The Micro Landscape
by David Bigwood
My introduction to the world of macro photography led me into a realisation that it is not always the big picture that I should be looking for when out to make my landscape images.
The flash of realisation hit me on a day when I ‘needed’ to make some pictures — as a photographer you will know what I mean — and the weather was against me. Uniformly grey cloud and lousy light are no recipe for great landscape shots.
With the itch in my shutter finger unsatisfied, I had to find a subject so I began casting around the area and, what do you know, there were dozens of them. Of course there were for those who have eyes to see. The big picture is made up of thousands, maybe millions of smaller pictures and this is what I had been missing. And for most of them I did not need my macro or close-up lenses.
It’s not only the weather that can be against the making of the big picture. Sometimes it is hard to avoid the crowds in a popular spot for example but if we are attuned to looking within the scene for its components and are able to recognise potential pictures among them then our frustrations at not being able to take pictures because of situations that are beyond our control can be relieved.
And the same applies when the big picture just isn’t right. Maybe it’s the light that is wrong — from the wrong direction, at the wrong time of day — or something in the scene is just not photogenic and it can’t be got around by moving it or moving our viewpoint. This happened to me some time ago when I went to the Snowy River in the New South Wales high country. The attractive scenes that I knew from a few years previously had disappeared in disastrous bushfires and the area had not fully recovered. There were dead trees everywhere and the whole area had a scrubby look about it. Its former beauty will come back but it will take a lot more time. So, in spite of the long drive to get there, any big picture scenes were out. I concentrated instead on close ups of some of the spring wildflowers that were brightening the river bank.
It was the weather that first forced me into exploring for the smaller pictures but now it is my natural approach to landscape photography. I do not shun the big picture but now I am loath to leave a place until I have made some images that show something of its intimate details. I have learned to not only look but also to see.
And, that is the first step to making pictures of the micro-landscape, the bits that make up the whole. You may have heard the comment by camera club judges, “a well seen picture” and that is what we have to be aware of when considering our photography. We have to look and then, more importantly, we have to see the picture opportunities that present themselves. We have to take our time. We have to immerse ourselves in the area. We need to feel for the place. We need to experience wonder at the age of rock formations and how, over millennia, they have been fashioned by wind and water, at the way in which trees and other plants survive in less than perfect conditions, how they cling to life and overcome obstacles by growing round and over them. We need to be in awe of the power of nature.
I try not to have pre-conceived ideas of what I am looking for as subjects when I begin to explore. To do so would defeat the object of the exercise which is to first look and then to see. However, depending on the location, there are some obvious subjects that crop up repeatedly. For instance, in the Snowy Mountains the twisted and contorted trunks of snow gums, the bases of the same trees which often incorporate huge boulders, the wildflowers that fill the alpine meadows in high summer, the fallen golden leaves of the deciduous trees in autumn and, in the winter, the plants that brave the snow, the creeks winding between snowy banks and the footprints of animals and birds in otherwise undisturbed snow.
On the coast, there are the rock pools, gouged out by centuries of water action, and their inhabitants, rippled sand, flotsam and jetsam, the plants that bind the sand, and the many wonderful shapes of rock platforms and the strata in cliffs.
Wherever you are, look up. Sometimes a wonderful, and generally fleeting, cloud arrangement will make a great image. And there may be a photogenic arrangement of leaves on a tree or at your feet. Check the trunks of trees, especially after or even during rain when the bark of some gum trees is magnificently coloured. Watch the swirling water in creeks — apart from anything else flowing water is very therapeutic and calming — especially where it ripples over boulders.
Then there are the grasses, especially when backlit or windblown, or flowers or fungi, or fallen trees or . . . the list is infinite.
Those are just some examples but it doesn’t matter where you go or where you live, you will find subjects to fill your viewfinder if you really look.
Close-up images of flowers are often better when made under overcast skies as the reduction in contrast suits the subject and enhances the colours. I carry a plastic sheet when expecting to do close-up work at ground level to make the job a little more comfortable.
When the light level is a little low, you may want to use some fill-in flash to enhance your subject. Most DSLRs will allow you to adjust the flash setting — my Olympus lets me adjust the flash output in one third stop increments. I have found that reducing the output by one or two thirds works well most of the time. In pre-digital days before the very useful histogram, I produced good results with a very basic flash gun by shooting through one or two layers of a white handkerchief. Not very scientific but it did work. But, do experiment with your equipment before you leave home!
Aluminium foil can also be useful to bounce light into your subject and it is worth carrying some in your camera bag. I have a Space Blanket which I bought many years ago which is very useful as a reflector. I can also wrap myself in it if I get lost and have to spend the night outdoors in low temperatures!
One question that crops up every now and then about the photographing of the natural world is: do we take the picture exactly as it is found or can we move things around and even import an item from somewhere else? As far as I’m concerned, that is up to you! For the record, I do clear away distracting items, some grass for instance, and I have been known to introduce a greenish leaf from a few centimetres away on to a pile of autumn coloured leaves to provide some contrast. But, if I can, I leave it as I found it. If I do make changes they are only minor. But, it’s your picture and your choice.
Whether you use digital or film, or colour or black and white, is immaterial. It is the result that counts and that result will come from your ability to see the picture in the first place and then from your technical know-how which will enable you to make the image.
I added this to my e-book Starting Macro Photography as I thought that it was a similar topic and that it might encourage the reader to really look into the big picture and find all those parts that make up the whole.
Starting Macro Photography is available in formats for tablet readers at Smashwords Here
Starting Macro Photography is available in formats for Kindle readers at Amazon Here