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The Art of Seeing: Macro Techniques for Flowers and Plants

Lesson 9 of 15

Create A Simple Indoor Macro Set

Frans Lanting

The Art of Seeing: Macro Techniques for Flowers and Plants

Frans Lanting

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Lesson Info

9. Create A Simple Indoor Macro Set

Lesson Info

Create A Simple Indoor Macro Set

In the first part of the course we've been in the great outdoors. We started off free and easy and then things became a little bit more complex when we started working with light. But now we are going to go indoors. And you know, for folks in Holland, I know that it's past sunset now and for people in Singapore the sun isn't up yet. So this section may be particularity relevant for you at the moment because in the next section we're gonna show you that you can still play with plants even when it's dark outside. Yeah. Oh, I was gonna say and also what's really great is the fact that one thing that we get asked literally every single day here at CreativeLive is how can I do this on a low budget? And that's what we're gonna show, Jim. Great. I don't think you need a budget of several thousand dollars. You don't need this whole table with cameras and lenses and gizmos that I've got behind me. Just to think back to the first section, remember when I went out with Kate and Doug, we d...

idn't have a single macro lens with us. We just used a simple telephoto lens and you could make that reach close enough into the flowers by just adding a set of extension tubes which cost you less than a $100. And the reflectors... I don't know, let's see. Well, we know what they look like by now. One of these magic wands, as I call them, with which you can shape the light and control the light, that sets you back less than a $100. So the tools are available and the tools are not very expensive. Great, well let's roll that video. Okay. We started outside but now we're indoors. I'd like to show you how easy it is and how creative you can be when you make a simple set and you add some talent. I've got a wonderful plant from Australia that I'm gonna put in the middle of this little table top set up. I've got a simple white backdrop. Two clamp lights, that cost you $60 or less. Set up on a small tripod and few clamps here and now we're gonna see what we can do when we switch the lights on. I've asked a friend of mine, Steve Kirks, to help with the lighting because he's really good at that. So that I can focus on working the plant itself and with our students. Hi, Steve. Should we switch the lights on? Sure. Here we go. These are LED lights and they're color balanced for 5600 Kelvin so they're basically daylight. And the simple start is put the plant on top of a white backdrop, very neutral. And Kate, do you wanna bring in your camera and we'll start nibbling at this plant with your macro lens. You've got a 105 macro lens that enables you to get very close. Let's start off by doing a vertical of this amazing thing. It's a Banksia plant from Australia and all these spiky things are the female parts, the style but we're not going to get into the biology. We're here to turn this flower into a piece of art. So we've got two lights. One that is aimed at the backdrop and then one that illuminates it from the side. What are you seeing? I'm focused on just the style parts, the rest is actually out of focus. What I usually do before I get lost in the details is I back off a little bit to do an overview. Movie makers call it the establishing shot. Once you get lost in the details, you may not remember that there's actually a whole flower that you're looking at. So let's frame it with some space on either side. Maybe a little bit at the top and come up with lighting that makes that look good. So this is more of a documentary picture. So let's see what you've got here. You haven't exposed the frame yet, right? Okay. You still have a lens cap? No. So this the beginning, this doesn't look very interesting, huh? I mean the lightning's not right so maybe we need to bring that light on the left side a little bit more forward 'cause right now it looks a little bit too shady. And maybe you need to overexpose a little bit to the balance for the white backdrop. 'Cause what the meter does is renders white as a neutral gray. So maybe overexpose by two thirds of a stop. See, that begins to look a little better in the background. But... still the lighting isn't very interesting. Steve, what do you think we can do to make this flower look a little bit more sculptural because to me it looks like a sculpture. We can move the light back a little bit so it's gonna rim light the edge here. And then we're gonna have to add some fill to the front. And we can do that with a piece of foam core, huh? Yeah. All right Kate, let's trigger another frame. Still looks like a piece of corn, don't you think? (Kate laughing) Yeah, so here's another thing that I think may help you a little bit. I see that you're triggering the camera with your hand. Yes. When I do extreme macro shots, I like the trigger of my camera via remote release and I have one here. So let's put this one in. This remote release makes it possible to trigger the camera without touching it and that's a good thing when you're working with subjects close where just the tiniest involuntary movement of the camera can ruin your picture. This is the transmitter and the receiver is on. So we've got the establishing shot. Maybe we need to get in a little bit closer. I mean, your lens enables you to get very close and to me these female parts these styles, the part of the reproductive strategy of the flower and that is where the eye candy is. Should we see how close we can get? Okay let's see how we can... So perhaps... Yeah, yeah, yeah that's, yeah. The flower's just sitting in a piece of foam that you can get at a flower shop. What if we try to... Just to back up a little bit. We moved indoors in a classroom at the Arboretum but look how simple the setup is here. This is just a table with a piece of white paper that is taped to the wall and then there's two lights, clamp lights we call them. I've got one of them with me here. This is the exact same light that we used in the setup and this is all you need. You can get these lights in a hardware store and as I mentioned in the video, two of them will set you back less than $60. They're continuous light sources so that makes it very easy to play with them because you immediately see the effect. You saw how Steve is moving the lights around so that you can go from the very simple front lighting to side lighting or back lighting. You don't have to pre visualize the effect because you're actually able to adjust the settings and and see the results immediately. What are the other props that are being used here besides the background paper and the two lights, a very simple tripod onto which you can clamp the light or you can clamp or mount to anything else. And then this piece of foam that the plant is stuck in, you can get that at a flower shop, it'll cost you $2. Now the plant, the talent as I refer to it earlier, that is something really weird. It's another one of these amazing plants that grow at the Arboretum but it originates from Western Australia. And it does look a little bit like a piece of corn but it's not the the structure overall that is interesting, it's all these intricate kind of biological details, the styles and the stamens, they'll give us opportunities to create abstractions. So let's go back into that. So instead of aiming at the center, you're looking at the outside. How are you framing it? Ooh, I like that. Yeah. Now, you're not even sure what you're looking at. It's becoming an abstraction. So it looks like you're apertures wide open and we're just seeing a few things in focus and the rest looks otherworldly. I'm not even sure whether we're still on planet earth or not but the background looks a little plain to me. This looks surreal so I wonder if another backdrop might help us-- A different color? Yep. So we have a couple of different colors here. We can start off with a green color perhaps and see what that does. See if we tape that over the white. That's a complementary color to to the orange. What do you think? Look what a difference that makes. Yeah? This looks more naturalistic. If you're interested to play with plants in this fashion, I suggest you get at least half a dozen different background colors. White, black, one or two different shades of green, a light green and a dark green, and then two different shades of blue, which can be perceived as a naturalistic sky, and then go wild. Get purple, get pink, and any other color that happens to be a personal favorite. So I vote for including orange too. So here's the tool kit. $10 from an art supply store. That's all you need. So let's roll the video. We're still working with a wide open aperture. Yeah, four and a half. What happens when you close it down? Let's close it down all the way. I mean with this lens you can go all the way to 51. So let's check with the loop. Yeah, we don't want to auto focus here because the lens really doesn't know what we're looking for. So this looks very interesting to my eye but yeah, perhaps we can play a little bit more with the light to see if we can make it more dramatic. See, Steve is orienting that light towards the background, it's lighting up the background but I would like to see if we can make the light on the right hand side a little bit more sculptural. What if you bring it a little bit forward. Bring it a little bit towards the camera position and aim it this way. Now, what if I play with that and you look through the lens and tell me whether you like the effect. I'm seeing some highlights appear on these styles. What do you think? Or do you like it better when... so if we move the light back this way then the styles are a little bit darker. They're a bit more backlit so we get a little bit more contrast. So let's shoot a couple of frames. So we're playing with light here. This is a continuation of working with light which we started outdoors using diffusers and reflectors and now we're indoors and we're still on the same theme. Here we're applying the directionality of light by moving these kind of LED lights around and at the same time we're playing with the background. You saw how Steve is adjusting the light to kind of shine a little bit more or a little bit less on the background. Release here. Let me move the light farther back so let's do another frame. Takes a little bit of time to process the image. And the aperture is now closed all the way, huh ? Maybe we give it a little bit more space on this side. Yeah. Okay but not too much because it almost looks like tentacles coming up from an alien planet. So if we keep, yeah we want to see... we want to see those things kind of yeah. Something like that. Okay. Let's try it again. And now let's move it forward. Now it's becoming lighter but we can expose a couple of frames but I liked it better with the more contrasting light. So let's shoot a couple of frames. Oh, this is good. See what you're doing now? Oh, this is interesting. You're bouncing more light in and now it's illuminating the front end and also just by pure accident kind of removed the flower a little bit and it's creating a very different composition. You see that? Sometimes interesting things happen by accident, right? Let's try this. Yeah. No, let's let's keep it that way. As we may not be able to recreate this. But let's do a technical check to see whether the center of the flower is actually in focus. It doesn't look like it. So maybe if you bring the, pull the focus back a little bit or move it. See now it's sharp. So let's do a couple more frames because we're in the zone now. Just one frame is not enough. So what we could do is... let's bring it back to full frame. Now, let's play with the position a little bit because we had it this way. Let's bring it out and try, want to show the tops of these things. Okay. We're still at F 45 so you have a maximum depth of field and I'm gonna move this light a little bit and okay. Let's bring. Yeah, let's bring that, yeah. If I move this a little bit more forward without touching the plant. So we're getting a little bit more light hitting it from the front. Now, let's shoot some more frames. Okay. Let's do another one. Do we look at the histogram? Yeah, histogram, we're not clipping anything. A little bit at the top maybe? So we'll then back off on the exposure. I would like to try one more thing, okay? We went from a white backdrop that was kind of plain to the green which looks really nice with that orange red color but let's see if we can get in really wild here. Let's change the color. Steve's bringing in a purple. Red and purple. I don't know if you noted that that Kate's got an L plate on her camera that makes it really easy to adjust it from a horizontal to a vertical position. If you have a regular plate just at the bottom of your camera that attaches to your tripod head then you have to adjust the whole tripod head if you're gonna move to a vertical position. The L plate creates a much Stabler way to put the camera in a vertical position than you could otherwise do. Are close to each other but this is not real. So now we're turning it into something that is truly created. And the purple works well with the red and the orange. Yeah. We can keep the same exposure, we can keep the same. I like what you said before, we may not be able to recreate this so let's take one right now. I'm going to take my hand off the set. We'll do it one more time. It looks a little bit light. Let's check the histogram one more time. So maybe we back off a little bit on your exposure. Make sure we don't clip any of the highlights. What if we back off on lighting the background a little bit if we make it a bit darker, it's gonna make the subject look a little bit more dramatic. Can you see the difference, Kate? Yes. I see where I want to. Let's look at this full-frame, okay? Let me apply to loop one more time. It looks very sharp to me. Now, just because of the possibility that we may like the softer look better let's open the aperture one more time. We've got the subject, we've got the lighting, we've got the backdrop. Now let's vary the the look of it. And let's look at it whole frame. Oh, very different. Take a look. Yeah, I dig that. You like this better than the aperture close all the way? So we're back with selective focus but what I like especially is the illumination on those spiky parts right here in the middle. Well I guess I was going to suggest maybe the other side of the plant? We can do that too, we can. You just scoot this over here. Leave the light in place and look at the other side. I don't like the lighting as much. Yeah that light is aimed at the background and we do need something at the background. So let's just stick with that side. So let's see if there's one other way to frame this. We've got this light in the back. Let's... No, no, no, this way, this way? What if you change your focus? Go through it see, okay now, yeah. Change your focus, come back a little bit. So now we're blurring out the base. So now we're seeing a little bit there. So this is the front? Yeah, that's the front. So let's just go through it and then this is interesting too, try that. Come back a little bit. How about that? Yeah, it doesn't look like a plant. Uh-huh. Let's capture it. This may not be as exciting a watch as a photographer pursuing tigers in the jungles of India but it gives you a good sense of what it's like to work with a set at home. We're in the Arboretum but that doesn't matter. You can do this at home and you see how methodical we are in working our way through different lighting arrangements, through different backdrops, through different focal points. And imagine you can do this at home with some music playing in the background, a glass of wine, and it is an absolute wonderful exercise in communing with flowers. It doesn't matter whether it is a banksia here from Australia or a bouquet of roses, it's really a way to slow yourself down and to interact with flowers in a very intimate peaceful setting. A couple questions if you don't mind, Frans. We're going to have from the internet over here. One person was asking... let's see what I want to start with. I believe Kate has been using live view to compose the pictures being taken, do you recommend using a live view when composing a macro photo especially in the studio? I was just going to address that. Well, there we go. Yeah, thanks for that question. Yes you did indeed see how easy it is to judge the different situations when you focus through live. You you don't have to put your nose right next to the camera every time so I'm not going to say that you should use live view constantly in macro photography. But for these kind of setups, yes, it's very useful. And can you reiterate the lighting, the light bulbs that you used. Yes, I wanted to come back to that as well, you've read my mind one more time. So these are LED light bulbs. They shine very brightly but they're not very hot so that's also really good when you're working with them in close proximity to flowers because if you have hot lights the flowers wilt much faster, which is not an issue in the case of the banksia because it's got a very stiff structure. But for roses and for lilies, you can't put hot lights very close to them for very long before they lose their luster. Thank you, I think we're good to move. Do you close your eyepiece or cover it so you reduce the chance of a light leak? You're all reading my mind because that's another topic that I wanted to address. There is so much light in that set that you're not really getting much kind of light creeping in from behind. Certainly not with these short exposures. You heard the shutter go off and it was in the range of a sixtieth to two hundredth of a second and the apertures are you pretty... Now let me back that up. There is such a big difference between the amount of light that reaches the plant and the ambient light in the rest of the room that I'm not concerned about that. Do you think a polarizer would change the quality of the light? You could indeed consider using a polarizer just to see what the effect does but I don't think there are a lot of reflective parts on that flower. And even if they would reflect, I'm not sure that it would be the right thing to apply a polarizer. When we look at the frame that Kate just produced, just before we started rolling the video again, in fact the specular highlights on these styles were part of the appeal of that particular composition. So just because you can apply a polarizer, it doesn't mean that it's always the right thing to do. Shall we roll again? This isn't cool, it's hot. Is there anything else you like to do while we've got this in place? Maybe we can go super tight. Even closer you mean? Yeah. It's amazing. Sorry, it was just a split second too late but you saw these reflections on the styles there. That was another part of the answer about the polarizing filter. I thought it really added a nice little gloss to them. How quickly you can go from a documentary picture, which is what we started with, to something that looks totally surreal. By coming in really close, changing the backgrounds, changing the lighting a little bit, we arrived at something that Kate thought was cool and I think it's really hot. What's also interesting is that we started by closing the aperture to reveal as much detail as possible but in the end the image that Kate liked the best was the one with the aperture wide open. So we're back to applying selective focus but this time we're doing it in a very small setting. That to me is the shot. The other frames we're beginning to see, now we need to go this way. See, I don't think we need that white but this is really lovely. So we're back with selective focus but now on the micro scale. Let's look at this. That's lovely. I think we're done with this. I showed you how easy it is to create a simple setup with backdrops and a couple of clamp lights under $100. You can get going. You can lose yourself in the world of plants. We used a specimen from the UCSC Arboretum. An amazing plant from Australia but you can go and get a bouquet of flowers and do this on your own kitchen table, no matter whether you're in Shanghai or in New York or any other city. You don't need to be outside to play with plants, you can do it on your own kitchen table. So Jim I wonder if Kate might offer up any thoughts that she has, now that she's seeing the video and she can add any other lessons from that experience. That would be great. Well, first off I'd like to say that your instruction and inspiration in willing to let me kind of follow my instinct with that subject was much appreciated and I wouldn't have made that image without it. One of the one of my personal favorite things is kaleidoscopes and one of the things that I love about macro photography is that selective focus that when you're looking through, especially with that flower, it changes like you're looking through a kaleidoscope and so there's so many infinite planes of focus in between all of those. A lot of it is just trying to find something that appealed to me and the female parts of the styles of the flower and the curve and then just with your help on the lighting and isolating the shape. For me, for the macro photography, I really like the abstraction of it and really concentrating on the shapes of the different elements of the plants and getting in really tight. That's one of my personal favorites about macro photography. So I would suggest to other folks to just look at the work that they've already done and look at the work that they're currently doing and see if they could find a trend in what they seemed to constantly like and then try to perfect that look or that element so that they had a larger body of work that was similar. But yeah, your your guidance and expertise was key for that. Thank you for your insight. Frans, I want to address this if you don't mind, we are getting a ton of questions about whether you ever do a tethered shoot. So connect the bit to your computer and view them in the studio live? All these questions are in my mind indeed so yes, in a situation like this it's very easy to envision kind of downloading images wireless via wireless means directly to your computer. We didn't do that. We stayed close to the camera but we could have easily done that. Great and just so we're addressing it, a lot of folks asking whether you ever use a cable release or usually use your electronic shutter? I don't use a cable release anymore because I find these wireless releases much more practical. With an electric release, there's absolutely no way that you create an accidental motion in the camera. If you're still wired to the camera, it's only a half solution in my opinion. James Koch would like to know when you're doing extreme macro, do you ever use rails or a leveling device to enable very slight minute changes? Now we're getting into very technical territory. If you want to take a step beyond what you saw us do here, in other words if you want to get even closer, yes then it's time to start thinking about a sixty millimeter macro lens, with extension tubes, and then you can add bellows but then you're into very precise territory. Where you probably start using strobes instead of continuous lights. I don't do that so much. That is really more for macro specialist. I like to stay a little bit closer to the visible world. I'm gonna have you set up this next video, Frans, from a creativity standpoint. I think we see things in your work where your creativity really comes out. Could you talk to us a little bit about how you find different ways to shoot plants, to shoot flowers, from a creative standpoint? Because we have the plexiglass set up coming up, you know where I'm going with that? Well, I can answer it this way. Consider that there's a continuum from finding situations and photographing them exactly as you find them. in other words, available light, subjects that are right there, that is what we started doing this morning. Applying selective focus and then we began to influence situations by working with the light and now we've moved indoors and we're replacing natural light with artificial light. We're replacing natural backdrops with artificial backdrops. Everything is arranged. So we've taken a step further from finding things to influencing things and now we're creating things. It's a different kind of photography but in my opinion, it is just as creative as interacting with things without influencing them. And I use the term making arrangements when I talk about these kind of setups. And we're gonna see more of that in the next lesson where things become a little bit more technical still than what we've just seen.

Class Description

The beauty of nature runs deep. Every growing thing hides whorls, patterns, and subtle shadings of color that escape the cursory glance. Macro photographers are driven to capture these secret details, but it can be hard to master the techniques that allow them to truly evoke nature at its best.

Join renowned National Geographic photographer and naturalist Frans Lanting for this class as he walks you through the Arboretum at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

You’ll learn:

  • How to take great impressionistic shots freehand
  • How to use combinations of natural light, flash, and light modifiers
  • How to set up beautiful and controlled images
Frans Lanting has documented wildlife from the Amazon to Antarctica, and has made a career of recording the beauty of nature in vivid, transporting imagery. In this class, you’ll learn how he has distilled the quiet joy of discovering hidden beauty, and bring it home with you. Best of all, you'll be able to apply these macro photography approaches and techniques in the field or even at home with a bouquet of flowers on your kitchen table. 


JIll C.

I had the pleasure of participating in this class as part of the live studio audience in the Creative Live San Francisco studios. I really enjoyed the format in which two students had been pre-selected to visit the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum for a photo shoot with Frans Lanting about a week in advance of the class; then the videos were edited and played out during the class. Frans stopped the video frequently to clarify and supplement the information provided, so we weren't just sitting in a room watching pre-recorded material. Nor were we just listening to him lecture for hours. It was actually a surprisingly dynamic format. I also enjoyed the final session in which student-submitted images were critiqued by Frans and edited by Jim Cetechi (Creative Live host) real-time. It was interesting to learn how our images could be improved with just a few simple techniques, e.g. cropping, contrast, highlights etc. - all done in Lightroom. Frans helped us to see the potential for perfection in each image. I was thrilled when he didn't find anything to "fix" in my images :) Frans seems to truly enjoy "playing with plants", and helped us think about how we can use our photography to portray the beauty and significance of the natural world. I like the fact that he helped us to think about the potential of photography as more than just a hobby. He is an enthusiastic and personable trainer, well-versed in all aspects of photography, not just macro photos. I can't wait to add some of his techniques to my photography arsenal.

North San Francisco Bay

This workshop will give you everything you need to start macro photography, appreciate macro photography, and/or take your personal skill set to the next level. Frans really is a fantastic instructor whose love of teaching is obvious and infectious. He provides you the technical tools, inspiration, and has a unique ability to help you refine your own vision while simultaneously broadening the possibilities of that same vision. His respect for individual artistry coupled with his fined tuned eye of decades of experience puts him in a very elite class of photography instructors. You can expect to have a list of gear (much of out inexpensive and very effective) to put on your wish list as well as the urge to immediately go out and try what you have learned. If you have gone so far as to read this whole recommendation then go ahead and purchase the class. You won't regret it. Have fun!

a Creativelive Student

Frans is an inspiration. Not only is he an incredible photographer, but also he is an equally wonderful teacher. His ability to explain both the simple and complex in easy terms -- as well is the ease with which he shows as he speaks -- makes learning from him a treat. You can also see him come alive with excitement as he 'plays with plants' which makes you all the more excited. So glad I was able to take this course with him! Thanks, CL!