Robert Thompson doesn’t just take pretty pictures of insects purely for their aesthetic appeal. Instead, he’s one of a select breed of natural history photographers meticulously recording macro images of native wildlife as a matter of scientific record. Of course, it doesn’t do any harm that Robert’s pictures are also quite exquisite to look at. So, how did this quietly spoken 48-year-old from Northern Ireland become one of the world’s most respected natural history photographers?
‘I grew up on a large parkland estate, which was like having a huge natural history garden on your doorstep and this greatly influenced my interest in natural history,’ he explains. ‘Later on in life, while living in London I became interested in photography. The first camera I bought was a Pentax MX, which I used to take pictures of all kinds of things such as events and the usual London attractions.’
And how did things develop from there?
‘When I returned to Ireland I did a lot of survey work with various conservation agencies, mostly covering insect groups. I suppose it was a natural progression in that the more I became interested in the ecology and behaviour of insects, the more I thought it would be worth recording them photographically.
‘I had a particular interest in dragonflies, butterflies and moths and realised there wasn’t a lot of high-quality imagery of these species around, partly because they are immensely difficult to photograph. I decided I wanted to focus on recording these groups and their natural environment – it has been both a passion and a quest for me ever since.’
Images as Scientific Record
When it comes to recording exquisite, pin-sharp macro images of nature, Robert has few peers. However, as a committed natural history photographer, there is also a more serious and scientific angle to his work: ‘I have a strong background in conservation and natural history, and have authored several comprehensive books on insects and photography,’ explains Robert.
‘When I go out to take pictures I’m always looking to capture something that is not only an interesting photograph, but also something that is scientifically correct. This is important because a lot of my work is archived as scientific record, so recording things properly in their correct context is of utmost importance.’
Fortunately though, Robert isn’t required to repeatedly switch between his field journal and camera when on assignment in order to keep his notes up to date. Instead, Robert now uses the voice tag function on his D3 to record all his observations. It’s a solution he’s clearly happy with: ‘In the past it was common practice to record species information on a recording card or collect a specimen – we no longer need to do that, we can go out with a digital camera and record our observations photographically. The D3 is great in this respect because I can dictate data directly into the camera. This might include habitat details and any other field info that might be relevant, plus a six-figure grid reference of where the image was taken. The voice tag is linked to the digital image file, so it becomes a scientific record with long-term value,’ he enthuses.
In addition to accuracy and detail, authenticity is another trait that Robert takes extremely seriously. So much so, in fact, that he’s able to spot a mocked-up macro image at 10 paces:
‘I often look through magazines and see pictures that have clearly been contrived to make them more attractive,’ laments Robert. ‘Often this is done badly and is quite apparent to those who know. I’m not interested in that kind of photography – for me it’s important that all my subjects, where possible, are photographed in natural resting postures as a matter of scientific record.’
Macro Photography – Macro photography equipment
Medium Format Benefits
Having decided to embark on a career as a natural history photographer, the next step for Robert was to equip himself with all the right kit – but where to start?
‘I upgraded my MX to a professional LX model, which I really liked for its 45° viewfinder. Given that I was spending quite a lot of time at ground level I found it a much more comfortable system to use,’ he explains.
However, even with his back-saving viewfinder attached, Robert soon came to realise the limitations of 35mm: ‘In terms of speed and portability 35mm worked well, but I found that if I wanted to show my subjects in relation to their habitat the actual subject became quite small, especially when trying to accommodate a good degree of background.
‘As a perfectionist I wanted the ultimate in quality so I decided to move to medium format. I found that medium format allowed me greater magnification of the subject while still retaining quite a lot of the background. For what I was doing at that point in time I found it ideal. It didn’t take me all that long to develop my own style and way of using the system to get the best out of it.’
Switching to Digital
Back in the 1990s before digital camera technology had evolved sufficiently, medium format was the obvious choice for Robert’s chosen specialisation. However, that all began to change a few years ago, as Robert explains: ‘Many natural history photographers were reluctant to use digital at the start, myself included. For me, the early cameras just didn’t offer the quality I was used to getting with medium format.
‘My first real breakthrough with digital was when I bought a Kodak Pro SLR/n – despite being prone to noise at higher ISO settings, it could produce excellent results if used correctly. It also had the Nikon mount offering access to a vast array of Nikon glass and close-up accessories. However, it was the launch of the Nikon D2X that really changed my opinion of digital technology. I felt that it was the first digital camera that proved a serious contender to film.
‘Currently, I own two D2X bodies and one D3. I still use both D2X cameras, but the D3 for me is even better – it’s phenomenal. It has certainly made a lot of my photography in some ways much easier – as it has for many photographers in other fields.’
And how exactly has the D3 made his work easier, we ask? ‘Well, although I’m primarily known for my macro work I also cover all aspects of natural history, and this means that I sometimes need to use high ISO speeds – not only does the D3 offer this, it also produces stunning results.
‘The D3 also works fantastically well with flash, which is very important because flash is such a major part of macro photography – something that is integral to maintaining consistency under difficult lighting conditions. In fact, it’s difficult to master macro photography without first mastering the use of flash – when to use it and how to use it,’ Robert explains matter of factly.
So, is Robert happy with the way digital has changed the photographic landscape, or does he still secretly long for the golden days of film? ‘Well, when digital finally caught on I found that most magazines no longer wanted transparencies, they wanted digital images, so digital has certainly revolutionised the photographic world in that respect,’ he laughs. ‘Perhaps it had gone a bit stagnant and in that respect digital has breathed new life into it. It has also opened photography up to a lot more people. The quality of amateur photography today is very high as a result,’ he opines.
Know Your Equipment
If you want to get serious about natural history photography then in addition to building up your specialist knowledge, Robert also advocates getting to know your equipment inside out:
‘For me, successful natural history photography is an amalgamation of two disciplines: first, your knowledge and skill as a naturalist and your ability to research subjects. And second, your technical ability with a camera. In my opinion the two are inextricably linked.
‘The choice of lens is important because it will affect the overall look of the image; if you’re using a longer focal length macro then you will get a better differential focus and the restricted angle of view is going to affect how the background vegetation looks, compared to using, say, a 50mm macro lens, which in the majority of cases just isn’t practical as you end up casting shadows over your subject or disturbing them.
With this in mind it’s hardly surprising that Robert’s lens of choice allows him to keep his distance when working: ‘I use a combination of equipment depending on the result that I want to get, or how close I feel I can get to the subject. I have a 200mm micro Nikkor lens, which I use probably about 70% of the time. It also has the advantage of having a tripod collar, which means I can rotate the camera into a vertical composition without having to lock the camera on its side – a big advantage in the field. Of course, it also gives me a greater working distance, which means I can stand well back from the subject and am less likely to disturb it.’
And is there an optimal time of day for taking natural history pictures? According to Robert, there is: ‘It is important to choose the right time of day. I prefer to work early mornings and evenings, because when it is cooler the temperature of the animals drops below the threshold for instant flight. You certainly won’t find me out chasing butterflies on a hot, sunny day, as they are ready for instant flight.’
Robert has authored several notable books including Close-up and Macro: A Photographer’s Guide (£13, ISBN: 0715319051). To buy a copy or to see more of Robert’s work, visit his website: www.robertthompsonphotography.com
Macro Photography – Macro photography kit bag
1. Nikon D3
The D3 is an astonishing camera particularly at higher ISO settings. The large LCD screen is an invaluable aid in the field for checking image sharpness.
2. Nikon D2X (x2)
I use the D2X when I need higher magnifications and with stacking lenses. The same images, if taken on a D3, would frequently require cropping, reducing the overall file size.
3. Mamiya Pro TL
The vast majority of my work these days is digital, although I do still shoot with film on some of the long-term projects I am currently working on.
4. Uni-Loc tripods
For consistency and quality I shoot virtually every image I can from a tripod, only resorting to a monopod or handheld when conditions or the terrain make it difficult to use one. I currently use two sizes of Uni-Loc, each fitted with a specially designed movable platform head or working at higher magnifications. The Manfrotto quick-release bracket and plates were also custom-made for me by Manfrotto.
5. Macro lenses
I use a 105mm and 200mm micro Nikkor on the D3 and D2X, and a 120mm macro on the Mamiya. The 200mm is my most frequently used lens. It gives me extra working distance when photographing shy and mobile subjects, with less chance of hitting the surrounding vegetation. The built-in tripod collar also allows me to change the format without having to tilt the whole camera assembly. The narrow angle of view helps to control background clutter, producing a more diffused result. The 105mm and 120mm are useful in tight situations where I have restricted room to manoeuvre or in situations where I have to handhold the camera.
6. Telephoto lenses
I use a Nikon 300mm telephoto for portrait shots of orchids and fungi and the like, when I want to create a soft, diffused look to an image where the background and foreground is well out of focus.
7. Wideangle lenses
The 24-70mm on the D3 and 17-55mm on the D2X are my most frequently used zoom lenses. I find them indispensable when I want to illustrate a subject in relation to its habitat.
8. Flash units
Flash is an essential part of the macro photographer’s kit. Apart from my own bracket designs I frequently use the Nikon R1C1 and SB29s macro flash on small subjects and at high magnifications, and for shadow control on sunny days. For fill-flash I use a single flash on the R1C1, which I can rotate to whatever position I need. I use two Nikon SB800’s (cordless) off camera, with the commander unit from the R1C1 when I need more power and height. The Metz units are used with the Mamiya’s in similar situations.
Extension tubes (Nikon and Mamiya)
I use these to increase magnifications and make lenses focus closer than their minimum focusing distance.
Electronic cable release
This is absolutely essential for reducing vibration during longer exposures.
2x Mamiya converter
Doubles the magnification on the 120mm macro for smaller subjects.
For reducing or eliminating reflection on foliage of plants.
Custom flash bracket
Used in rock pools and in situations where I need to increase the distance between the flash units and subjects.
I don’t use cards above 4GB in case of failure. I use the second card slot in my D3 either as backup on the first card, or as an overflow.
For diffusing direct sunlight on subjects, especially flowers.
These save your knees when working at ground level on rocky terrain.
I no longer carry a laptop with me in the field or when travelling. I can download cards anywhere and the high-quality screen allows me to do an initial edit of my Raw files back at base.