#1154. The return of minuscule pleasures

By philberphoto | Opinion

Nov 26

It’s true, you know, what they say : The smaller the size, the greater the pleasure!

Did nobody teach you that sticking out your tongue is rude?

Those of you familiar with DearSusan will have read my review of the Laowa 100mm f:2.8 super macro, a.k.a. Jonathan. From that perspective, this post brings nothing new, so readers seeking technical insights can skip right along. But, as the title suggests, this lens is all about pleasure, and is it really ever possible to get too much of that?

A mini-marigold, maybe? More like a micro-marigold, 5mm wide.

Jonathan and I have been family for almost 2 years now and, to be honest, it is not my go-to, walkabout lens. It is the heaviest to carry around, and probably the one that is the hardest to use, yet it is also the one that produces the highest yield of keepers (more later on that subject), and probably the one that produces my most pleasureable images

Somebody’s not done his housekeeping, you need to clean the inside as well…

I suspect that the main reason for that is the large personal component in any such image. If one is wants to shoot a glorious landscape, or monument, or human face, there are only so many great images to be made. By comparison, when you shoot small-to-minute objects, you have a lot more freedom for your inspiration to roam. First because, all things being equal, there are so many more small objects around us, soon to be made into subjects, than there are glorious landscapes etc. Just think how many flowers there are in a mixed border, how many leaves on a tree, how many doors, hinges, locks, ropes, knots, amid countless other victims of my proclivity… So each photographer creating such images is -or can be, if he/she so wishes- a lot more individual and personal than 2 photographers placing their tripods right next to each other in front of a landscape icon, and who are more than likely to come back with similar images.

Who said that there is only one sun un the solar system?

The second reason I so enjoy really-close-up shots is the element of discovery. Such shots incorporate not only a large percentage of bokeh in the image, but also said bokeh is of the highly defocused kind. Yet the human eye does not naturally see bokeh. What we perceive naturally is an almost-always-all-sharp image. Which means that when my camera produces a bokeh-rich shot, there is an element of discovery, because I can’t previsualize the bokeh component, and so I discover it on the LCD first, and then on the computer screen.

Bokeh anyone?

I confess, when looking for “a lot of bokeh in the image” to illustrate the point I made above, I used an unfair advantage. The picture above is one of the smallest objects I have ever shot as a main subject, and, no, it is not cropped except to square. But Jonathan magnifies up to 2:1, and that one is 1.7:1. To give you scale, that flower is smaller than my smallest toenail. So, by necessity, it incorporates a lot of highy defocused bokeh…

A flower, or a horn,? you be the judge!

So, as you can see, the only “advantages” so to speak I derive from shooting small sujects are that there are lots of them if we care to look, and that they generate bokeh-rich creation-images. From that point on, it is a matter of discovery. What have I just mined, just dirt, of with precious metal in it? So, in a way, you could accuse me of just “spraying and praying”, which is enough to get a photographer tarred and feathered by his better peers. Well, guilty as charged!

A decaying flower, or a flower-in-flight? You decide!

But, be it “spray and pray” as it may, if there is an element of discovery, it is because there is indeed some precious metal mixed with the tons of dross. Because, make no mistake, the dross far, far outweighs the useful result. One shot on this page is the result of 170 attempts. Yes, this is not a typo, we are well into neurosis territory. But with a razor-thin DOF, not much light, a contorted shooting position, and a fair breeze, it is not all that easy to get right… So when I say a high rate of keepers, it is relative to how many subjects I attempt, that eventually yield a satisfying image, not how many shots are required to get one that is really as it ought to be.

A 20cm-high sage. What could be more common, banal, uninspiring? But to see it like that is -to me- a revelation

But this is where it gets delightful. You take a small, unassuming subject, like the sage above. With the help of the narrow-dof photographic process, you get a result which is both un-manipulated, and yet a creation. And when that creation is to your liking, you -at least I- get satisfaction in no small measure.

Another vanity shot. Each of these flowers are some 3-4mm wide, and the scene, frankly is 90%+ discovery…

Here I have to inject a caveat. Not all such “good shots” are actually good. Yes, if one gets the DOF and the focus right, and if the subject is small enough, it could well be a Wow! shot, and those are the ones that often get the nod at photo competitions. But I am not going for the Wow!, I prefer to go for meaning, for the story, which in my view has a much more lasting effect. Of course YMMV.

A flower shark, or just a flower with the image producing meaningful bokeh?

At his stage I have to say, the lens does play a part in what the images look like, but not in the usual way. It is not so much sharpness, distortion or aberrations, as it is bokeh, how structured or smooth, or rough, and roll-off from sharp to blurred. In the respect, Jonathan really shines, with less contrast than other, super-contrasty macro lenses that want to emphasize detail, a very gradual roll-off, a pleasant balance between structured and smooth bokeh, and mild, pastel colours.

I am sure none of you has ever seen a flower looking like this…

Once you “get the shot”, such images lend themselves to a lot of latitude in PP. Personally, I sometimes enjoy very dark backgrounds, all the way to black if possible, but this can be achieved with adjustments rather than manipulation, and others are free to pull their shots in totally different directions.

A duo, a duel, a contrast, or a counterpoint?

How do I know that an image incorporates a story? Well, there is a good tell-tale: if some of the friendly ‘togs I share this image with, beginning with Pascal J, see something completely different than what I see, then the image takes on meaning…. This is/was the case with the image above, for example….

Not only flowers get the treatment…..

I hope this leads to you to as much pleasure in this small compartment of photography as I derive from it. Small is indeed beautiful!

small, simple, pure, beautiful…..

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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    J’adore ces images, Philippe. After telling my wife 10,000 times to select one object as the “subject” of her photos, instead of cramming 20 into one shot, they are a welcome relief! (Actually she’s not QUITE that bad – LOL – but heaps of amateurs are!)

    I’ve been fooling around with my new Nikon 105 macro lately – much the same as Jonathon, but with AF which helps when I try capturing bees in flight!

    Do you focus stack? These remarkable images are suggesting to me that you must, to capture such extraordinary detail beyond the anthers, right down into the corolla.

    It might puzzle those who missed the opportunity during COVID lockdowns, to try their hand at this kind of photography, to suggest this, but despite the apparently simple composition, it’s still remarkably difficult to get “the perfect shot” of each flower, as you flit through the garden – making a bee line from flower to flower. After a very intensive shoot out with one of my orchids, I eventually found “the perfect image” concealed from view, hiding in between the more obvious. You don’t seem to suffer from the same visual impediment, yours are all worthy of enlarging and hanging on the walls of your home.

    Thank you for once again giving us all another bunch of beautiful flowers!

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    You and Jonathan make a great duo when you’re “shooting small”, Philippe! Each image contains the most perfect portrait of these sometimes teeny tiny flowers (and let’s not forget: one leaf) as they they pose quite naturally within their environments. So demure, so delightful – the only thing that’s missing is a teeny tiny fairy perched on a petal. That’s my imagination getting the better of me, but one can always hope. Thanks for sharing your marvelous miniatures!

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    Phillippe, thanks for sharing both your thoughts and your images.

    I love the sheer pictorial quality that you have achieved. Like Pete, I have a Nikon 105 macro lens and I love getting close to the little things around me. Generally there’s no need to go for miles to find a grand subject and most can be found in any garden if we’re prepared to look closely enough.

    Pete also mentions focus stacking which has become so easy with the latest cameras. Even my (bottom of the range) Nikon Z5 allows me to set up the camera, find focus, press the button and multiple shots each with a slightly different focal point are shot, straight into Helicon, and as he says sometimes “the perfect image” emerges.

    Thanks again for the inspiration.

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks for the kind comments and words, Peter! For now, I haven’t gone into focus-stacking, though I would not say “nevere to it. Reason is, mostly, it requires a tripod ot get a stable base for multiple shots, and that would severly limit what shots I could take to my satisfaction. Not to say I wouldn’t love the DOF possibilities, of course. Unless you tell me it can be done handleg, in which case I need to try posthaste.

  • Pascal O. says:

    Dites le avec des fleurs. What a remarkable set, thank you for going into such trouble (up to 170 iterations of a given flower) to produce this superb post.
    Thank you, Philippe, a beautiful start to the day. And inspiration to dust off my macro lens and take it out.

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks Pascal! As to dusting off your macro lens, let’s not forget there is a seasonal component to minuspcule pleasures, because flowers and leaves do make up a significant component of my production. Thus, there is a necessary fasting period of some 5 months, December through April….

  • Dallas says:

    Pleasure is pleasure whether it be large or small, in this case its small and how much pleasure and beauty you have shared with us many thanks. Your images are impeccable as usual.

  • Paul Perton says:

    Wonderful, restrained and thoughtful, Philippe – as ever.

    I finished reading and looking, then went straight to my favourite photo Web site to see if there was a Laowa macro lens for Fuji. Alas, not. With my Nikons still (COVID) marooned in Cape Town, I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer…

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks, Paul!! As to your situation, I would like to offer this. Close-up photography is, to me, as much a frane of mind as it is anything else, including gear. A way of loking a the world, if you will. And, though an appropriate Laowa 2:1 65mm “ultra-macro” does exist for Fuji X-mount, there is another way. Tubes. Small, light, inexpensive. Though not perfectly practical, of course. YMMV

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