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Everyday objects as alternative macro subjects

July 7, 2022

There’s more to close-up and macro than plants, liquid art and bugs, says Tracy Calder. Three photographers share alternative macro subjects they find in everyday objects and the constant inspiration they find in bottles, dumpsters and rock formations


Photographic artist Jennifer McKinnon spends much of the year searching the streets in and around Atlanta for dumpsters. These unsightly waste containers can be found lurking behind shopping malls, sitting on construction sites and blocking people’s driveways. At first, she was attracted to them due to their unusual (and aesthetically pleasing) markings – a result of natural and unnatural weathering – but over time she came to realise that her images could be used to highlight the impact that waste and consumption has on the natural world.

Her early ‘dumpster abstracts’ have instant graphic appeal: bands of colour sweep across the frame giving them the air of contemporary paintings. But in recent months she has been focusing more on digital composites – layering multiple abstracts in one image. ‘Think collage, but created using Photoshop,’ she explains.

Urban Beach Day – 6.30am. Jennifer’s early ‘dumpster abstracts’ have instant graphic appeal. Olympus OM-D E-M5 II, 60mm Macro, 1/160sec at f/7.10, ISO 640. © Jennifer McKinnon everyday objects as macro subjects

Urban Beach Day – 6.30am. Jennifer’s early ‘dumpster abstracts’ have instant graphic appeal. Olympus OM-D E-M5 II, 60mm Macro, 1/160sec at f/7.10, ISO 640. © Jennifer McKinnon

For the series Uncontained Consumption, for example, Jennifer layered ‘bits and pieces’ of dumpster walls to create composites that resemble waves, raging seas and vast sandy beaches. ‘Grease stains dissolve into beautiful ocean blue hues; grime found along the bottom of a dumpster is transformed into sandy shores; paint splatter is converted into white sea foam,’ she reveals. By taking details and combining them to create unique oceanscapes, she aims to mimic the process by which floating garbage patches and underwater landfills are formed.

The results are both striking and disturbing: ‘Beach Bum’, for example, is made up of ten abstract images and represents a common form of debris that’s found during coastal clean-ups: cigarette butts. It has a tactile quality: the ‘sand’ looks pitted with scorch marks and the ‘sky’ appears to be bubbling due to the blistering paint.

Ditch the labels

Jennifer clearly approaches her subjects with a beginner’s mind – a sense of openness and curiosity that enables her to go beyond the labels that we might normally associate with dumpsters. Most of us walk past these containers and, if we notice them at all, it triggers an internal dialogue that goes something like this, ‘It’s a dumpster, look at all that rubbish, that’s ugly, maybe I should hire one of these when I clear out the loft.’

When we look at an object like this, we’re not truly seeing it. What we’re doing is looking at it through a filter of judgements, preconceptions, labels and preferences. Of course, this wasn’t the case at the very beginning – when we were babies, for example, we would have explored the world by putting things into our mouths, experimenting with textures, shapes and tastes. At this stage we would’ve had no labels for objects, and no definitive knowledge of what they were used for. A spoon, for example, might have just felt cold to the touch and have been used as an instrument for hitting something with.

Bands of colour sweep across the frame, giving Jennifer’s abstracts the feeling of paintings. everyday objects as macro subjects

Abloom No.14. Bands of colour sweep across the frame, giving Jennifer’s abstracts the feeling of paintings. (Three images combined in Photoshop). Olympus OM-D E-M5 II (image one: 150mm, ISO 640, 1/60sec at f/8, image two: 60mm Macro, ISO 400, 1/800sec at f/5.6, image three: 60mm Macro, 1/320sec at f/7.1, ISO 640. © Jennifer McKinnon

As we grow older, we label and categorise objects around us – it’s our way of making sense of the world. But when we attach labels to things, we often attach judgements too: this object is ugly/beautiful, this one has great/no value, this one is going to be boring/interesting to photograph. Making judgements might help us to make decisions and move on quickly, but it does have its downsides.

Firstly, we close ourselves off to new opportunities: we see a dumpster and label it as ‘unsightly’, ‘functional’ or ‘unphotogenic’. In contrast, when we approach an everyday object with a ‘beginner’s mind’ and a sense of curiosity the creative possibilities are endless. ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few,’ wrote Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.

Embrace surprise

Another photographer who has managed to hold onto a childlike sense of curiosity is Rachel McNulty. At the start of the first UK lockdown in 2020, Rachel embarked on a home-based project to create abstract ‘seascapes’ using colourful glass bottles, a macro lens and daylight. The dining room table became her studio and the sunlight entering the room enhanced the colours and created incredible reflections inside the bottles.

‘When I looked through the viewfinder, I suddenly saw waves crashing on a beach, storm clouds out at sea and dramatic sunsets,’ she recalls. ‘No two images will ever be the same: the light changes, the position of the bottle moves and the reflections shift, just like a real seascape constantly alters.’ Rachel isolates small sections of the bottles and uses a foil reflector to bounce extra light where it’s needed.

 Details in a glass bottle give the impression of a dramatic sky above a calm blue sea everyday objects as alternative macro subjects

Stormy Skies. Details in a glass bottle give the impression of a dramatic sky above a calm blue sea Olympus E-M1 Mk II, 60mm f/2.8, 1/15sec at f/2.8, ISO 400. © Rachel McNulty

Many of Rachel’s seascapes (and landscapes) are created using gin bottles – as such, the colours in them vary from olive greens to candy pinks and electric blues. Together they look dreamy, as though they’re a visual representation of that delicious state between sleep and full consciousness. Swirls of light dart across the frame, encouraging us to imagine sunlight breaking through the clouds and dancing on the water below.

‘They are such fun to do,’ says Rachel. ‘They really take me off to the coast in my head when I’m creating them.’ Her pleasure, and her willingness to embrace surprises, shows in her work. In 2021 her image ‘Waves Crashing’ (featuring a section of a blue gin bottle) won the Manmade category of Close-up Photographer of the Year.

A Cointreau bottle placed above a Bombay Sapphire Gin bottle created a golden sky over a turquoise sea everyday objects as alternative macro subjects

Golden Sunset. A Cointreau bottle placed above a Bombay Sapphire Gin bottle created a golden sky over a turquoise sea Olympus E-M1 Mk II,
60mm f/2.8, 1/125sec at f/2.8, ISO 200. © Rachel McNulty

Stay open and curious

Like Jennifer, Rachel seems to adopt a beginner’s mind when she embarks on a photography session. There’s a sense openness, receptivity and delight. It’s a mindful approach that results in fresh insight and clear seeing. ‘The mindful photographer combines an insatiable curiosity about the world with a radically open heart and mind,’ says Sophie Howarth in her brilliant book The Mindful Photographer.

It’s a balance that Rachel has struck perfectly. Both photographers champion everyday objects, and in doing so they ask us to reassess the way we see them too. Instead of empty gin bottles waiting to be recycled we are encouraged to see colours and shapes interacting and influencing one another. We are invited to marvel at something extraordinary found in the ordinary.

Similarly, when we look at Jennifer’s dumpster pictures, we see a freshness that comes from remaining open and curious. The New Economics Foundation (a think-tank promoting social, economic and environmental justice) recommends paying mindful attention to our surroundings as a way of boosting well-being. ‘Take notice. Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual,’ they urge. Both Jennifer and Rachel embody this mantra.

everyday objects as alternative macro subjects  Reflections from two turquoise blue gin bottles placed one above the other

Reflection. Reflections from two turquoise blue gin bottles placed one above the other Olympus E-M1 Mk II, 12-40mm f/2.8, 1/1000sec at f/3.2, ISO 200. © Rachel McNulty

Let your imagination go wild

David Southern is a photographer who definitely knows how to ‘be curious’ and ‘catch sight of the beautiful’. His latest book, Shoreline, is a celebration of quiet, intimate landscapes captured along the Northumbrian coast. ‘When I first moved to the region it was the spectacular castles and vast sandy bays that proved to be irresistible attractions,’ he reveals.

But before long David found himself inescapably drawn to the area’s rich geology, eventually widening his photographic net to include seaweed, sand and shells. ‘The geology of the Northumbrian coastline is made up of a great many types of rock including dolerite, sandstone and shales,’ he explains. ‘It has taken many years and thousands of tidal cycles to sculpt these rock forms. However, their appearance can change almost on a daily basis making each visit to a location a voyage of discovery.’

When he first moved to the coast David was attracted to the grand vistas, but he soon found himself drawn to the geology

Mercury. When he first moved to the coast David was attracted to the grand vistas, but he soon found himself drawn to the geology. Canon EOS 5D Mk IV, 50mm, 1/8sec at f/16, ISO 100. © David Southern

David can spend hours ‘considering and contemplating’ a small patch of shoreline – an experience he likens to meditation. ‘Over the course of such explorations the subtleties of light, shade and water flow reveal contours and textures that may lend themselves to a compelling image,’ he explains. All the images in Shoreline were created along a 40-mile stretch of coastline – an amazing achievement when you consider the variety and diversity on display.

Layers in a rock become waves on a choppy sea, grooves appear to be canyons, a well-positioned hole becomes the eye of a sleepy dinosaur. For the most part, there is no sense of scale, so our imagination is free to roam wild.

‘With each visit it became clear that to extend the boundaries for finding new discoveries I would have to let my imagination off the leash and not limit myself to just an attractive pattern or shape etched in rock,’ says David.

intimate landscapes were captured along a 40-mile stretch of coastline

Skelton. All of David’s intimate landscapes were captured along a 40-mile stretch of coastline
Canon PowerShot G1 X Mk III, 15-45mm, 1/250sec at f/6.3, ISO 100. © David Southern

Notice the overlooked

It’s hard to push past the obvious and look for something deeper, fresher and more meaningful but, as David illustrates, when we approach our surroundings with an air of curiosity, we are often richly rewarded. The sense of wonder that he feels for this stretch of coast is palpable, and the relationship he has with the landscape has led to a sense of enormous well-being.

David notices the overlooked, he rejoices in detail and, thankfully, he has the creative and technical ability to share what he discovers with other people. ‘See the world with fresh eyes, one small piece at a time,’ urges Howarth. It’s something David does brilliantly.

These photographers notice the world in a way that most others don’t. They marvel at the shapes, colours and textures of everyday objects and overlooked scenes, they approach the commonplace with an air of delight and childlike curiosity, and they ‘see’ what’s in front of them with their hearts as well as their eyes and minds. In the words of Andy Karr and Michael Wood, authors of The Practice of Contemplative Photography, ‘This ordinary, workaday world is rich and good.’

Layers of rock can become waves on the sea everyday objects

Wave. David can spend hours contemplating a small patch of shoreline. Layers of rock can become waves on the sea Canon EOS 6D Mark II, 17-40mm, 0.8sec at f/20, ISO 320. © David Southern


5 tips for shooting everyday (but interesting) subjects

Adopt a beginner’s mind

If we adopt a childlike curiosity, even the most commonplace objects and scenes reveal their photographic potential. Marvel at your subject’s colour, shape and texture, look at the way the light emphasises its form, consider the positive and negative space.

fern leaf

© Tracy Calder

Embrace uncertainty

If we embrace uncertainty, we can find mystery and fascination in the familiar. Think like an explorer: go down a street you’ve never been down, open a drawer and photograph the first thing you see. In other words, welcome the unexpected.

closeup photo of paint everyday objects as macro subjects

© Tracy Calder

Meditate on an object

Spend 20 minutes observing your subject – even if it appears static. Observe the way that light and shade reveal its contours and texture. Look with a sense of awe and astonishment. Don’t take any pictures to begin with, just observe.

close up fishing net everyday objects as macro subjects

© Tracy Calder

Ask ‘what if?’

Take an everyday object and ask what would this look like if I took it apart and shot the components? What if this particular object had never been invented – what would I have used instead? What if I shot this object from above, inside, underneath?

peeling paint everyday objects

© Tracy Calder

Stop looking, start seeing

Most of the time, we see objects through a veil of judgements and preconceptions. However, if we take the time to observe and notice details, then we see with fresh eyes. The more we look, the more our ‘noticing’ muscles grow.

pebble in the sand everyday objects as macro subjects

© Tracy Calder


10 books that help you see

  1. Close-up and Macro Photography by Robert Thompson
  2. Conscious Creativity by Philippa Stanton
  3. Digital Macro & Close-up Photography (revised and expanded) by Ross Hoddinott
  4. The Little Book of Contemplative Photography: Seeing with Wonder, Respect, and Humility by Howard Zehr
  5. Mastering Macro Photography by David Taylor
  6. The Mindful Photographer by Sophie Howarth
  7. The Photographer’s Playbook by Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern
  8. The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes by Andy Karr and Michael Wood
  9. Stop, Look, Breathe, Create by Wendy Ann Greenhalgh
  10. The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing by Philippe L Gross

Tracy Calder

Tracy is a photographer, writer and former editor of Outdoor Photography magazine. In 2018 she co-founded Close-up Photographer of the Year (CUPOTY) – an annual competition celebrating close-up, macro and micro photography. Earlier this year she was awarded a Gold medal from the RHS for her Plant Scars series. Her work has been exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and Saatchi Gallery. To see more visit Instagram
@tracy_calder_photo and www.cupoty.com


Related Reading:

Beginners guide to Macro Photography – How to create great macro photos

30 ways to photograph a bouquet of flowers

Close-up tips from Two of a Kind CUPOTY Challenge winners


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