HobbyWeek: a little world rarely seen …

We are often told to “think big.” (It’s a formula for success, apparently.)

I choose to think small. As small as possible. That’s my hobby: Bringing to larger life the world of the small. I’ve been doing that for a very long time. In the past year, I have rededicated myself to finding the beautiful and the bizarre in a tiny universe.

My hobby is macro photography. Using a lens designed for the purpose — magnifying the small — I photograph not merely flowers but the interiors of flowers, their styles, stigmas, anthers, filaments, and stamens. (Yes, I suppose the petals of the flowers manage to get into the image, too.)

I photograph water in liquid and solid states. I particularly like to shoot in winter. I’ve captured frost in numerous incarnations. I’ve found round water — dew or rain drops held in spherical shape by surface tension. Often, the background of the photograph is lensed through the drops of water. Or the sun is a starry pinprick in a reflection on the drop’s surface.

Frost is a demanding shoot. Hoar frost forms during very cold, absolutely windless nights next to the stream downhill from my house. I have to time it well: Late enough for the just-risen sun to backlight the frost; early enough so the sun’s rays do not wither and disintegrate the crystals.

It’s always fun shooting fire. And odd things, too: One image accompanying this post is something you eat for breakfast.

Often, after I download the images from my Canon into Photoshop, I’m surprised at what I find. I wear trifocals; my eyes have a collection of floaters. Combine those with staring through a tiny viewfinder to focus and, well, you don’t see every little thing the lens does.

I discovered the world of insects. Now, mind you, I do not like insects. Ick. Bugs. Spiders. Bees, hornets, and wasp, those stinging little bastards. But I bought a guide to insects to try to identify them. (I’m failing miserably; I’m not very good at it.) I still don’t like bugs, but I’m less … frightened … by them. (I have a spider who lives in my office. I now tolerate it.)

And trees! Who knew trees — bark, leaves, stems, seeds, insect inhabitants — could be so wonderfully interesting and beautiful? Last fall, I photographed leaves (often, just fragments of leaves) as they withered and fell. This spring, I choose one leaf bud on a red maple in my yard to photograph from birth to death.

As a macro photographer, I don’t have to travel to dramatic scenic vistas to find landscapes to shoot. Most of images I’ve shot in the past year were in my back yard, at a fishing hole next to a stream in the valley downhill from my house, and on trails in a patch of woods behind a residence hall at my university. I often spend an hour or two inside no more than a hundred square feet of forest or field. Such seemingly limited space is alive with life waiting to be captured.

Such photographic efforts have lent me needed creative and artistic satisfaction. I have longed to create beauty but failed in other media. But the skills and equipment I have now have allowed me to capture beauty in places most people rarely look — in a small world well beyond their daily consciousness.

I discovered grass (no, no, not that kind) this spring. I’ve photographed blades of grass — and found a world of really small insects and seeds through which grass propagates. Grass, it turns out, isn’t actually green (well, I cheated a few times, and over-saturated the color; sue me).

I am a university professor. I teach (or try to) undergraduates how to write and otherwise mature into good, kind, decent, gentle human beings. The kiddies often frustrate me, and I occasionally chafe at their less-than-their best attitudes toward their studies. They require my patience be Job-like. (Well, my patience is usually tested to the point of failure.)

But macro photography reminds me of the need for patience and rewards me when I achieve it. In nature, nothing stands still. Wind moves leaves, flowers, and grass. Clouds obscure sunlight needed for better exposure. Rain defeats all efforts to keep equipment dry. The sun needs an hour to move so a shadow is removed or introduced.

Patience and solace are the rewards of macro photography as much as the satisfaction of the finished images. So, too, is the change of focus from large-scale usual to the small-scale unusual.

It is a wonderful hobby, learning how to see anew even as my vision ages and becomes less acute. Even now, I see more and better than I have in decades.

Try it. You might see better, too.

(Below is more of my work. View my archive at 5280 Lens Mafia.)

23 replies »

  1. Fun article! I’m going to guess the “brown sugar” is the item we eat for breakfast?

  2. Those are fabulous Dr D! I always think macroscopic should mean the small image capture of large objects like galaxies and planetary nebula, rather than large image capture of small objects….I know, convention.

    So, can you elaborate on technique and your favorite equipment, body and lens? I assume tripod and remote shutter release? Again, VERY nice even in the reduced size and resolution offered here. I’ll go check out 5280Hoodlums for more, I haven’t been there in awhile.

    • Thank you, Frank. I use a Canon 60D and Canon 100mm lens. But … because my subjects are subject to wind movement, I use a monopod, not a tripod. I hug the monopod, so I can shift the camera ever so slightly back and forth, to get the plane of focus where I want it. Forty years ago, working with a 4×5 field camera, I could not use this. Autofocus and autoexposure make my current work possible in ways I’d never imagined.

  3. Granola or Grape nuts would be my guess. Thanks for the response Dr D, I want to see the full res examples on 5280pixelheathens before I ask more silly questions.

    • My wife calls Grape-Nuts “Gravel.” Having eaten them a couple of times (they’re her thing, not mine), I think the name is more accurate than “Grape-Nuts” is.

      That hoarfrost is beautiful. I’ve seen it just once or twice in my life, and each time turned into a special morning for me.

      I’m reminded of a quote I try to apply to my own life: “The true voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new places, but seeing with new eyes.”

  4. Denny, I am jealous beyond measure. I play with macro photography–you are an artist.

  5. Wow. Thank you!

    But please know, I like grape nuts and knew what they were instantly.

  6. The header image of water drops on leaf is my favorite of this suite…simply fascinating looking at all the little vignettes magnified in each drop!. Catching that on a monopod is amazing to me, even with fluorite glass and image stabilization. Bravo Professor!

  7. These are some fabulous pix, Denny. Living as I do with an artists who also does some art photography, I keep trying to picture you (heck, anyone) getting some of those shot with a monopod – and my mouth just kinda falls open with awe. Genuflections to your skills, sir….