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As you get physically closer and closer to your subject, you’ll find increasingly interesting possibilities for your images. The world looks different up close. You may find that your original subject is no longer the most compelling thing in front of your lens as you approach macro distances. Common subjects for close-up work are flowers and insects; they can be fun to photograph, and you can get outstanding images of them. But if you stay open to other close-up possibilities, you’ll discover a wealth of other subjects. In fact, just moving in close with your camera will help you see new worlds of compositions and subjects.
The details of nature offer a lot to you as a photographer that go beyond simple subject matter options:
1 You can shoot nature close-ups at almost any time, in any weather and in any place. That’s such a great benefit, giving you options for continuing to photograph when other subjects are less promising.
2 This type of photography will enhance the way you see light. Since close work has such a different scale, you can quickly move around a subject to find better light in ways that you can’t do with a larger subject.
3 Close-up detail work will train your eye for better compositions. The close shot can be your proving ground to experiment with composition, quickly trying different backgrounds, different proportions, going beyond the rule of thirds and more.
One thing I find helpful when doing close-up and macro work is to look for photographs and not subjects. With flowers and insects, I’m after a specific subject. With dew, leaf patterns or moss landscapes, for example, I look for interesting photos, not interesting subjects. That’s a subtle, but important change in how you think about taking pictures.
Look For Light And Its Effects
No matter the subject, the light always matters. The more you appreciate and develop your relationship to light, the better your photos will become. Up close, you really have the chance to work the light on a subject.
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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.
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.
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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You can use the depth-of-field preview on the camera to help you see the background if you know how to use it. For many photographers, this control makes the image too dark for them to really understand it. In that case, use your LCD playback. Look at the image, not just to see if you got the shot, but to see the background and how it affects your subject.
Sometimes you might even want to include specific out-of-focus details in the image area just for their shapes and their contribution to an interesting composition. These can be in the background or even in the foreground, if appropriate. Such details also can relate directly to the subject, such as showing objects that are important to the environment. Yet since they’re soft in detail and not sharp, they can be used to complement and not distract from your subject.
When you’re very close, depth of field is very narrow. A fractional change in distance will change what’s sharp or not sharp. Because of this, you must choose carefully what will be in critical sharp focus. If focus is too far in front of or behind that point, an otherwise attractive photo can be severely compromised.
This can be hard to deal with, especially if you’re shooting handheld or the wind is blowing your close scene around. Avoid pure autofocus, as too often this puts focus in the wrong place. You can use autofocus, but do it by locking it on something, then move the camera back and forth from the subject to gain critical focus. That also works with manual focus. If your camera continues to focus, whether with autofocus or your changing manual focus, you’ll find focus is harder to set because the size of the subject changes in your viewfinder at very close distances.
One trick you can use is to set your camera to continuous shooting, then hold down your shutter and trigger a series of photos as you move (or the subject moves) to gain focus. Almost always, at least one shot will be sharp in the right place, especially if you practice this a bit. And with digital, there’s no cost to taking these extra shots—just delete the poor-focus images later.