Tips for Shooting Wildlife in Macro Mode – Free Lesson 4
Macro means shooting small, and close-up. You can shoot a portion of a large animal – like an elephant’s toenails, or you can shoot the entire body of a termite, and call either one “macro”. Generally, macro shooting is when you are so tight into the subject that the image that is hitting your sensor is around 50% of the real-life size (or more) of the subject.So, if your termite is ½” long, the size on the sensor is at least 25%. Most dedicated macro lenses shoot a 1:1 aspect ratio – so the image that hits your sensor is the same size as the subject being focused on.
Some telephoto lenses are capable of shooting macro shots. Some really cheap cameras, like my old Nikon AW100 waterproof camera, has a macro mode button – and I can shoot really close to subjects. The quality of the images will be poor with poor cameras, but with a decent SLR like one of the Canon or Nikons I recommended in “Lesson 1” – you can get great macro shots with little training.
Macro is one of those areas of wildlife photography where you can get REALLY GOOD SHOTS in a short amount of time. It’s an amazing area of photography because you are not even sure what you’re getting until you look on your computer at the images you took. I’m almost always impressed with myself when I get back and look at my macro shots. I think you will be too. It’s like a magic world to see the hairs on a bug’s legs, or the detail in a lizard’s eye.
The chance is much better that you’re going to get an amazing shot with macro in your backyard, versus shooting giraffes with a 600mm telephoto out of a jeep in Africa.
That said, to MASTER macro photography takes a lot of skill. I still don’t consider myself an absolute master. I’m always learning things that help me shoot better macro photos. I love that about macro photography.
Personally, shooting macro is what I prefer over everything else. When I head out into the forest, I almost always just carry one lens – my 100mm macro. It’s just so much easier to get better photos. It’s so much easier to have MANY opportunities in one night to shoot great shots. I highly recommend you get involved in macro wildlife photography as soon as possible so you can start producing cool shots others will flip over.
WHICH WILDLIFE MACRO LENS IS BEST?
You’re going to need a macro lens. At first, you can just use your 70-300mm lens and zoom WAY in on your subject. Or, maybe you’ll use your 50mm lens and put an extension tube on it. That works! Later, or as soon as you can afford it, you’ll want to get a 100mm macro lens – F/2.8. I strongly recommend you skip Canon and Nikon’s overpriced Macro lenses in this case, and go straight to the Tokina AT-X 100mm Macro lens. It’s about half the price of the brand names, and it is built twice as strong. I absolutely love mine, even though the manual focus broke recently after years of hard use. Still, the auto-focus works, and I’ve been using it like that fine for almost a year.
It may take some doing to snap out of the mindset that Nikon or Canon lenses are better than the Tokina, Tamron, or Sigma alternatives. Keep in mind that these last three companies make some fantastic lenses – even better than Canon or Nikon in some cases. Read the reviews about lenses before you buy. Buy for durability, not for brand name. The Tokina macro lens I mentioned is like a rock-solid tank.
ANYTIME MACRO TIPS
- Shoot RAW. This goes for every shot you ever take with your camera, unless you are running low on memory card space, or you need to shoot super-fast photos of some crucial scene and need the camera to be able to write to the memory as fast as possible.With my full-frame Nikon D610 camera (24mp) – a JPG file is typically 9.5MB and the RAW (.NEF) file is 31.5MB! Pretty obvious how much data disappears when you shoot JPG! That extra data helps HEAPS when you’re editing. Especially with light balance and exposure compensation. Please, PLEASE shoot RAW.
- Blower. Blow dry those bugs with a little blower bulb tool that is supposed to be to blow-off your lens to remove dirt. You can remove dirt from bugs and small animals too! I use it if I think I can do it without scaring or making the animal angry. With snakes – they take it as aggression, so that’s a no-no – but, with other animals – especially insects, no harm done, and it will make your macro shots all the cleaner.
DAYTIME WILDLIFE MACRO SHOOTING
- Supplement Daylight with Flash or LED Light. I do this quite a bit – especially now that LED lights on my headlamps are super white, and don’t put off yellow light. In fact, I have one Petzl headlamp that seems to be tuned precisely to daylight mid-day sun. When you add flash, or LED light from another source, try setting your light balance to flash, or sunlight – and see which gives a better result.
NIGHTTIME WILDLIFE MACRO SHOOTING
My favorite time to shoot macro is at night. I live very close to a couple of good spots where I can get into the rainforest for a few hours a night at least three times a week. During June, July, and August, I can be found in the forest 5-7 nights a week for three hours or more a night. This is the best time of the year to see heaps of animals because the eggs are hatching and there is an abundance of wildlife all over because the rains are starting.
I have dozens of people book me for field trips during these months. If you’re coming, I strongly recommend you come between June and November. These are the best months of the year for reptiles and bugs because the ground is wet and it’s warm.
During other months of the year I get out a few times a week, but I’m primarily interested in daytime shots and nighttime trail camera photos.
Let’s get into my tips for night macro photography…
- Don’t Go Crazy on Gear. I’ve been shooting macro in the forest with so many different photographers over the years. Some people bring tripods, remote shutters, a couple of macro lenses, and enough flash units to light up a football stadium. It’s just not necessary. In fact, I mentioned it somewhere else on this site in an article – I almost always shoot with just my Nikon D610, the Tokina 100mm macro, and a baby’s dried out wet-wipe held over my on-camera flash with a rubber band. I like it simple because when I’m walking through the rainforest in the rain, in 100°F heat, carrying and setting up anything extra seems like a real hassle.Could I get better macro photos by taking the time to set up more elaborate setups with more equipment? Sometimes – yes. Other times, no. It’s often the case that speed is essential, and I get the shots as someone else isn’t even half done setting up their equipment.There’s something to be said for both styles of shooting. You’ll have to choose which you think is best. It really depends on the animal subject and the environment you’re in. Sometimes the brush is too thick to pull a lightbox out. Sometimes it would be just far too much effort to pull out a tripod for your flash and try to get it balanced.
- Baby Wet-Wipe Over the Flash Trick. I sat in my room one time trying all different sorts of flash diffusers. Panty-hose. White paper. Plastic bags. Emergency gauze. Lens cleaning paper. I tried everything. Some of the results were OK, but I wanted something amazing. The next day I think it was, my wife handed me a wet wipe for my hands after eating something. DING! A bell went off in my head and I grabbed a few to dry out and try on the flash. It worked really well. I didn’t even have to adjust my color balance from the standard FLASH setting.I did need to fold the wipe at least twice, and sometimes even three times for certain animals. There are some snakes and scorpions which reflect a lot of light off the scales or keratin shell – and they require 3 folds. Wait, I’m saying that wrong. They require 3 layers. So fold the wipe into thirds and you’ll get 3-layers.I’ll say 95% of my macro shots at night were taken with this trick. One flash – on-camera – and one wet-wipe folded over it. Try it and see what you think. Results will vary, depending on the wet-wipes, I’m sure, but give it a try because there’s nothing simpler. I’d tell you the brand name of my wipes, but they’re Thai brand and you wouldn’t be able to find them unless you’re here in Thailand.
- Headlamp Light or Flash or Both? Just like you can supplement daylight with either the flash from your camera, or a headlamp or flashlight – you can supplement your on-camera flash with headlamp light too. While it is very rare that I add more light to the bug or snake, or whatever I’m shooting, I DO add light to the background foliage to brighten it up and give it some atmosphere.One of the issues with night macro photography is that you typically get very little of the background, so it’s almost always blah black. I tilt my headlamp up and at the background and shoot some like that to see if it adds anything to my images. Often it does. Usually it does.
- Preset F/16 and 1/200th Shutter. With my Nikon D610 I have two memory settings I can set to switch the entire camera to a pre-programmed state which has a ton of settings saved. I set my U1 dial setting to be all set for night time macro photography. The aperture is at F/16 and the shutter is at 1/250th sync. I don’t have to think about anything except popping the flash up.While these settings are not perfect for every subject, it’s a great starting point. I usually shoot one at these settings and see what the image looks like. I may subtract some exposure or add another fold of the wet-wipe over the flash to get the exposure right. Also, there are times I want a deeper depth of field, so I’ll crank the aperture smaller to around F/22 or even higher – and maybe only go with only two layers of wet-wipe.
See all Wildlife Photography Pro Courses here >
Free Lesson 1 – Gear Primer >
Free Lesson 2 – How to Take Razor Sharp Photos >
Free Lesson 3 – How to Get Amazing Bokeh >
Free Lesson 5 – 12 Pro Wildlife Photography Tips >