The smallest beauty from the biggest state
by Bruce Welkovich
Alaska is a nature photographer’s paradise: Denali and glaciers, moose and bears, whales and eagles. But there’s more to Alaska than its mega-scenery and mega-fauna. Kneel down, look closely, and there’s another world of natural beauty: flowers and insects, mushrooms and slime molds, mosses and lichens.
Advances in technology allow us to get closer than ever. Mobile phones take great macro photos now, but can only get you so close. For the serious photographer, extreme macro requires a technique called “focus stacking,” which solved a problem that has plagued us since the dawn
The Problem: The closer a lens gets to the subject of a photo, the smaller the depth of field (the portion of the subject that is in acceptable focus). For extreme macro photography, the lens is so close that only the slightest portion of the subject is sharp. Historically, this has limited the amount of in-focus magnification photographers could achieve.
The Solution: The photographer takes a series of photos starting with the focus on the front of the subject. The focus point of each subsequent photo is advanced in very small increments until the entire subject is covered. This “stack” of photos is then uploaded into specialized software that picks out the different, in-focus portions of each photo and combines them into one sharp image. Originally, the stacks were made by painstakingly adjusting the focus manually. Focusing rails made the job easier, and automated rails can be programmed to move the camera in extremely small steps. Many newer cameras can create the stacks automatically, and some will even process small stacks into the final image.
Mobile Phone Macro Photography
Focus stacking does require a lot of equipment and time, but just about everyone already has an excellent macro lens in their pocket. While you won’t get the magnification or the fine detail that you can with focus stacking, with a few pointers and some practice you can get excellent macro photos with your phone.
Here are some tips to take better mobile phone macro photos:
1. Maximize your pixels
Macro photography is about fine details, so be sure that your phone is set to use the highest resolution available. Yes, you’ll use more of your device’s memory, but it’s worth it.
2. Get closer
While it’s certainly possible to get so close that the camera won’t be able to focus, most people don’t get close enough to their macro subject. Kneeling down is a great start.
3. Clean the scene
Get rid of distractions, especially those in the foreground of your photo. Taking a minute to remove distracting elements yields better photos; high-contrast debris (such as white, dry grass against a dark background) looks bad and throws off your auto-focus.
4. Help your autofocus
When taking macro photos, the depth of field is quite narrow. Since only those portions of the photo that are the same distance from the lens will be in focus, position the phone so that it is parallel to the elements of the photo that you want to be in focus. For example, if you want to emphasize the stem of a mushroom, hold the phone so that it is upright, like the stem. If you want to show the gills of a mushroom, hold the phone parallel to the ground. Pro tip: turn your phone upside down to get a much better upward angle (and more of the scene in focus) when looking up at mushroom gills.
5. Adjust the exposure
Macro subjects like mushrooms, which usually grow in dark places, are often lighter than their surrounding background. Since your phone adjusts the exposure by taking an average of the lighting of the entire scene, it will often make light areas too light and dark areas under-exposed. Try tapping on the subject on your screen to adjust the exposure and focus to just that spot. If this doesn’t achieve the results you want, you can manually adjust the exposure by dragging the slider up or down to make the photo lighter or darker.
6. Don’t fear the flash
Though many phone camera flashes produce inconsistent results for macro photography, you can often get just the right exposure with a little practice and a little luck. Pro tip: if the flash is casting an obtrusive shadow, rotate the phone 90 degrees and retake the photo.
7. Editing is okay
…but don’t overdo it. Editing a photo is like putting on make-up; some is fine, but too much is obvious and can make things worse. If the photo is tilted, adjust the horizon to be, well, horizontal. The auto-adjustment feature for lighting (the magic wand icon) often gives good results. Play with other features such as decreasing highlights to improve washed out areas, or try increasing the contrast a bit. Adding some vignette (darkening the edges of the photo) can really make your subject pop. You can always delete any changes and start again.
8. Get feedback
…practice what you learn, and repeat. There are lots of photography sites on Facebook and other social media where constructive criticism (in a kind way) is welcome. If you’re uncomfortable doing that, look at your photo (ideally right after you take it) and practice describing what you like or don’t, then make adjustments and try again. The best way to take a good photo is to take a lot of photos.
Even if you’re not interested in plunging into focus stacking, take some time to explore Alaska’s tiny, natural beauty. Your phone is a great start. Or pick up a lighted magnifying glass—you’ll be amazed at what’s out there.
Bruce Welkovich is a mostly retired emergency medicine physician living in Anchorage. He has been a photographer since learning darkroom skills in summer camp decades ago. See more of his photos on Instagram @MushroomsOfAlaska.