Free Content • Macro Marvels

Zoologist and conservationist Victoria Hillman has a passion for the small but mighty subjects of the animal kingdom. Here she explains the techniques needed to create artistic and intimate macro pictures

As a zoologist and conservationist I’m always looking for new ideas to showcase familiar species and demonstrate not only the relationship between my subject and their habitat, but also the relationship between myself and my subject. My background in science and wildlife research has become an invaluable part of my work process and is now the starting point for all my photographic work. As you’ll see from my images they are more artistic and in some cases a very different view point to a lot of images you see of these subjects, and I’m really looking to challenge the way they are perceived and encourage people to see them in a new light. All of these images are taken within 40 miles of my home in Somerset in the UK and are taken exactly as found in their habitats. When it comes to processing my images, I only carry out minimal work to keep the image true to when I took it, what you see is pretty much what came out of the camera. So, how do I go about it? Well, let’s start with equipment.

Afternoon In The Woodland Victoria HIllman Sigma
Wild snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), Somerset Woodland • f/4, 1/200ec, ISO 250

Around two years ago, I decided to take the plunge into specialising in macro photography, but creative macro photography that could be shot with a regular macro lens. After a year of exploring the possibilities I upgraded to the Sigma APO Macro 180mm f2.8 EX DG OS HSM lens (from a 100mm macro lens) and hand on heart this honestly made such a huge difference to my photography and I use this lens about 95 per cent of the time on a Canon 5D Mk III. That said, it’s not all about the camera and lens, there are some other accessories to think about.

For many of my plant and invertebrate shots I also use a tripod (Gitzo Mountaineer legs with Gitzo centre ball head) as well as little LED lights (Manfrotto Lumimuse). The reason for using lights instead of flash I will explain in more detail later, but one thing it is important to consider is whether flash could be harmful to your subject when working in such close proximity to them, particularly those that are more active at night.

Research, research and more research
Starting a new project or working with a new species begins with research into not only my target species, their life cycles and behaviours, but also research into their habitat and the role it plays. This initial background research is a combination of computer based research on locations, life cycles and location based excursions, to find the best spot at specific sites and to investigate the natural light throughout the day. Examples of this would be where the sun rises and sets and good places for more diffused light. Once I have all the details I visit the site time and time again in different conditions, working with just one or two species over a few weeks, months or even a few years. By doing this I gain a greater understanding of my subject and how they interact with their habitat, which also allows me to build a connection with my subjects and their habitats, allowing me to capture different moments and perspectives.

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Snowdrops are one of my favourite flowers to photograph. Not only are they the first wild owers we see after winter, but there is something very simple and beautiful about the little white flowers bobbing away in gentle breezes in our woodlands. They are completely wild rather than being cultivated, so they do flower a little later than the ones we find in our gardens and, at this location, for just a short time, the sun comes through the trees, lighting up the trees in the background to produce the peachy colour.

Moody Snowdrop Sigma Victoria Hillman
Wild Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), Somerset • f/5.6, 1/1250sec, ISO 400

To show the contrast in lighting conditions and why sometimes you need a little extra light, this lone snowdrop is in the shade most of the day. For this one I wanted to create something a little moodier for being deep in the dark woodlands. This is shot in black and white rather than colour and using the contrast sliders in camera. I have used a Lumimuse with diffusers to light the snowdrop from underneath, picking out just parts of the flower and water droplets rather than light the whole area.

Even though I shoot in RAW, if I can see an image working better in black and white I will actually shoot it in black and white, in the conditions I have there and then in the field, as they are completely different to those in my house and it really helps me to concentrate on what I am taking.

One very important thing that I always adhere to, regardless of whether I’m photographing invertebrates, plants amphibians or reptiles, is that I never “garden” around my subjects. Instead I work with what is there, finding a way to incorporate the habitat into the image, as their habitat is an important part of their life. Not only is it their home, but one could cause damage to other species by clearing an area just to get a clear shot, which could, in turn, open up the area to predators. Something to bear in mind.

The past year or so I’ve really enjoyed incorporating habitats into the images to tell more of a story, using wider apertures to bring enough detail into focus, but without detracting from the final picture. For this image below I used a Manfrotto Lumimuse 6 with diffusers hidden in the grass to up-light the two flowers and bring them out from the surrounding grass a little more. The whole area was covered in a blanket of dew so a flash would have bounced off the water droplets, whereas a small LED light is perfect for lighting just the area that you want, but at the same time keeping it looking natural. If I am adding in extra light I want it to still appear natural rather than it obviously being lit.

Snakes-Heads and Rainbows Sigma Victoria Hillman
Wild White Snakeshead Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), Wiltshire countryside • f/2.8, 1/2500sec, ISO 160

Time of Day
I often get asked what time of day is best for photographing different subjects. While it is true that very early mornings are a definite advantage when photographing some invertebrates such as dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies, the middle part of the day can produce some lovely soft lighting for photographing flowers - and don’t discount the evenings too.

I’ll start with early mornings. These are usually around a 4am get-up, to be on site by 5am. It really is a beautiful time of the day. Arriving early at a site that you’ve already researched means you already know the best places or the sunrise and roosting sites for different invertebrates.

Edges dragonfly Sigma Victoria Hillman
Four Spotted Chaser Dragonfly (Libellula quadrimaculata), Somerset Levels • f/4, 1/200sec, ISO 320

Photographing dragonflies
The first two of these dragonfly images are of the same individual taken 90 minutes apart. The first image was when I first found it, low down in the tall grass, completely covered in dew and cold. At this point it was completely stationary, allowing me time to experiment with different ideas and although I did take many, many images, this is one of my favourites (above) as it is so different and shows how well camouflaged they can be. I wanted to just have the very edges of the wings in focus, but with enough detail in the rest of the image to be able to make out that it is a dragonfly, while also incorporating some foliage.

During the 90 minutes it took for the dragonfy to warm up enough to be able to move and make it to the top of the stick, I was still taking photos but, for me, this one (below) really stood out and shows the rewards for patience. Finally, out of the long grass, with the sun rising up from behind the trees, the wings still had enough dew on them to give a silvery appearance as the sun shone through and rim lit the body. I took this in black and white as a high contrast image to really draw the eye to both the sun and the wings.

Silver Wings dragonfly Sigma Victoria Hillman
Four Spotted Chaser Dragonfly (Libellulaquadrimaculata), Somerset Levels • f/18, 1/8000sec, ISO 640

Below, you’ll see another dragonfly of the same species, but taken a few days later. I watched and waited as this individual made its way out of the long grass to the top of the stick and, with its back to the rising sun, started to beat its wings to remove the remaining dew drops. This capture was a bit of trial and error, as anyone who has tried to freeze the action of a dragonfly’s wings will attest, it is not an easy task. I didn’t want to freeze the motion completely though as I wanted to keep a bit of movement in the wings.

All A Flutter dragonfly Sigma Victoria Hillman
Four Spotted Chaser Dragonfly (Libellula quadrimaculata), Somerset Levels • f/9, 1/2000sec, ISO 1250

Midday lighting
Just to show you don’t need to be up before sunrise, the middle of the day can still produce some lovely diffuse lighting, especially if you pick a partly cloudy day. This image of a wild rare bee orchid x y orchid natural hybrid was taken towards the middle of a summer’s day, using the surrounding foliage as a frame. Don’t discount the end of the day either. The light immediately after sunset can be incredible, as can the rising moon. As butterflies settle to roost, it can be a great opportunity to explore different ideas.

Very Rare Beauty bee orchid Sigma Victoria Hillman
Bee orchid x fly orchid (Ophrys apifera x Ophrys insectifera), secret location due to rarity • f/4, 1/800sec, ISO 400

Setting yourself mini projects
Whether you are a professional photographer or just love taking photos, from time to time we can all struggle with motivation or ideas. One way to help combat this is to set yourself mini projects. I currently have one big project on the go called ‘Forgotten Little Creatures,’ which celebrates all the smaller species we have around us here in the UK. It’s a huge project that I have been working on for a few years, culminating in an exhibition and book next year, but within that I have lots of smaller projects to keep my motivation and drive going.

One of these projects is working with a small colony of a particular species of frog, the Iberian water frog or Perez’s frog. These were at first thought to be marsh frogs, but DNA analysis has found them to be a different species. Although not native to the UK, they have become naturalised in a few locations, co-existing with our native species. Last summer and early autumn I spent three and a half months with this one colony.

Over the months spent watching them, I really started to understand their movements, behaviours and found a way to get close enough to capture some of these moments without disturbing them. Here are just a small selection of images from that mini project. I have to admit, the more time I spent with the frogs, the more drawn-in to their world I became and opportunities and possibilities I found. Not to mention also completely falling in love with them! As you walk along the path you can hear the plopping sound as the frogs leap into the water. Once in the water, they wait with their heads just breaking the surface in amongst the plants. The water in the pond is never completely still and this movement, combined with the reflections, creates some wonderful backgrounds that really complement the frogs.

Hiding frog Sigma Victoria Hillman
Perez’s Frog or Iberian water frog (Pelophylax perezi), Somerset Levels • f/2.8, 1/5000sec, ISO 400

One angle I like to try with my subjects is shooting from behind them with them looking away from the camera. When experimenting more with this, I noticed just how wonderful their eyes are, so the next challenge was to get the eye perfectly sharp. To do this it had to be manually focused but well worth being elbow deep in wet peat and thorns for. The more
time I spend with these frogs the more possibilities and ideas I see, so here are a couple more images from the same colony; one taken on an overcast day with a longer exposure to soften the water and the other in September with the autumn colours reflected in the water. These colours complement those of the frog perfectly.

Autumn Reflections frog Sigma Victoria Hillman
Perez’s Frog or Iberian water frog (Pelophylax perezi), Somerset Levels • f/3.5, 1/250sec, ISO 50

Mini projects can hone your focus, whether it be a project at one location, or just one species. It also really helps to perfect both your eld craft and photographic skills. One important thing that I have learnt over the years is to shoot not only what you enjoy, but also what you feel. Often when I go out I don’t have a clear idea in my head of what I would like to come away with, but allow myself to just go with what I’m feeling in the moment.

Eyes frog Sigma Victoria Hillman
Perez’s Frog or Iberian water frog (Pelophylax perezi), Somerset Levels • f/4.5, 1/80sec, ISO 50

This was particularly true last autumn. I had some ideas, but I just let my creativity flow once I was in amongst the trees. I’m much happier with the results than if I had tried to force a particular shot. Don’t worry either if sometimes you have blank days. It does happen and just means you try again another day. This is especially true when working outdoors with natural light. As the lighting and clouds change constantly throughout the day, just go with it.

Above all else, whether you are a professional photographer or just take hotographs as a hobby, photography should be fun, challenging and rewarding and, as photographers, we should always be looking for new ideas and constantly learning and perfecting our skills.

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