Macro Photography Overview


The Art of Seeing: Macro Techniques for Flowers and Plants


Lesson Info

Macro Photography Overview

The Arboretum is an amazing place. On a spring morning, you can see a scene like this. I made this with a telephoto lens, I closed my aperture all the way down, and it's just endless texture. Layers of colors and details, but that's one end of the spectrum. I'm also going to show you how you can create a more impressionistic rendition of the same scene. Same place, same time, same lens, but now the aperture is wide open, and that is what I call "playing with focus." You apply a selective focus and you shoot through a foreground and then everything becomes a blur. And I've been doing that for much of my career. Since my very earliest days when I was photographing plants in a city park in Rotterdam. I didn't have the means to travel. So, I would sneak from my courses and spend a couple hours playing with plants. For this image, I pushed a wide-angle lens straight into a flowering bush. There's nothing in focus, it was just a blur of color, and a hint of texture in the background, and tha...

t's what one of my students, Sirjahn, did in the Arboretum just two weeks ago. Pushing his lens close to flowers in the foreground, and looking for a hint of color behind. Here's how I do this: I look for a subject in the middle ground, and then I look for a foreground that I can walk close to. And in this case, it's a small oak tree that is sitting in front of those red colored protea bushes. Then, I walk a step closer, and you can see the oak tree becomes a blur, and the specular highlights are beginning to show like highlights. And I come a step closer still, and now, that oak tree is no longer specific. It becomes a means to a very colorful end. And I come closer, still, and now the specular highlights become twinkling shapes, and I combine them with a soft-focus in the middle ground, and that is when I get lost in my subject. Every frame is different, and in the video, we're gonna see some more examples of exactly how we did that morning in the Arboretum. Every frame is different, I don't even know which one is the best, but I sure knew that I liked that experience. This is how Zurika applied the same principal to a Lupine. One Lupine in focus on the right hand of the frame, and another Lupine in the foreground that she used as a vail. John Pertoni, also with us in the Arboretum that morning, likes to use a really long telephoto lens, a 400 F28, which is not commonly used for plant photography, but John really makes it work for him. Look what he did here in early morning light. One flower in focus, and the rest is all foreground and background. The wider your opening is in your lens, the more smooth your foreground and your background becomes. In technical terms, there is now referred to as the Bokeh effect. It's a Japanese term that refers to something that is out of focus. This is the ultimate consequence of this selective focus play. John had been photographing things very crisply, his aperture was always closed down, but on that morning, he said "Who says that anything needs to be sharp?" "It's about flowers. It's a feeling." Look how beautiful that is. Pure color. Now, if you feel a little stuck, and I've seen that happen with people, who come from years of photographing traditions, where everything is supposed to be sharp. Here's a device that may help you on your way a little bit. It's called a lensbaby. They're soft focus lenses. And I like to apply them to flowers. This is a scene in the arboretum we showed it in the previous frame, how wonderfully it looks but here, the same scene is all dissolved into pure color. Lensbabys work very well when you apply them to repeating patterns, like these geraniums. And even a simple park sign in the arboretum will turn into an artistic statement when you apply a lensbaby to it. Here's one more example, a spread of poppies, looking straight down, and you can see how the poppies on the sides are all turning into blurs. And I sink to my knees, everything turns into a wash of color. A spiky agave plant, also dissolves into smooth contours. And this is actually the same plant, but rendered in another way, camera on the tripod, everything sharp. Now, I'm not saying that one technique is better than the other, but I'm going to show you today how you can make a conscious decisions depending on what goes through your mind. How do you respond to a subject? I'm gonna nudge you in one direction, or another. And then, there's light. Light is the magic ingredient. I'm gonna share with you some very simple lessons about qualities of light. When light comes from behind you can play with specular highlights, and then you have backlight, in this case, hitting a palm frond in the tropics, it highlights the shapes. That's what Eli did in the forest one morning. Found these leaves, kind of found the dark background, and is working just with the quality of light that emphasizes the shapes. And the light comes from the side, "crosslight" or "sidelight" we call that, it emphasizes surface texture, and when you have direct light coming from the front, it emphasizes color. But that's a very linear way to look at light. The magic light often happens when you're right at the edges. The edges, where direct illumination meets shadows. Look at this wonderful image by Mark Deconts, of an agave plant. Still, a few edges illuminated by the last sunlight, and behind it is the blue twilight. That is the magic radiant. Early morning we know is fantastic time to be out there photographing plants, that's what Larry Way did in the arboretum. When the light is even, you get the best of everything, in my opinion. You can see shapes, you can see texture, and you can see color. But unfortunately, the light isn't always as pretty, it isn't always as even, and that is where the magic tools come in. This is a diffuser, I'm gonna show you in the corse of the videos and we'll do some demos here, how we apply that, too. And that enables me to work with light. And that tool makes it possible, in a situation like this at high noon, this is a plant, another plant from the arboretum. Harsh shadows, we can replace that with glorious light. Same plant, same time, different tool kit. So, here is some of our students in action at the arboretum, one of them is holding up a diffuser and another one is bouncing light back into the situation to illuminate this flower in the center, which is becoming the equivalent of a floral movie star. 'Cause these are techniques that were first developed in Hollywood, by movie makers. How to improve lighting to make the stars look better. Then, those techniques were applied by studio photographers for years, applied to portraiture, under controlled conditions. But now, we have the same tools, and we can apply them outside. You can use these diffusers as backgrounds, as well. Backgrounds do matter. Many photographers tend to become preoccupied by their subjects. I spend as much time scrutinizing backgrounds and foregrounds as I look at the subject itself. Here's a very dramatic example. I illuminated this aloe in Madagascar, with a strobe and highlighted it against the sunset sky. This is a more common kind of background, complementary to these leaves of a Mopani tree, using a long telephoto lens, aperture wide open. And here's a set of three images that shows you how simple the steps are that enable to go from something that looks pretty ordinary, to something that looks much smoother, just by opening up the aperture and by moving a little bit, Chris Mccormic was able to create this image, and then we suggested, well, can we change the background? And we brought a piece of black velvet with us and put that behind the flowers, and now the colors are really punching. I use artificial backgrounds a lot. I did a photo essay about orchids and my concept was to make them look like jewelry. So, I applied black backgrounds, and then the same flower, I photographed again with a dark blue background. And then with a pink background. And you can see the different moves evolve. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but it is playing with plants. A pastel background, emphasized the orientalism in this spray of orchids. I mean, you start paying attention to certain combinations of colors, like blue and yellow, things become super special. Here's how simple it can be. For this photo essay, I went to a couple of orchid nurseries around the Monterey Bay, asked for permission, if I could photograph their flowers, and I set up a simple set outside in the nursery, in the north facing part of the greenhouse, and then take some background colors to the nursery walls, brought in some specimens, held them in place with plant clamps, and then started playing with light. Applying reflectors and diffusers. That's how simple it is, that's how simple it is to create the set. In the course of today, I'm gonna show you how we make this set, and what we do in there it's a piece of plexiglass with a strobe underneath and that is a really good set to do anatomical details with. This is a picture that Thomas made in the arboretum. I mean, you come in more closely, you can show the details in a single leaf. That's what Paul Zeresky did, he just put a leaf on a light box. This is a more professional set. These are three continuous lights, wrapped in soft boxes, and the start in the center, is lucas burman flower from South Africa. And this is what George Cameron did with it. It's a starburst. Zorika spent an hour photographing the fine details of this grevillea flower. And decided that the white background was the one that she liked the most. Here's another amazing specimen of flower from Australia, a banksia. Neutral lighting, everything is evenly illuminated from three sides. This is where the light becomes more sculptural. And in that situation, John made this image. Now, he's getting in really close. In the sets, these simple sets, you can do all kinds of things. You can photograph the life cycle of a flower. You bring a bouquet of flowers into your set, and then you see them change shape over a period of a few days. George did this in the course of one morning. One poppy unfolding, and then two poppies side-by-side, the beginning and the end of the life cycle, and then the fallen petals, on a piece of black velvet. How simple is it, and how effective it can be as a set of pictures. Some special effects, and we're going to elaborate more on those later in the day. Who says that you have to be stationary to photograph flowers? Why not run through a field of wildflowers? And see what the effect is: a blur. Or, you put your camera on a tripod on a windy day in front of some plants and then let the wind do it's magic. This is a long exposure of several seconds. And Thomas decided to rotate his camera in front of some flowers and during a long exposure, he created blur. Mark decided to zoom in on these purple asters, and Kevin decided to use a spray bottle. A little bit of water, illuminated from behind, and that created that amazing effect. Peter, who came to one of our workshops, all the way from Holland, he took a break from flying a 747, and did this ethereal combination, two exposures, put together. One of blue flowers, and superimposed on that, a pink leucospermum. I like the effect of creating collages with multiple exposures. Here's how simple it is: Jo Lynn found a tree trunk that's the first frame, some grevilleas right next to it, layers them on top of each other, and this is the final result, this is two minutes. And I'm gonna show you how easy it is to do that using particular settings in your camera. In the course of one morning, during our recent workshop in the arboretum, Cathy did this multiple exposure, and then Gabriel, 16 year old, never tried this technique before, walked away with this gorgeous image. That's how easy it is to play with plants. And I'm gonna show you today, how you can do this for yourself. Macro photography doesn't have to be daunting. You can do it with simple tools, you can do it anywhere, no matter whether you live in a high-rise in Shanghai, or whether you live on the west coast of California. Let's go play with plants.

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.