May 12, 2019
My name is Jaymes Dempsey, and I’m a macro photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I started shooting macro photos when I was 16. Now I’m 24. And I’m more obsessed with the macro world than ever.
That said, my style has changed over time. I started out taking ‘snapshot’ style photos of flowers and insects. I now specialize in soft-focus macro photography. Some might call it abstract macro photography.
Let me show you what I mean:
You’ll immediately notice a few things:
1) Very little of the main subject is in focus (sometimes none at all)
2) The composition is fairly simple
3) The background is unrecognizably blurred
I love soft-focus macro photography because it goes beyond simply taking snapshots. Instead, you find a beautiful subject (generally a flower), and you make it into something different, but equally beautiful (an abstract composition). You don’t rely on the subject to be beautiful on its own. You make it into something beautiful.
It’s an exhilarating challenge. One that I recommend to everyone interested in macro photography!
Now, let me explain my overall technique:
First, to get that soft look, I use an extremely wide aperture (generally f/2.8 or f/3.2). I also get very close to my subject. Because the closer you are, the thinner the plane of focus…
...and the softer the shot!
I don’t use a tripod. This might come as a surprise to the seasoned macro photographer. But for more abstract macro photos, I find a tripod to be overly restricting. I experiment with various angles and change my composition constantly.
Instead, I always shoot handheld with my Canon DSLR and my Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro lens.
(Any macro lens will do for this type of photo--you just have to be able to focus up close. If you’re struggling to choose a lens, I’ve done a review of the best Canon and Nikon macro lenses out there.)
Now, shooting handheld at such high magnifications is always tough. But I have a number of ways to get sharp shots:
1) Tucking in my elbows
2) Leaning against something firm
3) Lying in the ground
I took this shot while lying in the dirt:
When it comes to soft-focus macro photography, lighting is key. I always shoot using natural light. No flashes, no strobes, nothing but the sun. Why?
Like a tripod, I find artificial lighting to be too restrictive and too cumbersome. Soft-focus macro photography involves a lot of experimentation. I prefer not to be bogged down with a lighting setup.
Plus, natural light allows me to achieve the effects I want. I like deep, saturated colors. And I like drama.
That’s why I have two favorite lighting scenarios:
First, I’m a huge fan of clouds. Cloudy light will give you beautifully saturated colors.
(It’s hard to go wrong with cloudy light.)
I shot this on a cloudy day:
The reds are wonderfully saturated--thanks to the clouds.
And this shot, as well:
I also love to shoot when the sun is low in the sky--either in the early morning or late afternoon. The sun will give you wonderful, golden colors (which is why these times are referred to as the ‘golden hours’).
When I’m shooting during the golden hours, I like to work with the sun behind my subject. That way, I can capture slightly more dramatic photos, like this:
But here’s another way to capture a stunning macro photo: Find a subject in the shade--but with a background in the (golden) sun.
That’s how I captured this shot:
See how the background goes all soft and chocolatey? It’s a very replicable effect:
In fact, this sun/shade combination is one of a few ‘secret sauces’ that I like to talk about on my website. I use it all the time.
Here’s another key bit of information: If you want to capture truly compelling soft-focus macros, you can’t just focus on your subject and hope for the best.
Instead, you’ve got to carefully set your focus.
Which brings me to another ‘secret sauce’ of soft-focus macro photography:
Make sure there is a discernible point of focus. Something that stands out in a sea of softness--something that the viewers can latch on to. Something that is distinguishable. Something that’s a compositional element on its own.
Look at this photo:
Despite the overwhelming amount of softness in the image, there is a point of focus. And it’s not some random part of the subject, either. It’s something that immediately draws the eye: the curve of the petals.
This is absolutely essential. In photos like the one above, the petals act as an anchor point. They prevent the image from becoming empty.
For another example, look at this macro photo:
This time, the point of focus is different. But it’s still there--something to anchor the composition.
Like I said, you want to choose something that feels complete on its own. Petals work well. You can also think about it more abstractly: Try to find lines or curves.
And another macro photography tip:
Once you’ve chosen your point of focus, make sure that nothing distracts from it. You want to carefully compose the photo so that there are no other points of focus in the photo.
Because simple is best.
Look at these photos. I always aim to have the simplest compositions possible:
The backgrounds are uniform and clean.
And the point of focus stands out.
(For more macro composition tips, check out an article that I just wrote: https://www.jaymesdempsey.com/macro-photography-compositions/)
Here’s the bottom line: If you can master light and you can master composition, then you’ve basically mastered macro photography.
And if that sounds hard, let me tell you in advance: It’s not.
It just takes some learning and a bit more practice. Fortunately, there are all sorts of great resources that you can grab online.
(I myself offer a whole host of macro photography tutorials on my website. I also have a newsletter , where I send tips and tricks to my subscribers.)
So… If you’re dedicated, you’ll be taking some great macro photos in very little time. Seriously.
I hope to see you out shooting! For those of you looking to get a jump on things, grab my (free!) eBook: Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets for Stunning Nature Photos
Or check out my guide to macro photography: Macro Photography: The Ultimate Guide to Stunning Macro Photos.
Bio: Jaymes is a macro photographer and photography writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He writes for a number of leading photography publications, including Digital Photography School, Expert Photography, and Visual Wilderness. Jaymes also teaches his students how to become master macro photographers. To discover more secrets for stunning macro photography, check out his blog!
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