Good Close-up Technique

By Rod Barbee


Itís not enough to be able to get close to our subjects and achieve life-size magnification; you also need to employ good technique when creating close-up images.
Remember, youíre greatly magnifying your images and in doing so you greatly magnify any mistakes. 

One of the first technical considerations is eliminating camera shake. With higher magnification work, any camera or subject movement is also greatly magnified. You may not be able to stop the subject from moving but you can eliminate camera shake by using a sturdy tripod and cable release.  

Depth of Field considerations 

As magnification increases, depth of field decreases. When youíre photographing at life-sized magnifications, depth of field can be measured in millimeters. Subject and compositional choices, as well as camera placement become very important in achieving the desired depth of field.

To maximize depth of field itís important to keep the film plane (the back of the camera) parallel to the subject. For instance, if youíre photographing a relatively flat subject like a daisy or a butterfly, youíll be able to keep more of the subject in focus by having the back of the camera parallel to the flat plane of the subject rather than at an angle to the subject.  

Because depth of field is so limited, focusing becomes critical. When you focus a lens, youíre actually moving the lens element closer or farther away from the film plane. When youíre doing higher magnification work, like weíre discussing here, this also means youíre changing the extension in the lens. Adding extension will increase magnification (a close approximation is extension divided by focal length equals magnification). So when youíre photographing close up and using the focusing ring, youíre actually changing extension and therefore magnification.

 For close up work, focusing is best accomplished by moving the camera. If youíve ever tried photographing dewdrops on flowers or grass you know that this is easier said than done. One slight movement of the tripod and that dewdrop youíre after can come crashing to the ground. It can also be difficult to maintain the parallel relationship between subject and film plane if you need to move your tripod.

There are a couple of accessories available to aid in close up focusing. One is a focusing rail, the other a focusing slider. Both accomplish the same thing and look very similar.

A focusing rail is a geared device that attaches to your tripod head. You then mount your camera to the focusing rail. Focusing is accomplished my turning a knob that moves the rail back and forth, perpendicular to the plane of focus. Some rails even include a side-to-side movement. Focusing rails allow you to make fine adjustments of camera position.

The other accessory, which has become invaluable to me, is a focusing slider. The slider does the same job as the rail only a little differently. A focusing slider is a long Arca-Swiss style plate with a clamp at one end for mounting your lens or camera. Kirk LRP-1 Long Rail PlateThe slider then mounts atop your tripod into another Arca-Swiss clamp. Like the focusing rail, you move your camera back and forth but instead of using a geared system, you simply loosen the clamp on your tripod head and slide your camera back and forth. Youíll then probably need to do a very slight bit of tweaking with the focusing ring on the lens.

A slider is lighter, less bulky, and less expensive than a focusing rail and if youíre using the Arca-Swiss quick release system, itís an elegant answer to your close up focusing problems. Itís not as precise as a focusing rail but for fieldwork, it does the job remarkably well and it takes up little room in the camera bag. Pictured here is Kirk's focusing slider, called the Long Rail Plate.


 Light is really what photography is all about. Controlling the light for close up photographs is usually just a matter of being aware of possible problems and employing a few simple techniques.

 Shooting close ups on bright sunny days is usually not the best choice since youíll be dealing with lots of highlights and shadow resulting in blotchy, confusing images. Remember, slide film has a very narrow contrast range and those highlights will be detail-less white area, the shadows will be detail-less black areas, and colors will be washed out. This is also true for digital, and even though digital cameras exhibit a greater latitude range that slide film, bright spots in the image are still distractions. Fortunately thereís an easy fix for this: the diffuser.

Diffusers are pieces of translucent white nylon, usually mounted to a metal hoop. By placing the diffuser between the subject and the sun youíll soften the light and dramatically reduce the contrast range in the image, enabling the film to record all the details. 

Diffusers have their greatest effect when placed as close as possible to the subject (while keeping the diffuser out of the picture, of course). Diffusers come in different diameters but Iíd recommend getting one in the 30Ē or bigger diameter range. When using a diffuser, be careful not to stand between it and the sun; youíll end up casting a shadow instead of diffusing the light.

 Reflectors can be used to add light to your subject. Reflectors usually come in white, silver, or gold. You can easily make your own reflectors with cardboard and crumpled, then flattened foil. The great advantage of reflectors is that you can see the results before you press the shutter. Diffusers and reflectors can also be used together, one to soften the light the other to add a little light where needed. 

If you need to add a little light to you can also use electronic flash. Flash takes a little practice and you wonít know the results until you get your film back (unless youíre shooting digital). For the most natural looking results, I use diffusers and reflectors.
Flash comes in handy when youíre photographing moving insects like butterflies. Youíll need to get the flash off the camera by using a special cord and a bracket to hold it out over the lens. The flash will end up being pretty close to your subject and youíll need to set a small aperture opening like f/16 or f/22 otherwise the TTL system in your camera wonít be able to turn the flash off in time to prevent over-exposure. The advantage of having the flash so close you your subject is that it becomes a relatively bigger light source, which means it will be more diffused. When the flash is farther away it becomes a point light source, like the sun, which will cast harsher shadows.


 The background in close ups can make or break the picture. Good backgrounds are non-distracting and will enhance and draw attention to your main subject. Bad backgrounds are confusing and distracting, having too much detail and hot spots. Backgrounds should support the subject, not take the eye away from it.

In landscape photography itís often the foreground that takes precedent, in close up photography itís the background; in addition to a good subject youíll also need to find a good background. This takes more time and effort but the reward is well worth it.

So how do you create or find good backgrounds?

First of all, you can look for backgrounds that are not distracting to begin with. Look for backgrounds that are relatively far away from the subject too. Because youíre using greater magnifications and depth of field is limited, the farther away the background is, the softer and more out of focus it will be. If your background is too close, the depth of field you need for your subject will also reveal too many details of the background. You can also use wider apertures to control the background; this will always be a compromise as you weigh the depth of field needed for the subject against lack of depth of field needed for the background.

One effective way to control background is to use longer lenses. As focal length increases, background coverage decreases and very slight movements in camera position can have a huge effect on background content.

You can often control the color of the background too by moving camera position. A yellow flower with a dark green background feels much different from the same yellow flower with a purple or blue background. 

Think ďbackgroundĒ in close up photography and youíre pictures will greatly improve. 

These are a few starting places in discovering the world of close up photography. So keep looking and donít be afraid to get your knees dirty. 


Focusing rails, sliders, and flash brackets:  Kirk Enterprises,

(Kirkís slider is called the Long Rail Plate)

Really Right Stuff,

Flash brackets, macro accessories, camera support: Wimberley,

Diffusers and reflectors: Photoflex,