Discover a hidden world: supermacro and micro photography - part one

05 February 2014 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

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New technology is revolutionising supermacro and micro photography, and there are more opportunities than ever to photograph the bewitching patterns, colours and details of worlds previously hidden from view. In the first of a 2-part blog exploring these methods,  Wildlife Photographer of the Year category winner, and specialist macro photographer, David Maitland explains how this kind of photography can transform the way you relate to your subject matter.

 

I was introduced to photography at high magnifications during my academic career, when the use of microscopes - both light and electron - was integral to the research and teaching I carried out as a zoologist. As a professional photographer, I have been able to perfect some of these techniques and apply them in new ways to add another dimension to my portrayal of nature.

Micro and supermacro are not true technical terms, but handy monikers to describe this kind of close-up-photography. Roughly speaking, supermacro could describe photography where the object is enlarged beyond that possible using standard macro lenses - this could be anything from 5x and 10x to more than 20x life size. Micro photography is short-hand for microscopy where objects are magnified anything from 10x to 1000x life size (and typically require the use of a microscope).

With supermacro, the detail is miraculous. It's almost like having a scanning electron microscope in full colour. You can see individual scales, hairs, tiny details that you simply cannot see with the naked eye or with normal macro equipment, allowing the viewer to perceive and interact with the subjects in a completely different way.

This kind of photography can transform the relationship you have with the subject, which is exactly what I was deliberately trying to do in this image of a mosquito. It's a male, and his body was barely five millimetres long. I carried him to the equipment I'd already got set up on a shelf on a windowsill (the only place in our old house that doesn't vibrate with every footstep), and sat him on a yellow pansy flower petal. Luckily (and unlike many of my subjects), he stayed still. I could just about see those huge feathery antennae with the naked eye, but it wasn't until I looked through the microscope that I saw his spectacular, deep-blue eyes. At that level of magnification (x200), the mosquito is transformed into some kind of sci-fi creature - one of my children commented that the mosquito looks as though he is wearing sunglasses: he's gone from 'pest' to a cool dude. He's got personality. It just goes to show that you can indeed engage with a mosquito!

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Magnification techniques transform this mosquito from 'pest' to a cool dude, says David

 

I also love the wonderful abstract nature revealed by the micro world. We have little insight into the world at this tiny scale, and so it is often difficult to interpret what we are seeing, or to gauge the size of the object imaged - but it is exactly this difficulty and ambiguity that pleases me, as in this next picture, of coral sand.

It was while I was browsing in an antique shop that I found an old slide with a sample of white coral sand. I knew that coral sand is full of the tiny hard remains of soft-bodied marine creatures such as molluscs, sponges, sea cucumbers, gorgonians, corals and so on, but nothing in all those years as a zoologist prepared me for what I saw when I got home and stuck it under the microscope. I had never come across such beauty. As a student, I'd learned all about the biodiversity of life, but none of my teachers had ever thought to illustrate this with an image like this, the miraculous arrangement of delicate, beautifully designed little things. I was utterly blown away.

I wanted a photograph that would show the coral sand as taxonomically fascinating, but also translate the sense of wonder I felt. What you can see in this image is just a tiny section of the slide. I prefer not to crop and try to work in-camera as much as possible, so it took me hours and hours to scan through and get just the right arrangement of colours and shapes. The depth of field with this kind of photography is so shallow that the slightest adjustment will bring an entirely different scene into focus.

 

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David's image of coral sands - taken using a micro photography method - was runner-up in the 2013 Creative Visions category

 

Look out for the second part of David's blog, coming soon, for practical supermacro and micro photography tips and equipment suggestions.

 

ABOUT DAVID MAITLAND

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Dr David Maitland (UK) bought his first camera (a Kodak Box Brownie) at a jumble sale when he was 12. Even then, he wanted to get close to his subjects, and one of his earliest memories of wildlife photography is trying to photograph a blackbird through the cat-flap.

His past academic career as a zoologist now helps in much of David's micro and super-macro photography, and with his work, which is published widely, he aims to share the details of nature with a wider audience.

David was the specialist and macro photographer on the Wonders of Life BBC tv series with Brian Cox, broadcast in 2013. Recent successes in the Nikon Small World and Olympus Bioscapes photomicrography competitions follow many international awards, including the Wildlife Photographer of the Year ('Sands of Time' was runner-up in 2012 Creative Visions category), POYi, IPA etc. He was the title winner of the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2008, and is now one of the photographic team members for the pan-European Wild Wonders of Europe initiative.