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Making a Connection Through Macro

Monica Royal uses her Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 VC lens to create abstract images that spark conversation.

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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Monica Royal

When Monica Royal creates her abstract macro photos, it’s the design of the composition that drives her. “I’m drawn to basic shapes,” she says. “And I love the properties of water and other liquids and getting close to the droplets, which I add into much of my work. It’s so much fun to play with macro, because something as simple as paper can be made abstract, which sparks a conversation. That conversation creates a human connection, which in turn gives you the opportunity to educate people.”

For years, Monica has exclusively used various Tamron 90mm lenses for her macro work, and she’s now on her latest version: the SP 90mm F/2.8 VC. “My dad bought me my original 90mm lens back in 2006, and I never looked back,” she says. “I purchased all of the newer incarnations myself. I’m so comfortable with this lens, which I use for portraits as well, because it’s so sharp and produces amazing bokeh. The Vibration Compensation (VC) feature on the newer version has been a great addition as well.”

Monica almost always creates her macro images with her camera on a tripod, using natural light, and she keeps her post-processing to a minimum. “I’ll do cleanup of some stray or distracting reflections in the water droplets in Photoshop, but I don’t touch them too much,” she says. “Otherwise I’d end up with black circles, which wouldn’t look natural and organic.”

Read on to see how Monica created some of her more recent pieces with the Tamron 90mm F/2.8 VC lens.

© Monica Royal
90mm, F/8, 1/100th sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

For my paper clip series, I wanted to just go into the studio, close the door, and play. This was a paper clip that I bent with a pair of pliers, trying to use the basic principles of design. I would create a wider bend, then a sharper bend, all while keeping in mind the focus points where I thought the water drops would fit well. The water drops are able to cling to the paper clip like that because of water’s sticky properties; it's the hydrogen bonds of water that make it so cohesive with other surfaces. I applied the water droplets with a syringe, with a studio strobe lighting the scene.

© Monica Royal
90mm, F/2.8, 1/50th sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

This is a green tendril coming off of a vine from a cantaloupe plant. The plant was on my kitchen table for a week, and I started to position these tendrils so they would curl around and grab onto the trellis, allowing me to capture them in various states of curl. For this image I positioned a piece of fuchsia tissue paper behind it, with a bit of light coming up from underneath the plant. You can see the specular highlights along the bottom of the tendril, though that part is out of focus.

If you look inside that water droplet, you can see a tiny shock of blue. When I’m designing, I love high contrast and bright colors. I’ll often create in a complementary color scheme. This is one in which you choose two colors that are opposite on the color wheel. In this case, with pink predominant in the background, I wanted some blue in there, so I caught the reflection of a blue aluminum water bottle in the background.

© Monica Royal
90mm, F/4, 1/125th sec., ISO 800
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My parents own some expensive Italian glassware, so each time I visit them, I photograph it. In macro land, regular glassware is not your friend. It’s full of imperfections, even if you can clean it. But the glasses at my parents’ house are crystal wineglasses. I take my camera and focus on the elements within the glass itself. In this case, there was a leaf pattern I concentrated on.

I usually don’t like green—I don’t own green clothing, you won’t find much green in my portfolio—but it’s my partner’s favorite color, so I created this photo intentionally, using a few different colors of scrapbook paper. I positioned the glass so the light would fall on the upper part of the leaf. And that droplet isn’t water: It’s honey, which renders black like that. When you look at it on the screen, it almost has a mercury-like effect, which is super-cool.

© Monica Royal
90mm, F/2.8, 1/5 sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

I like to look for patterns in things, and for this wineglass, the repeating pattern here had a very “octopus underwater” feel to it. I wanted to add a center of interest, however, which for me is almost always in the form of a circle. You’ve got lines, you’ve got an implied oblique direction here—to offset that with a circle (in this case, the water droplet), using the rule of thirds, adds an element of interest in a deliberate way.

The other fun thing about this kind of image is that opposite patterns will occur when you’re photographing objects and liquids like this. For instance, you can see those blocks of yellow in the wineglass on the right-hand side, but in the droplet, they’re on the left. That further enhances the dynamic element to the image. It’s as if one part of the image was out of balance, but the droplet within the composition of the whole piece puts it in balance.

© Monica Royal
90mm, F/3.2, 1/3rd sec., ISO 100
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You never know how glassware is going to photograph until you put some light on it. For this pink piece, the specular highlight on that one cutout was way too bright; it was almost completely white. I had to keep turning the glass a millimeter at a time until it wasn’t quite so glaring. With macro fine art like this, you have to pay attention, use your histogram, and make sure you have detail in the highlights and shadows so that you don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to fix it in post-processing later.

I love the way the composition of this piece turned out. Your eye is immediately drawn to that cutout, which is the area of greatest contrast, which then points to the water droplet. From there, your eye lands on the broad line underneath the droplet (that line is one of the curves in the thick glass) and is swept toward the exit on the bottom right of the frame. I’m also glad that line doesn’t dissect the right corner of the frame, because otherwise it would be a black line splitting your composition in two, which wouldn’t be as visually appealing.

© Monica Royal
90mm, F/3.2, 1/80th sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

The image I took showcasing these colorful pieces of paper is the type of shot that can set you apart from your competition as an artist who sells for a living, because it’s more complicated than it looks. What’s hard is ensuring your design has the appropriate balance between the pieces. If there’s too much space between them, there wouldn’t be good flow. On the right side of the frame, the spaces are wider at the bottom, then get thinner as you work your way upward.

I created this structure by stapling the pieces of paper together in one corner, then bending them until they made this shape. Next I put them into a clamp system to hold the entire thing in place. If you look at the left side of the composition, you can see the glow that appears on the edges of the paper. I used a strip light there, and I had to offset the pages by just a few millimeters, because if the pages were perfectly aligned and stacked, the image would be flat, because there would be no edges of light. This setup gives the image dimension and depth.

To see more of Monica Royal’s work, go to www.monicaroyal.com or check out her Facebook or Instagram pages.

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