two butterflies posing against a heart shaped stem

The Power of Emotion in Macro Photography

Petar Sabol

Macro and wildlife photography are technical subjects, but without emotion, technique is nothing. The frame can be full, but the picture is still… empty. Award-winning nature photographer Petar Sabol illustrates this beautifully. His pictures are technically perfect, but also visually thrilling, they transcend the scientific and fascinate.

There are a lot of things you need to get right, and everything can be a problem. The light, the shutter speed, the focus, the depth-of-field…macro in particular is very technical. Then there’s the environment; the subject might fly away, or the wind moves a stem. But you must beat all of that and let the artistic vision emerge. I find this comes when I’m relaxed, in tune with the subject…then you can get that feeling into the image, the artistic expression. But I’m not perfect – I don’t get it every time.

Petar references an incredible image he shot of a diving Kingfisher. This wasn’t a lucky shot. It took effort. That one split-second of opportunity took months of effort.

a kingfisher dives into water to catch a fish

© Petar Sabol | Sony α77 | 70-200mm f/2.8 G | 1/640 | f/8.0 | ISO 200

After this shot, I was literally screaming! It was an amazing moment. The culmination of a long process. I got familiar with the Kingfisher, taking many shots of him on branches before I came to the idea of making something different – how could it look under the water? It was the fastest of its time. 12 frames per second, so plenty to capture the moment. And this is only one frame of many. Now we have the α9 at 20fps. That’s the speed Sony is giving us to capture the moment.

Using an underwater bag, Petar sunk the camera to about 50cm below the surface, deep enough to feel the immersion in the river, but shallow enough to keep the light strong. It had to be a sunny day, too, in order to reproduce the vibrant natural colours.

Everything in the Kingfisher shot is manual: the focus, the shutter speed, the aperture, and I composed where I expected him to dive. I’d scattered fish food there to attract his prey. Then it was trial and error. You can’t move the camera, only react to the subject. You’re blind to what’s being recorded. But I had the passion to keep at it, a vision of what I could make. There were frustrations; sometimes he was perfectly in focus, but slightly out of the frame; sometimes perfectly in frame, but out of focus… I had to be persistent!
an orange backlight illuminates a butterfly perched on a plant bud

© Petar Sabol | Sony α77 + 100mm f/2.8 Macro | 1/8s @ f/13, ISO 100

Consistent across all of Petar’s work is a devotion to light. Light creates the natural world, so of course it should be paramount in recording it. His images brim with light, picking up fine details of insects and birds, and adding drama, making the scene and the subjects glow with life. He shoots predominantly at early morning or sunset, composing against the sun pulling detail from shadows if required, as well as the vivid colours these full-frame bodies produce.

A striking style of his work is to use rays of light, which seem to spotlight the subjects. It’s a look he found by experimentation and he calls it “photonic bliss”. The effect comes from using a standard starburst filter, but not in the way you might think.

a dragon fly sitting on a plant stem at dawn

© Petar Sabol | Sony α77 + 100mm f/2.8 Macro | 1/8s @ f/11, ISO 50

I’d often used these filters to give a twinkle on highlights, especially when animals were back lit and covered in morning dew. Then when composing I found that from one angle in the rotation, and with the sun to the side, I could get this wonderful shaft of light from the corner of the frame. It looked amazingly beautiful and really interested me. People may think it’s photoshop or a filter, but it’s all hardware.

Experimentation, dedication. It all adds up. Petar spends lots of time in the wild researching his subjects and the benefit is clear to see. His images have the studied approach of studio work, but they’re all shot in the field.

It’s all about being in touch with nature and knowing the subjects. When I’m searching in a forest, I locate where the subjects are the evening before. I watch their behaviour when they’re active, and as the sun lowers, they calm and they land to sleep. I mark where they sleep so I can find the location next morning when they’re still drowsy and before the sun warms them. It’s easier to shoot that way, more manageable. I’m out ready to shoot before the sunrise, so I don’t want to waste that time.
two butterflies sitting on blades of grass at dawn

© Petar Sabol | Sony α99 + 100mm f/2.8 Macro | 1/30s @ f/5.6, ISO 100

Finding subjects in this state means he can also more easily apply macro techniques like focus stacking, the lack of movement making it easier to shift focus to cover the whole animal. Up until recently, Petar did this manually, but has recently moved to using an electronic focusing rail with his mount lenses. He uses stacking when conditions are right, but always makes a few shots at smaller apertures, and takes care in positioning, shooting from the side of the subject to keep more of it in focus.

two dragonflies resting on a twig

© Petar Sabol | Sony α99 II + 100mm f/2.8 Macro | 1/15s @ f/8, ISO 100

As well as stacking, I’ve found so many advantages to using the new cameras for my macro work. The fully articulated screens are highly adjustable for shooting in the field. And the EVFs are incredible, you can always see exactly how the picture will look even before you shoot; changes to exposure, white balance, are all perfectly clear. it’s amazing to work that way because you get the shot without thinking what you might need to adjust in post. Focus peaking is very useful, too; it helps me get everything perfectly sharp. Regular DSLRs feel like old technology now, and the differences will be even more pronounced in future.

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Petar Sabol

Petar Sabol | Croatia

"I always try to make my photos look better, no matter how long it takes and how much effort it requires"

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