Tanque Verde Falls, Tucson

My college years were spent in Tucson studying at the UofA. Now, many years later I returned for 1.5 weeks to take a workshop, teach a workshop and enjoy all Tucson has to offer. Now, I’m a hiker so I discovered many new places one of them being Tanque Verde Falls. Fortunately, another workshop attendee and local Tucsonan joined me for the morning. After a short hike and scrambling over boulders we arrived at the lower falls. Luckily, clouds were intermittent providing softer and more even light. We ran short on time, so we didn’t scramble to the upper falls but it sure was great scouting a new location. Notice in the images below the difference of cloud cover versus direct sunlight?

Macro Wildflower Tips

It is an amazing wildflower season in Arizona this spring. These five tips will improve your success in capturing macro wildflower images.

  1. Light. Great photos have great light. Arrive at your destination before the sun comes up to catch the soft light. Scout the day before so you know where the great flowers are located otherwise you might miss the great light.
  2. Tripod & shutter release.  Use a tripod and shutter release to avoid camera shake. Macro photography requires sharp focus and the slightest movement from no tripod or pressing the shutter can result in a blurred image. If you don’t have a shutter release, place the camera on a 2-second timer to avoid touching the camera during the exposure.
  3. Blur the background. Open your aperture as much as your lens will allow (f/2.8 – f/5.6) to blur the background. Long focal length lenses (100+mm) have a similar effect. If you don’t own a macro lens then use the longest focal length lens you own and capture a “close-up” image. See the samples below.
  4. Diffuse the light. So, you like to sleep in and won’t photograph flowers until daylight. Then, take a diffuser or scrim (basically a sheet on a frame). Place the diffusion material between the sun and the flower to soften the light. See the samples below.
  5. Have fun. If all this is too much for you, then go straight to step 5! After all, it is about being out in nature and having fun.

I hope you make use of these macro wildflower tips and enjoy this amazing season! It will be gone before we know it.

Valentine’s Composite

The first two images were used to create the composite on the right.

Photoshop is not for every image, but I like to use it for compositing and making an impact. I decided to create a composite to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Using my Cognisys StopShot Water Drip Kit, I captured several drops and drop collisions. After reviewing the images, I noticed two that if combined would make a fun composite. Since, viewers commented that it looks like the character, “Tigger”.

Layers

Setting the camera on a tripod (a must with water drop collisions) gave me several almost identical images, the only difference was in the actual drops. To create the composite, I would need to utilized layers in Photoshop. The “Tigger” image was my base image. Then I selected the “tail” from the second image and brought the tail layer over to my base. Once the “tail” was in place, I added a mask to erase the part I didn’t need to create a believable Tigger tail. The final composite included two images and you may notice that I also erased a few of the extra water drops. The spot healing brush is an easy tool and blended the area nicely. This took me less than thirty minutes and I have fun creating it.

Transform Tool

On the next image, I envisioned a drop in the shape of a heart. Well, that would never happen naturally, so I used Photoshop’s transform Tool to create the heart. First step was to cutout the heart onto its own layer. Then use transform (Ctrl +T, Cmd +T) to select it. With the transform tool active, a right click will offer additional transforming options and I chose warp. After dragging the sizing handles around, I designed a heart. The last step was to blend this with the original drop. Again, I added a mask to erase the top portion of the original drop and positioned the new heart shape to blend properly.

Photoshop isn’t for everyone or every image, but it is fun to use!

What, When, Why, and How to Keyword

Yellow flower with keyword
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 60mm, ISO 200, f/3.5, 1/640 sec.

Before talking about how to keyword, I should discuss photography workflow which is the process a photographer uses for their images from capture to output. This includes culling, developing and posting images. Although there are many differences from photog to photog, there are also many similarities. Many photogs include keywording as part of their workflow, as do I. I am not always the best at it, so I have spent the last month applying more discipline to keywording.

Why keyword?

leaf with waterdrops
Potential keywords: leaf, raindrop, cloudy, green, etc.

When images have a keyword attached it becomes searchable. Imagine searching your images by your child’s name, a color, location, or specific lighting situation. If you take the time to add keywords, it is that easy. I use Lightroom to catalog my images, so to search for a macro image, I type “macro” into the search box and tada, all my macro photos appear. That is, if I added the keyword to each image. If you have not been keywording, don’t fret, just start now. Someday, you can go back and tackle past images but for now, start with today.

When to keyword?

A better question is “when not to keyword”! Don’t wait to keyword! Adding keyworks when you download or very soon afterward helps you to remember the details of the shoot.  For instance, I went to Boyce Thompson Arboretum in January after a rainstorm and captured a few hundred images (many were focus stacked). When I downloaded, I immediately added keywords that applied to all images such as: Arizona, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, desert, raindrops, cloudy, etc. Then after culling my photos and removing obvious images to delete, I added specific keywords such as: focus stacking, cactus, specific plant varieties, etc. To remember the plant varieties, I take a reference photo on my iPhone of my setup with the plant label so I can add the keyword later.

How to keyword?

Adding keywords in Lightroom is very easy. Upon import, scroll down the righthand bar to the keyword tab and start adding words to describe your photos (separate with commas). Remember, these keywords will apply to all images being imported, so start generic first. Then, to add additional keywords once the images are imported, switch to grid view (G) and locate the spray can on the tool bar at the bottom of the page. Once the spray can is selected a text box becomes available to add keywords. Add several keywords with commas in between and “spray” them on to the respective photos. Change the keywords as needed and respray. When you are done, tap the spray can back to its spot and you are finished.

Lightroom screen capture with spray can and keyword tags highlighted.

It really is that easy. The hardest part is taking the extra few seconds/minutes to add the keywords. But for searching after the fact it is a blessing in my opinion.

Olympus Focus Stacking

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 60mm, ISO 400, f/3.5, 1/40 sec., Olympus in-camera focus stacking.

After my past workshop at Watson Lake, Prescott, Arizona, a participant asked me to explain the Olympus focus stacking process in a macro setting. Since I use the focus bracketing modes almost daily in my macro photos, it made sense. So, follow along to explore capturing focus bracketed images using an Olympus OMD1 Mark II.

First, Olympus offers two different focus bracketing modes – focus stacking and focus bracketing. Focus stacking is a capture of eight images at different focus depths stacked into one JPG within the camera. The original RAW images write to the memory card as well as the finished JPG stack. Focus Bracketing is a capture of up to 999 images at different focus depths and all RAW images write to the memory card for the photographer to stack using other stacking software (Helicon, PhotoShop, etc). This article discusses focus bracketing mode specifically. However, the focus stacking mode is almost identical.

Capture

Olympus focus stacked image of ice and moss
Ice and moss at Watson Lake. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 60mm, ISO 400, f/5, 1/8 sec., 30-images focus stacked and circular polarizing filter.

With your camera on a tripod and a lens capable of focus stacking (Olympus 60mm, 12-100mm, etc) frame your shot. I prefer the 60mm and place it as close to the subject as possible. Next, toggle the 1:1 switch on the side of the macro lens and position the camera/tripod to achieve focus. Now, switch to manual focus and focus back and forth to find the part of the image that is closest to the lens. With live view and zooming, manually focus the nearest part of the image.

Olympus Menu

Now you are ready to activate the focus bracketing function. Using the menu, locate Camera 2> bracketing >on >focus bkt >on. At this point, you are given a choice between focus stacking or focus bracketing. With the focus stacking option set to off, set the number of shots and focus differential for focus bracketing. (With focus stacking ON, these other options are grayed out). In the images below, I demonstrate the difference of a focus stacked image (left) and a single image (right).

Number of shots: I am often asked how to decide the number of images to capture in a stack. That is hard to describe. The more intricate and larger depth of field requires more images. Generally, I start with 50. If there are more than I need meaning some are out of focus because it went beyond my subject, I don’t use those images in post-processing.

Differential: The differential is the distance between each bracketed image and more complicated to calculate. I tend to use a small differential of 1-2 with my macro lens and extension tubes. With more practice you will see different results and learn to adjust according to your subject.

With focus bracketing activated, press the shutter using a cable release. A cable release is crucial to avoid camera movement from pressing the shutter with a finger. The camera captures the images using Silent sequential high-speed shutter and they are viewable on my LCD screen at the same time. If I watch closely, I can see the focus move from the front to the back of the frame. It really is that easy! Now, it is all up to post-processing. My preference is using Helicon Focus, but PhotoShop and other software can stack images as well.

View my camera setup in the video to the left. Notice the camera is upside down on the tripod to achieve the lowest perspective.

Tips

If you create more than one stack, you will want to capture a random photo in between each stack. For example, I take a photo of my hand in between each stack. Then when I download, I know where each stack starts and stops.

To learn more about macro photography, check out our book, The Art of Macro Photography. Also available on Amazon.

Liquid Art

Liquid Art – paint, oil and milk

For the past two months I’ve captured studio images of liquids or liquid art. Instead of water drop collisions (I will do more soon) capturing macro images of paint, oil and milk are my new passion thanks to Jason Cummings. Jason shared his setup with me and I couldn’t wait to make it my own. Changing the liquid quantities and thicknesses create very diverse images. The above image followed the steps in this article and the gear used for this project is in the image to the right: two off-camera flash units with diffusers, shutter release cable, macro lens, extension tubes, plastic table cloth, solo cups, paint and a disposable plate. Not pictured: camera and tripod.

Gear used in liquid art photos
Gear used in liquid art photos

Make your own masterpiece

Step One:  Water down acrylic paint. Using a disposable cup, water down cheap acrylic paint. The thicker the paint, the longer the paint balls stay intact.

Step Two:  Pour milk, half and half, cream, etc into a water resistant or water proof plate/bowl. I prefer using disposable plates or Petri dishes.

Step Three:  Pour oil in a new cup and add drops of paint. Use all the colors you want in your image.

Step Four:  Pour oil and paint into milk substance. Pour fast, pour slow, make circles/squares, etc; these differences in technique add to the individuality of the final image.

Step Five: Capture images. When setting up your gear, be sure that the macro lens is parallel to the plate of liquid. I use a toothpick on the surface of the liquid to pre-focus. After pouring, I manual focus in live view, at 3x enlargement or more, to fine tune focus. Snap the shutter and rotate the plate for different compositions. The liquid will move on its own as the oil, milk and paint interact. If you have paint “balls” they will burst at some point, so shoot fast. Since the liquid mixture is moving, I recommend using a flash or other strong light source to create sharp images at a fast shutter speed. Here are a few examples from different paint colors. Give it a try, it is a lot of fun.

Be the Family Photographer

Jessica and Emma. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 12-100mm, f/5.6, 1/320, 400 ISO.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my husband and I drove to Los Angeles for a few days to celebrate our one-year-old granddaughters’ birthday and to sit by the beach. At the birthday party, I brought my camera and Jessica, my stepdaughter was pleased. The person designated to bring something other than an iPhone forgot so I became the photographer. Not only was I pleased to take on the task, I was given the honor to be front and center in every activity! I captured candid photos, details of the cupcakes, and a few family portraits. It was a great opportunity to give them memories from the day.

Emma’s 1st Birthday! Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 12-100mm, f/5.6, 1/320, 400 ISO.

One-year-old Emma doesn’t sit still for long so I had to be quick! Using aperture priority at f/5.6 and my 12-100mm Olympus lens, I was mobile and could zoom in and out as needed. Once the party was over, I took a few minutes to download a few of my favorite photos from my camera to my phone. Then, I airdropped them to Jessica before we left the party! When I returned home from the trip, I took a closer look at all of the photos and sent them about 40 images through Dropbox. That was the best gift giving ever.

Emma and Grandpa. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 12-100mm, f/5.6, 1/320, 400 ISO.

Family Photo. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 12-100mm, f/5.6, 1/320, 400 ISO.

Cupcakes! Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 12-100mm, f/5.6, 1/320, 400 ISO.

Why Focus Stack

focus stack of fordite

Cropped version of final Focus Stack. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 60mm + 26mm extension tubes, ISO 400, f/4, 1/50 sec.

Not all macro subjects are captured sharp in a single image, that makes a great reason to focus stack. In preparing for a camera club presentation, I decided to focus stack a new object. I chose a piece of fordite from Cadillac Ranch. If you aren’t familiar with fordite, just think – layers of paint. The first image (image A) is a close-up image of the piece of fordite that measures 2” x 1”. I used my 12-100mm lens and got as close as I could to capture the image. Then, with my macro lens and extension tubes, I captured image B. A small sliver of the subject is sharp, but not the whole piece of fordite. In order to have sharpness throughout the entire frame, I would need to focus stack.

 

At first, I tried a stack of 50 images. My Olympus camera has a focus bracketing mode so all I do is focus on the closest part of the fordite and program the camera for 50 images at a small increment of focus bracketing. The camera then captures 50 raw images changing the focus with small increments from front to back. After looking at image 50, the farthest part of the fordite was still blurry, so I needed more photos in my stack. I tried again, this time with 125 focus bracketing images. When I reviewed the photos, at image 118, I had the sharpness I needed. Next step was to focus stack the 118 images in Helicon Focus. Helicon is amazingly easy to use. After selecting the images in Lightroom, I export to Helicon and press the render button. Helicon does the rest. The last image is the final image of 118 focus stacked images.

A few tips on focus stacking:

  • Mark the start of a focus stack by capturing a single image of your hand, or other random subject otherwise if you capture several stacks, it will be hard to identify the start and stop of the stack otherwise.
  • Use a tripod and shutter release to minimize camera shake. Photoshop CC offers focus stacking but it is more complicated than Helicon Focus.

Benefits of Photographing Alone

Fall Colr
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm, ISO 200, f/14, .5 sec.., Circular Polarizing Filter.

Benefits of Photographing Alone

Dried leaves

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm, ISO 100, f/4, 1/100., 8 image focus stack in-camera.

Not long ago, I spent a morning in Sedona photographing fall colors. Whenever I travel alone, I do check in with my husband at the start and end of my trip. Checking in with him is more for my benefit; knowing someone is aware of my location makes me feel better. My husband is very optimistic that I will be safe regardless. Photographing alone does require discipline, after all, hitting snooze on the early alarm is tempting, after all, no one is meeting up with me. But I stayed disciplined and left before dark to drive to Westfork in Oak Creek Canyon.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm, ISO 200, f/8, 1/8 sec.., Circular Polarizing Filter.

When I find a scene that interests me, I love working the scene for a while. Constantly challenging myself and looking for better angles or compositions. If there were people around me, they would hear me talk to myself saying things like, “what if I used that rock as foreground…” And then adjust my composition. Walking along the quiet path was relaxing and I didn’t feel a pressure in the world. I worked each composition for as long as I wanted with no time restrictions of leaving. I hiked up the side of the canyon along a small trail with awesome fall colors and scrambled down low when I found mushrooms. It was a fun and rewarding day. Sometimes, creativity is sparked just by shooting alone.