five tips to improve your mental health and make you a better macro photographer
In the first part of my article, I briefly explored the links between macro photography and better mental health, along with offering some tips and hints on improving your macro technique. I’m now going to drill a bit deeper into this fascinating genre of photography that I credit with saving my life when acutely unwell and actively suicidal with PTSD.
Here then are five tips to improve your mental health and make you a better macro photographer.
1 Learn to be mindful
I’m often asked what the key elements are to becoming a successful macro photographer so let’s take this triptych of wasp galls on an oak leaf as my first exemplar:
Authentic macro photography can be described as producing an image the same size or bigger than the subject you’re photographing.
"Mindful photographers are genuinely focused on what’s around them and, oddly enough, seem to get better results… go figure."
I don’t get too caught up with that, preferring instead to see macro photography as something you need to get close to your subject. These growths in the image below are tiny (often less than 3mm across), so my first big tip is to pay attention to your surroundings as you’re wandering around looking for something to photograph. I call it mindfulness, being in the moment with no distractions or thoughts about yesterday or tomorrow. Mindfulness taught me many things, including the importance of making each day count as tomorrow is far from guaranteed. Mindful photographers are genuinely focused on what’s around them and, oddly enough, seem to get better results… go figure.
Here’s a handy resource for anyone wanting to know more about wasp galls
2 Wear suitable clothing
For outdoor macro work, wear robust, flexible clothing that lets you get to ground level in relative comfort because much of what you want to photograph is going to be down there amongst the mud and moss. For me, there’s nothing more uninspiring than images taken looking down at your subject as you stand up nice and tall. The same goes for wildlife photography, where eye contact with an animal or bird is on a level with your own. It’s far more powerful than subjugating your subject by towering over it.
"It’s far more powerful than subjugating your subject by towering over it."
If you have physical difficulties getting down onto the ground, concentrate on tree branches or plants at your eye level. There are still plenty of things to see, like flowers, insects and spiders webs. Once you’ve got your macro eyes on, I guarantee you will start to see the world around you in a different way. Your sense of being interconnected with our planet will be heightened, and you’ll discover a sense of awe at the wonders around you. If we have awe, we have hope as we enter this fantastic microcosm where, maybe just for an hour or two, our symptoms trouble us less. Awe and hope are powerful emotions to have on our side.
So we’ve become more aware of the more minor things around us, and even though we’re walking around with muddy knees, we’re inwardly more at peace with our psyche than we were—time for tip number three.
There, that was nice and brief, wasn’t it?
My patience is endless. I can sit for hours. It’s often in uncomfortable, cold and damp places with not much happening but I still keep my game face on – only if I’m on my own, however.
"How often do you end up in front of the tv, or swiping endlessly through your mobile... Why not repurpose some of those valuable minutes and pop outside with your camera."
I struggle to be around people in small spaces, like wildlife hides, and prefer to tough it out on my terms as I know the triggers for my PTSD symptoms very well after eleven years. I get it, though; not everyone has the time, physical or mental resilience to spend hours waiting for the lesser-spotted, green-backed thingy to arrive, or do you? How often do you end up in front of the tv, or swiping endlessly through your mobile, playing computer games or checking out the latest trending hamster doing funny things video on the web? Why not repurpose some of those valuable minutes and pop outside with your camera.
Setting up a little project as I did for the image above didn’t take long or need much – some pieces of old wood, backed onto a hedgerow and a comfortable, quiet space to sit in along with some mealworms and sunflower seeds. Trust me, you’ll have visitors quicker than you expected and it will become your go-to space instead of the telly or mobile.
My self-esteem along with my sense of self hit rock bottom when I was medically discharged from my career as a police officer. Mental illness loves a vacuum. It thrives on stasis and despair creating a toxic spiral down to rock bottom where I quickly found myself. Macro photography, especially the mice and voles I discovered in my garden, taught me the true meaning of patience and how you can rediscover it and your lost sense of self as you start to capture images that delight and intrigue you and the people who care about you.
Tip number four is all about creativity. I’ve already mentioned finding your macro
"We all have to start our photography journey somewhere, and most of us will look at many different photography styles before deciding which one best resonates with us..."
mojo through the use of mindfulness and paying attention to your surroundings, but it’s a very different thing to then apply your unique take on image-making.
We all have to start our photography journey somewhere, and most of us will look at many different photography styles before deciding which one best resonates with us and then adapting it. I’m often asked how I developed my style, which I’d describe as technically minimalistic. The answer would be it took a lot of time just doing photography, reflecting on the results and how they sat with my creative mindset.
Feedback, of course, can be important, but don’t let that decide which creative road you want to take on your photography journey. Exploring your creativity and getting your vision of the world out there is a highly effective way to improve your mental health. This image of dandelion seeds against a sunset is my way of telling the world I’m in a good space; it’s also an analogous construct where I emphasize I’m okay on my own far from the madding crowd.
There are thousands of articles, blogs and Youtube videos covering the technical aspects of macro photography. Hence, my final tip is less about the technical and more about my technique. That’s difficult to sum up as a single tip, so I thought it might be helpful for me to address the top three questions I get asked about my macro technique:
How do you get your images so sharp?
Let’s take a look at the raindrop image above. I’ve deliberately manipulated my depth of field and focus ton, emphasising the top raindrops leaving the others blurred. I’m using a tripod and the timer my camera has, along with choosing a calm day, so there’s no camera movement. My ISO isn’t high, so I’m not introducing too much noise, which can affect how sharp your image can look. Once I’ve taken several photos I’ll really zoom into them in-camera and immediately discard any with blur – be ruthless with your shots and always ask yourself why it deserves to take up valuable data space.
What shutter speeds do you use for moving macro images?
In the image above, I’ve taken my shutter speed up to 1/4000th but kept the depth of field shallow as my style is all about minimalism and reducing backgrounds to palettes of colours with little or no detail in them. I’m often around 1/8000th for fast-moving insects like bees and hoverflies, but not all cameras go that high. If your camera has a high shutter rate option, use it as there are often points in the flight or travel of a subject where wings or legs aren’t moving as quickly. Taking 15 quick succession frames gives you a better chance of freezing movement than shooting two or three. I’ll often dispense with a tripod for moving subjects as the shutter speeds are usually high enough to minimize the chances of blur, and a tripod can be pretty limiting.
How do you get so close to your subjects?
A specialist macro kit is excellent, but you don’t need it to take images like this one of a resting dragonfly. I used a £250 Olympus TG5 Tough camera from about a metre away; this was more about being aware of what’s around me and approaching subjects in a slow, methodical way. I wear muted clothing, tread softly and always have my phone volume off. On the rare occasion I’m with someone else, I don’t chat or get distracted by them. If your camera comes with a reasonable length lens – say 200mm plus – then try using that to give you some distance and up your chances of a successful shot. Early morning or evening is often the best times to photograph insects as they’re less likely to want to move until they’ve warmed up.
Good luck, and I hope my tips to better macro photography and mental health help in some way. It’s a beautiful world out there.
Paul was born in the Lake District where his love for all things outdoors started at an early age. He is an author with a best-selling book 'Wildlife Photography', 'Saving my life one frame at a time' and has been a guest on BBC Countryfile and, more recently, a contestant on 'The Great British Photography Challenge'. Paul is a passionate advocate for a number of mental health charities where his experiences with mental illness and the power of photography to help improve wellbeing sees him regularly contributing to discussions and articles through a wide range of media.View all articles