with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Closeup Photography Lighting

Regardless of your photographic interest, light is essential. Photography literally means painting or writing with light. With closeup photography, we are often working so close and under such dimly lit situations, the challenge is not only in getting our subject in focus with the appropriate depth of field but also being able to see what we are photographing as well as to record it on film. Let’s look at some of the different ways to light your subject.

Natural light

Natural light is the mostly unpredictable light that occurs outside. It can be both the easiest and the most difficult light to work with. Easy, free for the taking, and no expensive equipment required. No fussing with light stands and clamps, no cables, no power supplies. It can be the most difficult, because it seems that it is either not bright enough or is too harsh. In the winter, it only lasts about 8 or 9 hours as the sun stays mostly over the equator, and less hours farther north, sometimes lasting less than a couple of hours. It changes colors throughout the day, becoming golden just after rising and just before setting. As a photographer, you want predictable results. You want to know that whatever conditions occur, you can make excellent quality pictures. What can you do to get around less than perfect lighting?


Using a reflector, we were able to bounce natural light up underneath to illuminate the stem of this trio of mushrooms, photograph by Brent VanFossenReflectors come in various shapes, sizes and colors. Our favorites are the 20 to 22 inch gold and silver circular reflectors that are commercially available which fold up to one third their open size. They are lightweight, easy to carry, and when you need them, they snap open to full size. Use them to bounce light into the dark shadows created by the sun on bright days, or to even out the high contrast that our eyes can see but our film can’t handle.

Brent uses a gold reflector to bounce light onto a small subject.Simple reflectors can be made at home by stretching reflective fabric across an embroidery hoop, or by crinkling aluminum foil and gluing it partially spread onto a piece of cardboard. We found reflective automobile window shades that work fine. Even the palm of your hand or a white piece of paper can be used for small subjects. The reflector colors the light, so choose with care. Gold is perfect for adding a warm glow, but can easily overpower the subtle shades of some subjects.

Diffusion cloth

Brent uses a diffusion cloth to diffuse the light on a small subject.When you last had your portrait made, you might have noticed the strobes the photographer used were diffused with a white covering to soften the light and eliminate hard shadows. It’s like bringing a bright overcast day inside. We use the same technique with our closeups by employing a diffusion cloth, nothing more than a thin sheet of white fabric, like rip-stop nylon, which allows light to pass. Place the cloth between the sun and the subject, and you can immediately see the results. The closer to the subject, the brighter the light transmitted. Too far away, and you’re just casting a shadow. There are commercially made diffusers, which fold up like the reflectors above.

Diffusion light can cast a cool, white tone to your subject. By adding an 81B Warming Filter you can bring back some of the color to your image.


Casting shadow on your subject offers an alternative to the direct sun. Lit with the bright sunlight, you may find a lot of hot spots and dark shadows within your subject’s background or foreground. By shading your subject and its surroundings you eliminate these distractions to simplify your image. Shade tends to be blue in color which results in cool images. By adding an 81B Warming Filter to the front of your lens this blue color is neutralized and warmed slightly, creating a pleasant light. Shade’s blue light also dramatically enhances blue colored subjects like flowers.

Comparing Direct Light with Diffused and Shadow

The flowers are lost in the distractions caused by the direct sunlight casting shadows and bright highlights.

Using a diffusion cloth, the bright highlights and shadows are gone and a nice even soft white light highlights the flowers.

Casting a shadow over the subject completely blocks the sun allowing the blue light of the sky to be visible, enhancing the colors of the flowers while also eliminating all distracting elements.


Even working with direct sunlight you can create some powerful effects. Film manufacturers explain to you in their packaging to photograph your subject with the sun behind you, casting front light onto your subject. But there is another choice that is dramatic and exciting. Put the sun behind your subject, but out of your picture, and you can capture the excitement of backlighting.

The sun illuminates the edges around your subject creating rim light. If your subject happens to be transparent, the sun will shine through, allowing you to see the veins in the flower or legs of a grasshopper. Experiment with this effect, metering on the subject itself and not the light and play around with underexposing your subject to create silhouettes, too. Silhouettes work best with subjects that offer familiar outlines such as the human body, a flower, or leaf.

With front lighting, this flower’s underside is delicate and soft. With dramatic backlighting we now see the pedals glowing and the hairs on the stem are lit. This grasshopper shows off its translucent arms and legs and the soft hairs around its body in the backlighting.

Using Backlight to Illuminate Your Subject

With front lighting, this flower’s underside is delicate and soft, and you can see the details in the fine hairs on the stem.

With dramatic backlighting, the same flower is completely different as the light glows behind the flower, highlighting the fine hairs on the underside and clearly defines the veins in the petals.
Closeup of grasshopper by Brent VanFossen
The grasshopper shows off its translucent arms and legs an the soft hairs around its body in the backlighting.


Using flash is common with butterflies as they move quickly and are often found in dimly lit areas, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenOne of the most useful accessories is a good flash. To use a flash, simply attach it to your camera, set your shutter for any speed up to your camera’s maximum sync speed, and take the picture (See Appendix: Flashes and Sync Speeds). A TTL flash is highly recommended. TTL means that the flash is electrically connected to your camera’s meter, which measures the light coming Through-The-Lens, and sends a signal to turn off the flash when enough light has accumulated for a correct exposure. The flash can be mounted on the camera’s hot shoe or attached with a sync cord.

Exposure compensation works differently with TTL flash than with natural light. With natural light, we can add light or take it away by opening or closing our aperture or by slowing or increasing the shutter speed. With TTL flash, this doesn’t work as expected, because the flash simply puts out less or more light as necessary to give an exposure that the meter thinks is middle toned. So what can you do?

Using Flash to Stop Motion

Leaf with water droplets photographed in natural light blurred with movement of the wind, photograph by Brent VanFossen
This water covered leaf was not cooperating as the wind tossed it around. We used flash to stop the action and it also brought a sparkle to the water droplets.
Leaf photographed with flash to stop the movement and add a little sparkle to the water droplets, photograph by Brent VanFossen

You can trick your camera’s meter into over or under compensating by adjusting the exposure compensation control. This control is usually labeled with a plus or minus to let in more or less light and is calibrated in stops and fractions of stops. For light colored subjects, set the control in the plus direction; opposite for dark. Take the picture and the meter will relay the message to the flash. When done, RESET the compensation control so your next exposure will not be ruined.

Flash helps when working with moving subjects by allowing you to use faster shutter speeds. This works well not just with wildlife and insects, such as butterflies, but it also helps to defeat the motion of the wind on subjects like leaves and flowers.

Many times you are working so close to your subject that your lens gets in the way. If you get back pictures using your flash and you find a curved black shadow in the top section of your photograph, this is an example of your lens blocking part of your flash coverage. By using a flash extension cord, you can connect your flash to your camera’s hot shoe (flash connection on top of your camera) and hold the flash in your hand or placed on another tripod to direct the light onto your subject. Dependent upon the subject, try not to get too close as to overwhelm the subject with light, but keep an appropriate distance to illuminate the subject.

Fill flash

Flash units, one regular and a large flash with a diffusor on the end and flash and synch cords.One of the telltale signs of flash photography is a black background. Flash intensity falls off rapidly the farther the light must travel. In fact, for you science nuts, it decreases proportionally with the square of the distance traveled. This is called the inverse square relationship. If your background is twice as far from the flash as your subject, the light reaching the background will be four times less intense, or two stops darker, than the light reaching your subject. The farther the background is, the less it is affected by the flash, and the darker it appears in the photo.

Intensity at background = Intensity at subject X (Flash to subject distance)2
(Flash to background distance)2
Working in the Dark
There are times when you are so close to your subject in dimly lit situations you can’t even get enough light on the subject to focus. We often use flashlights or lamps when possible to illuminate the subject, turning them off before taking the picture. Some technically advanced flashes have a button to push which allows the flash to stay on for a few seconds, often giving you just enough light to focus on your subject.

If, however, you don’t want a dark background but still need flash, balance the natural light with the flash light and control the relative lighting levels very precisely. This is called balanced flash or fill flash, where the flash is used to fill in the shadows on your subject. Its use is not difficult.

Take a meter reading from the background and set the camera for a proper exposure (remember not to exceed the maximum flash sync speed). Now decide whether the background should be at normal brightness in the final photo, or perhaps a little darker to make the subject stand out. If you want the background at normal brightness, turn on your TTL flash and take the picture.

To make your background one stop darker than normal, manually change your aperture or shutter speed for one stop darker than you measured. This would create a one stop underexposure. Now, turn on your TTL flash, and take the picture. The difference is that your flash will put out enough light to give a proper exposure on your subject, regardless of aperture and shutter speed. But since the background is so much farther away, it is not much affected by the flash, and the natural light will only be bright enough for a one stop underexposure on the background.

You can make the flash intensity LESS than the natural light to simply fill in some of the shadows. Do this by manually setting a proper exposure, then setting your exposure compensation control for underexposure by the desired amount. If you don’t have an exposure compensation control, set your ISO control for a film speed the desired amount higher (this will cause the meter to think you need less light, underexposing the film). Turn on your TTL flash, and take the picture. The meter will control the flash output, and you have manually set the overall exposure. In each case, do not readjust your exposure without resetting the exposure compensator or the ISO to normal. And ALWAYS RESET them before moving to the next subject.

Is there an easier way? Nikon and Canon make both flashes which do these calculations for you. You just set the compensator on the flash and meter and expose like normal. The model numbers are Nikon SB26 and Canon 550EX. Discontinued models which do the same thing for Nikon are the SB24 and SB25.

This fiddlehead fern is illuminated with full direct flash. Notice the very black colored background characteristic of direct flash. Using fill flash, the camera balances the ambient natural light with the flash for a more “natural” appearance and background.

Fiddlehead of a fern photographed with natural light

Fiddlehead of a fern photographed with fill flash, which includes the ambient light in the background.

Multiple flashes

Why would you want to use more than one flash? Remember how bright sunlight casts very black shadows? A single flash does the same thing. By using two flashes, one brighter than the other by one to two stops, you can control the intensity of the shadows for a more natural look. The brighter light is the prime light source, and the second flash shines from a different direction to fill in the shadows.

The relative intensity of the two lights can be adjusted by positioning the prime flash closer to the subject than the secondary flash, and is discussed in some detail in the appendix titled: Inverse Square Law for Light. If the second flash is twice as far away as the prime flash, and both flashes are equal in power, the secondary flash will be four times, or two stops, less intense. Position it 1.4 times as far away for a one stop difference.

We’ve given you the basics of the equipment necessary for capturing close up photographs, let’s start working with subjects and putting this all into action.


  • Posted August 17, 2005 at 2:52 | Permalink

    you guys you didn’t explain the close up catergories like.if you want to shoot a close up with handheld what would you do

  • Posted August 17, 2005 at 7:22 | Permalink

    The question I have is if you are talking about shooting with a camera held in your hand (called hand held shooting) or photographing with a point-and-shoot camera like the non-adjustable focus cameras, or very small zoom cameras, or even modern digital hand held cameras like those found on cell phones. These are still all called point-and-shoot cameras, not hand held. So I’m answering this as if you are asking about holding a camera in your hands, since the rest of the cameras don’t do what we call “closeup photography” as much as they can photograph something “closer” but not at high magnification.

    So the answer to that is yes, we did answer that question, and the answer is NO. ;-)

    Even with flash, when you are working with a subject that fills your frame at 2 or more times lifesize, there is no way, no matter how “steady” you assume you are, you can hold the camera that still.

    Try it. Put on the highest magnification lens and filters and everything you have. Max it out. You can even do with with a point-and-shoot maxed out as the closest magnification zoom and placed as close to your subject as possible while still being in focus.

    Squat down (most small nature things are on the ground) to get as close as you can and look through the viewfinder. Is the subject filling the frame? In the viewfinder, is the subject moving at all? Is there just a little shake? If you are using a digital camera and NOT using the viewfinger but using the LCD screen, there should be even more shake.

    Putting your camera on a tripod stablizes the camera and takes away the normal shake of your body (we all all shake) so the picture can be sharp and totally in focus. The example of the different between the shake picture and the sharp is similar to the leaf photograph above, in which we used flash to stop the motion of the leaf with a little breeze.

    Extreme macro and closeup photography means you have a very small working space for focus. The “area” in your viewfinder might be a few inches or centimeters or less. The depth of field may only be millimeters.

    In our article as part of this series on Creative Closeups you can see examples of what we mean. There, the depth of field is no more than the thickness of a coin. In a series of three flowers, the entire picture changes by adjusting the focus within less than 1 centimeter range. There is no handholding with pictures like that.

    As for point-and-shoot style cameras, digital or film, you can get get “close” to your subject, but you can’t get “closeup” as that requires more specialized equipment. Experiment with that. Take the pictures hand held and then look at the digital images on the computer at full size or larger. They won’t be professional quality sharp. This online book and part of the workshops we teach on nature and travel photography are about going for serious quality in your closeup photography. It’s about really seeing the small things in life and exploring them with your camera.

    If you have a specific question about the camera you are trying to use to do closeup photography, or you can clarify the question, we’d be glad to help you understand this more. The magic of the small world is truly amazing when explored through your camera.

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