A lot of people have been asking me to write about wide-angle macro. After a long period of time in which I was debating how to approach this topic, I decided that instead of giving a word-by-word recipe for making wide-angle macro photos, I am just going to write how I achieve my shots and give some useful tips. There is already a heap of great articles online, and at the end of this series of posts I will give a list of ones I recommend checking out for anyone interested in attempting this unique style.
The idea of wide-angle macro is to use a wide-angle lens to include a small-sized subject and its environment in a single photo. When I think about it, ever since I held a camera in my hands I was trying to get that “look” with an insect standing in the middle of its habitat. I remember trying to do this using my film camera, but back then I did not have the knowledge or the experience to tackle this. And here comes the first tip for anyone trying to learn this technique – you must understand the optics of your lens. Not literally the physics of optics (although it does help, I admit), but the characteristics of that particular lens: how close can it focus? What is the working distance? Can it focus to infinity? Just by answering these three questions you are able to get an idea whether your gear can be used for this style.
Now, similarly to other genres of photography, in wide-angle macro there are many different ways to achieve the same result. You can use stand-alone ultra wide-angle or fisheye lenses, add an extension tube to get more magnification, build a relay system, or even use a peephole lens. Some ways are cheaper than others. There are also small-sized point-and-shoot cameras that are able to produce this kind of photos. It all depends on the amount of money and effort you are willing to invest. I use a dslr and several different lens systems for wide-angle macro photography, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. I highlighted in the photo captions which system I used so you can get an idea about the properties of each one.
With the recent release of the fully manual Laowa/Venus 15mm 1:1 wide-angle macro lens, I suspect wide-angle macro will become even more popular over the next few years. I was hoping I could receive a unit to review and compare to the other systems I own, alas, Laowa/Venus never got back to me. Despite being a somewhat niche lens, I have no doubt that in the near future we will see more and more lenses with similar capabilities, maybe even with automatic aperture and focus control.
So what makes a good wide-angle macro photo? To simplify, typically, you would use a wide-angle lens focused close on the subject with a closed aperture of f/16 or higher to obtain more depth of field, and you might need to use a fill-flash to light your subject. In my opinion, apart from a sharp focus and good depth of field, there are three key elements that the photographer should strive for in wide-angle macro photography:
Magnification – This is more of a technical issue, as each wide-angle lens has a different maximum focusing distance and maximum magnification. You want to get the subject big enough in the frame so it will not end up “lost” in the background. If the subject is big (like some reptiles and amphibians) then this is not really a problem, but small arthropods are much more difficult to shoot in wide-angle macro. We still do not have the technology to produce a high-quality photo of a springtail walking about in the dense forest. Insufficient magnification can be solved by adding a short extension tube, but this causes several other issues (more on this later).
Interesting perspective – Focusing close on the subject alone is not enough. Getting low and bringing the camera to the same eye level as that of the subject’s is important to give viewers the impression that they are a part of the scene (this is true for all styles of nature photography, by the way). In addition, if the background is too busy or too far from the subject, the result will be aesthetically unappealing. A good way to solve this issue is to have some sort of gradual transition from the subject to the background. This can be done by including a branch or a vine that leads the eye from the subject to the background (or vice versa), or by actually letting the subject “drift” into the background. A good method for dealing with this issue (given to me by Piotr Naskrecki, one of the true masters of this photography style) is to look through the viewfinder and search for alternatives ways to compose the photo, however I often find that I actually need to take several shots of different perspectives before I decide.
Telling a story – This one is a bit harder to master. You need to get the other elements right first, but once again, that alone is usually not enough. There are many (technically) good wide-angle macro shots out there, but they include a subject plastered over a poster-like background and in my opinion something gets lost there. In general, a good photo must be engaging, and wide-angle macro is no exception. You want to bring the subject’s perspective of the world and way of life to the viewer.
Combining these elements is no easy task, especially from the technical aspect of things. In most cases, closing the aperture to get more depth of field will result in less light hitting the camera’s sensor. In other words, to get a proper exposure you need either to increase the ISO value or to use a slower shutter speed, sometimes even both. Using a tripod can help when taking long exposures, but sometimes it is physically impossible. And increasing the ISO beyond a certain value might boost the noise in the photo, resulting in a low-quality image. It’s all about compromises. In the next posts I will discuss common misconceptions and some of the major problems in wide-angle macro photography. If you have any other topic you would like me to address in the next posts – please let me know in the comments and I will do my best to answer.