I love macro. When I bought my first digital camera, about ten years ago, I immediately looked for the macro button. Since then, my photographic style has been on a journey and the pictures I take now are very different from the ones I made in the beginning.
I started without much technical knowledge and most things I figured out by myself. The first few years were about discovering the world around me. I never really knew how beautiful a dandelion was until I saw it through a macro lens. Watching insects in the early morning, covered in drops of dew, getting a little dragonfly to ‘pose’, instead of hiding behind a stick – looking down the lens almost felt as if I became a part of that world.
In the beginning I was obsessed with dewdrops and anything that had to do with drops. I was inspired by a photographer who made beautiful pictures of drops on grass and ‘what if’ I could make pictures like that! Until one day, I found I could. You might think doing that would be a small thing, but it took me quite some time to figure out. Drops can be little lenses or pearls, depending on the light and the aperture you choose. I also made pictures of falling drops at home, but being outside is so much better.
As I progressed, I bought a DSLR camera and macro lens, which was a whole new experience. With the new lens I started to revisit all my favorite subjects, but this time making pictures more intuitively, pointing my camera at whatever caught my attention. But there was a problem. I always knew what I liked, once I had it on my computer, but I did not know what made one picture so much more beautiful than the others. When I take pictures I totally lose myself in it and I realised that, in order to become better at it, I had to be more aware of what I was photographing – this would help me to learn what worked and what didn’t. What if I could see with my eyes where to go to take more great images? Someone once said: “You have to look with the eyes of your camera”. So, when I took a picture that looked okay on my camera screen, I started to make a note of the situation and my camera settings. It was a period of both learning and unlearning things.
Years ago, most macro pictures were of insects on a ‘stick’, on a soft blurry background. With one glance, you have seen it all. I like it when there is more to explore in an image, where it sparks the imagination. So, what if I included more of the surrounding to create a mood or atmosphere, to try to tell a story? That way, a dragonfly becomes a character in a macro world. That seems easy, you just take a bit more distance. In reality, it is not easy at all! The background now forms a big part of the picture and it should all fit together. I made an effort to consciously see the background and not just focus my attention on the subject. Often, little sticks or leaves that reflect light will stand out in a bad way; backgrounds are too messy, there is so much more to be aware of.
Around that time I stumbled upon the blog of Andrea Gulickx. Her pictures are magical; the bokeh, colours and light are all gorgeous. Now, what if I could make pictures like that? Of course, I should have asked at the time what lenses she used, but all I saw was the beautiful, round bokeh and I thought: I need a macro lens with a round aperture. It wasn’t until much later I learned that they were made with Lensbaby lenses.
I bought my first Lensbaby, the Sweet 50, a few years ago, together with a set of macro converters. After working with a normal macro lens for so long, it took time to get the hang of this lens. You have to shoot manual, as the range is different and you need to find the sweet spot. Getting the focus right was difficult initially and my expectations were sky-high, but just because you have the same lens as another photographer it does not mean you can take the same quality of pictures! However, I was determined to learn how it was done and to start creating my own magic. I spent one week using just this lens and I got the hang of it. I focused on one subject and went back day after day to shoot it again, in a different way. Slowly but surely I got closer to producing the images I wanted, but there was more; I also needed to understand light. This was the last big piece of the puzzle. I knew about soft and harsh light, I knew their effect on droplets, but there is much more to it.
Fortunately, Andrea had started giving workshops and I followed one that was all about finding your light. It was exactly what I needed to know and helped me on my way. While it took some practice to develop an eye for contrasts, I could finally say that I understood! When a picture was good, I could now see why and know exactly how it was achieved. When I went out, I also knew better where to look. I started to search for the light instead of a subject. You can find a beautiful butterfly or mushroom but when it is in shade and the light is nowhere to be found, it is of no use.
That doesn’t mean that every picture is now a fantastic image, far from it. I shoot handheld and take many pictures of the same subject. If possible, I use the ground or a rock to steady the camera. Fortunately, most Lensbaby lenses are not that heavy, which makes it easier to keep the camera steady. That said, sharpness is not that important to me anymore, as it is more about the mood and feeling I can put into an image. When I bought my last camera, I chose it because it had the opportunity to use live view to focus perfectly, using it in combination with a beanbag and a release cable. I never use them anymore and it’s very freeing.
I love bokeh in a picture. I look for contrasts and parts that seem to sparkle. Once I move closer, the sparkles (on dewy grass, or leaves) are no longer visible to the eye, but the camera will pick them up as bokeh. For me, the best light is soft and bright, the kind you sometimes find on an early morning. We have a sea climate where I live, which means lots of dew after a clear night, making perfect conditions for a place I love to visit; an open space in the forest, with water, heather and lots of moss. In the early morning the sun rises behind trees and rays of sunshine start touching the field. At this time of day the light is still beautifully soft. The rays move slowly, allowing me time to look for sparkly spider-webs, grass or moss at the edges of the rays, always looking against the light. The thing with natural light though is that it moves, so you have to be a bit quick. But if you are lucky enough to have a garden, you can nip out in the early morning and experiment.
Needless to say, in the meantime I have bought more Lensbaby kit. This is something else I was never aware of: the effect of the lens on a picture. If you get stuck, why not try another lens? I always work with the largest apertures and, therefore, a shallow depth of field. I usually have something in focus, but the parts that are out of focus – in front of the focal plane and behind – are an important part of the image. It is so much fun to figure out what a new lens can do.
For the time being, I have no more ‘What ifs’, but I look forward to spring, when I hopefully have the chance to experiment more with the lenses I have now. In springtime, there is so much going on all at once that it is impossible to catch it all.