Macro Photography

An Intimate Way To Look at the World

Story and photos by Lara Hartley

Gilia latiflora ssp. davyi is one of many common wildflowers that can be part of  a multicolour carpet of wildflowers in the desert or lining the sides of the road.  But a close-up look at these delicately-coloured blossoms shows they look  anything but "common."

Slowly, quietly, I crawled on my knees over the rocky desert pavement in the Eastern Mojave Preserve in Southern California, trying not to disturb any wildlife.

I was decked out in my signature hunting gear (stained, tacky khaki pants and a decrepit T-shirt), and the latest in knee pads from Wal-Mart (because the key word in "rocky desert pavement" is "rocky").

I set up my gear and tried not to breathe as I slowly fired off a shot.

Darn. The wind blew and the flower moved out of focus.

I bent again to focus on the minuscule bloom and tried again and again and yet again, until a good image was created.

SAN LUIS MARIPOSA LILY: Calochortus obispoensis was a real hunt and special find in the summer of 2007. It is about the size of a quarter, and in some cases smaller. This treasure was photographed while I was hanging off a slippery slope near San Luis Obispo. Sliding, tripping and falling seem to be part of the hobby. This time I broke my toe.

"Why?" you might ask.

Is it the hunt for the unknown? The uncertainty of finding what one is looking for? The exhilaration on the capture of the prey? The bug's eye view?

All of the above and more - to see what is obvious and yet hidden - because deep within each flower bloom is another world.

People like Linda Cooley and Steve Hampson, of the Kern County chapter of the California Native Plant Society, loved hunting wildflowers.

"Wildflowering is a great excuse to go hiking and camping in interesting places," said Steve, who had degrees in botany and computer science. "Every trip is a big Easter egg hunt."

Linda, who teaches junior high school science, is an advanced amateur botanist. "Once I went to the Osoyoos area of Canada just to see the cactus that grows there!" she said.

Before Steve's untimely death in 2007, they would spend happy hours sitting in a meadow determining a plant's species or exploring the remote Poison Canyon in the eastern part of Kern County. Even in a dry year, there are some annuals and perennials that surprise us with tiny blooms emerging from the canyon's desert sand.

Another flower photo using the Canon G3, this time a California native wildflower  that can be a shrub or tree, the Chilopsis linearis aka Desert Willow.

Ron Parsons and Brad Cotten of Daly City also travel thousands of miles looking for particular wildflowers. Ron has journeyed as far as Australia.

Brad loves the hunt, but especially the find.

"It doesn't even have to be rare," Cotten said. "It is just the beauty."

(Personally, I prefer the rare ones.)

Parson's love of flowers extends to his job - a gardener for the city of San Francisco. He also has two botany books that were published recently - one on orchids and one on the North American native lily, Calochortus.

This flower is one from a floral bouquet from the grocery store photographed with a Canon G3 point & shoot. By moving in very close and shooting on manual, we were able to create an abstract impressionistic image. The new p&s cameras with good quality lenses and lots of mega-pixels can be used to create some lovely art.

"I hunt wildflowers because I like plants, and we have amazing flora in this state," said Parsons. "We have incredible diversity here with many extremely beautiful species, ones that people in other places wish they could see. When I look in a flower, I look at the beauty, wonder why, and feel lucky."

These are the folks who look beyond the grand floral vista of a spectacular spring into the deeper beauty of an individual blossom, exploring the intimate landscape inside a flower that most people never see.

One does not have to journey long distances in order to appreciate this unique avocation. What is great about this hobby is that anyone can do it, almost any time, any place.

One of my favorite spots to trek looking for new flowers is the Mojave Desert, close to where I live. But when it dries, turning brown and red, I move my hunting grounds up into the nearby mountains, where there are flowers long into the summer.

Sometimes I travel looking for a particular flower and other times I go just to see what is up and blooming. Usually a short walk from the car leads to something new, like orchids in the San Bernardino Mountains or Spanish needles near Dumont Dunes in Death Valley.

Even late in the summer, there always seems to be flowers in bloom somewhere. The most common, like a lotus or cactus, which are usually the most overlooked, can reveal some beautiful details when examined with a magnifying glass.

On the photography site, there is a forum called "Macro," which is just a fancy way of saying "really close up."

Moderator Tom Hicks makes macro photography into an art form. When asked "why macro?" he replied, "In macro, you not only see the beauty in your smaller subject but the essence of life itself, and how all the little parts fit together and how well they function and survive. It will cause you to look at the world in a whole different light."

A simple, magnifying lens can be the key to unlocking the curiosity of a child and a short walk from your car can be the beginning of a new way of looking at the world.


USING TUBES: The miniscule rattlesnake weed, Chamaesyce albomarginata, was photographed with a regular 100mm lens, my normal wildflower lens, with the addition of extension tubes because the plant is just so small


You don't need a fancy Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera in order to shoot effective close-ups. Most digital point-and-shoot cameras have a macro function - usually symbolized by the icon of a little flower. When you turn on that function, you allow your camera to get closer to the subject, looking into a flower for example. Or getting up close and personal with a bug.

To find the minimum focusing distance on your camera check the manual - you know, that little booklet that came with your camera that you either left in the box or stuffed in a drawer.

To make good macro images you need lots of light and a tripod to eliminate camera shake. Your camera may have a warning light that lets you know when you are trying to hand hold the camera at too slow a shutter speed. A tripod is a good investment even for a point-and-shoot camera as it allows you to shoot in low light conditions.

You may ask "why macro?"

There is something so very special about looking into a flower, seeing things that most people don't see. No matter how tiny the blossom, all the parts are there-all those wonderful botanical bits and pieces that are needed for procreation and propagation.

MIMULUS SHEVOCKI: Without a frame of reference, like a coin or fingernail in the photo, it is difficult to tell how small a flower really is.

I asked professional photographer and fellow member Ron Wolf, "Do you prefer macros of specific species or great fields of blooms."

"So far, I've been more interested in macro work. It has the quality of taking me (and other viewers) deeper into realms that we don't otherwise see.

MIMULUS SHEVOCKI: Without a frame of reference, like a coin or fingernail in the photo, it is difficult to tell how small a flower really is.

"There's also a practical matter. We post our flower pix to Flickr and CalPhotos [a botanical web site hosted by the University of California.] They're usually displayed in small sizes on computers at the resolution available on very ordinary screens and monitors. Great fields [of flowers] don't display well under those conditions. But macro shots display extremely well," he said.


So how do you begin this journey into smallness?

It is the same as with any photographic trip. You start by seeing. Not just looking, but seeing. What is the light like? What special aspect of your subject demands your attention? Is it the color? The detail on a petal perhaps? Or maybe the way a fly's eyes are multifaceted or how a dragonfly's delicate veins support gossamer wings.

Macro shooting can open up new worlds of photographic opportunities.

EXAMPLE A: This is one of the several images i made of different desert calico flowers  there were photographed inside a home-made diffusion tent — created from a milk jug with the top and side cut out.


Example B: Homemade Diffusion Device


Don't stop me just because you've heard it before. Photography is all about the light, right? Controlling light is essential in macro photography. Often, there is too much or not enough.

Perhaps you are trying to photograph your grandmother's jewelry for insurance purposes or to sell on eBay. Bright shiny objects reflect so much light they can look black in an image. Flowers in direct sunlight can be so bright that the camera can't capture the color correctly - the highlights are blown out and the color is over-saturated.

The light is perfect on a slightly overcast day as the cloud cover diffuses the harsh sunlight. But if you don't have an overcast day handy, you need to create that type of light yourself.

In example A, the image of the desert calico looks as if it was shot on a nice cloudy day. But in reality it was shot near high noon on a very sunny day.

I used a homemade diffusion device to soften the light on the flower (example B). "Homemade diffusion device" is a fancy name for a gallon milk container with the top and side cut out for the flower and camera. It works perfectly for small flowers close to the ground.

This same kind of tool can be used to soften light falling on jewelry or other shiny objects like coins when direct light is too harsh. Nice thing about the homemade brand is it's free after you drink the milk.


Example C - Fabric Tent

I use this same little milk-jug-tent thingy when the wind is blowing even the smallest flowers around, making focusing hard, if not impossible. Wind is the bane of flower photographers everywhere (unless you are going for the fuzzy-arty look to your blooms).

Wolf carries half a dozen bamboo barbecue skewers in his pack (available in any supermarket). "I use 'em for bracing stems, staking out the subject in a better position, damping wind motion, etc."

Another trick he uses is to position his backpack to cast a dark shadow onto an overly bright and distracting background, he said.

That's a trick I use also.

Example C shows a lightweight fabric tent that I use over taller flowers. There are holes in the top and on the side for the camera to see through. Yes, it says "laundry" on the side. That's because it started life as a laundry basket from a Target store. But why pay big bucks for a fancy wind tent when $14 bought the same thing-and I could put the holes where I wanted them to be.

I also use a large disc made of diffusion material to hold between the sun and the flower being photographed. Two kids stretching a white garbage bag over the blossom has the same effect. The trick is having the diffuser as close as possible to the object being photographed. That allows the maximum amount of great light in without creating blue shade, which is what would happen if you just stood in front of the plant. You want to diffuse the sunlight, not block it.

EXAMPLE D: Another wind-blocking, light-softening tip is to make a three-sided  "tent" out of poster board with diffusion material on top.  I use black so that I  can have a lovely black background with soft light illuminating my subject. The  material in this case is a silk light diffusion disc. The same effect can be created  by using white garbage bags held in place with spring-type clothes-pin.

Another wind-blocking, light-softening tip is to make a three-sided "tent" out of poster board with diffusion material on top. I use black so that I can have a lovely black background with soft light illuminating my subject, example D.

CALOCHORTUS KENNEDYI: The very lovely  mariposa lily was photographed with the black background with diffusion disc on top.This works best when the sun is directly overhead, which is considered terrible light when shooting scenics or landscapes. But if you can manipulate the light, then you can shoot macros at any time of the day.

If you are already using a digital SLR camera you can get into macro relatively inexpensively by purchasing extension tubes. These are a series of empty tubes with electronic connections, that go between your camera and your lens letting you focus closer than the lens can do alone. If you still love the macro aspect of photography after playing with extension tubes, then look into a dedicated macro lens which can focus both close and to infinity - something you cannot do with just the tubes.

I don't want to finish up without mentioning a tripod again. It is almost impossible to shoot a decent macro in focus and without camera shake without a tripod. I worked in the field for years without a good one and cursing the resulting images as well as the gear.

I was so happy when I finally invested in a good tripod with an excellent ball head. My work became so much easier and relaxed. And isn't that what it is all about - enjoying the art of photography?

Tripods are crucial to everyone. "I can do macros with a wide selection of bodies and lenses, but I'm just not steady enough to do what I want without a tripod and decent ball head," Wolf said.

He also carries knee-savers - closed-cell foam pads to kneel on or lay on.

"It's mighty tough when you have to crawl around on sharp rocks, or on thorns, or in mud, to get into position for the shot. Excessive discomfort deprives you of the patience essential for the best work."

He said, "The first law of macro photography: If you're not in a really uncomfortable position, you're not working hard enough for the shot. My corollary: You don't have to do everything the cowboy way; you're allowed to use padding."

DRAGONFLY: Just in case macrophotography of desert wildflowers are not your thing, there is always the challenge of photographing bugs, like this beautiful dragonfly, with his human-like face and finely-veined translucent wings.


How to choose which tripod heads and legs are right for you:

Flexfill Collapsible Reflector, 20-inch circular silk diffusion screen:

20-inch Circular Silk Diffusion -

Kenko Auto Extension Tube Set DG (12, 20 & 36mm Tubes) for Canon EOS Digital and Film Cameras -

McClamp and McStick: "Most macro photographers work in soil areas and refine their compositions by nudging the tripod slightly. The STICK version of the McClamp is anchored into the soil allowing the photographer to move the tripod without disturbing the subject. This method is preferable to clamping the articulated arm to the tripod. The photographer can move around the subject to fine tune the angle of light, the background, and the overall composition." -

Gorillapod - Unlike traditional tripods, the Gorillapod has flexible, gripping legs which can wrap around almost any surface. It is available in three sizes. -

Closeups in Nature by John Shaw -

Fine Art Flower Photography: Creative Techniques And The Art Of Observation by Tony Sweet -

Wildflower identification:

Mojave Desert Wildflowers: A Field Guide to Wildflowers, Trees, and Shrubs of the Mojave Desert, Including the Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park by Pam MacKay

Mojave Desert Wildflowers by Jon Mark Stewart

ebook Wildflower Field Guide

Colorado Desert Wildflowers: A Guide to Flowering Plants of the Low Desert, Including the Coachella Valley, Anza-Borrego Desert, and Portions of Joshua Tree National Monument by Jon Mark Stewart

Calochortus: Mariposas and Their Relatives by Mary E. Gerritsen and Ron Parsons

And for the orchid lovers out there, Masdevallias: Gems of the Orchid World by Mary E. Gerritsen and Ron Parsons

Photographer Ron Wolf:

Lara Hartley:


click here for more about extension tubes

Nightime Desert Photography
Desert Photography

Other Photo-Stories by Lara Hartley
Birthday Road Trip: Route 66
Ludlow for Lunch

We have an online wildflower field guide that is designed to help you identify desert wildflowers by color, scientific name, region and common name. The pictures are sized to work on the iPod, iPhone, iPad and similar devices. With your iPod or phone you will easily be able to identify wildflowers while in the desert. Links for downloads are on the bottom of the Wildflower Field Guide page.

Photo tips: Most digital point-and-shoot cameras have a macro function - usually symbolized by the icon of a little flower. When you turn on that function, you allow your camera to get closer to the subject, looking into a flower for example. Or getting up close and personal with a bug. More on desert photography.

Mojave Desert Wildflowers - This book is the standard by which all other wildflower books are measured. The author, Jon Mark Stewart, has combined super photography with concise information. This book has an entire color page for each wildflower covered, with a discussion of the wildflower. 210 pages with 200 color photos. More...

What's Blooming Now - Check the Wildflower Reports


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