How to Create a Successful Macro Portfolio

July 6, 2022

Exploring the “language” of plants using a macro lens has resulted in an award-winning photo series for Tracy Calder. She shares the story behind her Plant Scars project, as well as some tips and tricks for creating a successful macro portfolio yourself


As a writer and storyteller, I’ve always been interested in language. Watching how signs, symbols, designs and alphabets have helped us communicate with each other over the centuries is a source of great fascination for me. If you look at the pictorial “writing” used by the ancient Egyptians – drawings of feathers, eyes, beetles, trees, lotus flowers, etc. – these codes of speech and thought seem millions of miles from our modern language.

But if you look at the washing label of your favorite sweater, isn’t the drawing of the dryer with the bar a kind of hieroglyph? You can see examples everywhere: on the side of a highway, on your phone and, of course, on the buttons, dials and menu systems of digital cameras. When speed is essential, sometimes an image or symbol reaches the brain faster than the written word.

fix the seed

When I was about nine or ten years old, my mother handed me a little book called The language of flowers. This lovely hardback book was filled with beautiful paintings and handwritten notes. Each note revealed the “meaning” of the flower (some were traditional, others invented by the author). The almond, for example, represented stupidity or indiscretion, while the Christmas rose signified cheerfulness in adversity.

I was struck by the idea that flowers could speak, or at least serve as a conduit for thoughts, emotions and feelings. Years later, I came across the book Nymans Language by John Newling. This magnificent object celebrates Newling’s work around language and gardens. Like me, the artist believes that language can be more than just written words or speech. For him, the colors and shapes of a garden create “a kind of natural language shared by many people”.

close up image of plant scars portfolio plant by tracy calder

When the agave leaf bent its weight created a tear which I found striking 1/12sec at f/20, ISO 200

Find the right language

In June 2021, when the first coronavirus lockdown ended in the UK, I visited Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight. This place has comforted me many times – I swear there is some kind of magic in the ferns, palms and herbs there. While walking through the arid garden (which is home to desert-loving plants like agaves and aloes), I spotted the leaf of an agave falling across the path.

There was a nick in the sheet, lined with tooth-shaped notches. Just above was a circular area of ​​damage that looked like some sort of all-seeing eye. At that moment, the seed of a photographic project began to germinate in my mind. As I stood in the shade of this beautiful but damaged plant, I wondered if it had its own language and if there was anything I could learn from it.

close up image of plant scars portfolio plant by tracy calder

Seeing this ‘Pac-Man’ sheet made me laugh and sparked the idea for the Plant Scars project
1/7sec at f/20, ISO 200

Decide on parameters

If I was going to create a cohesive set of images, I knew consistency was key. I wanted to use natural light, so there was no need to walk back and forth across the garden just hoping conditions would be the same. Everything in nature is in motion, so unless I wanted to spend hours trying to “fix” things on the computer, I had to take all the photos under the same conditions.

After taking a few reconnaissance photos, I decided to go home and come up with a plan. My first job was to set some parameters. First, all images had to be taken on the same bright but overcast day. Second, they all had to show scars, nicks, holes, blemishes, or tears. Third, each had to feature the same species of plants from roughly the same section of the garden. Finally, all images had to be taken with the same camera and lens. Ultimately, I knew that limiting myself like this would encourage me to be more creative.

Get access

Like many people, I’m still waiting for Sigma to release a macro lens for my Fujifilm X-T2, so I decided to borrow a Fujifilm XF 80mm f/2.8 Macro lens through Fuji’s loaner service. With the weather checked, the ferry booked and a secure overnight stay, I was off. In the morning, I woke up on the island to witness a beautiful sunrise: bands of orange and pink filled the sky, and every time the wind blew the plants aside, I could see a calm, blue sea.

I had deliberately rented a cabin in the Garden itself, which meant that I had access to the site a few hours before it opened to the public. It turned out to be a wise decision – at 6 a.m. I was kneeling on the ground, framing scars and tears, while red squirrels and wall lizards scurried through the leaf litter at proximity.

close up image of plant scars portfolio plant by tracy calder

I walked around the garden looking for a tear that could serve as a break point in the series
1/8 sec at f/20, ISO 200

Overcome Challenges

I was immediately faced with some challenges. When shooting with a macro lens just inches from your subject, the depth of field is extremely narrow. Most of the leaves looked flat to the naked eye, but after reviewing some of the early shots, I noticed the focus was rapidly dropping with every bend, twist, and undulation.

To solve the problem, I decided to focus some scenes. This involves taking several images – each focusing on a slightly different focal plane – before blending them in-camera (if your particular model allows it) or through software such as Zerene Stacker.

The next challenge was much less technical: every time I found a sheet with an interesting mark, tear or scar, it seemed to be in the most inaccessible place. This is when being a yogi comes in handy! For a few hours, I contorted myself into unsightly shapes and positions, all the while trying not to get stabbed in the head by the sharp thorns lining the ends of the leaves.

close up image plant scar mark on surface in butterfly shape from portfolio plant scars by tracy calder

This mark in the sheet reminded me of a butterfly balancing on a tightrope 2.3 sec at f/16, ISO 200

Submit a portfolio

I spent the morning covering just a few feet of the Arid Garden, but was reasonably happy with the variety and consistency of the images. I chose six of my favorite images and submitted the portfolio to RHS Botanical Art and Photography Exhibition. To my surprise, my efforts were rewarded with a HRH Gold Medal.

After everything we’ve been through in recent years with Covid, this series seemed to strike a chord with the judges. For me it was a cathartic exercise – it was my way of celebrating the beatings we take as living beings and ultimately the ability they have to transform us. For me, scars are markers of progress, reminders of what has been endured and what can still be.

close up image of plant scars portfolio plant by tracy calder

Oddly, this image was inspired by a ceramic tile I saw at the V&A in London 0.6 sec at f/22, ISO 200


List of kits to create a macro portfolio

Macro lens

All images in the Plant Scars series were captured using a rented Fujinon XF 80mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro lens. This chunky piece of glass offers 1:1 (life-size) magnification and has a minimum focusing distance of 25cm.

Fujinon XF 80mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro Lens

Tripod

The leaves with the most interesting marks and scars always seem to be in the most inaccessible places. To give yourself more flexibility, try using a tripod with a center column that can be positioned at 90°. I use a Manfrotto 190CXPRO4.

Manfrotto 190CXPRO4

Tweezers

When shooting close-up subjects, dirt, stray leaves, or fine wires can be troublesome. If you want to save valuable time on the computer, use tweezers to put things away while staying put.

tweezers

kneeling cushion

Some of the best macro subjects seem to happen close to the ground, which can lead to wet (and sore) knees. To mitigate this, pack a lightweight kneeling mat. A basic foam version will do, so don’t spend a lot.

kneeling cushion


10 Top Tips for Building a Successful Macro Portfolio

  1. Look beyond photography. While researching the Plant Scars project, I looked at books on Islamic writing, calligraphy, and even tiles.
  2. Consider the link. The images in your series should be related by more than the subject. It could be color, technique, style or just a sentiment, but the connection should be obvious.
  3. Take physics. When choosing or sequencing images, it helps to print them, move them around, and live with them.
  4. Define the goal. Some competitions require you to submit a statement of intent. You may not intend to share your work, but it can help you define the purpose, goals and objectives of your project.
  5. It’s normal to change your mind. If you decide to submit your project to a competition, check that you can exchange or add additional photos until the deadline.
  6. Ask your circle of trust for feedback on each image. But only seek advice from people you trust and respect.
  7. Consistency is the key. If you need to shoot your images on different days or in different lighting conditions, you should address this issue in post-production. Bring copies of the photos you took earlier to all shoots so you can compare.
  8. Sequencing is important. If you want to display your images as a body of work, order (or arrangement) is important.
  9. Every picture counts. Your images should work as a whole, but they should also stand on their own. Weaker images will reduce the impact of your series.
  10. Enter a contest. It can give you the incentive you need to start a photo project.
plant scar photo

I like how these two scars seem to hold each other 0.5 sec at f/20, ISO 200


Tracy Calder

Tracy Calder is a former AP employee who co-founded Close-up Photographer of the Year (CUPOTY) in 2018 – an annual competition celebrating close-up, macro and micro photography. His work has been exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Saatchi Gallery. For more visit Instagram @tracy_calder_photo and www.cupoty.com

Related Reading:

Best Photography Contests to Enter in 2022

A Beginner’s Guide to Macro Photography – How to Create Stunning Macro Shots

30 common macro mistakes and how to avoid them


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