Close-up photography lets you explore a whole new world of outdoor photo possibilities. You can fill the frame with tiny subjects or colorfully abstract small portions of larger subjects. While there are several definitions of close-up photography, we'll go with the simplest one here: photographing subjects at closer range than the minimum focusing distances of standard lenses allow. Today, camera equipment manufacturers offer lots of ways to "get close."
Probably the simplest way to focus closer is by a using a close-up lens. Close-up lenses look like colorless filters and screw into the front threads of the camera lens just like filters.
A close-up lens' strength designation indicates the distance at which the camera lens will be focused, in fractions of a meter, when the camera lens is focused at infinity: a +1 close-up lens will focus the camera lens at one meter; a +2 close-up lens at a half-meter; a +3 close-up lens at a one-third meter and so on. The closer you can focus with a given camera lens, the bigger your subject will be on film or the image sensor; so the higher the designation number of the close-up lens, the greater the magnification.
• Relatively inexpensive
• No light loss
• Takes up little space in a camera bag
• Cheap close-up lenses cause a loss of image sharpness
• You can't focus at infinity with a close-up lens attached
• You need a set of close-up lenses for each different-diameter camera lens (or buy a set of close-up lenses to fit the largest-diameter lens and use step-down rings)
• Like filters, close-up lenses can cause vignetting with wide-angle lenses
The best close-up lenses are the two-element apochromatic lenses, available from Canon, Century Optics, Hoya and Nikon. Attach one of these to a quality camera lens, and you can get superior image quality.
Extension tubes are hollow spacers that mount between the camera body and lens, extending the distance from lens to film or sensor, causing the lens to focus much closer than normal. Many pro bird photographers use an extension tube with their super-telephoto lenses to get frame-filling shots of the smaller chirpies. The longer the extension tube(s), the closer the attached camera lens can focus.
• No reduction in image sharpness (although some camera lenses don't perform as well as others at very close focusing distances)
• Very rugged
• Can be used with virtually all your lenses
• Reduces the amount of light transmitted to the film or image sensor
• You can't focus out to infinity when using an extension tube.
Close-Focusing "Macro" Zooms
Many zoom lenses are touted as being "macro," but usually that just means they will focus closer than non-"macro" zooms, not that they're optimized for close-ups. This makes them very convenient to use.
• Closer focusing capability than standard zoom lenses
• A variety of focal lengths in a single unit
• Less magnification than true macro lenses
• Not as sharp as true macro lenses at close focusing distances
• Most focus close only at a certain focal length
True Macro Lenses
True macro lenses mount directly on the camera and operate like regular lenses, but have an extended focusing range—most focus close enough to produce a life-size image of a subject on the film or image sensor, as well as out to infinity whenever you wish. That's a big advantage when you're shooting both close-ups and landscapes at a location.
Macro lenses come in normal (50-60mm), short-telephoto (90-105mm) and telephoto (150-200mm) focal lengths to suit your needs for control over composition and shooting distance. A 200mm macro lens produces its 1:1 reproduction ratio from much farther away than a 50mm macro lens, handy when the subject is a skittish insect. The greater shooting distance provided by a longer macro lens also gives you more room to position flash units and reflectors, and can keep you from inadvertently casting a shadow on the subject when working with natural light. And camera-to-subject distance affects perspective: Shooting a 1:1 image of a subject with a 200mm macro lens flattens the perspective and includes much less of the background, compared to the expanded perspective and greater amount of background you get by shooting from the much closer distance required to produce a 1:1 image of the subject with a 50mm macro lens.
There are at least two macro zooms that truly are macro: the Canon manual-focus MP-E 65mm ƒ/2.8 1-5X Macro Photo and the Tamron AF70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 LD macro zoom.
• True life-size image magnification
• Continuous focusing from 1:1 to infinity
• Operates just like a regular lens
• High sharpness at all ƒ-stops
• Often larger than non-macro lenses of equivalent focal length
• A bit slower than non-macro lenses of equivalent focal length
• More expensive than non-macro lenses of equal focal length
Also known as tele-extenders, teleconverters fit between the camera body and the lens like extension tubes, but they contain glass elements. Teleconverters increase the focal length of a lens: for example, a 1.4x converter by 1.4x (a 100mm lens becomes a 140mm); a 2x converter by 2x (a 100mm lens becomes a 200mm). Their close-up value lies in the fact that the lens' minimum focusing distance doesn't change when a converter is used, so a 300mm telephoto that focuses down to five feet becomes a 600mm telephoto that focuses down to five feet.
• Super-telephoto focal lengths at a fraction of the cost
• Retains the lens' minimum focusing distance
• A significant reduction in light (one stop for a 1.4x converter, two stops for a 2x converter; e.g., a 1.4x converter turns a 300mm ƒ/4 lens into a 420mm ƒ/5.6)
• Slight loss in image quality (using a quality converter designed for the specific lens you're using minimizes the loss)
Non-SLR Digital Cameras
Nearly all compact digital cameras have macro modes that allow them to focus extremely close—some to within less than an inch of the lens. This ability, combined with live-view LCD monitors that show you just what the lens "sees," makes these cameras terrific close-up tools. Check the specs: Some cameras provide the close shooting distance only at their widest focal length.
Many advanced compact digital cameras not only focus extremely close, but provide advanced features such as LCD monitors that tilt and rotate for easy odd-angle shooting, and the ability to focus manually and add accessory lenses (including achromatic close-up lenses) to the built-in zoom lens.
• Extreme close-up capability
• Easy operation
• Compact size
• Higher ISO settings result in lower image quality than D-SLRs
• Lower-priced models have fewer manual control options
• Noninterchangeable lenses
Close-up devices magnify blur caused by camera or subject movement. One thing you can do to help is shoot at higher ISOs and faster shutter speeds to minimize handheld camera shake. This may mean shooting at wide apertures, which reduces depth of field. Keep in mind that it's better to have a close-up shot with one point really sharp than a close-up shot with nothing quite sharp. And selective focus—carefully focusing so a specific portion of a close-up is sharp and everything else completely out of focus from a wide aperture‚Äîis a great creative technique.
For optimum sharpness in close-up work, focus manually. That way you can be sure focus is exactly where you want it. Many close-up shooters find it easier to move the camera slowly toward the subject until it comes into focus, rather than rotating the focusing ring. For fine focusing at high magnifications, a focusing rail can be helpful, as it allows you to move the camera in very small, controlled increments.
Image stabilizers in lenses and camera bodies are a big help for close-up work, too, but not all cameras/lenses provide them.
A tripod can provide the steadiest support. You might find it useful to determine the ideal camera position by handholding the camera, then bring in the tripod and fix the camera in that position. The main things to look for in a tripod for close-up work are sturdiness and ease of putting the camera where you want it. These are best checked in person at your local camera store. Some tripods have reversing center columns, so you can position the attached camera very low. Tripods with legs that can be spread wide let you position the camera lower than tripods whose legs lock at 30 degrees or so.
Some tripods, such as the Benbo Trekker models, Giottos MT-8180 and Gitzo Explorer with any-position legs and tilting center column, offer unique designs that make it easy to mount the camera just about anywhere. Mini-tripods make it easy to position the camera for low-level shots, and they'll fit into tighter spaces than full-sized tripods.
If you do a lot of low-level work, you might want to get a right-angle attachment for your camera's viewfinder. The rotating/tilting LCD monitors on some consumer digital cameras and the tilting live monitor on the Olympus EVOLT E-330 D-SLR make low-level shooting much easier. When using a live-monitor digital camera, zoom in on the monitor image for easier focusing.
When you have to travel light, a beanbag is a good choice. Position the beanbag wherever you want the camera, then nest the camera on it. The Pod is a readymade, beanbag-type camera support that comes with a 1/4-20 screw to securely attach the camera.
Close-Up Lighting Gear
Electronic flash is an excellent light source for close-up work. Used at close range, its duration is brief (often 1/10,000 sec. or shorter), minimizing the effects of camera and subject movement, while its intensity allows you to stop down the lens to maximize depth of field (which is extremely limited at very close shooting distances).
Many of today's SLR cameras permit TTL off-camera flash operation. Some systems require flash extension cords, while others do it wirelessly.
Moving your flash unit off-camera lets you produce more interesting lighting. And the ability to fire more than one flash unit in sync provides even more flexibility; you can have a main light and a fill light, or a main light and a rim light, etc.
Ring lights, with a circular flash tube that surrounds the lens, produce even, flat lighting that's good for showing subject detail because nothing gets hidden by shadows. There are also macro flash units that consist of two or three individual straight flash tubes that can be positioned around the lens. These provide much more versatility than ring lights, as you can set each unit at a different power to produce effective lighting ratios.
Macro flash brackets allow you to mount one or more flash units on-camera but away from the lens, thus solving the problem of positioning off-camera flash units in the field. If you don't use a flash bracket, you can hold a flash unit at arm's length with one hand, or use light stands or clamps to hold your off-camera flash unit.
Working With The Sun
The sun can be a good light source for close-ups, too. You can't move it, often it's too harsh and sometimes it's not available, but it's free, bright and daylight-balanced.
Early and late in the day, the sun comes from a low angle and passes through more atmosphere, so it provides attractive directional lighting and isn't as harsh as during midday. You can even use the low-angle sun as a background for a tiny flower or insect‚Äîwhen you focus at macro distances, the out-of-focus background sun becomes huge in the frame.
You can soften midday sun by positioning a diffuser between the sun and your subject, or you can direct sunlight onto your subject with a reflector. Light tents and diffusion boxes, which surround the subject with diffusion material, produce attractive soft light for flower photos and eliminate glare hotspots.
Other Useful Macro Stuff
"Gobo" is a film-industry term for a black panel used to block light off a portion of a subject or scene. Gobos can be used to block both unwanted light and wind. They're available commercially, or you can use a sheet of black cardboard.
While you generally photograph outdoor subjects as you find them, there are several useful subject clamps. They attach to a tripod leg or other handy support, and include a flexible arm that can be positioned as needed. A clip positioned at the end safely holds a subject in a specific position or keeps it from moving in the wind, holds extraneous foliage out of the way and holds reflectors or gobos.