Good Close-up Technique

Expensive lenses are nice, but technique is what will bring on the quality

It’s not enough to be able to get close to our subjects and achieve life-size magnification; you also need to employ good close-up technique when creating close-up images.
Remember, you’re 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.

Camera position was the most important consideration in making this image.

Camera position was the most important consideration in making this image.

Depth of Field considerations

As magnification increases, depth of field decreases. When you’re 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 it’s important to keep the film plane (the back of the camera) parallel to the subject. For instance, if you’re photographing a relatively flat subject like a daisy or a butterfly, you’ll 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, you’re actually moving the lens element closer or farther away from the film plane. When you’re doing higher magnification work, like we’re discussing here, this also means you’re changing the extension in the lens. Adding extension will increase magnification (a close approximation is extension divided by focal length equals magnification). So when you’re photographing close up and using the focusing ring, you’re actually changing extension and therefore magnification.

For close up work, focusing is best accomplished by moving the camera. If you’ve 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 you’re 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.

Kirk Long Rail Plate

Kirk Long Rail Plate

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. The 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. You’ll 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 you’re using the Arca-Swiss quick release system, it’s an elegant answer to your close up focusing problems. It’s 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

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 you’ll be dealing with lots of highlights and shadow resulting in blotchy, confusing images. Remember, slide film and digital cameras can record a relatively narrow contrast range and those highlights will become detail-less white area, the shadows will be detail-less black areas, and colors will be washed out. And even though digital cameras exhibit a greater latitude range than slide film, bright spots in the image are still distractions. Fortunately there’s 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 you’ll soften the light and dramatically reduce the contrast range in the image, enabling the film to record all the details.

diffuser

A 32 inch diffuser

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 I’d recommend getting one in the 30” or bigger diameter range. When using a diffuser, be careful not to stand between it and the sun; you’ll 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 won’t know the results until you get your film back (unless you’re shooting digital). For the most natural looking results, I use diffusers and reflectors.

flash on a bracketFlash comes in handy when you’re photographing moving insects like butterflies. You’ll 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 you’ll need to set a small aperture opening like f/16 or f/22 otherwise the TTL system in your camera won’t 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.

Background

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 it’s often the foreground that takes precedent, in close up photography it’s the background; in addition to a good subject you’ll 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. Because you’re 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. Something to keep in mind is that the background you see in the viewfinder is as blurry as it's going to get. When you're looking through the viewfinder, you're looking through the lens at its widest aperture opening. It doesn't get any blurrier than that.

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 see a demonstration of this principal in my lesson about focal length and background control.

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 “background” in close up photography and you’re pictures will greatly improve.

These are a few starting places in discovering the world of close up photography. So keep looking and don’t be afraid to get your knees dirty.

Sources:

Focusing rails, sliders, and flash brackets:   Kirk Enterprises

(Kirk’s slider is called the Long Rail Plate)

Really Right Stuff

Flash brackets, macro accessories, camera support: Wimberley

Diffusers and reflectors: Photoflex

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