Meeting the Neighbours?

I spent some time thinking about the kit I take with me and the techniques I use on, and the shots I come back with from, my macro outings. Since macro and small scenic shots are the majority of what I do at the moment, I thought I’d take stock and assess the options I have, the things I’m yet to explore, and the strengths and weaknesses of the options available to me. There’s a particular reason for writing this post, but that will come later…

What I shoot and how depends on what I take with me. For macro, at least in the UK (for foreign trips see here), I still use my Lowepro Minitrekker which I’ve had from the beginning (an early Christmas present from my wife in 2007 for my new Nikon D300); the size is perfect for macro kit, though the bag could be more comfortable to wear.


Here are the bag’s contents right now:

Main compartment:

Nikon D800E body with Kirk L-bracket attached, Nikon 200f4 micro lens with Wimberley P30 lens plate attached, Nikon 60f2.8 micro lens, Nikon 50f1.4G lens, full set of extension tubes, SB600 flash, Lastolite Micro Apollo 2 softbox, Nikon battery grip for body, cable release, Optech Rainsleeve.

Here’s a shot:




Outside bottom pocket:

Small cosmetics bag with tools for tripod, lens plates, and Lee filter holder.


Outside top (main) pocket:

small and medium 5-1 diffusers

Swiss army penknife with torch attached

flash cord attached to Wimberley macro bracket (folded up)

Novoflex Castel-L focusing rack

Pastry brush (for brushing soil or pollen from flowers if I remember)

Lee filter holder and Lee 105 circular polarizer (each in pouches)


With this kit, together with my Gitzo/Manfrotto tripod kit (with 2 wimberley plamps wound around the legs) I’m good to go.


This is what I would call a basic macro setup – for tripod based shooting, with the option of swapping lenses and adding extension for even smaller subjects, or for taking some scenic shots with the 50mm (usually with the Lee polarizer; sometimes I will take my Sigma 15mm fisheye as well or instead of one of the other small lenses). Slightly more sophisticated is the flexibility for handheld macro shooting using the balanced lighting technique: here I can dispense with the tripod, attach the diffused flash with the softbox by the lens hood using the macro bracket attached to the far end of the lens plate, and adding the battery grip for easier vertical compositions.


I have used this basic setup now for over 2 years, give or take some switches in kit (e.g. new body), and it is generally superb.


A reminder of a couple of shots from last year shot in the same location with kit from this bag of goodies:






– first shot taken with 200f4 with its dedicated Hoya HD 62mm screw-on circular polarizer (important to saturate the background of leaves on this shot), second with 50f1.4G and Lee 105mm circular polarizer

(the first shot also required the use of a mist sprayer to add the water droplet – I try to remember to take this with me for shooting in woodland).


However, I was reading today and thinking about the use of mini outdoor studios for macro-work, using acetate sheets and multiple flashguns for pure white backgrounds to accentuate the subjects entirely without contextual habitat details. This seems to be increasingly common (though not generally on where I post a lot of my shots, I note, except for a recent article partly on this very subject). In particular, I note the increasing profile of the ‘Meet your neighbours’ project which uses this technique exclusively, expressly to encourage knowledge of the environment and biodiversity: see


This technique ends up being basically like outdoor watch or product photography, where you are often taking a captive subject into a staged environment shot entirely with flash, with little intrusion of ambient light and total control of lighting on the subject.

(compare, for instance, Ming Thein’s indoor studio for professional watch photography, illustrated with detailed technical notes here:


I’m interested in this project, since I haven’t experimented with this technique. However, I have some distinct issues with it.


I can agree that as an educational tool it helps to promote species awareness; yet I cannot see how completely isolating subjects from their context helps to foster environmental awareness beyond showing what are only slightly more sophisticated versions of very traditional naturalist books or field guides.  Perhaps to some degree this is about nostalgia, or at least simplification (or worse, spoon-feeding!).


I do agree that using a 255 white background allows for very easy arrangement of multiple frames onto one canvas, for instance for showing a narrative sequence of an emerging caterpillar. On the other hand, I still find something rather unnatural and anaemic about it. I miss the serendipity of natural backgrounds, and I’m not particularly interested in overly manipulating my subjects within environments which are theirs not mine.


As a technical challenge perhaps I should think about at least giving it a go, though.


But before I do, there’s another consideration, which takes me back to where I started – kit:


This technique requires at least another tripod (which I do at least have), one more flashgun, and at least one perspex sheet to be taken into the field – I reckon this is better suited to a group of photographers wanting to work together: I generally shoot by myself and on hour- to three-hour-long walks I don’t fancy hauling two tripods with me.


I also don’t reckon that flowers look that good shot solely with flash lighting, however well diffused: this may be a personal preference, but I’d want to go with ambient lighting almost every time – when using flash as main light the telltale contrasts of light and dark, when badly done, risk totally changing the textural feel of the details in a particular subject; even when done well there’s a certain painterly quality to the results that doesn’t seem all that verisimilitudinous to me. I reckon the technique seems to work far better for bugs, which are generally highly reflective whatever the lighting; the luminosity of their textured surfaces is not affected by artificial lighting (though you do have to watch out very much for extensive areas of blown highlights).


So, the white backgrounds flash technique is perhaps worth a go. But not for my macro walks. I actually think this would be ideal for shooting subjects from my back garden, and I can envisage a project to make a large poster illustrating all the bug species we can find: and my four-year-old son may be able to help with this.


But I’m going to rule out carrying this extra gear in the field, or on trips. And I’d still need another flash gun…!


If you have any strong thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment!










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