Macro photography, defined loosely, is the photography of small things. In temperate zones, where habitats tend to be more open and blessed with nice morning and afternoon light, macro photographers often use tripods, small apertures, and natural light. This approach can produce wonderful images.
In tropical rainforests and cloud forests, however, light is at a premium, particularly in the deep forest where the interesting plants and creatures live. Costa Rica, where I live and work, originally was 99.5% forest. That number is a lot smaller these days but the areas outside of forest are cities, towns, agricultural fields, and cow pastures. To photograph the abundant macro subjects here, you have to get into the forest!
The lack of light means that the traditional temperate zone approach, even with the improved high ISO performance of modern DSLR camera bodies, can be applied only sparingly in the rainforest. The rainforest macro photographer needs to experiment with other techniques. The advantage is that this experimentation can open the door to creatively fresh images.
Any photographic portfolio is made more interesting by showcasing a diversity of image styles. In this little article, I offer fifteen ideas to help you deal with the challenges of rainforest macro photography while at the same time producing original, artistic images of the stunning biodiversity found in tropical rain forests.
1. Use diffused flash
The low light levels mean that flash can be your best friend in the rainforest, as it allows you to obtain good depth of field with reasonable shutter speeds. This also gives you great flexibility as you can work handheld rather than trying to thread tripod legs through the tangled underbrush while your subject just hopped away to the next leaf. Rainforest creatures and flowers are wet and shiny though, so you’ll want to make sure to diffuse your flash. This suggestion stands whether you’re using a built-in flash, a dedicated macro flash, or a larger hotshoe flash. Work carefully, and you can achieve full-flash images that look like they were taken in daylight.
I took this photo of a small beetle in a lowland rainforest with one diffused flash. Flash was the only light source; no ambient light influenced the exposure. A natural light shot would have been impossible due to a slight breeze and the fact that the subject was moving around. Flash allowed me to work handheld.
2. Combine flash and natural light
You don’t always have to ditch your tripod. I still use mine when I can. Even when working from a tripod and using natural light, however, a bit of fill-flash can really help to make your subject pop and to add extra sharpness at marginal shutter speeds.
I used a touch of fill-flash (flash exposure compensation was -2) for this image of tiny Epidendrum orchid flowers shot at 1/15 of a second.
3. Get your flash off-camera
Though at first glance, rainforests are just a bunch of smooth shiny leaves, there’s actually a lot of texture out there. Using flash on-camera, that is directly from the front of the subject, tends to wipe out texture. In addition, frontal flash is rarely very interesting. Getting your flash off-camera, either with a TTL cord or a wireless flash trigger, is a great way to add interest to rainforest macro photos by bringing out the texture in your subject and also adding micro-contrast, which makes photos appear even sharper.
One flash held off-camera above and behind the subject allowed me to highlight the texture on both the Heliconia inflorescence and the moth caterpillar for this image. I liked this image because the lighting looks very much like what one would get on a sunny day in the rainforest – directional lighting and deep shaded backgrounds.
4. Use shadows for a mysterious look
Rainforests rarely have even, open light. Shafts of light piercing the canopy and the resulting mix of light and shadow is more typical. Sometimes the natural light works in our favor and can give really dramatic images. Other times we can achieve a similar effect with our flash. Remember, in these cases and in the case of nocturnal creatures, black backgrounds can be completely appropriate and can add a dramatic though natural-looking element to rainforest macro images.
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MEET THE AUTHOR
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders.