TECHNIQUE — 15 tips for rainforest macro

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.

A shiny red beetle in a lowland Costa Rican rainforest. (Gregory Basco)

I took this photo of a small beetle in a lowland rainforest with one diffused flash. Flash was the only light source; no ambient light influenced the exposure. A natural light shot would have been impossible due to a slight breeze and the fact that the subject was moving around. Flash allowed me to work handheld.

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.

Epidendrum orchids in a cloud forest (Gregory Basco)

I used a touch of fill-flash (flash exposure compensation was -2) for this image of tiny Epidendrum orchid flowers shot at 1/15 of a second.

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.

a moth caterpillar traverses a Heliconia inflorescence in a lowland rainforest (Gregory Basco)

One flash held off-camera above and behind the subject allowed me to highlight the texture on both the Heliconia inflorescence and the moth caterpillar for this image. I liked this image because the lighting looks very much like what one would get on a sunny day in the rainforest – directional lighting and deep shaded backgrounds.

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.

a morpho butterfly (captive) with dramatic light on rainforest understory palms (Gregory Basco)

The main lighting here was one off-camera diffused flash (triggered by a wireless flash transmitter and held by a friend) to ensure that most of the lighting effect came from above and behind, as if a shaft of sunlight had penetrated the canopy and reached the rainforest floor. This was taken in a butterfly enclosure and, yes, the beautiful blue morpho was very much alive!

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.

a katydid is well-camouflaged on a lichen-encrusted cloud forest branch (Gregory Basco)

I took this image of a katydid just behind my house. It was camouflaged among the mosses and lichens on the branch of a wild fig tree on my neighbor’s farm. An off-camera flash and a silver reflector added some light on this dreary cloud forest day.

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.

a glass frog at night in a cloud forest -- lit entirely by flashlights (Gregory Basco)

I used three maglite flashlights (I held one, a friend held the other two) for this image of a nocturnal emerald glass frog. The bands of light and shadow would have been difficult to duplicate with flashes, even with snoots.

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.

a colorful walking stick near Tenorio Volcano national park (Gregory Basco)

An aperture of f/5.6 helps to draw the viewer’s eye to the eyes of this colorful walking stick. The shallow depth of field also produced some cool out of focus shapes and colors.

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.

leafcutter ants work as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean (Gregory Basco)

Leafcutter ants are always fascinating but what caught my eye with this scene was the setting sun and its reflection in the Pacific Ocean. Metering for the sky, I chose to silhouette the hardworking ants to produce a unique image of these amazing little creatures.

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!

an emerald glass frog on a Calathea leaf with vine tendril silhouette (Gregory Basco)

I took this glass frog image at night but with the nice Heliconia leaf and a tendril from a neighboring vine, I wanted a sunny backlit scene. One flash held off-camera did the trick.

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.

a strawberry poison frog (Oophaga pumilio) on the rainforest floor (Gregory Basco)

I was down low for this eye-level shot of a strawberry poison frog in a little mushroom on the rainforest floor but the effort paid off. Using your elbows to stabilize yourself while lying on the ground can be a big help. I shot here with an aperture of f/2.8 to help with shutter speed while handholding and also to blur the background.

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.

a Heliconius butterfly pollinates a Jatropha flower (Gregory Basco)

This image combines a slow shutter speed with two off-camera flashes to show a mix of sharpness and wing blur.

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.

Many rainforest plants gain protection against predators from ants. The plants produce extrafloral nectary glands, which the ants use as a food source. In turn, the ants protect the plant from caterpillars and other predators that would eat the leaves and stems of the plant. These ants are drinking from extrafloral nectary glands of a vine in a Costa Rican lowland rainforest. (Gregory Basco)

Many plants in the rainforest enlist ants as protectors. Extrafloral nectary glands on the plants attract the ants, who then defend their food source from plant predators such as caterpillars. I took this image with a tripod because of the very low light. I wanted some natural light for a green background, which would have been difficult to pull off going handheld and using flash as the main light source. A bit of fill-flash helped to increase sharpness at the marginal shutter speed of 1/30th of a second (and I was at ISO 1600!).

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.

a caterpillar on mushrooms in a cloud forest in the Central Volcanic mountain range (Gregory Basco)

I took this image of a caterpillar while lying on my belly on the floor of a cloud forest. I used a full-frame camera body and my 100 mm macro lens to shoot up at the caterpillar and the mushrooms to give a sense of the towering cloud forest that is home to this little creature. A diffused flash held off-camera in my left hand helped to add a bit of fill and dimension to the subject.

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.

an abstract shot of a curled coral snake (Gregory Basco)

I got in tight on a coral snake (captive but still very much alive!) with a 100 mm macro lens and shot at f/2.8 for this abstract image. I liked the molten gold look to the scales and the surrounding color wash. Two diffused flashes provided the light.

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.

green-crowned brilliant hummingbird very close up (Gregory Basco)

I took this full-frame image of male green-crowned brilliant hummingbird with a 300 mm lens, 2x teleconverter, and a 25 mm extension tube. I used fill-flash to temper the rather harsh mid-day light.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Feel free to leave comments or hit me up with questions below!

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blog category = technique blog category = behind the lens blog category = philosophy blog category = gear reviews blog category = digital workflow The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography support deep green, see my sponsors subscribe to the Deep Green newsletter subscribe to Deep Green blog updates
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Greg is a professional nature photographer specializing in tropical rainforests and also runs Foto Verde Tours, Costa Rica's first and only travel company dedicated to photographic tourism.

8 thoughts on “TECHNIQUE — 15 tips for rainforest macro

  1. Thanks, Fab. You see I made a change mid-stream. Actually I’m still making some more changes this week to the image archive sections but the main design is done. Glad you like it!

  2. Since I have signed up to attend the Costa Rica workshop with you and Doug, I thought reading your blogs would be interesting and prepare me for your point of view. It does. I especially enjoyed the macro and bird essays.
    Adding to the bird approach, I disagree with the general conception that the subject should be isolated from the background. I particularly enjoy photographing birds and critters that are camouflaged and my be hard to differentiate from their background. In the macro article, I found the katydid photo particularly interesting, as it demonstrated the camouflage.

    See you in Feb.

    Joel Goodman

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