Getting Close

Folks who’ve been reading my blog for the last eight months might get the impression I spend my life globe-trotting.  The reality is less glamorous; I milk two or three weeks of travel into months of blog posts.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting worlds to see all those other weeks.  Today we’ll look at one of those worlds – found in my backyard.

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The world looks different if you change your perspective.  One way to do that is to think small.  As in, the world of macro photography.

I took an interest in the small world almost by accident.  It goes back to my early years of scuba diving, when I thought it’d be fun to share the underwater world via my photography hobby.  The thing is, unlike places like Grand Turk where underwater visibility is outstanding, the waters where I normally dive in the Pacific Northwest are much more turbid.  This makes it difficult to get a good shot from a distance, especially when your flash is doing its best to light up all the crud between you and your subject. The workaround?  Get up close.

This changed the way I looked at the world when diving.  I started looking for the little things, things three inches or smaller, things that could easily escape notice if I just blithely swam along looking for fish.   Oft times, these details, these creatures, these patterns were quite stunning if you got up close for a look.

This philosophy translates well to the world we humans inhabit.  Usually, these small things mean flowers, bugs, or other plant life, but inventive types have captured all manner of things.

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This way of looking at the world requires you to slow down and look more closely.  (And yes, it can give you a chance to smell the roses while you’re at it.)  It can be conducive to your mental state.  If you’re feeling frenzied, feeling stressed, forcing yourself to slow down and find the little things can be meditative.

Unless, of course, you over obsess over little things.

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I’ve dabbled in the macro realm in different ways.  They don’t all require expensive camera gear.  I created the backyard pictures in this post using inexpensive extension tubes.

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Ok, I admit, using extension tubes requires you have a camera that supports interchangeable lenses.  But for all you cell phone camera users out there, there’s an option for you too. More about that later.

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Extension tubes do just what the name suggests: different sized tubes fit between the camera and the lens, extending the focal length.  The way the optics work, this turns them into close-up lenses.

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The downside is, you dang near have to stick your lens on top of whatever you’re taking a picture of.  Not only is this awkward, but you also get in the way of the light falling on your subject.  Add to this the light you lose because it has to travel further inside the extension tube, and you end up with a lack of light problem.

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To make things more challenging, when you’re shooting this close, you have very little depth of field (the area in focus, front to back).  We’re talking small fractions of an inch here.  You can increase that a little controlling the f-stops, (i.e. the aperture, or the size of the hole in the lens the light goes through). However, you pay for the increased depth of field with even less light getting to the sensor.

The best way to deal with this problem is to add light via a strobe or some constant light source.

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This can result in interesting effects, where the background looks black even in midday.

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Hardcore macro shooters will set up a mini studio that’ll fit on a tabletop.  They can set up their subject without having the wind bounce it around, custom backgrounds, water droplets (a macro favorite for giving a crystal ball effect), and controlled lighting.  I haven’t gone there.  But I did pick up a cheap light source.

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This all may sound complicated or call for fancy gear.   But I have a question or two. Do you have a cell phone?  Do you have $40 for a gizmo? I picked up a clip-on attachment that fits over the lens on a cell phone.  I can use the attachment to turn my cell phone camera into a wide-angle camera, and by unscrewing an element the attachment turns into a close-up lens.  It comes with a little light that’ll also clip onto your camera, or something else if you want to use it as a reading light.  I have to get close to the subject, but otherwise it’s the usual cell phone point and shoot.

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Shot with my cell phone camera and the close up attachment

Although all the macro gear I’ve talked about so far is low end, I gave myself a pricier option for Christmas.   I picked up a 105mm telephoto with macro capabilities.  Like the extension tubes, the name says it all.  I can use it as a telephoto, but I can drill down to small things too, down to items about an inch across.  And the lens doesn’t have to be so close to the subject, giving more breathing room to bugs and more space for light to get in.  I’ll likely post sets of pictures from that lens from time to time, when I’m not otherwise inspired.

So if you want to travel to a new place but can’t afford to go far, look to the small things.  You don’t even have to take a picture.   The intricate details may surprise you, and give you a fresh appreciation for the wonders of creation.

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38 thoughts on “Getting Close

    1. I remember, back in the day when I started shooting macro underwater. I’d subsequently do slide shows for my dive club and the guys would be saying, “I’ve never seen that”, even though we were on the same dives. You just have to look a little closer.

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  1. Very cool! Every picture is nice in itself, and also fun to examine, and it’s just great that you can get an excellent shot like that last one, with a cellphone & $40 gizmo. This reminds me of having a great time on hikes as a kid, with a cheap pocket magnifier, looking closely at pretty much everything I came across.

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    1. Not to mention the $40 gizmo also lets you do extra wide angle on your cell phone if you use both elements. Even those folks who only do group selfies could use it! Good point about the magnifying glass, I’ve had similar thoughts. Although frankly, as a kid I was more likely to use one to start dried leaves on fire…

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    1. Our chickadees, when they’re around, are pretty fidgety regardless of what I have in my hand. I think getting a good pic would call for a telephoto, patience, maybe a blind, maybe a tripod and remote shutter release – oh, never mind. Guess I’ll stick to aphids.

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  2. When I first got my 105 mm years ago I was thunderstruck how absurdly fun it was to shoot with, the newfound clarity with which I could now view the world. But I’ll still never forget what a thrill it was long before that when I came unto my cheapo Tiffen close up lens set which by comparison was a total PITA to use. Boy did I have a good time with that one, too! Very enjoyable images in this post, Dave. I like that second to last one, quite a bit.

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    1. Yeah, I remember the hike I tried out the 105. I was with the wife and a couple friends and I kept getting side tracked and having to do a fast hike to catch up. It was obvious right away it would be a favorite lens – the world suddenly became more target rich!

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  3. Hi Dave, Your photos are exquisite, stunning and beautiful! I like how you say “get up close.” I think that is the appeal of photography. It makes me slow down, even stop to get a closer look. Yes, definitely meditative. I learned a lot. Thank you Dave, for a great post! 🙂 Erica

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    1. There are a lot more ways to look at the world than just at a distance, standing up. Changing perspective can have both a literal and figurative meaning. I’m glad the pictures helped make that point in an enjoyable way.

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  4. Great stuff Dave! My biggest issue with macros is not so much the gear (my 140mm lens bought second hand is pretty OK for the job) but to get the damn insect to stand still! Bumblebees are much more obliging, in this sense, than bees.

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    1. Yeah, I remember trying to get the bees to stay put on my “Birds and Bees” post a while back – they didn’t cooperate. I’m not sure what the deal was with the one I got the picture of in this post – maybe he was buzzed. I’ve heard that if you get an early start, before the day warms up you can have better luck (if you can find bugs that are sitting still.)

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    1. I imagine the macro stuff will be making repeated visits in the future. I picked up a 105mm macro lens last December and it’s become my go to for around the yard – and we haven’t done any trips lately beyond what I’ve already posted. Guess we need to get out more…

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    1. I thought you’d appreciate the macro, as you feature it so frequently on your site. Looking back at these pictures, I’d forgotten how effective the extension tubes are, even if they are a bigger pain to use than the 105mm. What I haven’t tried yet is combining a light source with the 105…

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  5. Pingback: Getting Down (Part 1) – Plying Through Life

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