Smart­phones en­able us to get up close and dig­i­tal with na­ture’s minia­ture life

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Michael Viney

With a teenager’s de­vo­tion to a wild idea, I once turned the family green­house into a pho­to­graphic dark­room. It was the only un­con­tested space, and its card­board black­out was proof against all but the bright­est chinks of starlight.

My first en­larger, con­jured from a mys­te­ri­ous, fatherly deal in the pub, was an Ed­war­dian an­tique of ma­hogany and brass. It stretched hor­i­zon­tally along the pot­ting bench, the bel­lows ex­tend­ing on tracks. Its fist-size lens threw a di­a­mond-sharp im­age, once I had man­aged to sand­wich my mod­est square of film where the big glass plate of a neg­a­tive used to go.

Mak­ing a print was slow, messy and la­bo­ri­ous, in­volv­ing smelly chem­i­cals. As I be­came more am­bi­tious, the cost of a per­fect 10 x 8 print, its darks rich and vel­vety, could be quite high. But the feel­ing of ac­com­plish­ment, of soli­tary, mag­i­cal cre­ativ­ity, was in­com­pa­ra­ble. Mov­ing a dig­i­tal im­age from cam­era to com­puter screen, all with a click or two, misses out on a whole slice of youth­ful ful­fil­ment.

My first cam­era, an aged twin-lens Voigt­lander, could not fo­cus nearer than a me­tre. With wooden tri­pod tied to my cross­bar, I cy­cled off into the coun­try­side for land­scapes and quaint cor­ners of stock­bro­ker vil­lages while haunted by Ansel Adams’s wild and won­der­ful boul­ders and peaks of Yosemite, bor­rowed from the town li­brary.

Half a cen­tury on, in the dig­i­tal age, I also delight in a dif­fer­ent scale of na­ture – its minia­tures – as the rich flow of im­ages from read­ers ar­rives at “Eye on Na­ture”.

The ca­pac­ity of smart­phone cameras to get in close, of­ten to a hand’s breadth of the sub­ject, has em­braced the beauty and in­ter­est of the sin­gle flower or wood­land mush­room, the sin­gle bee­tle or bum­ble­bee, the in­di­vid­ual but­ter­fly or moth, and (I some­times shrink to see) the poised and soli­tary spi­der. Along with the im­ages comes the quest to know more, which Ethna tries to sat­isfy.

Close-up pho­tog­ra­phy

Among Europe’s finest close-up pho­tog­ra­phers is Dr Robert Thomp­son, who is based in Ban­bridge, Co Down. An en­to­mol­o­gist, he knows what ev­ery­thing is and where it’s likely to be. I met up with him once in the dunes along the shore and mar­velled at the range of Nikon hard­ware clus­tered weight­ily across his chest: if not this cam­era, then that one, and which­ever lens, tri­pod, knee pads or an­cil­lary gad­get needed for the shot.

Thomp­son’s clas­sic work has al­ready been seen in weighty vol­umes of drag­on­flies, but­ter­flies and moths pub­lished by the Ul­ster Museum. He has now pro­duced a mas­terly guide, Close-up and Macro Pho­tog­ra­phy: Its Art and Field­craft Tech­niques (Fo­cal Press). It’s not cheap, but it is vis­ually thrilling and tech­ni­cally ex­haus­tive.

Thomp­son’s life as a pro­fes­sional nat­u­ral his­tory pho­tog­ra­pher means mar­ket­ing flaw­less pho­tos with im­pact and a per­sonal style: “brand­ing”, as he puts it. Along with the right ex­po­sure, white bal­ance, colour tem­per­a­ture and ex­per­tise with clin­i­cal soft­ware comes an artis­tic gift for an im­age that draws a gasp.

The field­craft of­fered by Thomp­son, mov­ing from one habi­tat to an­other, can be be­guil­ingly prac­ti­cal, as in keep­ing one’s head off the sky­line while stalk­ing drag­on­flies perched at a pond, or search­ing for the one mush­room the slugs haven’t got to.

Harsh light

Wind and weather count as much as know­ing where and when to look, and blue-sky, breezy days are def­i­nitely not the best. There are flex­i­ble yokes to hold a flower still (among them the won­der­ful Wim­ber­ley Plamp), tripods that sprawl oblig­ingly flat on the ground, and screens that diffuse the harsh light of bright sun.

Early morn­ing finds the light kind­est and in­sects still tor­pidly wait­ing to be warmed into life. When they’re fly­ing, a light shower of rain can bring them down to the leaves and add sparkling drops to a flower or a drag­on­fly’s wing. In win­ter, soft mist can

Early morn­ing finds the light kind­est and in­sects still tor­pidly wait­ing to be warmed into life

be­jewel a spi­der’s web or frost coat a seed head or berry in di­a­monds.

Close-up and “macro” pho­tog­ra­phy are not the same: the lat­ter means im­ages of­ten greatly en­larged from life. Not ev­ery­one en­joys in­spect­ing the glaze on a wasp’s eye­ball. Thomp­son usu­ally set­tles for dou­bling the size, per­haps with tele­photo lens and ex­ten­sion tube. If there is a spe­cial style to his work, it shows up well in his exquisite stud­ies of day-fly­ing moths pre­tend­ing to be tree bark and of in­ef­fa­bly el­e­gant cater­pil­lars and drag­on­flies, or flowers show­ing off their sta­mens.

His scope widens to lichens, fungi, rock pools and streams (bring your own aquar­ium and put ev­ery­thing back where you found it). And given his ruth­less per­fec­tion­ism – ev­ery hair glis­ten­ing, ev­ery petal im­mac­u­late – it is re­as­sur­ing to be told that smart­phone and mo­bile phone cameras can of­ten yield “ac­cept­able” im­ages.

Rout­ledge is of­fer­ing – for a “short time” – An­other Life read­ers a 30% dis­count on Close-up and Macro Pho­tog­ra­phy. Go to and quote the dis­count code MACRO230 at check­out.


Pri­vate lives of in­sects: Co Down-based en­to­mol­o­gist Dr Robert Thomp­son cre­ates vis­ually thrilling and tech­ni­cally ex­haus­tive pho­tog­ra­phy.

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