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John Hallmen

To start with our guest section we have a photographer most of you will probably already know, John Hallmen. 
He lives in Stockholm, Sweden; for those who still do not know him, John is one of the most talented macro photographers you will find. Something that makes his works so special is his ability to make field stacks of live subjects, getting images with studio like quality; his flickr website is an endless source of information for any one interested in getting involved in serious macro photography

- When/how did you start doing macro Photography?

 Macro photography incapuslates three deeply rooted interests of mine:

1) Nature in general and small living things in particular: I've always been fascinated with nature and my love affair with bugs began at a very early age.
2) Creativity and visual perception: I liked drawing as a kid and this fascination is the reason why I work with web design and development to pay the bills.
3) Gadgets and technology: I suppose you don't have to be a nerd in order to be a macro photographer but I think it helps.

I've harboured these interests pretty much my entire life but it wasn't until fairly recently I found a way to channel them all through one activity: macro photography. I think I "got hooked" in 2006 when I got the idea to reverse mount my old 50mm onto my newly aquired digital super zoom camera (a Fujifilm S9500).

- Any photographyc/artistic studies or self tought?


- What is ( what makes ) a good macro photograph?

I think an image in general can be good in many completely different capacities but I'll try to outline something I find compelling and at the same time specifically relevant in macro photography:

An image which makes something tiny, inconspicious and easily overlooked, suddenly seem spectacular, beautiful and/or fascinating. For me, this is extra important when it comes to bug macros since bugs, with exception of large butterflies and such, by the general public is often viewed either with disgust or as a nuisance or just simply ignored. A good bug photograph constitutes a seamless bridge over the size gap between the viewer and the subject and by doing so reveals the truly fascinating nature of the subject. And a very important aspect of it is that all this can be achieved with a minimum of distortion or misrepresentation of the subject.

- How was your first contact with focus stacking and who/what introduced you into this technique?

When I first encountered focus stacking it didn't really appeal to me. My spontaneous reaction was that introduced something artificial into the process. However, it didn't take me long to completely overcome my initial qualms. Today I view focus stacking as an indispensable tool for capturing my subjects without the traditional limitations to depth of field and resolution. Certainly, it requires advanced processing and technology but technical advancements in equipment and technique this has been in the very nature of photography since the beginning!

- How do you see the future of macro photography with technology (software, gear) changing so fast?

Without a doubt, huge leaps have been made in macro photography the past few years (perhaps more so than in any other field of photography) and we certainly haven't seen the end of it. The technology will continue to improve and what used to be advanced cutting edge techniques will become more accessible which will make more appreciate macro shooting. There is still lots of room for improvement in sensor technology etcetera. Just to mention one example: Imagine being able to shoot hand held, natural light shots at high magnification without having to worry about motion blur or noise levels. I'm excited to see where we will be in five or ten years!

- Do you think there may be an (automated) alternative to stacking in the future, with new technology LYTRO cameras like?

Yes, it seems highly plausible! And while we're on the topic I think that another interesting aspect of the light field approach would be the ability to render something to the effect of focus stacked video sequences! I would love to view (and shoot) high magnification video sequences without the current limitations in DOF and/or resolution. And the potential ability to render them in 3D, doesn't exactly make it less appealing!

- Any subject you have not had the oportunity to photoghapph and you would love to? why?

I can't say that anything in particular springs to mind as a dream subject. I suppose I have sort of an opportunist approach to macro photography: I like going out without any specific preconceptions about what I'm going to find and shoot. One of the thrills with hunting for subjects in "the bug world" is the absolutely overwhelming number of species and diversity you can find – without even venturing from your back yard!

- Which photographer have influenced you most?

I don't have a role model or idol BUT I'm definitely hugely influenced by many innovative and helpful photographers in the growing online macro photography community. For some reason macro photographers in general appear to be an unusually friendly, helpful and intellectually generous bunch. In other fields of photography (in particular nature photography), prominent photographers often seem very careful not to "give away" any secrets or revealing their technique more than absolutely necessary. Very rarely do I encounter even a trace of this from macro photographers on the web today! Perhaps it's because macro photography is relatively new as a serious photography discipline of its own and it's pretty much driven by passionate amateurs with little to gain from keeping secrets from each other. In contrast, I believe the more traditional fields of photography are heavily dominated by professionals and the competitive spirit appears to have become culturally engraved and accepted.

- Field stacks or studio stacks? how different are these two fields?

For me, they are very different. I love field work and one of the main reasons I tried studio shooting in the first place was so I could have a way to practice my stacking technique in order to improve my results in the field. Of course, another reason was to have something macro related to do during the long, cold Swedish winter. I must confess that I was a bit reluctant to try studio shooting at first, but even though I still prefer shooting in the field I can now appreciate many aspects of studio stacking as well and it certainly has some merits of its own (not just instrumental value as I first thought).

In the field the big challenge is to adapt to the situation and make the most out of what you stumble across. The fact that you're faced with these challenges is part of what makes it so much fun.

In the studio, you're in total control of every aspect of the image. You don't have to compromise as much in the field and can take your time and try different solution until you find something you're satisfied with. A problem with being in total control is that it's easier to get stuck in a pattern since you don't have the natural variation that is constantly imposed on you in the field.

- Natural light, flash light or both?

I like both approaches – on their own as well as in combination!

- Biggest lens/gear possitive surprise? and biggest dissapointment?

I continue to be amazed by how well reversed camera and enlarger lenses (that can be found for very little money) work for macro applications. Another little lens that springs to mind as a positive surprise is the little JML 21mm f/3.5 that turned up on eBay a couple of years ago, selling for $10. Even though I had read a promising review from another user prior to testing it, I was quite surprised by its performance and I still consider it to be one of the best in its class (unfortunately they are not easy to find nowadays and if they turn up they tend to be rather expensive).

I don't know about disappointments... I was rather disappointed with the mounting solution of the Nikon R1C1 macro flash system. Mostly because it's a nice system in many regards but the plasticky mount is a vital flaw and considering the price Nikon ought to have come up with something better.

One thing that I find disappointing in terms of macro gear is the apparent lack of interest in serious macro photography shown by the camera/lens manufacturers. There is pretty much one (!) alternative from one manufacturer (Canon MP-E65) to choose from if you're looking to buy something off the shelf capable of larger than life size imaging without add-ons. Of course, serious macro photography is somewhat of a niche market but there are other niche segments with larger selection. Why do the manufacturers have to cling to the 1:1 limit? as if it was written in stone that no sane photographer would ever need anything more.

- What would we find in standard field bag? and in your studio?

These images gives a good idea of what is in my backpack on a regular early morning photography session:
And pieced together: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5303/5643150504_4ea44cabca_b.jpg

My standard setup for studio shooting: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5289/5378698134_d41349ab69_b.jpg

The camera/bellows is mounted vertically on an Olympus VST-1 macro stand. The subject is positioned on a small extension of the Microscope xy-table. This allows me to use the microscope for 3D-alignment of the subject and the fine focus dial of the microscope works great for the short focus increments. If I need extra stability (for >20X stacks) I usually move the bellows over on top of the microscope frame shoot through the objective mounted in the turret.

- Any advice for someone starting? and best advice you were given?

Don't start with buying a big heap of expensive gear! Instead, begin by trying to make the most of what you already have or can get your hands on for very little money. This is not just an advice to save money. I've heard people become really disappointed after buying "the best gear" the camera store had to offer and still not being able to get those super shots they were after. They become discouraged and come to the conclusion that macro photography is not for them. If instead they had begun by reverse-mounting their kit-zoom or that old 28/2.8 they found in their basement they wouldn't expect wonders – quite the contrary: any half decent result would be seem like an inspiring victory. Besides, the truth is that you can achieve quite wonderful results with extremely cheap and simple equipment and the sooner you realise much practice plays a part and how more important your technique and basic understanding of the concepts is than your gear, the faster your results will improve.

- We know about your Makrofokus website and workshops, how is everything going?

Yes, me and my good buddy Stanislav Snäll had been talking about arranging workshops for quite a while before we decided to actually do it. Last year (2011) we launched the website makrofokus.se and a few months after that, in May, we arranged our first macro photography workshop. In fact the participants signed up for a series of four workshops, spread out over a two weeks period. Two of these were held indoors and focused on theory and basic macro photography concepts. The other two were whole day field sessions with lots of hands on practice. During the last session session the participants had the opportunity to make top quality A2-sized (60x40 cm) prints from of their best macro images shot during the course. It went really well; we had lots of great feedback and it was a real thrill to see the impressive results produced by our students! In September we arranged another set of four workshops with the same basic layout and it went just as well (if not better). Just recently (December 2011) we ran a studio stacking workshop which again was well received and we had more applications than we could accommodate. With minimal effort and zero advertising the website has received hundreds of registered users and the activity is increasing with a steady pace. We're yet to make detailed plans for 2012 but I anticipate this year to be at least as exciting as 2011.

- Do you have any future projects?

Yes, there are a lot of things on the horizon! Besides the upcoming activities associated with makrofokus.se I'm working on a book which will be released in September and that I'm really excited about. Around the same time as the book launch I'll be opening a photo exhibition at the Museum of Natural History here in Stockholm.

- One thing pretty common in you work is insect asleep full of dew; in what range of temperatures do you usually work in your early morning walks? how long is the macro season in your country?

One thing is for sure: it's too darn short. December through March is more or less post processing and studio work only for us. Even November and April is a stretch but if you're lucky these months can provide a few days with "bug-compatible" conditions. I really shouldn't be whining though – the bugs are obviously present in some form or another all year around – it's just a matter of enduring the cold weather and finding the bugs where they hibernate. In the summer, morning temperatures are normally in the 10°-18° C range. Early/late in the season, shooting conditions can be good even if it's a few degrees below zero. In my experience the best mornings are those when temperature suddenly drop below what has been the typical range for some period of time. For instance if you get a 10°C morning in the middle of the summer when the minimum temperature has been above 15°C for a while, the bugs will be very "cooperative" and not easily disturbed. But in the spring when morning temperatures generally are lower, a 10°C morning temperature will cause the bugs to become extremely active and hard to shoot.

- How do you gather information in were to look to find insects (I find it very hard)? Do you have Entomology Knowledge?

Since I've been interested in bugs my entire life it's unavoidable for some info to get stuck in my memory, but I'm certainly no expert! I often consult experts for help with identification questions etcetera. Since a few years I'm a member of the local entomology society and this is something I highly recommend if you're the least bit interested in bugs or bug photography! The entomology society here in Stockholm arrange meetings, providing perfect opportunities to confront experts with your questions and listen to interesting presentations. Perhaps even more valuable are the field trips arranged one or two times each year. They usually last for a couple of days in some "entomologically interesting" location. I'm often astounded by how much you can learn by following experts/enthusiasts in some particular group of insects. You'll learn how and where to look for certain animals as well as interesting facts about their life and habits.

- Favorite music

Too variable to identify some particular artist/genre

- A film

Mullholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001)
The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)

- Favorite food

Notoriously omnivorous

- a book

Reading books just makes me fall asleep.

- a drink

Beer (that's an easy one)

- a good habit you have

As long as I'm free to decide what to do, I'm never bored. I have no trouble coming up with new things to occupy my schedule.

- a bad habit you have

Who better to answer this question than by four year old son sitting across the table as I'm typing these answers on my laptop. His answer came as quick as it was accurate: "You spend too much time in front of the computer".

When I was a child I wanted to be.....

A "scientist"

Something you love (other than macro ;-)

Apart from obvious things (family, nature etc) I love:
when spring finally arrives
rationality and reason
riding a bike
listening to podcasts
salty licorice

something you hate (other than this interview ;-)

I hate pseudoscience and logical fallacies.