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On the Hunt for Macro Magic

Kim Young is drawn like a moth to a flame to … moths, stink bugs, and other tiny creatures and plants with her Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Macro VC and SP 24-70mm F/2.8 VC lenses.

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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Kim Young

Stop and smell the mushrooms. That's Kim Young's mantra when she's capturing her macro photos, whether she's hiking with her kids or poking around her own backyard. It's a passion she began to immerse herself in when her children were young. "My son was really into bugs and he'd ask me to take pictures of caterpillars or whatever other insects he could find," she says. "My initial pictures were horrible, but during the kids' naptimes, I'd learn more about photography by watching YouTube tutorials and reading up on digital photography. Those bug hunts I used to go on with my son, I now go on alone."

The Illinois photographer, who also runs the Shutterbag USA company, which offers fashionable, functionable camera bags for women, loves wildlife in general, but she's drawn to the smallest creatures she finds in her macro travels. "It's fairly easy to take a picture of a beautiful animal like a fox," she says. "But if you can take a picture of a fly or a spider and make people say, 'I normally don't like this kind of thing, but wow, this is amazing,' then you've done your job as a photographer. It became a quest for me to find these neat creatures, then try to capture them so they don't give all of my Facebook friends the heebie-jeebies when they scroll through their feeds."

Kim is trying to expand into landscape photography as well, though she concedes it's a work in progress. "I look at landscape artists' images and I'm constantly blown away on how they're able to capture a scene," she says. "Because I'm not yet able to do landscapes justice, I still find myself gravitating to a closer take on things. I look instead for things most people might not notice. I go on weekly hikes with my kids, and they always say, 'We can go on a hike, but Mom, you cannot bring your camera,' because they know we'll be constantly stopping so I can take photos of everything I see."

Kim has two Tamron lenses that never leave her side: the SP 90mm F/2.8 VC and the new SP 24-70mm F/2.8 VC G2. "The 90mm is on my camera 90 percent of the time," she says. "In addition to using it for my macro work, it also makes a terrific portrait lens: I've used it to take some stunning photos of my kids. But if I'm not sure I'm going out to specifically shoot macro, I'll use my 24-70. I took the first-generation 24-70 to Australia and Europe, because I didn't want to lug heavy equipment around, and it was a super-versatile tool that allowed me to document all of my adventures."

See how Kim has recently used her 90mm and 24-70mm lenses to capture the critters and macro scenes that most people might not notice—some as close as her own mailbox.

© Kim Young
90mm, F/16, 1/200th sec., ISO 2500

I was checking my mail, and I had my camera with me when I saw this guy. I was trying to capture a jumping spider navigating on a leaf, but it was flipping around and being extremely uncooperative. Then I looked over and saw this fly out of the corner of my eye. I figured once I aimed my camera at it that it would fly away, but it didn't. I took a few shots; you can see the reflection of my ring flash in the bubble. Then, when I changed the orientation to make it look more like a portrait and tried to get closer in, it was already gone.

When I first aimed my camera at it, I noticed the bubble. I Googled it and found out that these type of flies will eat so much they can't fly away, because they've gorged so much. So they'll blow that little sac and fill it with their digestive juices and their meal, like a little barf bubble. Then the juices digest all of the stuff they've eaten and they drink it back in. My daughter had just gotten back from Girl Scout camp, where she'd learned the song "Bazooka Zooka Bubble Gum," and she was going around the house singing it nonstop. After I captured this photo, that song was all I could think of.

© Kim Young
90mm, F/13, 1/250th sec., ISO 640

On this day, I couldn't find any bugs anywhere in my yard. I finally came across this plain old stinkbug, which normally I wouldn't think was an eye-catching subject. But I saw it was eating, and I wondered if that would make for a more compelling shot.

I got down on my belly on the ground, exactly even with the bug, and it looked straight at me and just kept drinking from the butterweed plant it was on. It never even flinched. I had to move my camera forward and backward because I'd reached the minimal focus plane. I was really pleased with how the final image came out—it looked like it was drinking a little flower milkshake.

© Kim Young
90mm, F/14, 1/200th sec., ISO 3200

I spotted this hatched egg, once again, near my mailbox, on a yucca leaf. At first I didn't know what this was when I came across it. I had to Google it—and try Googling "fiber-covered egg sac with top cut off" and see what you come up with. My Google searches are really interesting. If anyone's spying on me, they have to wonder what's going on.

This is the egg of a green lacewing, and apparently the top of the egg pops open just like this when it hatches, all neat and precise. It doesn't get all torn open like stink bug eggs or spined soldier eggs. It was only about 2mm in length. I had to use my camera to get a better look at it, because with the naked eye I could barely see it. I got as close as I could to it with my 90mm lens and used a ring flash to envelop the egg in soft, even illumination.

© Kim Young
90mm, F/11, 1/200th sec., ISO 5000

This photo was taken right before we headed out to watch Fourth of July fireworks. My daughter and I had decided to go down to the pond to find some bugs before the sun went down, and this moth was hanging out on this leaf. My daughter asked if she could take a picture of it with my second camera body. This time of day, close to sunset, isn't great for macro, because you usually have to shoot at really high ISOs; my daughter was taking pictures with her flash. I figured the moth would fly away because of that, but when she'd finished taking her pictures, I was surprised to see it was still there.

I got down on the ground and photographed the moth from underneath the leaf, shooting straight up over it, because it was on the edge of the leaf, kind of looking down. At first I wished it were closer to the edge of the tip of the leaf, because I thought I'd get more of it that way, but then I realized I really liked the geometric shape it presented. I could picture the crop outline in Photoshop when I switched it over to "Diagonal."

I got mud in my hair and ended up getting it caught on a blackberry bush capturing these photos; my daughter had to help get me out. She doesn't remember exactly what we were shooting that day, but she'll still say to me: "Remember the time you got caught in that bush? Thank goodness I was there, Mom!"

© Kim Young
24-70mm, F/3.5, 1/250th sec., ISO 800

I was on a hike with my kids, and as we were hopping over different logs, I heard my son say, "When you step on this log, jump over it so you don't squish this tiny mushroom." My 6-year-old was like, "Wow, Mom, it looks like a little umbrella." She really wanted me to take a picture of it. I, on the other hand, wanted to find some cool-looking moss or something similar, since I already have plenty of shots of mushrooms.

She insisted, though, so I took the picture to appease her—at first. I took the first shot, and the perspective wasn't even right. I simply took the picture so she could hear the shutter release. But as I looked at it, I thought, "You know, this is really pretty." Then the sun came out and the dappled light in the forest hit everything behind it. I got down on the ground and my kids knew I was serious; they stopped for a water break. I was able to use selective focus to really concentrate on the mushroom, while the rest of the log and background blurred out into the rest of the frame.

© Kim Young
90mm, F/18, 1/200th sec., ISO 4000

This image of a saddleback caterpillar actually made it into the North American Nature Photography Association's top 250 images showcase for the year. My whole house was asleep the morning I photographed it, and I'd gone out into the yard, checking out my favorite spots where I can usually find some critters. Out of nowhere, I spotted this guy. I'd never seen one before. The green on its back, which you can't see well from this angle, is almost a neon green—you can't miss it. You have to be careful, though, when you find one of these: All of its spikes are filled with a low-grade venom that will give you a stinging, burning rash if it stings you.

I gently took hold of the branch it was on and brought it in front of me, held it steady to brace against the wind, and took a couple of pictures. When I went inside on the computer to properly ID it, though, a naturalist on YouTube showed a video of it and said the end I'd captured was the posterior end—in either words, I had taken 12 shots of a caterpillar's butt. A friend subsequently told me it actually was the side where its face is: Its head is covered by a protective pouch underneath that hairy-looking lip at the edge of the leaf. I did a confirmation search on Google and was relieved to find my friend was right, and that I wouldn't become known as the woman who takes pictures of caterpillar butts.

© Kim Young
24-70mm, F/3.5, 1/250th sec., ISO 800

I took this photo at the same time I took the mushroom shot, along the same trail. It's in a small area of Shawnee National Forest called Giant City, known for its enormous sandstone formations. It was originally given that name by the Native Americans, who said it looked just like a city of some sort. Throughout the park, these tiny saplings take root along the sides of rocks and sometimes even grow straight out of them.

The light was just coming through the leaves a bit, and even though the moss wasn't illuminated, that one sprout was simply glowing. So of course I had to stop and take a picture of it. I told the kids, "You never know, this could grow up to be the next giant tree in this forest." I could almost hear the eyerolls, but…they're kids.

© Kim Young
24-70mm (24mm), F/8, 1/160th sec., ISO 1000

I love in this image that one side of trees is already solidly orange and yellow, while the other side is green and just starting to turn yellow. One of my friends who saw this image asked: "Does the 24-70 have lens distortion? Your trees are bending." But if you look behind the leaning tree in the foreground on the left-hand side, you can see that the tree behind it is standing perfectly straight—many of these trees just grow on an angle along the side of this creek bed.

I wanted to capture the symmetry of it all. I had to hop on the creek stones to get to the middle of the creek bed, but after a couple of pictures, I realized it was still off from how I wanted it to look. So I actually laid down in the water, with all of my regular clothes on. My waterproof walking boots kept my feet dry, but unfortunately, everything else got wet. I also had to stop and hold my breath at one point because I was making too many ripples with my movements. At that moment I thought: "This is why I take pictures of bugs!"

To see more of Kim Young's work, go to her Instagram page www.instagram.com/kim_and_camera

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