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Paul V Harrison: exploring the World’s hidden beauty in macro

Paul V Harrison is one of our 100 days. 100 commissions photographers. He loves sharing the beauty of nature using the detail that’s possible with macro, so we asked to hear more about his passion, how he got into macro photography and his tips for achieving the perfect macro shot.
Robber Fly - Paul V Harrisons 100 Days. 100 Commissions.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your career so far.

I’m originally from Lancashire in the United Kingdom but currently living in Perth, Western Australia. I’ve got a scientific background in geology and geophysics and have been very fortunate to live and work across many areas of the World over the last 30+ years.

Photography has always been an interest of mine; my first camera was a second-hand Kodak Retinette before subsequently moving on to Pentax film cameras. Despite it being a big passion of mine, after university working life got in the way and I was content to just take “record shots” of people and places. But in the last three years, I have had more time to really develop my skills. Then, when I was made redundant just over a year ago, I used the opportunity to devote even more time to my photography. Thankfully Perth has a very active and skilled photography scene so I’ve been lucky enough to be able to learn from experts in various fields of the art.

Photographer Paul V Harrison - Captured by Hamish Stubbs
When did you first start out practising Macro photography?

As a kid, I grew up watching David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth” and have always had a fascination with nature and the outdoors. My first attempts at macro photography were using my Pentax ME Super with a 50mm lens, a reversing ring and a small hand-held flash. Shooting on Fuji slide film meant there wasn’t the same chance to critique the shots in the way we do today with digital technology—I used to write down the shot settings in a notebook so that I could work out the best settings for future attempts. Needless to say, most photos were a fail but it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for trying!

This year you came in the top 20 in the Animal category of Capture Magazine’s emerging photographers competition for a portfolio of your spider shots. What makes spiders such an interesting subject for you to photograph?

I only discovered Peacock spiders four years ago. I was shooting a flower in the local park in Perth when something small and red moved across the frame. I grabbed a couple of shots and then used the power of the internet to find out that it was actually a Maratus Clupeatus. These tiny (typically 2-5mm) jumping spiders are simply amazing; they have great eyesight, which they use for hunting their prey, so they are very aware that you are there and they will watch as you try to get into position to photograph them.

In the breeding season, the males develop the most outrageous coloured plumages and many species have intricate dance moves that they use to attract the female’s attention. Their colours and eyes make them great subjects for macro photography and new species of them are still being discovered across Australia to this day. Western Australia, in particular, seems to be particularly blessed with varieties and they occur across many different habitats from the tops of isolated hills to the dunes behind the beaches.

There are several locations I’ve found within a 15-minute drive of my house that I can go to shoot these incredible spiders in their natural settings so that is definitely a contributing factor. I love being able to share photos of these amazing creatures and hopefully, the increased awareness will help protect these local pockets of biodiversity.

“I love being able to share photos of these amazing creatures and hopefully, the increased awareness will help protect these local pockets of biodiversity.”

How do you go about capturing that perfect macro shot?

Firstly, be safe. When in Australia, in particular, it is always a good idea to scan the area of bushland that you are about to walk into. Not all of Australia’s reptiles make friendly household pets!

As with all photography, being familiar with your gear is important. One of the advantages of shooting with flash is that the settings don’t change much during a shoot so you can concentrate on framing the shot, minimising distractions in the background and nailing the focus. I like to shoot with everything in manual, including focusing, so that the shots can be easily focus-stacked later in Affinity Photo. I’d always encourage people to learn a little about their subject too—what season is best, time of day and typical habitats. Patience is often required and a little bit of good luck doesn’t hurt either!

Think about getting some tuition too. As photographers, we are always keen to spend money on new gear but quite often it is poor technique that is actually holding back your photos.

What equipment do you currently use for your macro photography in particular?

I’m currently shooting with a Canon 5D Mkiv and my go-to lens is the mighty Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens. I use the Yongnuo YN24EX flash with some homemade diffusers. I’ve also got a Sigma 105mm macro lens which I use more for flora. I started off with just the Sigma lens which can get down to a 1:1 magnification. Using extension tubes will allow you to get closer still. After a couple of seasons shooting with that setup, I felt ready to move on to the MP-E. This lens starts at 1:1 and I typically shoot handheld at 2:1 magnification or more for the jumping spiders.

What settings would you recommend for others that are first starting out?

Having a reasonable macro lens is a great start—many of them also double up as great portrait lenses so it doesn’t need to be a specialist macro lens. I started off shooting flowers; they don’t move around as much as spiders! You can shoot without flash but once you get into 1:1 shooting some kind of additional lighting will make things much easier. You will then need to shoot at or just below your flash sync speed in this case. There are diffusers you can make at home that will let you use a normal on-camera flash for macro work. I’d suggest a search through YouTube for some designs. I also bump the ISO up a little to 160 or 200 so that the flash unit doesn’t have to work quite so hard.

Depth of field is the main technical challenge with macro; it is very, very small. I typically stop down to f/9 or so to get some depth of field but maintain sharpness. Learn to handhold and shoot in burst mode as you move into the subject—it is trickier than it sounds but if you can keep the focal planes parallel they will stack easier in post. The focus stacking facility in Affinity Photo allows you to adjust which images are contributing to the stack and some images can require quite a bit of time getting this aspect correct.

Sometimes the lack of depth of field can be used to great effect in a single shot to isolate a particular part of the flower or creature. Finally don’t jump straight in and try to photograph the smallest thing you can find. There is incredible beauty in nature without having to go to 1:1 and beyond. I post all of my settings for each shot on my Instagram account (@pvharrison) so you can always check there for suggestions.

When did you first start using Affinity Photo and what is your experience of it so far?

I started using Affinity Photo in May 2017 when I started getting more serious about my photography. I was initially drawn to the fact that it included focus stacking and was not a subscription-based licence. I worked my way through most of the YouTube tutorials and love the flexibility of post-processing that it enables. The macro photography is usually quite straight forward post-processing; I like to maintain the natural colours but do use some selective dodge and burn to highlight the subject.

The inpainting brush tool always gets used to remove the sensor dust from the final files; macro is a fabulous way of highlighting its presence. I use many more of the program’s features when processing my landscapes and portraits. The program is very stable these days and I certainly don’t feel creatively limited in any way by the software.

What’s your favourite shot to date and why?

That is a hard question to answer as I’m always looking to the next shoot. However, only this week, I finally managed to capture a shot of a male Maratus Hortorum in full display mode. It has taken me three years to get this shot and I was totally made up. I’d found a female and was watching her location whilst tracking this male. I could see that the shot might be on so got into position early and was ready to start shooting as he started displaying. Just at the end, he lifted his head slightly and I got the flash catch lights in the eyes which really put the icing on the cake for me.

Maratus Hortorum Spider

“I love sharing the beauty and detail that exists in the macro world. Our eyes cannot always resolve the details but macro photography allows us to see so much more of this amazing planet we call home.”

What led you into the world of macro photography?

A lifelong fascination with nature and the ability to be able to share those close-up and macro photographs with people who might otherwise miss out. I love sharing the beauty and detail that exists in the macro world. Our eyes cannot always resolve the details but macro photography allows us to see so much more of this amazing planet we call home. Macro and Landscape/Seascapes are probably my favourite areas of photography but I enjoy most kinds of photography from studio shoots to street/travel and astrophotography too.

There is always something new to learn; lighting a portrait shot in a studio is not that different to capturing an environmental shot of a spider so I’m constantly looking for those cross-overs that can take my photography to the next level.

Photography gives me more excuses to travel and visit places that might not otherwise have been on my list. I was very fortunate to visit India in early 2020 for the Holi Festival in Vrindavan. Three days of shooting portraits in dark temples whilst the water and coloured dye was flying was not initially my idea of an ideal experience but I absolutely loved it and will definitely be travelling back to India once the restrictions are lifted.

Have you got a particular happiest memory or experience in photography?

Shooting the Aurora borealis in Iceland in 2018. I was very fortunate to be there with the late, great Dale Sharpe and a small group of photographers. It was 3am, freezing cold and we’d been up since before sunrise but the sky was going crazy and the energy in the group was off the chart. Every time I look at one of the photos from that night it takes me straight back.

If you could photograph any object, being or place at all what would it be and why?

There are too many to choose from, I’ve found that the more you travel the more you want to see and experience. I did have some epic travels booked in for 2020 but they have clearly been put on hold for now. I would love to photograph in the Antarctic and although I’ve already been to Nepal three times (for any Gavin and Stacey fans out there) I’d love to go back to the high Himalaya with the big camera. I firmly believe that one of the keys to happiness is embracing what your current location can offer, so in the meantime, I shall be using the extra free time to chase more Peacock spiders in the SW of Western Australia.

Is there a photo that’s not in your portfolio, but always brings you fond memories? If so, what’s the story behind it?

At the end of the day, the photos that really resonate with me are of close friends and family. They aren’t usually the most technically accomplished photos but they are definitely the ones that mean the most. I’ve got a black and white photo of my Dad that I took in the English Lake District when I was still at University. That is one of my favourites.

What would you say is the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of your work are?

Without doubt, the most rewarding is being able to run one-on-one tuition sessions to help others develop their photography skills, techniques and vision. My child-like fascination for nature has never gone away and it makes my day to see someone else get their first photo of a Peacock spider. It is always rewarding to be outside taking photos—even if sometimes, you don’t end up with any great photos. I’m at my happiest standing on a mountainside or knee-deep in the surf waiting for the light to change.

As a life-long scientist, I’m very comfortable with the physics and technical aspects of taking photos; my own challenge is to develop the artistic side of my photography.

To view more of Paul V Harrison’s work you can find his portfolio on his website or follow @PVHarrison on Instagram.