3•Reflections on Closeup Photography
In my first post, I noted that my photographic efforts during my first two years of shooting were rather rudderless and dispassionate. My interest increased dramatically as I developed a sense of directon fostered by the two serendipitous events that occured in my third year. I set some modest goals and had some modest successes.
Going into my fourth shooting season in 2010, my primary interest had become close-up/macrophotography of subjects of the natural world, in their natural world. I liked the challenge of finding snippets of life external of myself going on all around us — especially lifecycle studies — that we tend not to see…really see…because 1) they are not in plain site given their world-scale compared to ours, and 2) our failure to sense they have any importance or consequence to our lives. That if we think of them at all, it is probably as just being pests, even if they are completely benign. We simply don’t care, or think we need to. Out of sight, out of mind.
Landscape photography and general “nature” photography are very popular. Closeup nature and macro, probably less so. They require a different focus, both intellectual and technical, as well as specialized equipment. It’s not the same as being out and about, coming upon a scene or vista, whipping out your camera and thinking, “Wow!…this would make a beautiful picture!” I often have to plan how to actively explore, find, and figure out the best way to capture my subjects. It’s the difference from “seeing” with a 35 or 50mm field-of-view mental perspective vs. a macro-lens perspective.
The closeup natural world is often fraught with impediments such as inconsistent or just-plain bad light, bad shadows, light streaks, distracting backgrounds, or backgrounds so close to the subject they can’t be drop dropped out through lighting or aperture adjustments. Mobile animate subjects generally don’t like being your subject, and generally refuse to take posing direction, or otherwise do your bidding so you, an interloper into their world, can get that perfect shot.
While I was generally pretty happy with my subject matter, there was always that lingering doubt about the quality of my images. Despite selling some prints and winning a few competition awards, my portfolio is a constant source of a sense of failure within me. I am constantly thinking that, surely, anyone with access and eyes would plainly see and agree. My images don’t have the best composition or framing. They are not always the best exposed (according to pros who have critiqued my work but don’t do this kind of shooting…a subject for another time). And the biggest fault of all: They aren’t the sharpest.
All of these flaws contribute to the sense that nothing I shoot, edit, archive — or even chose to display on rare occasions — is ever really good enough. Even my award-winning images are not as good as they could have been, should have been. This sense of introspective angst seems validated and compounded when I see images such as (some) of these.
I bring up all these shortcomings to make two points. First, problems such as framing and chasing exposure settings as I chase my subjects (I shoot full-manual everything almost all the time), are all my technical fault. And I developed another…
After a surgical situation came up just about three years ago, with it’s long recuperation, I wasn’t in good physical shape or much in the mood to shoot, even handheld, let alone lug around my tripods, focus rails, and various flash and other accessories to take the kind of shots I knew I should be taking. Even after recovery, worn and aching joints exacerbated by the bad effects of long-term use of a certain antibiotic made me less able, and thus less willing, to get myself into the contorted body positions I previously would have done in order to better frame my subjects.
Did this affect my approach to how I went about shooting? Absolutely. I wasn’t “doing the work” required to get the results I intended, or had been in the past. Yes, there was the physical impediments, but perhaps there was more of an attitude deficit. I wasn’t doing the work required, so I wasn’t happy with results, which I turned into a satifying sense of intellectual absolution for not doing the work.
Resolved: I need to get my head (and body) back to where they need to be to do this kind of shooting, and to think more about how and what I want to shoot. There is good reason to take more of a two-camera approach using tripod-based set-shots with one, hand-held shots with the other. I know I need to do more planned tripod-based set-shots and less chasing after my subject handheld, just because it is more convenient, takes less time, and requires less patience. In short, I need to rethink, retune, and reinvigorate my work ethic so I take fewer shots, planned and executed to achieve better results.
Second, it’s easy to blame equipment, or to think “If I just had that nifty piece of new gear, my images would be better.” Admitting and addressing the previous issues is absolutely necessary. But there are legitimate reasons to think about equipment. Allow me to digress…
In my previous post I gave a little background into how I got into photography and the kit I purchased which seemed more than adequate for my initial purposes—despite not having the video capabilities I needed. In August of 2008, a little over a year after I got the Nikon D80, the D90 — the first DSLR to do video — was released. I bought one during the winter. The video capability came in very handy immediately with the neighbor situation.
Besides the video capability, the D90 had some other improvements over the D80. Once spring had sprung, it quickly became my go-to camera for my general shooting which was now focusing more on closeup nature subjects.
Over the next two years I purchased an SB-600 flash, then another, and then the Nikon closeup system, and also an SB-900, a ring light and a ring flash. I had a monopod, two different sized tripods and a focus rail. I had already purchased the pro-level Nikon 105mm macro lens and a 50mm prime very soon after buying the new body (other lenses would follow). I had a healthy smattering of closeup filters, extension tubes, and reverser rings and a few different types of shutter releases.
The D80/90 are in DX format so the smaller body was able to get into tighter spots. And the DX is lighter, a blessing when you are trying to hold a steady physical position while waiting for your subject to do something. My chosen equipment seemed to allow me to do everything I thought I wanted to do. I used it a lot and learned a lot.
The D90 was at the top of the Nikon “prosumer” line until it was discontinued. The next camera up in the product line crossed over into the professional category where all bodies were FX format with professional features that came with professional-level prices. Loaded with features I would never use, I could never justify the expense of making that jump, so the D90 has been my main body for more than 11 years. Sometimes it’s good to have two cameras with two different setups. The D80 fit that bill nicely. I also bought a D70 and D70s years later, but that’s another story for another time, about how those technically “obsolete” throwbacks relate to the new mirrorless technologies.
The D90 is factory rated for 100,000 shutter actuations. I just checked mine. As of the moment I am writing this, it has 104,078. While I am not seeing any signs of shutter problems, there are some signs that the camera is getting tired and showing its age, the most important being the flange of the lens mount. It and/or the lock is wearing and getting sloppy. I feel and hear my lenses locking in, but on increasing occasions, when zooming in or out, lenses have, at times, barely slipped out of lock and lost electrical contact causing me to miss shots. This has become increasingly more frequent with my heavy 105mm macro, either when using my non-trigger hand to support the camera on the lens barrel, or even when just focusing.
Even if the shutter assembly should fail, sending the camera to Nikon for that and other repairs needed might cost around $600. But should I? Or should I buy new?
I have three reasons to justify (finally?) making the leap to a considerably more costly pro-level body. All would impact image quality.
1.) The D90 does not have the ability to do “mirror up” shooting. Even on a tripod, that mirror slap affects image quality. Obviously, more so when I am shooting hand-held, which is the vast majority of the time. Going mirrorless should solve that issue entirely.
2.) Getting closeups of my subjects often requires getting close to them in tight, low-light spaces. Sometimes flash is not going to work effectively at all in those environments, even a ring flash. That means shooting handheld at slower shutter speeds which is not conducive to sharp shots. Also, flash on shiny insect body parts or light colored flowers is a major problem, especially when shooting at very close range. The fix should be to utilize higher ISO with or without flash. DX sensors are more prone to noise than full-frame (or so the experts say). I was never happy with the noise in low-light situations on the D90 going beyond 400 which gives me only a one-stop increase in sensitivity over default (200). Over the years, I have heard fantastic claims about huge improvements in sensor sensitivity and noise.
3) The D90 cannot do front/back focus adjustment. For years I wasn’t even aware of this problem, but once I was, I did focus chart testing and saw that it is an issue for all but one of my (least used) lenses. This, compounded by the mount flange wear, explains a lot of my focus issues.
All three problems, especially in combination, have a very substantial impact on sharpness which is a BIG part of what’s messing with my end results, as well as my enjoyment, my sense of satisfaction, and my drive. Fixing this issue alone would take a huge weight off my suffering psyche, and, I suspect, provide that element that would elevate my images to a true “pro” level that has eluded me.
I also have to wonder if I have reached the maximum potential of what I can do with the D90. No doubt, a new body with better capabilities offer both new technical abilities and opportunities that would perhaps even inspire me be more creative with my images in an “artsy-fartsy” way, and rejuvenate my passion.
I am in a financial position that allows me to seriously consider if it’s time to get a new body (there is always more cost involved than just the cost of camera body). DX has considerable advantages, but stepping up to FX offers more lens options on top of the tech improvements since the D90 was introduced. Do I want to step up to the apparently fantastic top-shelf Nikon DX DSLR, or go with one of the new mirrorless bodies, either DX or FX? Maybe I should also rejuvenate the DX format D90 so it can be my second setup to an FX primary? I am weighing pros and cons ( I am heavily invested in Nikon equipment and that is where I shall stay) and need to make a decision.
So November and winter approach. Some facets of the natural world shut down or shift to another part of their cycle, others are in the throes of annual die-off. It’s the way of nature. The outdoor shooting season is rapidly coming to a close and I am reflecting on all I have written here and what I should do over the winter to prepare myself for next year. If I chose to get a new body (next generation models announced last week), there is wisdom in doing so sooner than later so I can immerse myself with it over the winter. I would do some serious desktop shooting and testing so I am confident, ready and raring to go in the spring…assuming snow shoveling or the next wave of COVID don’t kill me.
As it turns out, even if I wanted to buy that new camera I wanted, the Nikon 6 II, I couldn’t get it because the pandemic had severely curbed production and there were none to be found. That changed on 4/27/21 when I was notified by Adorama in NYC that the camera is now in stock. I completed the purchase in less than 10 minutes and it arrived the next day. The learning curve has begun.
Coming up next: Closeup nature photography and perspectives on life, death, and comedy (and yes, there will be photos!).