I first met Mike Moats at the 2015 Out of Chicago Conference. And while I by no means consider myself a macro photographer, I knew there was something special about Mike’s work. His ability to capture the magical tiny worlds are quite simply second to none.
Fast-forward six years, the Michigan-based photographer hasn’t skipped a beat. As a Tamron Image Master, Mike regularly presents at workshops, but also runs the Macro Photo Club, a group that provides macro tips on gear, composition and post-processing, along with regular giveaways and social interaction. He also hosts a yearly conference … while we aren’t in the midst of a pandemic.
I sat down with Mike last week to talk about what he’s been up to, and some of his most memorable experiences throughout his career.
Mike’s journey into photography
Up until 2004, Mike called himself a painter. He ran a painting company. Along the way, he picked up a camera and was able to set his painting schedule around his photography.
“I had no expectations of this ever-developing into the way it’s gone. About 2004, I started to finally get my act together and start producing some good images,” said Mike.
When the auto industry crashed, that impacted the Detroit area. Mike had to pivot. That’s when he went all-in with his photography, focusing on capturing the macro world around him.
“I had my business nose-dive,” he said. “I had a lot of days where I literally had no work. So what I did was I went out to the park shooting on those days. It worked out really well. Then I started to make it into a business. I had to combine the painting with the photo for a couple of years, until I got the photo [business] up and running. Then I could do it full time.
“It worked out just perfect for me being in that type of business. Just being really lucky and being able to have the flexibility to schedule my work around my photography, until I got it to the point where I was making enough money that I could stop doing the painting and dedicate all my time to photography.”
Mike’s approach to macro
When we think of macro photography, the most talked about subject is by far flowers. But flowers are one of Mike’s least favorite things to photograph.
“Flower photography, to me, is so overdone. There’s so much of it already out there. I just kind of felt I needed to go in a little bit of a different direction, then doing the same thing everyone else was doing,” said Mike.
So instead, Mike turned to leaves. But he didn’t stop there, regularly photographing plant life, shells, feathers and more.
“I started to notice there were all these other really cool subjects you can photograph in nature — plant life, leaves, feathers on the beach … all kinds of different things I was discovering. For a couple of years, I was shooting leaf images like crazy. I became known as the ‘leaf guy’ on some of the sites where I was posting images. I was doing really well; I was in the art show business for seven years, and the biggest seller in my booth? Leaf images.”
“I always loved shooting leaves. There are so many different varieties of leaves — the patterns are totally different. You can put them in all kinds of different backgrounds, and they just are great subjects to photograph.”
The most memorable photograph for Mike? A spurge plant, featured at the top of this article, was taken at Cox Arboretum north of Cincinnati, OH.
“I was really impressed by the plant itself. And what made it just kind of go over the top was the post-processing I did on it. There was a solarization filter in Nik Software that just turned it into an awesome, spectacular looking subject.”
Gear to stand the test of time
Mike takes an entirely different approach when compared to most professionals. As his focus is on educating other photographers, he wants to show them that the images he captures can be captured on virtually any camera on the market today.
Making his gear approachable for education
Up until 2020, Mike photographed with a Nikon D7000 — a camera released in 2010. He only recently switched to the D7500, which is by no means a new camera, having been released in 2017.
“The only reason [I upgraded] was that it had a tilting screen. You know, it had a few extra bells and whistles that the D7000 didn’t have. Is it going to take better pictures? No, it’s going to capture whatever I put into it.
“When [the D7000] was last sold, it was only $896. And 60 percent of the people that come to my workshops are using cameras that are $1000 or less. If I’m using a $6500 camera, people leave my workshop saying, ‘Mike’s images look really good because he’s got a professional camera.’ The point is, I’m using a camera that’s under $1000, which tells people that, if I can produce these images with that camera, then they’re going to produce good images with their camera.”
Rock solid Tamron lenses lead the way
In terms of lenses, Mike keeps his bag light, really only utilizing two lenses in his workflow. He started out using Tamron lenses with a Fujifilm SLR camera, and never looked back. For Mike, it’s all about producing great images. And expensive lenses aren’t needed for that.
“Tamron has great lenses. I have people all the time say, ‘Hey Mike, are those Tamron lenses any good?’ I say, ‘Have you seen my images? How did they look?’ I don’t have to tell you they’re good — look at my images, You’ll see what I’ve been able to produce with them.”
Mike uses just two lenses — the Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 is by far his most used, but he also has the Tamron 90mm macro f/2.8 lens. That might be a bit of a head-scratcher for someone who specializes in photographing up-close photographs, but for Mike, it’s all about working with the gear you have to make great images.
“I rarely shoot in the 1:1 range, which is actually physically macro. I think the term macro fits what I do — shooting in close on subjects. I’ve been pretty much exclusively using the 18-400mm, which is working out really great for me. Let’s say I’m out shooting in an area, and I want to show the environment that I’m shooting in for teaching purposes. I can always throw that lens on a separate body put it on a tripod and photograph myself out in the field with a wide-angle of 18mm. And then if I’m at the edge of a pond, and there’s a frog out of distance from the edge of the pond, I’ve got 400mm to reach out.
“That’s not to say I don’t pull up my 90mm and do other stuff with that too. If I’m shooting tabletop indoors, I’m generally using my 90mm. I’m shooting in much closer on subjects with the 90mm, a lot of times getting in closer to that 1:1 range. With nature though, it’s not as easy when you’re shooting 1:1 because you have to get down on your hands and knees all the time. It gets so close.”
But why not use the native Nikkor lenses for his Nikon camera?
“All I can say is that the images I’m producing are excellent. The lens quality is great — I don’t have any issues with [Tamron’s] quality. People talk about [quality] on third-party lenses, but I’ve never noticed the difference between my images compared with other people using Canon or Nikon lenses, in terms of the quality of the images. I’m very, very happy with the lenses — they’re very solid.”
Advice for new macro shooters
Mike provided a couple of suggestions for those just getting into macro photography. One, to invest in a good ball head And two, to get an L bracket.
“My ball head is key to what I do because the front 145 degrees is gone off that head. It allows me to maneuver my camera in any position I need to get the photograph. That’s the thing about macro — we are constantly maneuvering our camera with all kinds of different angles to get our framing right for our subject. We’re low on the ground, in all kinds of different positions. The Arcatech Ultimate Ballhead is just really amazing for me.”
Mike couples his ball head with a Vanguard tripod, which has a center post that lets him get over the top of subjects.
“For the L bracket, that lets me go from horizontal to vertical without having to even touch my ball head, tripod or anything. That’s a must for photographers.”
For Mike Moats, capturing the smallest details in our world is an artistic release. Each photograph is unique in that the outside world is constantly changing. And that artistry is something we all should strive for.