Hi friends, Geraint here stopping by with a few tips and tricks on how to photograph macro subjects in your garden.

In case you missed it, there is a video to accompany this blog! On the Olympus UK Instagram page, have a look-see for the “Macro Safari” highlights.

Before we begin, grab yourself a cuppa and a pack of biscuits, you deserve it!

In these strange times, many of us photographers are limited to what we can do and where we can go. If you are lucky to have a garden, this is a great opportunity to explore the macro and close-up world.

The equipment I currently use is the epic OM-D E-M1 Mark III. This by far my favourite camera ever! The 7-stops of IBIS is an amazing feature for rock steady macro shots without a tripod. The extra stability helps in keeping my focus stacked images aligned. I’ve recently begun to delve into the Hi-Res mode and live ND features too!

My main lens is the super sharp M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm F2.8 Macro. Having an equivalent focal length of 120mm means I don’t have to get too close to my bug buddies and risk them fleeing from my (not so) handsome face.

When lighting becomes a challenge, either because it is too dark to achieve a decent shutter speed or the images look a bit flat, I use the FL‑900R Flash and a diffuser. The flash recycles very quickly which is super important for handheld focus stacking! The less time I wait between each frame the better because it will save a lot of strain on my noodle-like arms.

Sometimes our macro subjects are much smaller than our camera sensors, so we will need extra magnification to see them in all their glory. To do this I add extension tubes to my 60mm Macro lens. Extension tubes greatly reduce working distance, ambient light and depth of field so a combination of diffused flash and focus stacking will give better results than relying on natural light and high ISO. 

For macro beginners, I would recommend starting out by using natural light and a macro lens before adding in any extras. Try using aperture priority mode to control the depth of field but pay attention to your shutter speed and make sure things don’t blurry, if it does, you may need to open up the aperture or increase the ISO. This will let you get used to seeing the world through a macro lens, paying mind to light and composition and overcoming the technical challenges that macro brings.

Flowers are for wonderful subjects to photograph and unlike insects and mini beasts, plants don’t go run away. By photographing flowers, we can achieve interesting images by using natural light and hone our macro skills at the same time.

Here’s a quick tip to help improve your flower photography in a simple step …look for shade

Sunny days when the sun is high in the sky is great for catching a tan, but it makes photography difficult. Instead, try photographing in the shade. Here are some examples to show how this small change can improve our shooting conditions instantly.

1/1000, F4.5 ISO 500

Although the flower itself is rather pretty, our lighting is a bit harsh. Notice the lack of shadow detail around the stamen and anthers (the middle bit) of the flower. The highlights are distracting and our background looks uneven and muddy. 

1/200, F/4.5, ISO 500

That’s better! I simply positioned myself between the sun and the flower to provide some shade and voila! The picture has been transformed.

Shade provides less light so keep an eye on your shutter speed making sure that it doesn’t get too slow- especially if you’re shooting handheld or it is a bit breezy outside.

No more harsh shadows, no bright highlights and we now have a beautiful, bright green background that compliments the colours of this wonderful Anemone.

Depth of Field 

Balancing shutter speed, ISO and depth of field are a little trickier in outdoor macro photography simply because we are working so close to our subjects at the mercy of the elements. The smallest movement of either the camera or subject is greatly exaggerated. To remedy this, we need a fast enough shutter speed. Closing the aperture to get enough of our subject in focus reduces light which results in longer shutter speeds or higher ISO settings…it is a dilemma!

Many photographers will choose to wake up early in the morning before the wind picks up. This can allow the use of longer shutter speeds, lower ISO’s and a narrow aperture to achieve enough depth of field. It’s likely that a tripod will be needed as the exposures can be quite long.

Personally, I prefer to shoot handheld (especially for insects) because I find that composing is a lot easier this way but here are challenges that need to be overcome when shooting in conditions that are not so ideal.

1/60th, F/13, ISO 2000

While this isn’t the best picture in the world it is ideal to demonstrate a few technical things.

The shutter speed of 1/60th is at the limit for a breezy day. I was carefully timing the pictures as the wind stopped. There’s plenty of depth of field because I set the aperture to F/13 but I had to shoot at ISO 2000 to keep the shutter at a usable level.

Although the E-M1 Mark III handles the high ISO very well, I prefer to maintain a lower ISO in most situations. Thankfully, the geniuses at Olympus added my favourite feature to overcome this issue – In-Camera Focus Stacking.

I’ve already written a blog about the magical macro stacking, you can find it here.

The focus stacking mode can be found in the bracketing menu. With this activated, we can take a sequence of images that automatically moves the depth of field further into the scene with each image. Then, the camera will blend the sharp areas of each picture together into one JPEG file. Woweee! The unblended RAW files are saved to our memory cards so we can process them with our own software if need be.

1/80th, F/4, ISO 200

This jpeg image, straight from the camera, is made from a combination of 15 pictures shot at F4. Having this feature allowed me to reduce my ISO to 200 which results in much less noise, finer details and more dynamic range in the RAW files. The process sounds as though it takes an age but thanks to the speedy 15 frames FPS of my E-M1 Mark III, the sequence is shot in a fraction of a second.

After a quick coffee break and the miraculous multiplication of bourbon biscuits (see the Olympus highlights) I went in search of Jumping Spiders. These are some of my favourite creatures to photograph because of their adorable eyes and quirky characteristics.

Jumping spiders in the UK are quite small so I assembled “Mega Macro” set up to gain enough magnification and light to photograph them. This set up consists of two sets of extension tubes, my FL‑900R Flash and a 30cm flash diffuser. The flash and camera are attached to a flash bracket and sync cable to position the light directly above the subjects. I position the flash so that it is pointing down and away from their eyes, I really like the soft light and even shadows achieved by this angle.

The challenge with this set up (aside from the extra bulk) is the extremely short working distance. We have to be a few inches away from our subjects which can be difficult with bugs n such. The important thing to remember is that the well-being of any living being is far more important than our photography and we must do our best not to cause any harm.

Focusing on maximum magnification is done by physically moving the camera until the subject is sharp. It’s pretty fun following a mini beast around and seeing their little faces looking back at you!

I found a female jumping spider crawling down a wall, this made it tricky to get the plane of focus at her eye level. Try to get your lens parallel to your subject because this way, we get much better background blur and also, more of the subject will be in focus. To achieve this, I had the camera pressed as close to the wall as I could manage. My neck was almost twisted all the way around like a barn owl as I patiently waited for her to look directly into the lens.

1/250, F6.3, ISO 250 (4 frames focus stacked)

Almost! She was kind enough to stay still for a small focus stack, but she didn’t quite look into the lens. We can study all the fine details in her face which is lovely, but there’s no viewer to subject connection in this picture.

1/250, F6.3, ISO 250 (2 frames focus stacked)

Yay! That’s more like it! I truly love to create pictures where we can engage with these tiny beings. Direct eye contact like this is exactly what I hope for! We don’t have as much depth of field here, but we can connect with the spider and that’s more important to me than technical perfection. She helped me out a lot by striking a cool pose for the camera too! Nice lady.

Images like this are largely down to luck and patience. These fleeting moments are hard to replicate but that makes them so special and unique. 

After another cuppa and a few bourbon biscuits, it was time to water the flowers. What a great opportunity to capture some water droplets and work with snazzy bokeh effects!

I chose to photograph some images at the end of the day when the sun was setting directly behind my conveniently placed potted plants. Backlighting creates ethereal and magical quality when the light catches bright areas that are out of focus, we get cool looking, specular highlights.

1/640, F.3.5, ISO 500

Thankfully images like this are not very difficult from a technical perspective although we need great light, usually at dusk and dawn which makes for fewer opportunities. 

With the camera set to aperture priority mode, I can control the exposure in real-time, through the viewfinder simply by adjusting the EV value. This a great help in the world of photography because there is no guesswork at all, we see the results before we’ve even taken a picture.

I pop the camera into manual focus and then push the focus limiter of my 60mm macro lens all the way forward to quickly get to the minimum focusing distance. Focus is now achieved by physically moving the camera closer or further away until the subject appears sharp.

Now, it’s a case of exploring the flower and looking for nice compositions, depth and play of light before clicking the shutter.

Before heading inside, I wanted to play with the handheld hi-res mode feature of my E-M1 Mark III. I have seen this used by my buddy Tom Ormerod – an amazing landscape photographer – who has had incredible results. 

Honestly, I had some doubts as to how well it would work in close up photography where camera shake or movement is more of an issue.

I found a daisy who kindly agreed to be my test subject and to my amazement, it worked virtually every time! If the wind picked up and moved the flower, things looked a bit iffy but I had lots of tries in this situation.

The results looked awesome with lots of depth of the file. The pictures have different, almost 3D quality to them.

1/320, F5, ISO 500

Let’s be nerds for a minute and crop all the way in to look at the detail we can get…

We can see pollen floating the water drops! This is a very cool indeed and I really can’t wait to use this feature to photograph my bug buddies!

I do hope that this little blog was useful to you in some way and that you enjoyed the videos. Please do keep sharing your images using the hashtag #homewitholympus, we love seeing your pictures!

Stay safe, stay positive and I hope to see you at a workshop or an event soon!