice to get things right, and many fine tunings are still required during actual shooting conditions. Most images were straight out of camera, but cropped.

Amir in action.

Khairul attacking a subject on the ground.

If you have not discovered the wonders of macro photography, it is worth considering. I wont lie to you, it is not going to be easy, but I can honestly tell you that what you gain at the end of the day will be worth the trouble. It is not some make believe "artistic" sort of photography where you can shoot some blurry images with no details and spend all your energy trying to convince people it is art. In macro, you cannot lie, you cannot pretend, you cannot trick your viewers into believing you are something you are not.

I can't wait for another macro hunting session !!


  1. the Olympus 50mm f2 is amazingly sharp. Great pictures.

  2. Thanks anonymous!! Indeed the sharpness of the 50mm is incredible.

  3. Creepy crawlers.... Makes me itchy.... But the details are amazing!

  4. The details were really amazing. 50mm is a legendary lens, and I am glad I found the joy of using it.

  5. I agree that macro photography indeed takes time to master and lots of patience in either hunting or setting up the camera to get that shot you want.

    I have not done any macro in the evening but do appreciate your hard effort with Amir to hunt in forest at that time!

    Anyway nicely done and it was a pleasure to read, you indeed have steady hands to hold the E-5 with 1 hand while the other has the flash all at the same time.

    Your right about macro photography involving technical mastery in order to present well as knowing your tools will help you get that shot you want. :)

  6. Hello Jamie,
    Thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it. Indeed patience and persistence are important for macro photography.
    Nonetheless, I also must admit that macro is not everyone's cup of tea, it is really a love it or hate it situation.
    You were right about knowing the tools to effectively execute the technical control. And it takes time to know the camera inside out !!

  7. Hey Robin,

    awesome photos like always. And thanks for the good tip with the torchlight - had to try that right away, tho I did so only indoors - see http://www.flickr.com/photos/wjlonien/5923542133/ for the first result.


  8. Hello wolfgang,
    thanks for the compliments, and no problem, it was my pleasure sharing my tips. My phone seems to be axting weird on me, I cannot open your flickr page. I will have ro get back to you later on the photos. Thanks again.

  9. Nice pictures. I've been considering for a few months whether to get the 50mm or the 35mm or the 25mm.lol..Just wondering is the focusing on the 50mm really slow?

    Also you mentioned in the post that you had manual focus. That's pretty uncomfortable especially when your left hand is holding the flash. So you have to adjust always for each subject?

  10. Hello sweetpotato,
    Either 35mm or 50mm you definitely wont regret.
    For most macro shooters who get rather serious, they tend to opt for manual focusing for better accuracy control. Not that the AF is unreliable, but lets just say I want FULL magnification, so I set it to minimum focusing distance, and I will get it.
    Yes, the 59mm AF is very, very slow.
    I set my manual focus to a certain magnification factor BEFORE shooting, and when I shoot, I just move myself back and forth from the sweetspot of the focusing, and when the subject appears clear/focused on my viewfinder (judge by the eye) I snapped it. Yes, there are misses, but equally as many keepers.

  11. Ohhh Myyy Gawdd!!! Lovely, and scarry at the same time!

  12. I specially like your explanation of the macro photography's straight forwardness & honest & direct approach.

    Looking at your macro shots I can't help but to marvel at the beauty & details. Great techniques & great result.

  13. Thanks Xuenphotoz !! Really appreciate your kind compliments, it means a lot coming from you.