Reed frog, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

I like to photograph live animals "in situ" (where found) in their natural setting, so I shoot hand-held probably 99% of the time. The reason is pretty simple - in the time it takes to set up a tripod, your average bug will have run/hopped/flown away. Now and then I set up a table-top white box for "studio" portraits, but any critters photographed in this way are always released afterward.

I also virtually never use autofocus when shooting macro; some people do, but I find that with live subjects and such incredibly narrow depth of field, it's easier for me to subtly shift myself back and forth to find focus.

Now, as for gear :


Okay, that's obviously not true. In the right hands, a modern DSLR camera with high-quality lenses, a larger sensor, and better image processing software will definitely produce a sharper image with wider dynamic range than an older point-and-shoot camera. What I mean is, the brand name of your camera or lens, or especially the price of any of those items, isn't the only thing that makes a good photograph. You can take beautiful pictures with your phone or badly-composed, technically inferior photos with five thousand dollars' worth of gear. Photography is like any other art or craft or skill - you get better by studying and practicing your technique.

That said, to get the most dynamic range (amount of exposure detail between pure black and pure white) and high-resolution focus I like, especially in photos of small creatures, I use a DSLR camera (in my case, an "FX" or full-frame camera body). As for lenses, I use and have used several brands of macro lenses, extension tubes, reverse-mounted lenses, closeup attachments (Raynox), plus various wide-angle and telephoto lenses.

My setup these days is a Nikon D850, most often with the Venus Laowa 100mm 2X macro. But I've also shot with Tokina, Nikon, and Tamron macro lenses, all with and without Raynox attachments and/or extension tubes for extra magnification. But if all I have with me is my phone... well, that works too.

I also frequently use supplemental diffused flash when macro shooting. Live creatures are often on the move, and electronic flash helps freeze motion; in addition, extra light from flash, even in daylight, allows me to stop down to a smaller aperture and thereby gain extra depth of field (amount of the image in focus front to back), which is quite shallow when you're up close.

The key is using diffusion to soften the light; bare flash will leave harsh, blown-out highlights, which are especially noticeable on shiny subjects like beetles or frogs' eyes. (If you Google "homemade macro flash diffuser" you'll find tons of DIY options for making flash diffusers for little to no money.)

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Gear aside, I have four main pieces of advice for anyone getting into photography:

1.  CHANGE YOUR POINT OF VIEW. Probably 95% of pictures are taken from about 5 to 6 feet off the ground - the height of a standing human's head - and aimed at whatever's directly in front of the camera. So experiment: Climb up on something. Or get down on the ground. Or turn the camera sideways. Shifting the point from which you shoot is one of the simplest things you can do to make a picture more interesting.

2.  DON'T ALWAYS CENTER EVERYTHING.  Sure, some centered compositions are great, but not all the time. Want a quick lesson? Go to an art museum, or look at print/electronic advertisements, or pay attention to movie posters. You'll notice that often they place the main subject a little off center - either side-to-side, or vertically, or both. In composition there's a maxim called the "rule of thirds" at the root of this, but basically, it's a corollary to my previous point:  changing your point of view is about from where to look... changing where you put the subject within the frame is about to where to look.

3.  LOOK AT GOOD PHOTOGRAPHS. There are so many wonderful photographers out there - follow them on Flickr or IG or Twitter or check out their websites. When you do, you'll not only see what they see, but more important, how they see - and thereby learn a ton about technique and composition and lighting and gear. (Below, I've listed a few photographers I admire and follow.)

4. BE ETHICAL.  Nature photography is rewarding and can become pleasantly addictive, but no photograph is worth harming your subject or damaging the environment you're trying to portray. Here are two great pages on photography ethics, both by highly accomplished photographers:

Nicky Bay

...and Melissa Groo

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Finally, here are a few photographers worth looking up. I've been fortunate to meet, and learn from, several of them. This is far from a complete list!

Piotr Naskrecki, Alex Wild, John Abbott, Thomas Shahan, Nicky Bay, Jena Johnson, Gil Wizen, Chien Lee, Melissa Groo, Anton Sorokin, Jen Guyton, Pierre Escoubas, Clay Bolt, Roy Dunn, Suzi Eszterhas, Javier Aznar, Danae Wolfe, Keith Ladzinski, Thomas D Mangelsen, etc. etc. etc.

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