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Where Have All the Flowers Gone, or, Why I Miss Closeups

Every photographer should try shooting nature closeups sometime! Outrageous, I know. Might as well suggest that it is the sacred duty of every budding shutterbug to make portraits of domesticated felines, or shoot oversaturated sunsets. But bear with me for a second. When I started doing photography seriously I had no interest in insects, none! Not even the more conventional interest in pretty flower shots. My foray into macro photography was the result of circumstances. I didn't have a car at the time, and I found that nature's grandeur was somewhat limited on the regular bus routes. But there was a meadow and a small lake nearby with lots of lovely plants ... and butterflies - pretty butterflies. So I tried shooting some pictures with my new zoom, but strangely not much came out. Admittedly I was a beginner all around, and my portraits or street photographs, too, were not likely to be mistaken for undiscovered Karsh or Cartier-Bresson. But y'know, if I took a shot of my friend Jack you could pretty much tell that it was my friend Jack lazing on the sofa. Same with the corner grocery store. But my shots of insects looked like I had sneezed while trying to photograph a Jackson Pollock painting - they were blurry blobs of color.

So I asked some questions on the internet, got a book, and then a couple more. Form-over-content and all that was fine, but this one needed to be cracked. An assortment of lenses and other gizmos followed and the summer saw countless rolls of film before my insects actually looked like the homely winged arthropods without artistic ambition that they were. I eventually found that while shooting at high magnifications isn't that big a deal once you got the basics right, it is nevertheless one of the most technically demanding kinds of photography that you can do with a small format camera. Closeup photography requires you to have good technique and a passing grasp of the theory. As a beginner, this can be a good thing - it's like a crash course in photographic technique. Over my first summer of doing closups, I gradually started to gain an understanding of photographic theory and technique that would perhaps have taken much longer for me to grasp otherwise. Two things in particular helped. Being on a student budget forced me to improvise and use optical gems dredged up from eBay instead of buying the latest greatest macro kit on offer that month. I found that good macro photography can be done with a wide variety of equipment, from old unloved lenses for 8mm and 16mm movie cameras to the latest macro lenses to some astoundingly expensive lenses made for scientific photography. I also made a couple of online friends whose work set the right kind of example to emulate. So, mission accomplished, I was a technically better photographer ready to move on to better things. Later, when I moved to medium and large format cameras, the transition was almost seamless because of the skills I had acquired doing macro photography manually. If you gain nothing else out of macro photography, you will gain a better understanding of photographic technique when you decide to move on. But I hope you will tarry.

That winter, I did other kinds of photography, discovering the black and white darkroom for the first time. And though it was exciting, I found I still missed the meadow. I missed waking up in the morning to catch the first bus with a bagful of gear, tripod in hand. I missed crawling on the ground, my clothes all wet and muddied, trying to get close to that dew covered hoverfly resting on the tip of a blade of grass. Making that perfectly composed and focused shot remains a thrill for every photographer, but it was much more than that that I had come to love about closups. Having grown up bang in the middle of the urban jungle, I had never really discovered nature except through the detached eyes of a "tourist." And suddenly, just under my feet, there was this whole microcosm - this whole world of beauty and color, the joy of life and the struggle, oh! the violent struggle to cling on to that life. I who had always had to look at a calendar to tell the seasons could suddenly tell what month it was from the color of the damselflies I found in the meadow! It was partly the thrill of the hunter stalking his prey, and partly the awestruck wonder of the naturalist. I think of photographing insects as wildlife photography in miniature - it requires stealth and tact. I could feel my skills at spotting camouflaged insects improve over time and with practice I managed to get closer and closer to them without causing alarm. But once you are perfectly positioned and have everything lined up, you look through the viewfinder into a vastly different world. Many of my best photographic experiences shooting insects didn't even result in successful photographs - maybe the insect flew off, maybe the breeze was too strong. But you stop caring as you almost start to communicate with that little blob of a creature climbing up a blade of grass, looking around, frantically wiping the dewdrops from its eyes and wings as it waits to catch the first rays of the sun to warm itself. At that point you no longer care about exposure or focus or sharpness or bokeh - you are merely a spectator in this minute but yet so vast theater of life.

So let me end with an old old shot that didn't work out as a photograph but was a once in a lifetime "photographic experience."

I spotted this little fella on a blade of grass and very carefully set up my tripod and got the shot framed. There was a bit of wind, so I waited. The light was also flat and I was hoping the rays of the early morning sun would add just enough punch to the photograph. The sunrays were rapidly advancing across the meadow and would be there in a few seconds, the wind was dying down as well. As I waited, I watched the little chap wipe the dew drops off its eyes as it warmed up and got ready for another day in this beautiful world that was the meadow. His every movement became immensely pronounced on my focusing screen and as I enjoyed the scene, I thought at the back of my mind how many stops might I need to compensate once the sunlight touched that blade of grass.

Soon enough, the light touched his wing and the dew drops on it sparkled, he got ready to move as soon as the light had drunk the droplets dry and I was about to trip the shutter before he did. Suddenly, out of nowhere there was a flutter and a buzz and the image in my viewfinder got blurry. It was a yellow jacket - it had probably caught a glimpse of the same sparkle that I had been waiting for and swooped in for the kill. The butterfly tried to hold on but the savagery of the wasp was indescribable. After a moment's struggle it tore its victim apart and flew away with shreds of wing and leg still sticking to the dewy grass. Even though I had been witness to this struggle I had not managed to trip the shutter.

And so I only have this serene, strangely beautiful portrait of the last moments of a butterfly in the early morning in flat light and slight wind, while waiting to make the perfect photograph. Most of us have watched the awesome fury of nature's predators on the telly - the galloping cheetah or the striking shark, but I am sure few have witnessed such fury on a cold morning in a misty meadow. So, I miss shooting closeups.
Far have I travelled, and long
At great expense, to lands unknown
To gaze across oceans, and mountains to view.

Yet my eyes have not known
But two steps from home
A blade of grass, a drop of dew.
-Rabindranath Tagore [Apologies for my hurried translation from Bengali]

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