Up Close And Personal - An Interview With Macro Photographer Alberto Ghizzi Panizza

Passionate about capturing all of the intricate details that nature crafts so beautifully, Alberto Ghizzi Panizza is an international award-winning photographer and a member of the Nikon School. We caught up with him to discover how he captures such amazing macro images...

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How did you first get into photography?
I started to take pictures when I was a child. My father was an amateur photographer and he bought me my first film camera. However, my real passion developed when I purchased my first digital camera in 1998. It only had 0.06 megapixels but it meant I could take pictures of everything I wanted to without worrying about the developing costs. After years of using compact cameras, for example the Nikon Coolpix 990, I finally invested in my first digital reflex in 2004 – a Nikon D100. It was love at first sight, and from this point, I have been lucky enough to turn my passion into a career. 

What made you interested in capturing close-ups of insects?
Throughout my 20 years as a photographer, I’ve embraced all forms of the art, from weddings and wildlife to landscape and astrophotography. However, macro photography is my true passion. I have always been fascinated in nature and the world around me. In fact, one of my favourite hobbies is heading down to the meadows at dawn, as at this time of day, the fields are alive with interesting subjects to snap; from dew drops through to unusual little insects. I find macro photography offers me the opportunity to showcase extraordinary levels of detail the naked eye just can’t see – a hidden world waiting to be discovered.

What equipment do you use for your macro shots?
There are a lot of equipment combinations you can use for macro pictures. Body-wise, the new Nikon D850 is a game-changer. Its resolution and speed are like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Plus, as the first Nikon camera that can take focus shift images without any mechanical movements, it’s perfect for macro photographers where every little movement and vibration is a potential problem.

Having used them for over 12 years, I’m a huge fan of Nikon’s Micro lenses. While their precise and long focusing ring allows you to easily concentrate on the subject, each lens has its own unique way of working. Favourites include the AF-S DX Micro 40mm f/2.8G, AF-S VR Micro 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED, AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8 G ED and the AF-S DX Micro 85mm f/3.5G ED VR.

What’s a typical insect macro shoot like?
Macro photography requires plenty of patience and attempts before that perfect picture can happen. There are lots of factors you need to consider if you want an extremely sharp and detailed image, especially when shooting a moving subject like an insect. To combat vibrations which can cause your images to blur, you need a trusty tripod, and depending on which camera you use, you may need to use a cable release or remote controller to manage those vibrations caused by clicking the release button.

You also need the support of good macro lenses that will help you take a picture without going too close to the subject and disturbing it.

How do you find suitable locations?
It takes lots of research to know where and when certain insects will be visible, but I find the best time to go out is at dawn on a cloudy and fresh day where there is minimal wind. Insects are cold and numb from the night so in the early morning, it’s easy to find them resting on a flower or a shrub. In wet lands we can also find them covered in dew drops as they wait to dry themselves before the day begins. At sunrise and in the following minutes, the light is warm and well diffused, which offers the perfect moment to take pictures. 

What’s the best shot you’ve ever taken?
Funnily, some of my favourite pictures are ones I took very close to my home in Parma, Italy, despite having travelled several countries of the world. There are two images that mean a lot to me. One is called 'Take my Hand' where two small damselflies seem to hold each other’s hand. This picture has become one of my most recognised. The second is titled “daisy reflections”, where dew drops on a blade of grass reflect a daisy in the background. This was my first successful photo trying out this technique, and I have used it many times since, including in a recent Nikon project called ‘The Beauty of Rust’, which explored the hidden wonders of rust up-close.

What’s your favourite story from your time photographing wildlife?
This has to be in Manitoba, Canada, where I captured an image of a polar bear which looks like he is praying. I was tens of meters away from him when I took the picture, lying on the ground with my Nikon to try and get a more impactful image. The bear woke up and looked me in the eye. At that moment, I felt the blood freezing through my veins, snapped lots of pictures and quickly got back in the car (in fear of my life!). The bear seems to be praying, but I believe he is rubbing his hands admiring the beautiful prey in front of him... me.

Focusing on macro, one image I had always wanted to capture was one of my beloved damselfly with drops of dew on its head. I tried for years, but the images never turned out right. Two years ago, I finally managed to create one I was pretty pleased with, but this year, thanks to the speed of the D850 and its automatic staking focus, I managed to capture several, including one of a pair of damselflies side by side with a drop of dew between their heads. A very interesting picture that I had never been able to capture before. I hope to snap many more in the future!

What would be your typical settings for a macro insect photo?
Settings tend to vary depending on what lens you use. Longer lenses, like the AF Micro 200mm f/4D IF-ED, have a greater working distance with the subject, whereas with shorter lenses, such as the AF-S DX Micro 40mm f/2.8G, you need to be closer. Assessing this distance to capture an image at an effective reproduction ratio is key.

When taking pictures of moving creatures with a single shot, it’s important to ensure the sensor of the camera is parallel with the subject to get it all in focus. This can be difficult when capturing very small, multidimensional objects, so I would suggest focus stacking. This technique involves taking a progression or sequence of shots from the nearest to the farthest point of the subject and then blending them together in post-production to create a crisp result.

What’s your favourite piece of gear?
Alongside the Nikon D850, Nikon D810 and Micro lenses, I find that extension tubes are key if you want to increase the magnification capabilities of your macro lens, especially to go beyond the limit of the 1:1 reproduction ratio. Another useful accessory is a macro flash, such as the R1C1 kit, which allows you to freeze the moment with a very balanced light.

Do you have any tips for budding macro photographers?
To take successful macro images, a good knowledge of your equipment and how it works is essential. Understanding the depth of field and how aperture, focal length and focus work in tandem is the first important thing to master.

I would also encourage all budding macro photographers to get out there and experiment. Explore an area at dawn where you know there will be interesting insects or beautiful flowers you can capture. It’s an old age saying, but practice really does make perfect.

Alberto Ghizzi Panizza is an Italian photographer specialising in wildlife and landscapes. His clients include The Discovery Channel, Men's Health and Panorama. See more of his work here