Devil in the Detail – Shaun Barnett

Gentian flowers among flowering tussock, Lewis Pass Tops, Lake Sumner FP, Canterbury

Shaun Barnett gives advice for the aspiring macro nature photographer.

While taking my children on nature walks when they were small, I was often surprised by what interested them. Big, impressive mountain vistas? Zero enthusiasm. A small leaf on the track? Appealing. Some invertebrate crawling in the moss? Fascinating.

As adults, we tend to look for the big picture and often overlook the small world at our feet. True, we are further away from that world than small children, but we could learn a lot from their observation skills.

On the forest floor, countless objects are possible photography subjects. And what’s more, when the light is overcast and perhaps too dull for landscape photography, it’s often perfect for the forest interior, or the details of the shoreline. The range of subjects is countless: leaf litter, moss, insects, ferns, and stones – even roadside weeds can make worthy subjects.


For the best results, you’ll need a macro lens, or a mid-range telephoto that focuses close-up (ideally as close as 10 cm). Also essential is a tripod with independent legs, which can be positioned for the right distance and angle to your subject. Some tripods have the option to position the central shaft horizontally, meaning much greater flexibility to move your camera close-up.

Isolate your subject

It takes time to learn how to see a subject in miniature. Forests can be chaotic places, and at first, it can be difficult to isolate a subject. Simple is good. Lack of clutter is usually good too. Look for bold lines, pure forms, or contrasting colours. Perhaps a single yellowing leaf on a bed of moss? Or an uncurling koru? A shapely pebble which is a different shade to others on the beach?

Look for patterns

Patterns are another pleasing subject for close-up photography. The more you look, the more you will see patterns in nature. Most plants have similarly sized and shaped leaves, and depending on the angle, you can juxtapose several to find a repeating motif. Sand often makes exquisite patterns after the tide retreats.

Aperture is crucial

The closer you are to an object, the more dramatic the effect of the aperture will be. In macro photography, depth of field is crucial. A shallow depth of field can be used to isolate your subject from the surrounding clutter. Equally, you may want everything crisp and sharp to give a full sense of the detail.

Sacrifice f11 for better depth of field

The closer you are to an object, the more your aperture will become crucially important. A general rule of thumb for landscape photography is most lenses are sharpest at f11. If you are using a macro lens, however, it may be more important to use a smaller aperture, even as small as f3.2 or f4.5, to get everything in focus.

Experiment with aperture

It’s often difficult to tell exactly what is and isn’t in focus using the screen on your camera back, so it’s best to experiment with a range of apertures and determine which works best back on your home computer.

Aligning planes

Another important aspect of close-up photography is the plane between the subject and your camera lens. If you are photographing a relatively flat subject, such as the bark of a tree, it’s worth spending some time aligning your camera lens perfectly parallel with the subject. That maximises your ability to get everything in focus and might mean you can drop your aperture to f11.

The wind is your enemy

Air movement will move ferns or any delicate object very easily, and the smaller the object and the closer you are to it, the worse the problem. You can use your pack, or an umbrella to help shield your subject from the wind, or wait for any small lull and then press your cable release. If the wind proves too much of a problem, consider a higher ISO to enable a faster shutter speed. It’s worth sacrificing extra noise for a sharp shot.

Try processing black & white

It’s worth experimenting when you process your raw files back on your computer. Perhaps try black and white? This can work very well with strong patterns, or high contrast light, where the tonal range is better rendered as greys rather than full colour.

Know your subject

As with any photographic subject, the more you know, the better the chance of making a meaningful image. Buy a guidebook, read the information panels at the start of the track, search online. It all helps, and greater knowledge usually leads to greater appreciation too.

Hone your observation skills

Take your time. Have patience. Look underfoot, overhead, sideways, behind you. Sometimes the best subject is the one you just passed, but looking back on it from a different angle.


Experiment. Take risks. Be prepared to fail. Try again. That’s photography!
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