Small Things, Spring Things, and Broken Things

Small Things, Spring Things, and Broken Things

A couple of years ago, I started getting into macro photography. Initially, I was primarily interested in snowflake photography, but then I realized how valuable this focus was for my wildflower guides.

After about a year, I noticed something cool: I had started paying a lot of attention to the details of tiny things. When I thought about it, photography gave me a new perspective on many aspects of the world.

extreme close up of the stamens, filaments and red anthers, many of which opening to reveal pollen amidst the white wool of a willow catkin.
Pussy willows up close – the male willow catkin.

Starting with landscapes, I always took in the view and looked for places I could go to enhance it. Sometimes, I would shift just a few feet to change how the foreground interacted with the background. Other times, I plan to return to an area specifically to get a different perspective from a ridge or valley.

Then, I got into wildlife photography and, later, bird photography. Now, my eyes dart toward every moving thing when walking or hiking. I can identify most bird species I encounter in the Alaska Interior.

A white-crowned sparrow at Creamer's Field on a hot day. It looks like it's mid-squawk, but it's just holding its mouth open to dissipate heat.
A white-crowned sparrow at Creamer’s Field on a hot day. It looks like it’s mid-squawk, but it’s just holding its mouth open to dissipate heat.

Taking photos of flowers while on hikes turned into writing detailed guides on wildflowers. Then, I brought the macro focus in on the wildflowers. There’s something extraordinary about bringing that tiny scale to life. At first glance, it seems insignificant, but with the proper perspective, you can reveal the intricate beauty and complexity hidden in the smallest details. This shift in focus enriches my photography and deepens my appreciation for these often-overlooked facets of nature.

Anyway, that’s not really where I intended to go with this post, but here we are. This will undoubtedly be the main topic of a future post.

We are still transitioning from winter to spring. Almost all the snow is gone, save for a few cool spots in the woods. The leaves on the trees are mostly open but haven’t reached their fullness yet, and the ground is just starting to green up a little. The flowers haven’t yet begun to bloom.



If you look closely enough, even this tiny world is astounding—full of new things and remnants of last year.

The round leaves of liverleaf wintergreen
The leaves of liverleaf wintergreen (Pyrola asarifolia). These are evergreens, so they spent the last six months under snow. Last year was the first time I noticed these flowers along the trails in our yard, yet they are everywhere.
Extreme close up of the segments of a horsetail (Equisetum genus)
The horsetails (Equisetum genus) started popping up a few days ago. I’ve never looked at them up close before, but there is an incredible structure in them and in how they open up.
The leftover capsules of Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum) from last year.
Nothing like the love-hate relationship I have with prickly rose (Rosa acicularis). They are pretty, and the rose hips are nice to munch on or make jelly. But they grow everywhere and are very unpleasant to walk through or work around.
Leftover alder cones and some new leaves are starting to open.
Alder catkins will look more like the photo above this time next year.

Focusing on these details has become an integral part of my photography and almost a meditative practice.

In other news (which ended up not completely unrelated to this post), on Monday, I discovered that my phone’s camera screen had badly cracked. This was a frustrating development because I use my phone’s camera almost daily to film the climbing team kids so we can playback and review movement on the wall. Fixing it wouldn’t be much cheaper than upgrading to a new one, so I chose to upgrade.

Only after I had ordered the phone (Google Pixel 8 Pro) did I read that the camera was great for macro photography! That feature could end up being quite useful to me, especially for the wildflower guide. Part of the reason I’ve done more macro work is to photograph identifying features of plants and flowers. Not every photo I take is to make a beautiful image or create prints; sometimes, it’s just to capture a leaf shape or color. Using a DSLR and macro lens for this purpose feels a bit overkill, and sometimes, it would be easier just to jump in with my phone.

It’s awesome how close you can get with the camera, down to 2 cm from the object you photograph. While it does have decent photo quality, its limitations become apparent quickly. This is primarily due to the optical constraints of such a tiny camera, lens, and sensor. Smartphone cameras rely heavily on computational photography to compensate for these limitations, more so than modern digital cameras like mirrorless or DSLRs.

Smartphone cameras enhance the final image using various techniques, such as image stacking, noise reduction, and HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing. They also apply automatic adjustments for exposure, color correction, and sharpening. These processes work together to produce impressive results despite the small size of the hardware.

I won’t go into great detail here; I’ll save that for another post or article. But the result of all that processing is often an image that doesn’t quite look right when inspected up close. Here are a couple of images of male willow catkins, the first with my new phone, the second with my DSLR, and a macro lens setup.

The anthers and filaments of a willow catkin were taken with the Google Pixel 8 Pro. It’s a nice image, but it’s somewhat obvious that there is a lot of image smoothing (auto noise reduction), sharpening, and what looks like artifacts around the filaments, either from image stacking or removing chromatic aberration. Additionally, I’d say the bokeh (unfocused parts of the image) looks unnatural, almost jagged.
The fine level of detail is much sharper with my camera setup. The bokeh is much more smooth.

As I mentioned, I’ll probably write a few posts on the subject of image processing and comparisons between smartphones and cameras, possibly in my Physics of Photography series.

For the purposes of my identification guide, I’ll definitely use the Pixel for certain tasks, but my DSLR or mirrorless cameras will still be my workhorse.

Photo Galleries:
May 5, 2024 – Willow catkin macros, insects, and leaf buds
May 12, 2024 – Horsetail macros, willow catkins, and other flora macros

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