Artistic abstract macro photography starts with choosing a strong subject. “Many times I can find great inspiration in a bouquet of cut flowers from Whole Foods Market,” says Charles. “You really don’t have to go far. That’s what I love about macro photography. You can find beauty in everyday household objects and make really interesting images with almost anything.”
Among Charles' favorite flowers to photograph are dahlias, because their size allows him to fill the frame and they come in many different colors and shapes.
Whether you are working to hone your macro skills or try your hand at it for the first time, Charles recommends you practice with a flower (or other subject) that is at least 6” in diameter. In doing so, you can fill the frame without needing to rely upon extension tubes or close-up diopters. Some of the lenses he uses include the Nikon 200mm Micro, which has a dedicated macro lens that can capture subjects at 1:1 magnification with a minimum focus distance of 10 inches; the Canon 500D close-up diopter (often in combination with his 200mm macro lens) and Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens, a selective-focus lens that gives macro subjects a soft, ethereal look.
“The Velvet 56 is really a game changer for me,” says Charles, “because you can focus five inches away from your subject with a wide aperture of f/1.6, which really helps isolate macro subjects and creates unusual lighting effects. Backlit flowers are particularly beautiful immediately following a rainfall, and with my Velvet 56 I get amazing bokeh, unlike any other macro lens I've ever used. Oftentimes I stop down to f/2.8 to get just the right amount of sharpness I need to isolate the subject but keep the background soft and out of focus. I really enjoy this lens because it’s so solid and yields great results.”
So, what is Charles’ secret to making his images pop? “Choose vibrantly colored subjects and pay attention to background hues and tones. In macro photography, oftentimes the background can be just as important as the foreground, so it’s important to think about the background as a complementary color. If you keep the background a couple of feet away from the subject itself, you can isolate the subject and still be able to stop the aperture down to a degree and get nice bokeh in the background.”
Charles advises further that if you are working in your own garden, keep your plants and flowers in pots, so you can move them around and control subject/background distance and tonal variation.
Charles is known for his unorthodox shooting methods, creative thinking and innovative tools, so we asked him if there was anything out of the ordinary in his camera bag.
“I carry a small spray bottle. My best advice is to photograph your subject first before you spray it. This is really important. I then use the spray bottle sparingly. Don’t ‘over-dew' it,” he says jokingly, as “it’s easy to make things look fake by using too much.”
If Charles is concerned about individual drops clinging to a flower or plant, he will mix a solution of liquid glycerin with water, using ¼ part glycerin to ¾ water. This does not harm flowers or plants, he told us, but wouldn't advise using it in a public garden.
Charles also shared with us that one tool he uses consistently in the field is the Plamp II made by Wimberly. This is a device that has a large clamp on one end and a smaller clamp with an adjustable jaw on the other. It’s made out of plastic material that bends. One end attaches to your tripod, while the other end has a clamp that will allow you to secure a stem of a flower. “I often use the Plamp indoors at my kitchen table when shooting tabletop macro,” says Charles, “and it’s also useful to hold reflectors and diffusers in place.”
Another secret is that he enjoys using a very small multi-color LED flashlight to add supplemental light. He revealed that 90% of the time he does indeed use natural light, but there are occasions when he enjoys using a small flashlight to add back, frontal or edge lighting to a flower or plant. You can use this small flashlight to light the throat of a lily, for example, along with frontal lighting on many other types of flowers as well, he says. Charles’ current flashlight is made by Coleman and features built-in red and blue LED lights. This autumn he hopes to replace that flashlight with a fancier model that will have an unlimited number of colors and hues with adjustable intensities.
Another one of Charles' favorite macro photography tools is stained glass, but not the usual ‘church’ variety that comes in solid colors. He works with a very specialized type of glass called “iridescent water glass, which has been coated with swirls of vibrant colors and is highly reflective”. He also enjoys placing colorful flowers and other objects behind clear, textured glass (similar to the shower door variety). “Give me one flower and a piece of glass, and I’ll be entertained for four hours,” he says. You can challenge yourself to make an infinite number of artistic, abstract photographs of your subject reflected in the glass, on top of the glass and behind glass.
Because iridescent glass is difficult to find in large sizes (Charles uses 20" x 24" sheets), he sells it during his macro workshops, along with a custom-made wooden stand to hold the glass sheets and other backgrounds in an upright position. Basically, “you can get all kinds of rainbows and color effects off of objects as they are reflected in that type of glass”, he says.
Another creative technique Charles teaches in his macro workshops involves taking a sheet of clear glass that has been treated with Rain-X (to make water droplets bead up better) and photographing colorful subjects underneath sprayed water droplets. You can see the flower underneath reflected in each and every drop through your macro lens, he says. Truly magical and fun!
In closing, we were truly inspired to grab a Lensbaby and try some of these secrets Charles shared with us. But before we did, we made sure to pay attention to a few more macro guides he offered:
• Fill the frame with your subject.
• Find a complementary background and keep it a few feet away from your subject.
• Try using a Lensbaby Velvet 56, and enjoy selective focus macro with a different look.
• Position the front of your lens parallel to the plane of your subject for maximum sharpness.
• Shoot on a bright, overcast day for natural diffused light, preferably in the early morning to avoid windy conditions.