Tips From a Pro: An Intro the Tiny World of Macro Photography

Extreme closeups provide a startling view of the tiny world within our world. Thanks to new techniques images that were once impossible are no longer

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Gecko, Queens-land Rain Forest, Australia
Maitland shot an Olympus OM4Ti with 80mm f/4 Macro Zuiko lens through a pane of glass, lighting the gecko from behind with an Olympus T10 ringflash; 1/125 sec at f/16 on Koda-chrome 64.
David Maitland

If ever there were someone who could be called Macro Man, it’s David Maitland. A zoologist with a Ph.D., the U.K.-based Maitland has photographed creepy crawly creatures of all sorts, using everything from film and digital SLR macro gear, to optical microscopes, to transmission and scanning electron microscopes.

And it all started with a Kodak Brownie box camera. Growing up in a seaside town in Scotland, Maitland was fascinated by the nature all around him. “My mother would throw breadcrumbs out the back door, and I discovered I could poke the camera through the cat-flap to get close-up pictures of garden birds,” he recounts. As a scientist, Maitland used photography for research—into, among other things, how crabs breathe through their legs and how maggots can jump—and in support of biological and conservation issues, such as a campaign to eradicate malaria worldwide. About six years ago, he decided to devote himself full time to nature photography. “It was getting more difficult to devote the time I needed to better develop my photography skills.”

Hurry Up and Wait
Maitland has hardly left science behind, however. "I am still an academic at heart, and science helps me to understand the creatures I photograph," he says. "It has made me patient and observant—essential skills when trying to find small, cryptic creatures hidden in the jungle."

Patience is the major essential in this kind of photography; it’s not uncommon for Maitland to spend hours lying in one place to make a shot. Once, when he was lying prone at the edge of a pond, a concerned dog-walker came by and inquired about his well-being. “She told me I looked like a collapsed or dead person.”

It also doesn’t hurt to have the kind of aesthetic sense that sees beauty in creatures that many of us might find creepy, or scary, or even disgusting. “I love the other-worldliness of them,” he says. “It is their very creepiness that I find so appealing. Cockroaches still creep me out—but I am still fascinated by them. The exquisite complexity of small insects and other creatures when magnified with a macro lens is amazing.”

Maitland also notes that knowledge of animal behavior is crucial when photographing dangerous species. “I treat all animals with great respect and learn to read their moods,” he says. “If you get too close, even a scorpion or deadly pit viper will subtly let you know, if you learn to read the signs in their body language. I have been bitten by snakes only when trying to rescue them from human predators. The best precaution is not to handle animals at all.”

Nuts and Bolts
For macro shooting up to 1:1, Maitland will use one of his full-frame Canon DSLRs with the 100mm f/2.8L Canon EF Macro IS, which he proclaims "brilliant."

For greater-than-life-size images, Maitland likes the Canon 65mm f/2.8 MP-E, a macro-only lens that allows magnifications from 1:1 to 5:1. Note: That’s five times life-size, which will magnify something that’s 1/5 inch long to take up 1 inch on the film or sensor. “It’s wonderfully versatile, allowing macro magnifications to be continuously selected,” he says. “This means that you can compose the shot according to magnification while looking through the viewfinder at all times, without having to repeatedly move away and back again to change lenses—very useful for timid and fast-moving creatures that do not like close objects and jerky movements, like small spiders and so on.”

Maitland also uses microscope objective lenses on a bellows for life-size or greater images, notably the long-discontinued Zeiss Luminars, which are unusual for having adjustable apertures. “The Luminars are an important part of my kit,” he says. “Because I use a full-frame camera, the main problem in macro photography is poor corner resolution. The Luminars were designed for full-frame film photography, and produce a very large image circle—they can even be used for large-format work—so resolution across the field is wonderful, with no soft corners.” But for cameras with smaller sensors, he notes that “soft corners are less of an issue because you are effectively cropping into the middle.”

For camera support, Maitland travels with a tripod (Manfrotto Carbon One 440 with Novoflex MagicBall head), but he will commonly use a very traditional low-tech solution—a beanbag. This allows quick adjustment of camera position (No knobs! No levers!) and is still one of the best ways to support a camera at ground level.

For lighting, Maitland often relies on the Canon Macro Twin Lite set, often using small softboxes over the strobe heads. But as with camera support, he sometimes uses a simpler, cheaper solution—Jansjö LED clip lamps, which you can pick up at Ikea stores for 15 bucks apiece.

The Stacking Revolution
Probably the greatest and most startling advance in macro photography in recent years has been focus stacking. This technique involves taking many digital exposures of the subject, moving the focus point slightly from frame to frame. The in-focus points of these frames are then "stacked" in software to produce a single image that's sharp from front to back.

This overcomes an inherent limitation of macro photography: The greater the magnification, the shallower the depth of field. Even apertures of f/22 or f/32 are often insufficient to keep all of a tiny subject within the DOF.

That's why Maitland uses Zerene Stacker software ($289, direct download, for Professional Edition; $89 for Personal Edition; zerenesystems.com). “Stacking is especially useful for overcoming the considerable limitations of very shallow depth of field at high magnifications,” he says. “It allows photographs to be taken of details which are difficult to take in any other way. It’s a wonderful tool, but like anything, it should not be overdone—rendering everything in focus does not always produce the best aesthetic.”

While there are systems, such as the StackShot (www.cognisys-inc.com), that automate the process of making the multiple exposures, Maitland does his manually. “It can be tedious, but to be honest it is the preparation of the shoot and postprocessing that takes all the time,” he says.

Ready for Your Close-up?
Maitland has simple, straightforward advice for those who want to get into serious macro photography. "Get yourself a decent macro lens that allows you to take small subjects at life size," he says. "Read articles and examine photographs as much as possible in magazines like this one. And practice!" Gear isn't as important as an eye, he stresses. "I look for character, design, and aesthetic—even creepy crawlies have these."

Finally, the best place to start—and maybe even stay—is in your own back yard. Fully half of the pictures in this article were taken in Maitland’s garden or in a nearby locale. ’Nuff said. And don’t mind the cat-flap.

To see more of David Maitland's macro photography, check out davidmaitland.com.

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Worm and frog, Calne, England
A young common frog tries to swallow a big tiger worm. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, 100mm f/2.8 Macro Canon EF lens, Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX with softboxes, and beanbag for support; 1/500 sec at f/11, ISO 50.
David Maitland
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Lesser stag beetle, Feltwell, England
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Nikon PB6 bellows, 63mm Zeiss Luminar lens, Ikea LED lamps. 70-image focus stack: 1/10 sec, ISO 50.
David Maitland
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Long-legged centipede, Danum Valley, Borneo
Same DSLR, lighting, and beanbag as for the frog. Exposure with 65mm Canon MP-E Macro: 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 50.
David Maitland
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Zebra jumping spider, Feltwell
Shot at about 10X life-size with 40mm Zeiss Luminar microscope lens on EOS 5D Mark II and bellows; LED lamps in softboxes. 187-image stack: 1/5 sec, ISO 50.
David Maitland
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Fluorescing Scorpion, Kumai, Borneo
Maitland used two handheld UV Gear 41 ultraviolet lamps to get the glow in this scorpion. Tripod-mounted 1Ds Mark II with the 65mm MP-E lens was used for the exposure of 30 sec at f/9, ISO 50.
David Maitland
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Spiderlings, Feltwell
Just-hatched wall spiders in cocoon. Same gear, except dark-field illumination from below by a quartz halogen light. 33-image stack: 1/5 sec, ISO 50.
David Maitland
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