Photographing the Micro Landscape

When I began making pictures of the landscape, it was always the big picture that mattered. And I suppose it’s the same for most of us. It was a case of taking a few exposures and then moving on to the next grand view.

Then came the day when I needed to make some pictures—photographers will know what I mean—and the weather was against me. Uniformly grey clouds and lousy light are no recipe for great landscape shots.

micro photography

Photo by Gino Andenmatten; ISO 250, f/13, 1/200-second exposure.

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, it’s not only the weather that can be against the making of the big picture. Sometimes it’s 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 recognize potential pictures among them, then our frustrations at not being able to make pictures because of situations that are beyond our control can be relieved.

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 gotten around by moving it or moving our viewpoint. This happened to me recently when I went to the Snowy River in the New South Wales high country in Australia. The attractive scenes that I knew from five years ago had disappeared in the disastrous bush fires of January 2003 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. Big picture scenes were out, so I concentrated instead on close ups of some of the spring wildflowers that were brightening the river bank.

And, when I spent a week last year on England’s Cumbrian coast, the weather was less than kind but nevertheless I found subjects to shoot between the bursts of sunshine by looking into the landscape.

It was the weather that first forced me into exploring for smaller pictures but now it’s 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.

micro photo tutorial

Photo by Flickr user 鎮邦; ISO 1600, f/5, 1/1250-second exposure.

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 millenniums, they have been fashioned by wind and water, at the way in which trees and other plants survive in less than perfect conditions and 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 preconceived 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 Britain’s ancient woodlands the twisted and contorted trunks of old trees, the bases of the same trees which often incorporate huge boulders, and in the moorlands, the wildflowers that fill the 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 streams 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, the multi-colored pebbles, 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 trees, especially in Australia, is magnificently colored. 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 back lit, 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, you will find subjects to fill your viewfinder if you really look.

As far as technique is concerned, the important thing is to ensure that your subject is sharp and possibly isolated from the background by using a large aperture. Unless you’re using a fast film or ISO setting, a tripod will be useful, if not essential, to ensure that your camera stays focused where you want it and that camera shake does not ruin a precious picture.

If you want to make close-up pictures, a macro lens or a set of extension tubes will be necessary. I sometimes find focusing when using extension tubes a bit difficult especially when the lens is practically touching the subject. It is sometimes easier then to move the camera backwards and forwards to establish correct focus rather than using the focus adjustment.

Close-up images of flowers are often better when made under overcast skies as the reduction in contrast suits the subject and enhances the colors. I carry a plastic sheet when expecting to do close-up work at ground level to make the job a little more comfortable.

As the light level on grey days or in woods is sometimes a little low, you may want to use some fill-in flash to enhance your subject. If you can, adjust the output of your flash gun; aim to produce a flash about two stops under the exposure setting of your camera, which will produce a natural looking image. I have been able to produce quite good results at times with a very basic flash gun by shooting through a couple of layers of a white handkerchief. Not very scientific but it has worked. But, do experiment with your equipment before you leave home!

Aluminum foil can also be useful to bounce light into your subject and it’s 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 centimeters away on to a pile of autumn colored 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.

I have used film and digital to produce my micro-landscape pictures but what you use 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.

About the Author:
David Bigwood is a photographer in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia.

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6 responses to “Photographing the Micro Landscape”

  1. Andy Keeble says:

    A very interesting article. There is a whole world to explore but the patience required must be astronomical! However the resulting images are quite breath taking.


  2. Kathy Clark says:

    Very well said. I love seeing what is available just inches away. You never know what you will run across, especially with all the bugs in Alabama.

    Thank you for sharing this, very inspiring.

    Kathy Clark

  3. Some great tips here for micro photography. Thank you.

  4. Rob Gipman says:

    I’ts a fascinating world to indeed. took this shot as my first real macro with a 50mm lens reverted.

  5. Robert Guildner says:

    Thank you for this insightful article. Your suggestions apply to everyday life and just not photography.

  6. Neil says:

    Really useful article and I must say that you have a wonderful, almost poetic, style of writing.

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