Close-up Photography

Nigel’s October 2021 online photography talk

In October’s online talk, Nigel covers many of the basic principles of close-up photography, explained in clear and unambiguous terms. Often also called macro photography, the subject covers the photography of both very close details and/or patterns in a host of subjects, and the photography of very small subjects. It is particularly widely used in wildlife photography, to enable the shooting of small animals and plants, such as butterflies, damselflies and many of the smaller wild flowers.

A recording of that talk is now available on You Tube, and can also be watched here. Just click on the start button below. We hope you’ll enjoy it.

The subject matter of close-up photography

The talk begins with a short introduction to the kinds of subject matter commonly shot in close-up photography. These range from detailed patterns in quite large subjects, down to small household objects, and all the way down to the tiniest animals and plants. Close-up photography techniques are commonly used to photograph butterflies, damselflies and other insects, as well as many flowers.

Some techniques and equipment explained: static subjects

The talk goes on to cover a range of basic techniques used in close-up photography, starting with the photography of static subjects.

Static objects such as flowers are usually shot with the camera on a tripod. With the camera inevitably close to the subject, focussing is critical, so a useful aid is a focussing rail. This is a track that fits between the tripod head and camera base that allows the camera to be slid forward and back over very small distances. It is a simple yet very useful little device.

Then there are the lenses. The fundamental problem for close-up photography is that you need to come really very close to your subject in order to get the necessary magnification. Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible using standard telephoto lenses as their minimum focussing distance – the shortest distance from lens to subject that they’re able to focus at – is too long. You need to be able to focus at a much shorter distance.

This problem can usually be overcome in one of two ways:

  • Use of a dedicated macro lens. This is a telephoto lens specifically designed to focus at very short distances. They are generally available with focal lengths ranging from 60 to about 180mm. The lens can also be used for standard photography, and its autofocus works throughout its focussing range, right down to the closest distance and smallest subject. This is the more expensive and bulkier, but more versatile option;
  • Use of an extension tube coupled with a standard telephoto lens. This is quite simply a tube containing no glass, but with all the necessary electrical contacts, that fits between the camera body and a telephoto lens. The effect is to allow the lens to focus much closer to a subject, providing it with an effective close-up facility. This is a small, cheap and highly convenient piece of close-up kit, but it does have limitations. A lens cannot be used for standard photography while it is coupled to an extension tube, and the autofocus usually does not work reliably. Focussing is usually achieved, if using a fixed focal length lens (a prime lens) through a combination of moving the camera (eg on the focussing rail) and by hand turning the focussing ring. If you’re using a zoom lens, the most convenient way to focus is to turn the zoom ring, though this will also change the magnification.
Close-up photography

Photography of moving subjects

When photographing moving subjects, such as insects, amphibians and small reptiles, the photographer needs to be mobile, so the tripod and focussing rail necessarily have to be dispensed with. This is almost entirely the realm of hand-held photography.

The same focussing limitations apply, so in this technique we’re still using macro lenses or extension tubes coupled with a normal telephoto lens (zoom or prime). In addition, it is also useful (though not always necessary) to have a flashgun attached to the camera. There are a number of points to bear in mind when using a flash for close-up photography:

  • The flash is usually fired in such a way that it balances with the ambient light, removing any shadows lying across the subject and providing even illumination. Only occasionally is it used as the dominant light – in poor natural light conditions or at night, of course. On those occasions, although the subject will be well-lit, the background will come out very dark or completely black;
  • Another reason to use a flash is to help reduce the risk of camera shake, and hence blur to the images. Inevitably, using a telephoto or macro lens and coming in so close to a subject the risk of camera shake being visible in the images is quite significant. Removing that risk ordinarily means using quite a fast shutter speed, but this would then make it difficult to maximise depth of field through use of a narrow lens aperture. The very short duration of a flashgun’s flash (about 1/1000 second) helps to mask any camera shake, thus making it possible to use a significantly slower shutter speed;
  • Rarely fire the flash directly at the subject, but instead either bounce it off a reflector or fire it through a diffuser. This will help to reduce, or completely overcome, the risk of hard flash-induced shadows around the subject. The only occasion when you might fire the flash directly is when shooting in very bright sunlight and the flash is struggling to generate enough power to balance with that sunlight;
  • The flash needs to be mounted either some way above the camera or off to one side, or perhaps with a special mount near the end of the lens. Shooting in one of these ways will ensure that the flash does not put a shadow of the lens across the subject – remember that your subject is very close to the lens, and so a lens shadow could easily reach it if the flash is in the wrong position. Do not be tempted to use the pop-up flash found on top of many cameras: this does not give you enough control of the light, it only fires directly at the subject, and because it is so close to the camera body it will fire its light along the lens, generating a long lens shadow that may very well reach the subject;
  • Because the flash and camera are so close to the subject (less than half a metre usually), a flash firing at full power will almost certainly overwhelm the subjec with too much light. It is important, therefore, that any flashgun you use has a dial-down facility, enabling you to greatly reduce its output.

Apart from these flashgun rules, techniques are similar across both static and mobile close-up photography, and are described below.

Close-up photography

General techniques

Close-up photography, whether tripod-mounted or hand-held is best done in soft or even quite flat light. It is tempting to do it in bright sunlight simply to have higher light levels, but then there is the risk of bright highlights and/or shadows being thrown across your subject. With the subject being so small even what appears to be a small shadow or highlight area can have a dramatic negative impact on the final images. That said, if photographing animals and so shooting hand-held with a flashgun attached, sunlight can be very effective, as long as the flashgun has enough power to provide lighting that balances with it.

Naturally, if photographing plants you also need to have windless conditions as any movement will result in blurred images, especially if slow shutter speeds are being used (as is usual, especially in soft lighting conditions).

Remember also that the closer you come to any subject the smaller is the lens’s depth of field (ie the amount of a view that can be sharp). By the time you come down to close-up photography, in which the lens is usually a lot less than a metre from the subject, depth of field is generally only 1 cm at best. To maximise depth of field it is usually necessary to use a very narrow lens aperture – such as f/16 or 22 – something that will further lengthen exposure times and so increase the need for windless conditions.

Of course, it is also possible to improve the situation by increasing the camera’s ISO – the sensitivity of its sensor – thus reducing the amount of light that the sensor needs to be correctly exposed. The problem here is that as ISO increases so image quality declines, so there is a delicate balance to struggle with. There are occasions when the only way to get a useable image is to put the ISO up, but I would always do so only very carefully and to the absolute minimum needed.

I firmly recommend that, as far as possible, you always shoot using the camera’s lowest ISO setting, increasing it only when absolutely necessary.

Finally, a word on composition. Since depth of field is so small, it can be quite a challenge to get the whole of your subject in focus. For some flowers this is not always such a bad thing as having a small part of the flower a little blurred can help to direct attention to one particular part. However, that still leaves the challenge of ensuring that the right part of the flower is sharp!

Things are a little tricker when it comes to photography of insects, such as butterflies. It is quite common to see images in which one end of the insect is sharp and the other end blurred, a result that is rather off-putting and not very satisfying. This problem is the result of the insect being at an angle to the lens: the head is a few millimetres closer to the lens than the rear end of the wings, for example, enough to throw one or the other out of focus.

Ensuring maximum depth of field by using a very narrow lens aperture can help to overcome this, though even this may not be reliable. The most effective solution is to have the insect’s body at exactly right-angles to the axis of the lens, ensuring that all parts of the body are roughly the same distance away. This of course requires that you get yourself and camera in the right position – the insect certainly isn’t going to do it for you – something that can be quite tricky, especially as any movement you make when close to your subject risks frightening it away.

Close-up photography

A final word

There is no doubt that close-up photography can be quite a challenge. The difficulties created by short focussing distances, minimal depth of field, awkward lighting, wind, and rapidly moving (and easily spooked) subjects all work to make things very difficult.

However, once you have a few pieces of critical kit together and then make the time to practise, practise, practise the techniques and hence success will slowly come together.

Ge stuck in and enjoy it!

Close-up photography

Future talks

The next two talks are on 17th November and 11th December, when I’ll be talking about winter photographer and my in-computer workflow. Click on the link below to register – it’s free!

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Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.