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This assignment ran from Oct 27 to Nov 17, 2014.

I have spent a big chunk of my career photographing little things. My favorite part about working at a macro scale is that I'm constantly surprised by elements in my photographs that I had overlooked in real life. My goal is to create images that are so rich in shape and detail that it takes a while for my eyes to soak it all in. The very best photographs are not just pretty abstractions of color and texture, but are images that engage our curiosity and perhaps teach us something new about the world. Why is that leaf so hairy? Why does that bug have spots? Oh, that's what that thing does!

This assignment is about discovering details. Your job is to get up close to your subjects and take an image that shows something you wouldn’t have noticed with your naked eye. I’m not talking about invisible features you would need a microscope to see, just elements you didn’t fully appreciate at first glance. The subject can be living or nonliving, man-made or natural. To be successful with this assignment, you're going to need to spend some time studying your subject. If it's alive, how does it behave? How does it interact with light? Can you use the background of the scene to help bring attention to interesting details? What is it about that subject that made you want to photograph it? Keep these questions in mind as you plan your fieldwork.

This assignment will be most easily accomplished with a macro lens or macro-capable camera. Many phone cameras do a great job at macro photography and you're allowed to use non-macro lenses as well, but you're going to need to be more creative and it will be harder to meet the requirements. Think about other tools you can use. Perhaps it's a magnifying glass or a loupe to enlarge your subject. Again, you’ve got to capture something that would make the viewer think, I never would have noticed that!

Read the Assignment Guidelines below.

See Anand's cover story, Mindsuckers in the November issue of National Geographic magazine.

Curated by:

Anand Varma
National Geographic Photographer
Assignment Status
  • Open

    Everyone’s welcome to contribute their best shot to open assignments. Learn more.
  • Closed

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  • Published

    Once the submission period is over, we'll review all contributions and select our favorite images to be included in the story. Learn more.
Published Nov 24, 2014.
Thank you for your contributions!

The Key Element: Surprise

Posted nov 9, 2014

The work you are submitting is getting better and better! I want to tell you a little bit more about my editing process so that you have a better idea about what I am looking for. I start by taking a very quick survey and looking broadly at composition, color, and detail. I tag those images that immediately catch my attention. From that initial selection, I go back and study the images in more depth. This is the stage where I read the caption and make a final selection of those images I think are the most interesting. Finally, I will go back over all of the images to make sure I didn’t miss a hidden gem in my initial pass.

This process means that the aesthetic qualities of your image (composition, color, detail) are only enough to get you past the first round. It could be an absolutely gorgeous image, but it won’t make my final selection unless it possesses one key element: surprise. I want to be surprised by your images. I want to learn something about the world through your images.

This is why your captions are so important. It is rare that I will be surprised by the image alone. Even when I can work out what is going on in that image, I always want to know more about where and when it was taken and any other background information such as what the photographer knows about the subject and what led them to take the photograph. All of this information is what makes images memorable.

So as you are preparing your final submissions, think about how to make a unique, surprising, and memorable image. I have seen a lot of beautiful images of dew drops and flowers. While these would make great prints to hang on your wall, they won’t stand out from the many similar images out there unless you figure out how to bring something new to the image. That is the same task I have on every assignment for National Geographic Magazine. Go and figure out a surprising new way to show your subject!

More on 'Macro'

Posted nov 3, 2014

Great job photographers! I’m seeing a lot of interesting frames coming in. However, there seems to be some confusion about what counts as “macro” so I want to clear that up first. 

True macro photography is considered to have a 1:1 reproduction ratio. That means your subject is the same size as your camera’s sensor. We are not using such a strict definition for this assignment, but remember the overall goal: We are looking for images of small subjects that have been magnified by your camera in order to show details that your eye would have missed. This is different than zooming in with a telephoto lens to photograph a large subject that is far away, or cropping in to show a small part of a wider landscape image. Basically, the scene you are photographing should not be larger than a couple of inches. If you don’t own a macro lens, then you’ve got to be as close as you can with the lens you’ve got. And because your lens can’t magnify your subjects as well as a macro lens, you are going to have to work harder to find surprising details.

I’ve got one piece of advice for you as you continue your submissions. Pay attention to your backgrounds. It is easy to get caught up with an interesting subject and totally forget what is going on in the background. A poor background can wreck an otherwise lovely image. The easiest way to handle backgrounds is to make them as subtle as possible so that they don’t distract from the details in your subject. Another successful approach is to fill your frame with the subject so there is no background. If you are feeling ambitious, think about ways your background could actually enhance the texture or form of your subject.  

Finally, as editors have mentioned in the past, including detailed captions is absolutely essential. This is not just a formality; it is what gives an image context and makes it memorable. Without a caption, the image has no story—and the story is a big part of what I am looking for.

Assignment Guidelines

Posted oct 27, 2014

You will have a maximum of three submissions for this assignment. As difficult as it may be, try not to submit all of them at first. Over the course of the three weeks, I'll be checking in and looking at your photos, leaving comments and selecting favorites. I hope you'll look to my Editor's Updates for direction and critiques and, equally, to learn from your fellow photographers. 

There are no time restrictions, so you may submit your best shots from your gallery or archive. However, these assignments are meant to challenge you in the hopes that you will make new photos. Get out there—even if you just have your phone, you still have a camera!

Captions are essential to tell your story. Remember learning about the five W's in school? If you don't have a particularly interesting story for the photo, at least give me a description that includes the Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

Anand Varma

Anand Varma

National Geographic Photographer
Anand Varma is a freelance photographer with a background in biology. His projects tell the story behind the science on subjects ranging from primate behavior and hummingbird biomechanics to amphibian diseases and mangrove forests. His first feature story for National Geographic is “Mindsuckers,” the magazine's November 2014 cover story.