Paul Williams discusses his journey with macro photography, how it saved his life, and the benefits everyone can take from capturing macro images to aid mental health
Trigger warning: this feature contains mentions of suicide and PTSD
Macro photography – often described as creating life-sized or bigger than life-sized images of small objects – fascinating as it is, isn’t usually described as a lifesaver. For me, diagnosed with PTSD, medically discharged from my police career and with three failed suicide attempts under my belt, that’s exactly what it became.
How my journey began
Lost in a sea of my own paranoia, semi-reclusive, and fighting a daily battle to find some meaning in my life I turned to my camera in a desperate bid to give myself something I could look forward to, something that let me express myself without speaking or having to explain how I was feeling for the umpteenth time that week.
"I’d always been a keen photographer but careers, five amazing children and ‘life’ often meant my hobbies weren’t a priority."
In this article I’m going to explore how macro photography helped saved my life, the benefits of macro photography for everyone’s mental health and some tips to help you create great images as you progress on your macro journey.
In my working life, I’ve been a soldier, army physical training instructor, mental-health professional, and police officer, and I’ve loved just about every day of what has been a full-on life packed with challenges, adrenaline-filled moments and full-on experiences. That all changed in March 2010 when I found myself having to disarm a samurai-sword wielding woman as she tried to attack members of the public in a Bournemouth enquiry office. Armed with just my pepper spray I managed to incapacitate her long enough to get her to the floor where she was arrested. Fast forward three months and the day before I turn 50 I find myself driving to the local A&E convinced I was having a heart attack; clammy skin, heart missing beats, pale, sweating and feeling faint, I had all the classic symptoms and was utterly convinced I wouldn’t see my 50th birthday.
"I felt a sense of purpose and of achieving something. I’d taken the first steps on my journey of recovery and macro photography had, unbeknown to me, become my companion on that journey."
Numerous tests later, I was given a clean bill of health but told to see my GP the next day. Great party everyone, let’s do it again next year maybe? He signed me off for seven days with ‘stress related symptoms’ which irritated me as I ‘don’t do stress’. Little did I know but I was about to go down a rabbit hole that would change my life forever. I also never went back to the career I loved so much.
My breakdown was both swift and spectacular. It swept every aspect of who I had been away in a breathtaking psychological tsunami that reduced me to a shadow of the confident, robust and positive person I had been. A year on, with an irrefutable diagnosis of PTSD and recurrent depression, desperation set in and I tried to kill myself three times over the next three years. In 2013, after experiencing a breakthrough with a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), I found enough respite from my symptoms to reflect on what I really wanted my life to be like. Did I want PTSD to define me, or was there another path I could take, something that could repurpose my life to give it meaning once more? I’d always been a keen photographer but careers, five amazing children and ‘life’ often meant my hobbies weren’t a priority.
"I turned to my camera in a desperate bid to give myself something I could look forward to, something that let me express myself without speaking or having to explain how I was feeling for the umpteenth time that week."
Travelling anywhere was out of the question, as was interacting with people so I made the decision to potter around my garden with an Olympus TG5 Tough which I knew took a reasonable close-up image. I remember the sun shining, birds singing and a couple of hours where I realised I’d not had any troubling thoughts. My mind felt clearer, less burdened by the many negative things I spent so much time dwelling on, and I was energized, already looking forward to doing something similar the next day. The images weren’t great, but I’d taken them and, for the first time in three years, I felt a sense of purpose and of achieving something. I’d taken the first steps on my journey of recovery and macro photography had, unbeknown to me, become my companion on that journey.
You want to know what the best camera is for macro photography, don’t you? Well, it’s the one you have with you at the time. Sure, you can pay a small fortune for specialist lenses and the latest body, but if you’re on a budget (who isn’t), or at the very early stages of your photographic journey then you must adapt accordingly.
"Always (always) carry something that takes photographs with you. Seriously. My biggest tip."
Most of us own a mobile phone with a more than reasonable camera and software on board. Get to know your mobile camera and what macro capabilities it has. My phone has the option of a voice command to fire the shutter which means I don’t have to fiddle with the shutter button. The result – sharper images composed as I want them. You might also have a pro mode that lets you tweak the settings or a flash that can be set at different strengths. I tend to carry a torch with me as it’s a very portable, flexible light source.
The internet is awash with great, free software like Snapseed which lets you edit your image on your phone before you post it. Do your research and really drill down into what your mobile can do and find the best apps to aid your photography. Always (always) carry something that takes photographs with you. Seriously. My biggest tip.
Both images below are taken with my mobile. Autumn is an excellent time to be out and about.
Of course, I also have ‘proper cameras’ including Sony mirrorless, but I’m really keen people don’t buy too much into wanting/needing the next-gen bit of kit when, more than likely, they’ve not exhausted all the possibilities their current camera offers.
On the workshops, I run there will always be one or two people who seem to capture exquisite images irrespective of what camera they’re using proving, to me at least, much of photography is about mindset and creative vision.
How can macro photography, particularly nature subjects, help mental wellbeing?
There’s a wealth of unequivocal research showing the links between positive wellbeing and being outdoors at one with our natural environment. Just being in your garden or green space is not only good for your mental health but your physical health is getting a boost too.
"For me, it was a revelation and I can pinpoint the start of my recovery to those early days out in my garden photographing the flowers, insects and mice."
Factor in the concentration you need to take good macro images and you have a potent, easily accessible resource for your psyche that’s comparable to practising mindfulness or meditation. For me, it was a revelation and I can pinpoint the start of my recovery to those early days out in my garden photographing the flowers, insects and mice. For the days when I couldn’t get out of the house – and on the darker days there were many – I spent time practising macro projects I’d found on the web.
The image below was created with washing up liquid, a torch, a tripod, and vegetable oil!
Reconnecting and finding your lost awe
We are all interconnected. The older I get, the more convinced I am we need more symbiosis with both our fellow human beings and the natural world. PTSD severed that feeling for me for many years, and whilst I still don’t do people that well I’m totally signed up to the benefits nature has to offer us – and we, it.
"Feeling connected to something like nature helps negate the feeling that we are alone and no longer matter."
I can’t begin to describe the effect losing my self-esteem and sense of purpose had on me, but I can tell you how affirming capturing an image like the one above can have for your psyche. I’d lost my sense of awe, ignored sunsets, and took many of the remarkable natural events going on around me for granted when really I should have embraced them. Feeling connected to something like nature helps negate the feeling that we are alone and no longer matter.
Macro photography has the power to take you to another place, a place full of small wonders where iridescent scales on butterfly’s wings, morning dew drops shimmering in the sun and everyday objects in the home become larger than life, intriguing us. Truly being in those moments, fully focused on the minutiae that’s all around us will improve your mental health, as I found out.
On being and mindfulness
I’ve now had PTSD for eleven years and despite all that has entailed I’m enjoying life more than I can remember. I’m forever changed, like many people with mental illness, but I’ve accepted my losses, appreciate the smaller things in life like never before and I’m so glad I found help and dug deep to get to where I am now. If there’s one key message I want to get out to anyone reading this (other than how to improve your macro photography) it’s this one:
There’s always hope. Always another day when things will be that little bit better. It’s not a weakness to ask for help, it’s a strength. Forget the big stuff, it’s the little things that will ultimately matter in our lives so please, get out and take some macro photographs.
Mind The Lens
Throughout the month of October Picfair is running Mind the Lens - an exploration of the relationship between photography and mental health, with featured content, social media takeovers and up to £20,000 in grants for related projects. Find out more here.
If you or anyone you know needs help with their mental health the following charities are experts:
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 for confidential support.
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