“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
Poet William Blake may have written that verse more than 200 years ago, but it perfectly describes much of California-based photographer Monica Royal’s (monicaroyal.com) macro work. While most photographers aim their lenses at the larger and more obvious environment that surrounds them, Royal spends much of her time and creative energy exploring a lilliputian cosmos of rarely-noticed details of flowers, looking-glass droplets of water and abstract graphic patterns in both natural and manmade objects.
While Royal also occasionally photographs larger subjects like landscapes and portraits, it is this world of miniature wonders that most inspires—and challenges—her. What was is that initially attracted her to such ultra-close-up work? “There isn’t a good answer to that. It’s kind of like the question, ‘why is blue your favorite color?’ It just is,” she says. “I’m just simply enamored with it. What started as a natural fascination became further fueled by ego. As soon as people started to respond to my art, there was no stopping me. I live for the reaction of astonishment.”
Royal, who earns her living as a fine-art photographer, says that she has developed a three-fold business model to keep her career moving forward: she speaks and writes about her work, teaches (both groups and individuals) in the United States and Mexico, and she sells her work as fine-art prints. “My focus is always to sell fine photography, so I have several private collectors who own my artwork,” she says. “I also have some permanent art installations in the United States, Canada and one in Guam.” She has also seen her work published in a growing number of magazines and was named Illustrative Photographer of the Year by the Professional Photographers of San Diego County in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Royal is also a Tamron Image Master.
In a recent interview with writer Jeff Wignall, Royal talked about her passion for macro and abstract photography, her techniques and how both her images and technique have evolved.
PPD: In 1999 you gave up a career in criminology to pursue your passion for photography. How does one make such a bold leap?
MR: It was a combination of chance and opportunity. First, a career in a field in which you have no passion will slowly suck the life-force from you. It would have been so much easier to have chosen the proper career in the first place. I can’t implore parents enough to help their children in the career evaluation process. It can save years. I wanted to be a photographer from an early age but I was counseled against a career in the arts. It really only takes tenacity to make it in any field. In 1999 I found myself somewhat impulsively moving from Vancouver, B.C. to San Diego.
PPD: Was there something about moving from Canada to California that inspired you?
MR: In Canada there is something of a ‘Hollywood Mystique’ surrounding California. Much like American’s think that moose roam freely throughout Canadian cities, we thought we’d see celebrities at every Starbucks and that we’d get shot if we went to L.A. Stereotypes that have obviously been proven to be untrue but it was thrilling at the time. I’ll never forget getting off the plane and seeing palm trees everywhere, and I mean everywhere because the windows in the airport were empty where glass should have been! What a place!
PPD: Your resume mentions photographer Freeman Patterson, was he a big influence on you?
MR: Yes, huge. I took a week long class with him on his New Brunswick property in 2007. He has such an unassuming presence. In fact, he blends in with the locals in a surprising way. He is a world-class artist. He should at least have a driver! Freeman is well known, well loved and very well respected. No one fawns over him at home and he’s happy that way. Every year I go back to the Kingston Peninsula in New Brunswick and track him down at the farmers market. I say hi and we chat briefly. He’s a gentle soul and I have such immense respect for his work and his vision. He taught me about the building blocks of visual design and that’s what I now pass on to my students.
PPD: Technically what is the most difficult aspect of macro work?
MR: It might be easier to answer what is the least difficult aspect. Picking subject matter, that is easy. Avoiding wind, eliminating vibration or movement, steadying the camera, achieving accurate focus—all of those are equally challenging and frustrating.
PPD: Do you have a favorite lens for macro work?
MR: I have used a Tamron 90MM fixed-focal-length macro lens for almost 20 years. I’m now going into my third-generation of that lens. The new Tamron SP 90MM F/2.8 Di VC USD is in the mail as we speak. (See it here.)
PPD: Do you use other lens accessories, such as bellows or extension tubes or is it all done with just lenses?
MR: Savage Universal has a great automatic extension tube. I can’t believe it took this long for someone to invent a device that would save you from having to individually stack combinations of three different pieces of equipment. If you like using extension tubes for extreme magnification than you really have to check this one out.
PPD: Are all of your close-ups done in the field, or do you bring things indoors to shoot?
MR: I started outside with flowers that had dew on them. A lot of people are drawn to that and it’s easy to see why. As I progressed it became a challenge and a gift to bring items into my studio. It allows me to have control over some of the above issues: wind, vibration etc., but it also challenged me because once you have complete control, you have to make choices. It’s like having a blank canvas and you are about to paint. Where do you start?
PPD: Are all of your subjects natural or do you work with other objects as well?
MR: They started out that way, all natural. Early on I was photographing mostly flowers. It took some years before I had enough vision to make my subjects. I actually went back and reread Freeman Patterson’s books. Once I started to really grasp visual design, then I thought I’d add the element of using everyday objects to make art. I’m particularly proud of the evolution and design of my shot ‘Smooth Scroll’ (shown above). It’s simply a piece of plastic, with of course, my signature water drop (and about a pound of tape and paper clips).
PPD: What type of lighting do you use for indoor work?
MR: These days I mostly use a Westcott Flexlight. It’s got a lot of power yet it’s lightweight and small, and water proof!
PPD: The point of sharp focus is very restricted in your close-ups. Do you experiment with different points of sharp focus in your macro shots or do you shoot several variations?
MR: Not any more. Once I started to research the macro artwork that is out there, I saw patterns. We’ve all seen images where an artist puts subject matter behind the water drops and then focuses on the back of the drop rendering the subject in focus. It’s often flowers inside water drops. Those images were imaginative at first but now everyone does it. That’s not innovative anymore, so my goal is to try and do something completely different. I take inspiration from other artists to be sure, but I always try to make it my own somehow.
PPD: A lot of your flower close-ups have water droplets on them. Are these natural or do you bring a little rain with you?
MR: My macro fascination started with natural rain on flowers and grass outside. Once I realized that I could improve the artwork so much more dramatically by bringing it inside to the studio and controlling it, then there was no stopping me. Now I use all kinds of devices to create different sized water droplets and make them bend to my will.
PPD: Is the quality of lens bokeh an important concept to you? Is there a particular Tamron lens that you favor because of its bokeh?
MR: When you add light in the background, bokeh quality is everything! My Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di VC USD (see it here) renders exquisite bokeh. That’s one of the reasons I have used Tamron lenses long before I was associated with the company.
PPD: Do you still spend any time crawling around on the ground looking for macro subjects?
MR: Not so much anymore, it's actually more challenging to bring things into the studio and get up off the ground. Plus my back likes it more.
PPD: Pure abstraction is another of your subject specialties. What is it that attracts you to abstraction?
MR: The biggest kick for me is to make a piece of artwork that’s incredibly intricate and detailed and unique and then have the viewer respond to it and then tell them that it is something they’ve seen every day.
PPD: Are you actively out looking for abstract compositions or do they just jump out at you? Is nature the best source for abstraction for you?
MR: Yes, these things do jump out at me. The artistic design process is much easier after having studied art and the design elements that make good art. Teaching has also helped me a lot in that way. My students tend to shoot too wide. So I’m able to show them by cropping their images that it’s possible to find the image within the image if you just adhere to some basic design principles.
PPD: What are the graphic elements that you look for in abstraction?
MR: I start with basic shapes. Circles, triangles, rectangles etc. That’s how I find my initial composition. Then I add to them: color, shape, texture, perspective, line etc and then of course it all comes to life with light. I always say at my presentations, ‘Without light you can’t see.’ That sounds funny but it’s not just literal, it’s also meant to remind you that you will see things so much differently when you add the element of light. You can take a simple piece of paper and change the light sources, color or direction and make it an entirely different image; in some cases, you can render the same subject matter unrecognizable just be changing the light. I think that is super cool and fun.I love showing kids how that can be done.
PPD: You also do landscape work. Do you have certain lenses that you favor in your landscape work?
MR: I love the long lenses for wildlife. I have the Tamron SP 70-300MM Di VC USD (see it here). I’ve played with longer lenses and I like those too. I also use a Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD (see it here).
PPD: Where are some of your favorite places to shoot?
MR: Anywhere water exists—flowing or frozen, that’s where I want to be.
PPD: One of the things you talk about on your site is evidence-based design in healing. Can you explain that concept a bit?
MR: Evidence-based design pertains to the theory of biophilia that was expanded upon in the 80’s by scientist Roger Ulrich. In a nutshell, the theory provides photographic artists with guidelines about what type of artwork promotes healing. For example, you wouldn’t have a lone tree in a field during sunset in the room of a geriatric patient. It represents isolation and the end of the day. That may not be the best scene to inspire hope and happiness, a better choice would be a flowing stream with long exposure slow water.
PPD: You are involved in an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Can you talk about what that organization does and how you came to be involved with them?
MR: Now I lay me down to sleep is a nonprofit organization that provides remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby. We provide the free gift of professional portraiture. The service is free and done by trained professional photographers. When my son was 24 weeks gestation and he developed hydrocephalus, water on the brain, we thought at one point that we might lose him so I promised myself that if he was born healthy I would do something to show my gratitude. Photographing for this organization is difficult but compared to what the families go through when they lose their baby, it pales in comparison. These photographs are extremely meaningful to the families and they aid in the healing process. I am fortunate to come home to two healthy children after every photo session so it’s really the least I can do.
PPD: You also teach workshops. What subjects do you teach and where do you teach them?
MR: I teach a lot of private and small classes in and around San Diego. I offer workshops as well. I travel around the country to different professional and amateur photography groups. I’m speaking in Texas at the Gulf States Camera Club Council convention this May. I think my favorite activity is when I work one-on-one with private students. It’s rewarding to watch that creative light bulb go off in someone’s mind. It’s also nice when I can coach someone through avoiding the business pitfalls that I fell into early in my career. People can sign up for that on my webpage and I can also be found at Facebook: monica.royal3, Twitter: @monica_royal, Instagram: monicaroyal
PPD: Do you have any advice to offer someone who wants to follow your example and pursue a creative career?
MR: You’d better be prepared to work your ass off.