When you think about world-class wildlife photography, images of a giant tusker, an epic cheetah kill or the critically endangered rhino usually come to mind. But scouring your garden to snap snails? Strange but captivatingly true. Macro photographer Marcus Jooste reveals how he creates the magical images of Vincent the snail.

Self-taught macro photographer and creative genius, Marcus Jooste, impresses with something very different. The star of many of his photographs is a famous garden snail called Vincent.

Wild asked Marcus a few questions about the fascinating world of macro photography and the secrets behind his snail wonderlands.

What exactly is macro photography and do you need special equipment?

By definition a macro photograph is an image that appears on the camera sensor as it is in real life. In other words, 1:1 or larger. Like all genres of photography, there are some techniques that are particular to macro. There’s also a ton of info online for beginners. Many people find macro difficult, however, if you get a few of the basics right, the creative opportunities are endless.

Marcus Jooste

Marcus Jooste

In terms of equipment you can start with a basic macro lens and then experiment with other pieces of equipment such as dioptres (magnifying lenses), reversing lenses, extension tubes, specialised ultra-macro lenses (such as the Canon MP-E 65) and even go as far as using microscope objectives to achieve magnification of 10x or greater.

The use of speed lights (flash) and other light sources is important, particularly for extreme macro. When you are photographing at very close proximity and with light-gobbling lenses such as the MP-E 65, ambient light becomes an issue and you have to compensate. If working with insects, butterflies, bees and arthropods, it’s important to get to know the behaviour of the creatures in order to achieve the images you envisage.

How did you get involved with macro photography?

I’ve always had an interest in nature, particularly butterflies and insects – I had a butterfly collection growing up. It was only in 2014 that I was inspired to take up photography seriously. I’ve since had great mentors like Dave Rogers and Hougaard Malan. However, my macro is mainly self-taught. It sort of came naturally to me, perhaps because of my understanding of the behaviour of insects.

Tell us more about Vincent the snail…

Vincent is a common garden snail (Cornu aspersum) and is native to the Mediterranean area and Western Europe. His ancestors are rumoured to have arrived in the Cape during the 1700s, hiding amongst the grape vines carried on board ships with the early Dutch settlers. So when Jan van Riebeeck’s sailors were dying of scurvy, Oom Vincent was styling on Shiraz! Modern day Vincent is a guru, adventurer, visionary, environmentalist and Gastropod extraordinaire.

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Little Sybil – Sybil is Vincent and his wife, Violet’s, daughter. She is the second born. It’s the first night that she was left alone in the nursery and is yearning and calling for her parents. Violet wanted to go to her but Vincent was all about tough love that long night. Camera information: Nikon D800, Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/8, 1/125 sec with two off-camera speed lights, both gelled green (one snooted above and one to the side). With broccoli and fern fronds.

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Midas – The Midas snail has turned his kingdom into gold and is gazing upon the only remaining thing of natural beauty, which he knows he can’t touch. Camera information: Nikon D800, Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, F/9.0, 1/100, three Nikon flashes (two SB-910 and one SB-700) and a full CTO warming filter. Marcus used a shallow bowl of water, a gold, silky dress as backdrop, a pretty flower and Vincent the amazing snail. A piece of glass with glitter produced good bokeh (the out of focus light points in the background).

How exactly do you achieve the snail pictures?

I dream up all sorts of scenarios and plan how I would execute it: what props I would use, colours, backgrounds, lighting, narrative. I will then create a mini set, sometimes indoors, or in a garden or field. I will firstly try and arrange the compositional components – the main elements such as water, mushrooms, leaves, flowers … Experimenting with the lighting and background follows to get the right shadows, depth of field, bokeh… Once I am happy, I introduce the stars of the show and let them do their thing. Sometimes it works out as I planned, sometimes entirely differently and sometimes better. Most often I fail, pack up and give Vincent some lettuce for his troubles.

How much digital manipulation do you use?

I strive to get as much right in camera as possible. I consider myself a photographer and not a digital artist. Apart from the RAW conversion in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and sometimes a few adjustments and sharpening in Photoshop, everything else is pretty much as seen in camera.

What’s next for Vincent?

He has a host of new adventures planned although I’m having a tricky time with his new agent, Slimy Sid. Once that is under control there is a very pretty ladybird that he’s keen on working with. Violet and Vincent are also considering a third child. There is rumour that his uncle Neptune, the sea snail, wants to make an appearance.

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This image titled Whatcha doing dad? is part of Marcus’ fairyland macro photography series.

How do you use photography to make a difference in the protection and conservation of SA’s beautiful nature and wildlife?

For me, it’s about education, awareness, respect and empathy. I try to tell a story with my images and also to provide some information about the amazing creatures I photograph – the incredible vision and antics of the jumping spider, the cunning mimicry of certain butterflies and the symbiotic relationships between many insects. Giving the snails names has brought out some interesting feedback from people. I often receive messages from people saying ‘I saw Vincent on the driveway and picked him up and moved him out of harm’s way’. When I am travelling and photographing in Africa I try to involve a few local kids (and adults) to help me shoot, look for subjects and thereby engage them in the process. Through fun and creativity I try to make people look differently at earth’s wonderful creatures.

Marcus grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe and from an early age developed an interest in nature, particularly butterflies and insects. His macro photography consists primarily of insects, spiders and snails. He currently lives in Cape Town and owns the commercial refrigeration company Coldex.