How Shooting Macro Boosted My Photography Growth

For those of you following me and this blog for many years now, it is a known fact that I have started macro photography very early in my younger days of photography learning. I picked up insect macro photography from the first year I bought my first DSLR, and have been practicing it very frequently ever since. I have found that shooting macro helped me significantly in my early tears of of developing as a photographer and I am sharing my experience and benefits I have gained here. I am sure shooting macro can also help boost your photography growth if you are currently starting out and are very new to the photography universe. 

If you want to learn more about my techniques on shooting macro, you can check out my video sharing my full insect macro shooting execution here (click). Alternatively, you may also choose to read the blog article version here (click). 

Special shout out to a friend and someone who have inspired me a lot to pick up and do macro photography, Amir Ridhwan. Do check out his Flickr site showcasing many wonderful photographs of Malaysian spiders. It is impossible to see his work and not be inspired to shoot more macro. 

It was because of my first few outings with Amir that got me super excited about macro, and soon after it became a weekly endeavor, hiking up forest reserves outside of the city area just to hunt for those tiny critters. I admit part of the fun was in the hunt and seeing some small creatures that I have not seen before, and having the ability to capture their portraits and bring those photographs home was like a superpower. The shooting process was addictive, together with the thrill and the rush of doing something physically intense. Yes, you do sweat buckets and burn tonnes of energy doing a session of insect macro photography. I sometimes wonder if I sweat more in an hour's intense insect macro shooting or a two hour tennis match. 

Macro photography was very helpful to my learning part of photography fundamentals, especially on exposure, focus as well as flash execution. You have no excuse but to fully understand how the ISO, shutter speed and aperture affect your photographs. Typically to get the best result we stay at the base ISO, which is ISO200 for Olympus cameras, and this yields the best results, giving sharpest, most detailed images with good contrast, color tones and dynamic range. Raising the ISO number unnecessarily will quickly have serious consequences to the final image. Shutter speed was also important to mitigate hand-shake, if the shutter speed dips too low, the chances of camera shake is magnified. The high magnification shooting combined with use of typically a long lens for macro shooting exaggerates the risk of camera movement blurring the image. Also, aperture is extremely crucial in making sure that we have good control over depth of field. Choosing too large of an aperture will result in images not having sufficient zones in focus. It is not that straightforward in finding the balanced settings, it takes a while to fully master the exposure control and be able to shoot confidently. Then there is the creative use of flash, which I fire wirelessly off camera and diffused with a mini-softbox. You need to get your basics right, there is no shortcut when it comes to technical execution of your shot. 

One important strength that I gained from practicing macro photography is shooting discipline. Shooting discipline was a phrase used by Ming Thein, and you can read about it in his blog article here (click). To me, shooting discipline means doing everything in my power and ability during the shooting process in the field to achieve the shot as close as intended. That means, doing my best to get critically sharp and accurate focus for each and every shot, while going as close as I can and taking care of composition to minimize cropping. Exposure should be captured close to ideal expectation, so that there is minimal post-processing done to the images to mitigate pixel quality degradation. Since macro photography requires you to multitask, having to consider so many different technical execution at the same time - focus, composition, lighting (flash), exposure, timing, and you have to act fast because not all the insects stay still and pose willingly for you - it is the best shooting discipline practice that I can ask for. Setting a high level of strict discipline does not come easily, it takes years and years of training, and the benefits of this greatly improve your technical skill as a photographer. It has benefited me in all my other photography, both commercial shoots as well as personal projects. People often asked me "Robin what is your secret in getting sharp images?" There are two answers to that - 1) the lens that I use, and 2) shooting discipline. 


Perhaps the most important lesson I get from doing macro photography for so many years was patience. I have observed the biggest problem with a lot of young photographers and newcomers to photography is lacking patience. You have no idea how important being patient is. You do not always get what you want, and you cannot shoot everything. It is perfectly fine to miss shots, it is ok if you do not get keepers from a photography outing, there is nothing to be frustrated about. The joy of doing photography is not just getting nice looking images at the end of the day, you have to enjoy every single part of it, from the moment you pack your camera into your bag, stepping out of the door to your destination, the shooting process and the fellowship that you have with the friends that you are shooting with. The thrill of hunting for a shot and finally getting one. A lot of waiting is needed, a lot of failures will happen, you will miss shots, you will make tonnes of mistakes before you finally get the shot that you want.

One of the biggest complains I have heard is the macro lenses being slow in AF. It is not a secret, all macro lenses are slow, because of the longer throw when it comes to focusing extremely close up to the subject. It is not an easy task technically, but all things considered I never faced any difficulty in getting critically sharp images consistently. While some people used the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro lens and gave up after the lens hunts and hesitates for a few times, I managed to nail critcially sharp images again and again, confidently. How did I do it? I used the exact same lens, on the exact same camera body, and I used AF. The difference between me and the others? I have used that lens a few hundred times over and I fully understand the behaviour of the lens. Knowing your gear is extremely crucial for you to be able to get the best out of it. Just because you fail to make it work does not mean that the lens or camera is not good, you need to be able to control and tell the camera what you want. The camera and lens cannot read your mind, but you can certainly do your best to figure out how they work. How do you do that? By shooting again and again and again, 100 times, 500 times or more if necessary to get it right. Once you have finally got the grasp of how the camera and lens work, then keep shooting again until you don't get it wrong anymore. Going out shooting macro week after week for many years gave me a deep understanding of my gear, and I know my camera inside out. 

If you are looking for ways to push your photography boundaries and move up to the next level, and you are still at the beginning of your photography journey, I highly recommend that you pick up macro photography. It may not be easy, but trust me, what you gained from this will bring you the boost to your growth that you are looking for. It worked wonders for me, and even today I still do insect macro shooting, though not as frequently as before, since I am a working photographer now, and on my spare time, I am out doing street photography more. 

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1 comment:

  1. Nice work Robin.
    I think patience and familiarity with one's gear is perhaps the most important aspect in all photography. I think what happens in this digital age is people get accustomed to instant every thing and expect photography to work the same. If all learned with film and manual cameras they may get a better sense of patience and knowing the gear. I learned more once I move on to a view camera than in 10 years of 35mm SLR & Rangefinder work. Perhaps it takes more for things to sink into my head.

    I transfer what I learned from film to digital. I also fully enjoy the optics we have available. In a way I miss the reversing lenses, macro lenses and bellows along with lens mounted lighting, but sometimes I adapt that to my OMD.

    Stay safe and healthy during these trying times.