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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Macro-mania Home Edition

water droplets on rose succulent

With all the travel bans, social distancing, and self isolation going on right now in response to Covid-19, I'm going out on a limb here and I'm going to go a bit off topic to give you a couple ideas on what you can do in your own yard or kitchen to produce images with nothing more than what you have laying around the house already.

For those who are excitedly waiting on my trip report from last month's Winter Wildlife Tour, please bear with me and I will have that out shortly. Until then, I will continue sharing images over on my Instagram feed. If you don't have Instagram, that is not a problem as you can still view the images here, you just won't be able to like or comment.

Back to the subject at hand, macro photography. There is so much you can do at home with macro. All you need is a macro lens, like the Tamron 90mm Macro f/2.8 Di (which is the lens I used for all these images) or a set of macro extensions for lenses you already have in your kit.

The other items I used during these shoots were:

- indoor flowers/plants

- LED flashlight

- Plant misting bottle/household squirt bottle (can be found at the dollar store easily)

- Some water, soap, and olive oil

- Toothpicks

- Colorful paper or fabric

- Clear glass casserole/brownie dish

To start off, while I was at Costco picking up our usual weekly shopping as best I could, I noticed they had some very nice succulent garden window boxes for sale. So one that had good color and even a flowering stem on it came home with me, much to my husband's chagrin. If you have potted herbs, or mini roses, or a vase full of lilies, all of those would be just perfect to work with in similar style. For those who love plants, maybe you can use this as an opportunity to get "just one more," you know, for the sake of your photography.

Note: I personally prefer living floral arrangements over cut flowers, however, if you do not have the space to take care of a plant, flower bouquets can be used for this as well with amazing results.

Positioning the succulent box near a window that had nicely defused afternoon light, I started working with a very shallow depth of field. This shallow depth of field produces creamy colored backgrounds when highlights, such as light spots, are not present. It also isolates the subject and allows the details on the point of focus to really stand out.

rose succulent macro image

With the arrangement that I had picked up I felt that the compositions I found would be helped with a little extra something. So, using the squirt bottle, I lightly misted the display. This produced a whole new element to focus on within this intimate landscape. I particularly enjoy singling out solitary droplets.

water droplet hanging from flowering succulent
water drops on purple succulent leaf
water drop hanging from yellow flower

Note: Use a toothpick to help position droplets or remove excess droplets from your frame. It can be a bit tedious but I have found toothpicks to be a great help in directing the water exactly where I want it.

When doing this, you can get some interesting refraction within the water droplet. In the image below it is just some details from the kitchen area behind my set up. With a bit more planning, this can be done to reflect other flowers and various scenes. Just remember, it reflects upside down, so if you are using an image or prop that has a distinct top and bottom you will want to position it upside down to start with so that the final image within the droplet is right side up.

water drop on green succulent reflecting kitchen image

Another idea to keep in mind is your post-production work. During your shoot, I challenge you to look beyond the colors and shoot with lines, textures, and highlights versus shadows in mind. This will allow you to produce strong black and white images during digital development.

black and white of a bubble in water drop on succulent leaf

black and white image of a water drop on the point of a succulent leaf

As the day waned on, I used my LED flashlight to help add more light to the area. This has the added benefit that I can control the direction the light is coming from so I can choose to side-light or top-light areas as I shoot. Depending on your set up and what you have around the house it can be helpful to enlist an extra hand or two.

husband and dog helping hold a light

After a couple hours with this, I decided it was time to move on to something a bit different. This was a macro subject I had heard about but never tried before.

Downtime is often a great time to try those things you just haven't gotten around to trying due to normal life and the typical behavior of shooting what you love (and know) first.

I know it is going to sound simple and basic, but I actually found it to be rather a fun departure from my usual nature subjects. Oil and water!

blue and green oil bubbles on water

So the set up was very simple. I had a small decorative box with a colorful lid that I place near a window with defused light, same spot as the succulent garden. On top of that I set a small glass casserole dish filled almost all the way to the brim with tap water. You can do this prior to setting it on your colorful background (cloth, paper, or a decorative box, whatever), or you can place the dish and use a cup to fill it. Whichever method you prefer to prevent spills.

oil on water patterns

I then added two to three drops of dish soap (depending on the size of your dish you may want more or less). This is important as it will keep the oil from just pooling into one giant blob and will give the oil drops that defined round edge. Once the soap is in, I added just regular extra virgin olive oil. The amount used will depending on how "crowded" you want the oil in your images and how large a dish you are using.

green oil on water with blue background

Again, a toothpick here is helpful as it can help move oil bubbles around or even be used as a tiny whisk to turn larger oil bubbles into smaller ones without introducing too much air into the scene.

oil drops on water over red and blue background

For my setup, it was a bit darker than I liked, so I used the LED flashlight again as a side light. Positioning it low so most of the light was at the level of the water, it added nice highlights to the sides of the oil bubbles and brightened the background. This also helped avoid large highlights on top of the oil bubbles that might have obscured the colors from coming through in certain places.

oil bubbles on water over blue background

During post processing, you are able to clean up any tiny pieces of dust that may have fallen into the solution or any small air bubbles in the water that don't add to the image. This is another time I would suggest playing with black and white as well. Due to the repetitive clean lines the oil has, these images can be beautiful lessons in highlighting pattern structure when presented in black and white.

oil drops on water in black and white image

These two macro projects entertained me for quite a bit and gave me tons of ideas on how I might tweak them for different looks in the future. Hopefully they have given you a creative boost to help get you through times you are stuck at home. I will continue to look for new and creative ways to shoot around the house and encourage you to do the same. Create something unique or find something fun to try? Please feel free to share either in the comments or via email.

Bonus experiment: soap bubbles can also be beautiful subjects. I found them to be a bit frustrating to work with and feel a dark background and a more like studio-type lighting is needed to bring out the wonderful colors they can produce. Give it a try and see what you think for yourself. The only thing you would need in addition to the original list I gave is a straw to form the bubble.

macro image of a soap bubble

Within the next week I will have the Japanese Winter Wildlife tour report published, so until then, I hope all of you stay well and have fun trying these kitchen macro challenges.


Mt Fuji in Oil Bubbles

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