This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

By Nature’s Design

Discovering details and patterns through close-up images

Cross section, nautilus shell
To highlight the shell’s color and shape, I used an off-camera flash to light this shell—two pops from behind the shell and one obliquely across the front edges.

I love to photograph the patterns of nature. Even when amid the grand landscapes of nearby Yosemite, I often turn my eyes and my camera toward intimate details near at hand.

I bought my first camera in 1974, which thankfully came with a set of extension tubes and a 50mm lens. I was fascinated with the details of nature, and focused more on graphic close-ups rather than the scenic landscape. I also used my 4×5 film camera to isolate nature’s details. The ability to tilt and shift the lens is a great advantage in controlling the depth of focus to create sharpness throughout the frame. With the view camera bellows extended to its maximum length, I could focus very closely, but not quite at “macro” lens magnification.

Corn lilies, Summit Meadow, Yosemite National Park, CA
During early summer in Yosemite’s high-country meadows, the corn lily plants push up through cold ground and the remaining snow to announce the season. They often grow in dense groupings of plants. I arrived there to find this patch at the optimum timing, when the leaves are just beginning to unfold, but before they grow too high to photograph from straight above. I carefully set up my tripod and aimed my 4×5 camera straight down to frame just this pattern of unfolding leaves. The great amount of depth of field needed required that I use ƒ/45 or ƒ/64.

My enthusiasm for macro is still alive and well with my digital cameras. As in those early days, my tools are simple. I use a 50mm macro or a 90mm tilt-shift lens, which offers similar depth-of-field control as my view camera did. One of the key skills any macro photographer needs to learn is how to manage depth of field. These two lenses, plus tubes, offer me flexible options for a range of creative depth of field. Using a wide aperture and high magnification can give a beautiful soft-focus effect, especially by simplifying the background. Most often in my close-up photographs, I’ll want total sharpness to reveal the full depth of detail in the subject, such as with an array of tree branches or ice crystal designs on the edge of a pond. The design becomes stronger when all is sharp with no out-of-focus area.

Raindrops on bracken fern, Foresta, Yosemite National Park, CA, 1980
After a rainy night, I took an early-morning walk in the forest. A beam of light backlit the fronds, while the background area was still in deep shadow. The bright sunlight silhouetted the waterdrops, stems and veins in the plant, etching a strong graphic pattern for this image.


Key Tips For Close-Up Compositions
• Use a tripod with no center column for lower camera placement.
• Align your film or sensor plane as parallel to the subject’s plane as possible when maximum sharpness is desired.
• Eliminate distracting foreground and background elements.
• Bracket apertures to experiment with the balance of sharp and soft focus.
• Fill the frame with strong graphic shapes.

Besides the obvious need for great light and composition, camera position is especially important with macro imagery. The angle at which one is photographing a subject can determine the degree of sharpness. For example, if you’re aiming obliquely at an interesting ice pattern from eye level, even a small aperture may not pull the whole pattern into sharpness if the focus range is beyond the focal length/aperture combination. The more parallel the camera back is to the main plane of the subject, the better.

Painted bark eucalyptus, along the Hana Coast, Island of Maui, HI, 1994
The vertical panoramic format of this image helps convey the tall and narrow trunk of this eucalyptus tree, and emphasizes the bark’s fascinating patterns and colors. The day was sunny, but I searched for my composition on the shaded sides of the grove of trees, which gives the resulting image rich detail and saturated color. The rising front standard of my view camera allowed me to control perspective as I focused on a part of the tree high above my head.

When using the wide-aperture, soft-focus effect, your camera angle is just as important. Besides focusing on the main object, such as a flower, it’s vital to look for potential distractions around it. Bright areas in front of or behind the flower can draw the viewer’s eye away from what you’re trying to show them. Whether handholding my camera or using a tripod, I maneuver around the object while watching carefully to see how the graphic elements fill the frame.

Plum blossoms, Ahwahnee, CA, 2013
This plum tree grows in front of my living room windows. When it begins to bloom, I watch it daily, especially when the sun begins to set behind a nearby ridge. In this image, the sun is partially blocked by trees and thrown out of focus by using the lens’ widest aperture. This creates the soft effect of a shallow depth of field and the circular spectral highlight of the out-of-focus sun.


Sweet gum leaf detail
I found this leaf in my neighborhood and brought it home to photograph. In order to reach this magnification, I added two extension tubes to my macro lens. I also wanted to use strong backlight, so I used a McClamp ( to hold the leaf where the late-afternoon sun would light up the patterns of veins. Working in the controlled conditions of my studio, I lined up my camera’s sensor to be parallel to the plane of the leaf.

With either the soft or sharp approach mentioned, your choice of aperture is critical. It’s often the case that no single ƒ-stop is perfect, and you must balance the need for sharpness of the main subject against the need for a soft, out-of-focus background. Because of this, I almost always “bracket” my captures with a range of aperture settings. Had I wanted more sharpness in the flower, I would have tried exposures at smaller openings. By bracketing while in the field, I can later find the optimum balance of focus while editing through the variations. I’m able to see the subtle variations much more easily on my computer monitor.

Salsify Seeds II
These seeds are a favorite macro subject that I can find around my home. For this image, I waited until sunset for the soft and warm light in the background. I adjusted my focus to emphasize the seeds’ centers and the lines of the top seed heads.


Tilt and shift adjustments allow me to photograph from lower angles across a subject such as these stones. The more oblique angles often help me capture the best perspectives for highlights and reflections in subjects such as the patterns in water ripples or ice.

Whether you use a macro lens, extension tubes or simply zoom in tightly on nature’s details with your regular lenses, learning the basics of close-up photography can add depth to your portfolio, as well as offer new excitement for the wondrous details of nature all around us!

By Nature’s Design
My pattern images were used to illustrate By Nature’s Design, a book in which I collaborated with the Exploratorium Museum of San Francisco. Underlying the many modifications and adaptations of patterns that occur in nature is a hidden unity. Nature invariably seeks to accomplish the most with the least—the tightest fit, the shortest path, the least energy expended. If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind nature’s form and function, the book is still available on

To learn about his one-on-one Yosemite workshops, ebooks, iPad app, and to see his latest images, visit William Neill‘s website and photoblog at

Want to learn more about macro photography? See our feature article, Macro Vision: When, Where And How To Shoot Macro Photography.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.