Unless we take the trouble to get on our hands and knees with a magnifying glass, we are unaware of the beauty of the little things that make this planet tick. Macro photography can open the door on this beautiful level of existence and Colleen’s presentation was a master-class on the subject.
Colleen studied fine art painting at college with photography as a secondary subject around 40 years ago. After a short spell teaching art, she went into the antique furniture business, but after attending a series of lectures by the Magnum photography David Hurn, she decided that photography was her career of choice. She now teaches photography, sells prints from her website and regularly has a stand at the Brighton Festival.
She lived in Brighton in a house with a roof garden and decided on a series of macro shots of flowers under water taken in bright sunshine. Using a Canon 350D and Canon 100 mm macro lens, she put together a Heath Robinson collection of props for the job, including a fish tank bought for a fiver at a charity shop, Quality Street wrappers for lighting gels, pound coins and Bluetack to weigh down the plants, and a towel for a backdrop. She found that air bubbles formed on the submerged flowers, adding to the abstract interest of the subjects. Flowers that worked best were white chrysanthemums, Gerbera and thistles. A tripod and remote release were used for all the pictures and the camera set to mirror lock-up to minimise camera shake at shutter release. This project resulted in a portfolio of prints that earned her an ARPS distinction.
Colleen moved on to macro photography of flowers in her garden and then insects, technically more demanding as the subject matter is less under control, and we were treated to a large number of colourful, stunning and beautifully composed photos. The insects were taken at many different locations but one of her favourites, especially for butterflies, was the chalk downland at The Gallop, Friston Forest.
Her advice with insects was to take them at the level of the beast, not from above it. This is less intimidating to the creature, looks more natural and less likely to throw shadows across it. The downside is you have to spend a lot of time on your belly. She was asked how, once at a location, does she find what she wants to photograph. She said you just have to switch off and spend a while looking. The site may appear to have nothing at first, but you may notice a slight movement here, a flicker there, and you suddenly become aware that the place is full of interesting subject matter.
With us still dizzy from a feast of brilliant images, Colleen devoted the second half to explaining the methods she has evolved and showing us the equipment she uses. She recommended setting the camera’s exposure to manual and the ISO to ‘Auto’. This allows you to set whatever aperture and shutter speed you think appropriate and the camera then selects an appropriate ISO – you just need to check it doesn’t use an ISO likely to introduce excessive noise.
Natural daylight is best if there’s enough of it, and she may use a white umbrella on a tripod if the light is too harsh. Where you need to use flash, a twin flash set is better than a ring flash as the output of each unit can be adjusted to provide better modelling. For holding reflectors in place or keeping a plant stem stationary, a Wimberley Plamp is very useful. It’s a flexible bar with a clamp on each end. But they are pricey (£50) and she found to her cost that it’s not a good idea to walk off leaving it attached to a branch!
For some still subjects where there simply isn’t enough light to get adequate depth of field, she uses ‘focus stacking’. For this you need to take a set of images, identical except that the focus is shifted slightly for each frame. The images are then merged using focus stacking software such as Photoshop; this masks all the out-of-focus bits of each frame and produces an image with the whole subject sharp.
Done manually, this is a really time-consuming process (she spent about 4 hours capturing a set for a group of puffballs). A really useful device that automates this process is the Helicon FB Tube. It’s like an extension tube that fits between the camera and the lens. It automatically shifts the focus by one step with each shot to produce the image stack. The Tube settings are configured using an App on a smartphone or other device. She had a one word answer when ask how it worked – “Magic”. It costs from $209 for Canon and Nikon cameras.
Finally, she showed us several portfolios of macro shots taken between the piers for the Brighton Festival. The subjects included seaweed, litter, dead fish, rainwater on tabletops and phone boxes – light relief for her compared to lying on her stomach in muddy fields.
I think Colleen’s teaching experience showed in this relaxed and entertaining presentation. Some speakers deliver at such exhausting speed it’s impossible to process the information fast enough without my brain going into meltdown. However, this talk didn’t flag from start to finish and I’m sure everyone must have enjoyed it as much as I did. Thanks Colleen for a brilliant evening.