March in California is an interesting time of year. It's not quite Spring, but not really Winter. We get days that start out warm and sunny in the morning, but turn chilly and rainy later in the day. The flowers and trees start to bloom. Cloudy skies are reflected in puddles on the ground. It feels very much like the world around you is refreshing itself, starting over. As a photographer, you can do the same thing: refresh your skills or acquire some new ones. This is the time of year to take a closer look at everything and you can do that, literally, with Macro photography. Fine details, vibrant colors, and abstract textures all take on a life of their own when viewed through a Macro lens. It's a fun world to explore, you should check it out!
On a recent Saturday morning, we had two curious students come to our Aperture Academy Studio in San Jose, CA to join me in uncovering the mysteries of Macro Photography. With a small class, I knew I would be able to give my students extra attention and it would be a great day. Everyone arrived right on time, and I had set up everything we would need to learn a few things and hopefully have a lot of fun.
I like to start each workshop with some brief introductions so I can find out a little bit about my students and what their expectations are for the class. With only two students, introductions didn't take very long, so I moved right along with the rest of my presentation. The presentation covers some basic principles about Macro photography, such as, what characteristics are specific to Macro photography as opposed to "close-up" photography, some of the equipment that is available, and what makes a Macro lens unique. Next, I moved on to explain some of the more technical aspects of photography all of which apply to Macro photography. We covered the Exposure Triangle and how Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed work together to create your images, and how they specifically work with Macro photography. Finally, I reviewed the creative techniques of composition, including leading lines, rule of thirds. Understanding how the technical and creative principles work together will help you create images that tell a story. Then I showed some examples of where to find subjects to photograph along with images from my own portfolio so my students could get an idea of the endless possibilities.
But honestly, even the best presentation in the world can't beat hands-on practice! For the next part of the workshop, I had three pre-selected subjects for my students to work with, each one designed to highlight a particular aspect of Macro photography. Each student set up their tripods and cameras at their own individual light stations and then the fun began! Over the next 2 hours, my students were challenged to "see" each subject in a different way. I wanted them to see how the character of a subject changes depending on where the light source is, what angle you are shooting from, etc. Changing the direction of the light source can highlight details that didn't show up before. Changing the angle from which you shoot can showcase character details that would be otherwise unseen. But more than anything, I wanted my students to just have fun discovering what worked for them.
I have to say, this is my favorite part of the day. Very often, my students will come into the class thinking that they are not creative enough, or don't understand their cameras. But they soon realize, that with just a bit of gentle coaching and guidance, they DO have the ability to create mesmerizing images all their own. This is one of the best aspects of the Workshop environment. Students can try all kinds of different settings and adjustments and get immediate feedback and critique, which can really help solidify the new principles and techniques.
A very useful technique for Macro Photographers to learn is that of focus-stacking. We often find ourselves in situations that require us to shoot in shallow depths of field, either due to lack of light, or because we want a certain softness or tone to our images. Under those conditions, it can be difficult to get an image that is crisp and sharp all the way through and we end up with images that are sharp in some areas but not others. This challenge can be overcome by focus -stacking images. This technique involves taking a series of several images, each one with a different plane of the image in focus, so that when "stacked" in Photoshop, you get one image that is sharp all the way through. I took a bit of time and worked with each student to get their series of images that we could "stack" later during processing.
After I had gone through each of the pre-set subjects, we still had a little time before lunch break. This part of the workshop is where the students get to put into practice everything they had learned so far. With no further planned subjects to shoot, I directed everyone's attention to the side table where I had set out additional subjects that they could choose from to let their creativity loose! I always enjoy this part of the class. I can never predict what subjects the students will choose, and it is always fun to see what everyone connects with. It is challenging to me as well as I try to help each student bring their vision to life. I was delighted to see that my student's creativity had been unlocked and they were adventurously trying all kind of combinations of subject matter. I continued to work with everyone to help them capture their vision and it was clear that the concepts were becoming more familiar.
Soon it was time to break for lunch and while my students went off in search of something yummy to eat, I transformed the studio into the processing lab. After lunch, everyone settled around the table and quickly got to importing their images into LightRoom so that we could see what our creative minds had come up with.
The processing portion of our workshop starts with how to import, review and select favorite images in the LightRoom Library module. Then, we moved to the Develop Module, where I covered how to crop an image, adjust exposure, contrast and white balance. Next, I showed how my students how to sharpen an image and minimize noise. The final touch was to add some slight vignetting, just to emphasize the focal point of an image. At that point the processing was done, so I covered how to export their finished images, highlighting the settings designed for either web posting or printing. Whew!! That was a lot of information!
But we still had one more thing to cover... Remember that series of images we captured? We still needed to process them with the focus stacking technique. I showed my students how to select those images in the LightRoom catalog and open them in PhotoShop layers to align and blend for a final image that is sharp and crisp edge to edge. The final results were really wonderful to see! This is a technique that takes some practice, but now my students had one more tool in their photographic toolbag.
We were very quickly approaching the end of our time together, and I spend a bit more time addressing specific questions, and making some equipment and further workshop recommendations. But soon, with a final Thank You, I sent my students on their way to enjoy the rest of their day, ready to practice their new Macro Photography skills.
Until next time,
DeAnna and the rest of the Aperture Academy team!
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.