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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It's In The Details

Go beyond the ordinary macro shot to create striking close-ups anywhere

Labels: How-To

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ABOVE FROM LEFT: Nikon AF-S Micro-NIKKOR 60mm ƒ/2.8G ED; Tamron 90mm Di Macro; Canon EF-S 60mm ƒ/2.8 Macro USM

Sometimes I look just for the light. This follows the idea of finding a photo and not necessarily looking for the subject. Many times, I’ll get down low and observe what the light is doing. As you move around your photo area, you’ll quickly see things change. Often, you can get everything from frontlight to backlight within a few feet of each shot.

Look for planes in the scene that get hit differently by the light, too. You may find that the moss at your feet is hit 100 percent by direct sun, but two feet to your left, the moss is on a slight slope so it gets a glancing light from the sun. Or in a different direction, multiple planes of moss get hit differently with the sun, giving a pattern of sun and shade.

Keep an eye out for shadows and spots of light. Often, you can make a great shot of a nature detail that’s spotlit by the sun while surrounded by shade.

Focal Lengths
I shoot with all sorts of lenses for close-ups, from wide-angle to telephoto. I use a macro for some shots, but then I’ll add extension tubes to a telephoto to make it focus closer or a tele-extender to increase my focal length. The reason for this is perspective and backgrounds. The wider the focal length you use, the more distinctly the background shows up, plus the background gets smaller behind your subject. With more telephoto focal lengths, the background starts to really blur, and it’s enlarged, coming closer to your subject.

When you get into the unique world of the very close up, images can get beyond literal interpretations of the landscape. OP Editor-At-Large Rob Sheppard always has been fascinated with macro—follow his tips for getting close, use the right gear and experiment, and be amazed by the stunning results.
The result is that with a wider focal length, you see more of the environment, the setting around your subject. With more of a telephoto, you can bring in specific parts of the background to fill the image area behind your subject. For example, a small patch of shadow might just be a patch of shadow with a wide-angle, but with a telephoto, that patch can enlarge to fill the entire compositional area, creating a dramatic look for your subject.

For the more abstract, soft backgrounds that can work effectively with close-up and macro shots, use a telephoto and a wide aperture. I often use the maximum or widest ƒ-stop possible (such as ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4) when I’m at moderate distances, then stop down slightly to ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/8 when I reach the extreme close shots of macro work. That extra stop or two can help with sharpness when you’re super-close without making the background too distinct.

A Word About Backgrounds
You have to watch your backgrounds when doing this sort of close work. Since your subject isn’t the bold flower or bug, you must capture and hold your viewer’s attention with something more. Often, that means a composition that uses the background well, regardless if the background is sharp or not.

I know from experience in working with workshop participants that it’s easy to miss that background. The thought is that if it’s out of focus, you can ignore it. Don’t start that line of thinking. It will cause you all sorts of problems.

Out-of-focus backgrounds can have dark areas or light areas, bold color or no color, distracting shapes or simple tones, annoying lines or graphic elements that help your image. The way to see these things is to force yourself to look for them. Don’t take that background for granted. Often, a slight move up or down, left or right, will clean up the background and give you a better image.


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