Macro technique for flower portraits: what to do before you even take a shot
A recent thread on naturescapes had me post the following, which others may find useful. I may well have said a few things about this before, but here’s what I do if I have my brain in gear and have my serious macro head on!
Before setting off on an outing:
Make sure I have not only my camera & macro lens (Nikon 200f4 in my case, usually with a cpl attached for flowers), but also the following:
flash gun and micro apollo softbox + cable; cable release; tripod and Manfrotto 410 geared head; Novoflex Castel-L focusing rack (fitted out with Wimberley C12 clamp); two plamps (two different lengths, wound round tripod legs); 2 different sized 5-in-1 reflectors/diffusers; depth of field table for specific lens (I don’t have a smartphone, so have numerous little printouts of the table inc. one in my wallet); notebook and pencil; sometimes I’ll also have a GPS with me – pretty much essential now for me for finding and researching subjects and locations in the wild: also good for geotagging if so desired.
I find that if I forget any of the above then sod’s law will usually dictate that something gets screwed up! The commonest thing I tend to forget are the cable release, the reflectors, or the focusing rack – missing any of these can prevent the shot. This was the basic setup I took with me on my Orchids trip to Greece and had with me in the back of the jeep at all times. I tend to need to use the cable release for macro so that I can time the exposures precisely in time with even the barest subject movement (flower stems seem to vibrate for ridiculous amounts of time even with a plamp and virtually no wind!!).
Choosing a subject
Sometimes this is obvious (one-off rare species in the wild, for instance, or the only flower available); sometimes less so: is it in good condition? How will it look under the extreme scrutiny of a macro lens? What is the background like? What colour background do I want? What is the lighting like? Can I shade the subject if it is in too much sun? Will I need to stack or not? How much room do I have around the subject to set up? Will I need to engineer a background?
For shots in the wild I tend to try not to engineer backgrounds. For ‘captive’ subjects (greenhouse, conservatory etc.) I often do this, especially when stacking. In the latter case – as in my most recent shots in the macro forum, I have tended to use a couple of useful fig-leaves positioned in the background with one of the plamps. In order to position these correctly, I focus past the subject onto the leaves to check how much of the frame area is covered by my background.
For wild shots I have seemed to go either of two ways – either getting a low angle and shooting virtually wide open from at least a metre away to allow the background to naturally blur away and focus the attention on a particular flower; or getting in close and stacking for full detail of a particular flower at a good aperture. Both of these options work very well for orchids, where there can be great beauty to be found in both the plant in context and the detail of a particular flower.
Using my Novoflex Castel-L, I run through front to back of what I want in focus in the main subject before taking a shot. Next, using the depth-of-field table, I calculate the appropriate aperture to give me a reasonably short stack to comprise the full field area for a given subject distance while allowing for some neat overlap between frames. I tend to write these details down in my notebook so I can refer to them when postprocessing so I can remember what I did, or if I need to repeat the process in the case of cock-up (wind/light change)! Also if I’m out in the wild I would normally write notes about ID and species seen at a given location.
I usually try to take at least one test frame to make sure I have my exposure right (and this means checking the RGB histogram not just the main histogram since certain flower colours can very very easily get blown; e.g. I tend often to underexpose by about 2/3 from the recommended metering with green backgrounds). I usually use LiveView to line up the front frame precisely, before turning it off for the rest of the stack.
I find that you have to be this meticulous with these kinds of macro shots, otherwise errors you can only spot in photoshop conspire to ruin your shots. You have to pay particular attention to the lighting conditions and exposure if you are stacking.