Macro photography, defined loosely, is the photography of small things. In temperate zones, where habitats tend to be more open and blessed with nice morning and afternoon light, macro photographers often use tripods, small apertures, and natural light. This approach can produce wonderful images.
In tropical rainforests and cloud forests, however, light is at a premium, particularly in the deep forest where the interesting plants and creatures live. Costa Rica, where I live and work, originally was 99.5% forest. That number is a lot smaller these days but the areas outside of forest are cities, towns, agricultural fields, and cow pastures. To photograph the abundant macro subjects here, you have to get into the forest!
The lack of light means that the traditional temperate zone approach, even with the improved high ISO performance of modern DSLR camera bodies, can be applied only sparingly in the rainforest. The rainforest macro photographer needs to experiment with other techniques. The advantage is that this experimentation can open the door to creatively fresh images.
Any photographic portfolio is made more interesting by showcasing a diversity of image styles. In this little article, I offer fifteen ideas to help you deal with the challenges of rainforest macro photography while at the same time producing original, artistic images of the stunning biodiversity found in tropical rainforests.
1. Use diffused flash
The low light levels mean that flash can be your best friend in the rainforest, as it allows you to obtain good depth of field with reasonable shutter speeds. This also gives you great flexibility as you can work handheld rather than trying to thread tripod legs through the tangled underbrush while your subject just hopped away to the next leaf. Rainforest creatures and flowers are wet and shiny though, so you’ll want to make sure to diffuse your flash. This suggestion stands whether you’re using a built-in flash, a dedicated macro flash, or a larger hotshoe flash. Work carefully, and you can achieve full-flash images that look like they were taken in daylight.
2. Combine flash and natural light
You don’t always have to ditch your tripod. I still use mine when I can. Even when working from a tripod and using natural light, however, a bit of fill-flash can really help to make your subject pop and to add extra sharpness at marginal shutter speeds.
3. Get your flash off-camera
Though at first glance, rainforests are just a bunch of smooth shiny leaves, there’s actually a lot of texture out there. Using flash on-camera, that is directly from the front of the subject, tends to wipe out texture. In addition, frontal flash is rarely very interesting. Getting your flash off-camera, either with a TTL cord or a wireless flash trigger, is a great way to add interest to rainforest macro photos by bringing out the texture in your subject and also adding micro-contrast, which makes photos appear even sharper.
4. Use shadows for a mysterious look
Rainforests rarely have even, open light. Shafts of light piercing the canopy and the resulting mix of light and shadow is more typical. Sometimes the natural light works in our favor and can give really dramatic images. Other times we can achieve a similar effect with our flash. Remember, in these cases and in the case of nocturnal creatures, black backgrounds can be completely appropriate and can add a dramatic though natural-looking element to rainforest macro images.
5. Look for interesting compositions
Though macro lenses are great for focusing on the details of small subjects, it’s important to remember that interesting compositions are key for any type of photography. Pulling back a bit to frame things more loosely can add interest. One great way to find interesting compositions is to look for instances of camouflage, which are abundant in the rainforest.
6. Use a flashlight
Flashlights can open up a world of possibilities for nocturnal subjects. Flashlights with adjustable beam spread allow the photographer to control precisely where light and shadows fall. In addition, some parks and preserves may have rules against using flash for wildlife. Note that flashlights won’t put out the same amount of power as your flash, so be prepared to bump up your ISO.
7. Use shallow depth of field
When we think macro, we usually think small apertures. Depth of field is so small at close focusing distances with macro lenses that apertures of f16 or even smaller tend to be our go to settings. But shallow depth of field can work just as well in closeup photography as it does in other types of photography. Play around with larger apertures to focus attention on one part of the scene and also to bring out different out of focus shapes to add interest.
8. Look for interesting backgrounds
Since macro is often all about the subject, many macro photographers look for glass smooth out of focus backgrounds. If you think of your portfolio though, remember that a collection of similar-looking images can get stale pretty quickly. Looking for different types of backgrounds can give you valuable spice and variety in your rainforest macro portfolio and can also aid in composition.
9. Use backlight
Sunny days in the rainforest can make things difficult for nature photography. Rainforests’ proximity to the equator means that light is extremely contrasty. But bright midday sun also can produce great backlighting, which can make your subjects glow. Want backlighting but don’t have any sun? Use your flash!
10. Get low
Shooting at eye level is helpful in all types of photography, from wildlife to portraiture, and it’s no less important for macro photography. The difference is that getting low for macro can be pretty uncomfortable. Getting the front of your shirt dirty will be well worth it though.
11. Capture movement
Macro photographers often are praying that their subject will stay still. This is understandable of course, but portraying motion also can be a great idea. Try it with subjects like butterflies. And remember, blur can imply motion more effectively than frozen sharp wings.
12. Tell an ecological story
The complex ecological interactions of the tropical rainforest are best represented in the macro world. If you know your biology, you can come across some very interesting relationships and tell a great story with your macro lens.
13. Show some scale
Often, we macro photographers become obsessed with getting as close as possible to our subjects. But to add diversity to your portfolio, consider wider compositions showing just how small your subject is.
14. Go abstract
Some of the coolest macro images might not even be identifiable. Go in tight on details of your subjects and look for patterns. Try using shallow depth of field and different lighting techniques to go even more abstract.
15. Use non-macro gear
You don’t always need a macro lens to do macro/closeup work. And you don’t even need a traditional macro subject. Use a diopter with a medium zoom lens or put extension tubes and teleconverters on a longer prime lens to capture surprising closeup shots of birds and other wildlife.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Feel free to leave comments or hit me up with questions below!