This morning I read a very tragic story on MSNBC.com: Tens of thousands of elephants were slaughtered in 2011. This is the saddest animal/nature story I've read in years. Please take a few minutes out of your day to read the story and repost it to Facebook, Twitter, etc. It is just so tragic that nature must always pay the price for human greed. Something must be done on a global level to stop all poaching once and forever. So much has been tried: paying the poachers not to kill, training them to work as guards in the parks, etc. But greed just rears its ugly head time and time again and nature always pays the price. May the poachers rot in hell. (Photo by Mike Hutchings.)
Spring is (photographically, at least) probably my favorite time of year because there is just so much life happening outdoors. And after a winter spent hiding at my computer writing, being outside is such a nice change. In particular, I love wandering around the garden with a macro lens and just looking for interesting things to shoot. But getting really outstanding close-up photos is not always as easy as it looks and what starts out as an innocent pursuit of pretty pictures usually turns into me cursing the breeze for moving my subjects around (cover the kids' ears if you're near me) or wrestling with my tripod while trying to avoid smashing the plants I'm shooting. Eventually though I calm down, go back to basics and get the photos that I'm after.
Among my favorite close-up subjects are bleeding heart flowers because the buds are just so fascinating in their shape and I've shot hundreds of photos of them (I had a huge plant growing in my side yard but a neighbor weed whacked it into oblivion--I just hate lawn people). I particularly like this pretty backlit shot and in studying it I came up with a quick list of five tips that I think make the photo work:
I chose an attractive segment and was careful that all of the blossoms were in good shape (i.e., not fading or misshapen in any way). Again, these bleeding hearts are very different in shape from most flowers and that pinkish-red color is just beautiful.
I used strong back lighting from a late-afternoon sun. Most flowers are somewhat translucent and when the sun comes through them from behind they seem to glow. You'll have to experiment with adding some exposure using the exposure-compensation feature to prevent underexposure--particularly if the background is very bright. I used +1 stop here.
I used a dedicated 105mm Nikkor macro lens and close-up extension tubes. Prime (one focal length lenses, as opposed to zoom lenses with a macro setting) are sharper that most zoom lenses. Extension tubes have no glass in them so they don't degrade the image in any way.
I used a wide aperture to toss the background out of focus and create an attractive "bokeh." Bokeh is a Japanese word that refers to the "smooth" quality of the out-of-focus area.
I shot in RAW and that allowed me to adjust the white balance and exposure after the fact. The exposure I used was pretty accurate, but I did warm up the white balance a bit during the RAW conversion process.
One other thing that I strongly suggest is using a tripod for close-photos whenever possible. It's a bit awkward to find a placement for the tripod at times, so at times I'll use a rolled up sweater or towel instead, but a tripod is definitely worthwhile in most situations. With all of the magnification that is going on in most close-up photos it's very hard to compose accurately without a tripod.
Good graduation gift! If you're looking for a good digital photo book for a graduation gift (to go with a new camera perhaps?) my book The NEW Joy of Digital Photography has sold nearly 100,000 copies and is a great introduction to photography and digital cameras. By the way, I'm looking for new ideas for my next photo book--so if you have any suggestions just email me or leave a comment!