with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Closeup Photography – Working with Subjects

The challenges facing a photographer working on closeups are numerous. Most specifically they include light, moving subjects, difficult positions and angles, camera shake, depth of field issues, and working distances.


Brent holds the off-camera flash to direct the flash onto his small subject, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenAs a macro subject is typically close to the ground and often in forests or generally low light situations, the photographer has to deal with two issues: getting light to the subject and getting enough light to focus. Focusing in low light is extremely challenging. Sometimes you just can’t see to focus. Bringing a flashlight, headlamp or some source of light to assist in focusing in extremely low light situations can help. Just remember to turn off the lamp before taking the picture. These light sources can create some interesting colorations on your film.

Small butterfly on a leaf, photograph by Brent VanFossen
Photographing this small butterfly involved using a 200mm lens with two extension tubes and a 1.4x teleconverter. It was too dark for natural light so he used an extension cord with a flash to direct the light onto the butterfly.

Be willing to take your flash off your camera and attach a flash extension cord. When we stack on everything we have, teleconverters, multiple extension tubes, and more, we need to get past all of the lens to illuminate our subject. An off-camera flash extension cord or sync cord makes this easy.

Getting enough light to the subject to photograph is a challenge of compromises. Should you use a flash or fill flash and risk making the end result appear artificial? Or should you use natural light and suffer through long exposures? Would a reflector help or is it bright enough you need to diffuse the light? Or what if the subject is moving? Then do you wait for the breeze to die down long enough for the long exposure or get the flash out and give it a try? Depending upon the subject, all of the above are the correct answers.

Moving subjects

Butterfly, photograph by Brent VanFossenStudying the behaviors and life of your subject is important in predicting movement, planning your photograph and working with various lighting situations. For example, butterflies are exceptionally heat sensitive. They cannot fly when their wings are damp, and require the ambient temperature to rise above about 56F (13C) degrees before they can fly. Working in the early mornings before the sun warms the plants and butterflies allows you to work with normally moving subjects sitting still. Coated with jewel-like dew drops, they can even look lovelier.

Working with moving subjects requires a knowledge of their natural history but it also requires some planning and patience. You can anticipate their course or movement by studying their behavior, but then they don’t always cooperate. Flash will help speed up the shutter speed and can help you work at a fast enough speed to not require the tripod, freeing your movement.
Some animals require sun, while others require shade, moisture, etc. Removing a frog or tide pool creature from its natural habitat and placing it, even a few centimeters away may subject the animal to extreme dryness and temperature change. Make sure they stay wet and return them to exactly where you found them. Tide pool creatures rarely move more than a few inches in their lifetime and just tossing them back in may place them either in harm’s way or away from their food source.

Close up of the face of a daddy long legs spider, Photograph by Brent VanFossenWorking with a fairly cooperative Daddly Long Legs Spider in the wild, Brent found him waiting patiently hanging upside down on a mossy piece of wood. He set up his camera and turned the piece of wood over slowly and prepared to take a picture. The spider climbed away and went back under the piece of wood and stayed there. Brent turned it over again and the spider again returned to his spot hanging upside down. So Brent photographed the spider hanging upaide down and we just turned the picture upside down so it would look like the spider was upright. This is part of the magic of photography. And, when you are working with moving subjects, work with their movement not against.

Read everything you can and then just sit and observe. If you see that the animal, prefers to hang upside down, then photograph it upside down. You can always flip the slide over later. By learning and paying attention to the details, we can work with our subject to improve the quality of our images.

Studio work

Working with a small home made aquarium for photographing small shrimp, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenWorking in a controlled situation, such as indoors, opens up a wide variety of possibilities. You can control the wind, lighting, background and foreground. Everything seems to be in your favor, though you are missing the magic of natural light. But if you were going to use a flash anyway, there isn’t much lost. Working in the studio is like building a house of legos – you can arrange and rearrange it however you see fit – you’re in charge.

Animal Ethics
As is highly recommended whether photographing trees and flowers or deer and birds, please keep in mind the safety of the plant or animal. Fragile wildflowers in the high alpine meadows, once trampled, are destroyed. An animal who is frightened and bolts may attract the unwanted attention of a predator or injure itself in escaping your unwanted attention. Please take care to protect the lives of all natural things. Remember we are guests in their home.

Interesting artificial backgrounds can be made from purchased fabric, spray painted plywood boards, or through the use of mosses, leaves and plants. Or maybe even use some driftwood or tree bark. The choices are infinite. Books on portrait photography offer extensive information on how to light people as well as other subjects and, if studio nature photography interests you, we highly recommend investing in sophisticated studio lighting including soft boxes and light bouncers.

Aquariums are great ways of working with a controlled situation indoors. They can be very inexpensive or not. If your locality has a public aquarium, you cost is limited to the price of admission. The challenge comes with working with the moving fish and bouncing flash off the glass (not desirable) and deep enough into the water to illuminate your subject. We highly recommend taking the flash off the camera and aiming it at a 45 degree angle to the glass to prevent glare. If the aquarium is in your house, you may want to buy pieces of glass and “trap’ your subject close to the front of the aquarium while you are working with it.

Using a painted plywood board behind our minature aqaurium, we were able to control the conditions for photographing small freshwater shrimp.

Shrimp front lit with flash, photograph by Brent VanFossen
Using front light with a flash, we see the shrimp as they typically appear.
Shrimp back lit with flash, photograph by Brent VanFossen
Using backlight created with flash, we capture the same shrimp and they look completely different, their translucent bodies glowing as they move in the water.

Studio/Field Tips and Tricks

Our passion for nature photography and closeup photography seems to know no limits. As we explore the natural world, we face a wide range of challenges and seem to come up with a surprising list of ways to overcome those challenges. We’d like to share some of those tips and tricks with you here.

Protect Yourself

Out in the field you will often find us crawling around on our hands and knees or spread out on our stomachs. We will lay on our backs and photograph under subjects and twist our bodies around into all kinds of positions to get the image we want. Based upon our field experiences, we have a few tips for you.

Insect Proof Yourself
There are a variety of mosquito and tick repellents available from chemical lotions to electronic devices. Whichever you prefer, use it. And plenty of it. Reapply the lotion per instructions during the day as perspiration wears it down. If you carry electronic devices, make sure you have extra batteries and you check it from time to time to make sure it is working. A mosquito bite isn’t usually deadly, but it is annoying and distracting. A tick bite can bring all sorts of infections, some lasting years if not a lifetime. Some spider bites can also result in serious injury, so take care at all times. And watch for snakes and other deadly creatures as you crawl around on the ground.Crawling around on barnacles and clams along the seashore is very painful. Brent uses kneepads for protection. Photography by Lorelle VanFossen
Pad Yourself
We carry several different kinds of pads and protection for crawling around on the ground. The simplest is a large plastic garbage bag to keep the moisture and ground liter off of us. We also carry kneeling pads found at many hardware and gardening stores which consist of a foam pad in a rectangle, large enough for your behind or knees. Camping stores carry inexpensive camping pads for putting under your sleeping bags. These are excellent whole to lay down on or cut up into smaller sizes for sitting or kneeling. We also have knee pads similar to those used by skateboarders with tough plastic knee protection for crawling over tide pool areas sharp with barnacles. Padded gloves help to protect the hands when climbing over rocks and barnacles, too.
Sun Protection
Don’t forget that you can get a sunburn even when it is cloudy, so protect yourself thoroughly with sun lotion, especially the backs of your arms and legs as well as the back of your neck and ears. If you host a bald spot, cover that with a hat and/or sun lotion, too. A hat is good protection from the sun, and it will help block the sunlight coming in through the back of your viewfinder which may influence your meter. If you are sun sensitive, wear long pants and long shirt sleeves to really help protect yourself. And always carry extra water!

Water drops

Water drops on grasses, photography by Brent VanFossenA water drop becomes nature’s lens as it captures the world behind it and compresses it into the circle of the drop. Working with water droplets in the field are wonderful as they can be found as condensation on spider webs or collections on leaves and flowers after the rain.

Condensation is best found early in the morning as it forms from the cooler air meeting the warmer land. And just after a rainfall is prime time for water drops on everything. As soon as the sun arrives, the warmer air stirs up the wind and begins to dry up the water, so work quickly, but take care to not bump your subject and knock the droplets off.

Water drops on a flower stem highlight the flower in the droplet, photograph by Brent VanFossenAs with any closeup subject, keep the back of the camera parallel to the subject and use the maximum depth of field to capture the full depth of the water droplet on the subject. A flash can add sparkle to the water droplets when used as direct or fill flash. Some subjects, like spider webs covered with water droplets, totally lose their background to the flash fall-off, become black behind the sparkly beads of water. Whether you use natural light or flash, both create different images so the choice is up to you.

Studio setup for photographing the water drops and flower, photograph by Brent VanFossenYou can also easily create your own water drop projects in your living room studio. It makes it easy to experiment with the natural lens technique, trying a wide range of subjects to place within the water drop. We played around with a flower in some water drops placed on the stem of a similar flower. We set the brightly colored flower behind the water covered step and set up our reflector to cast some soft golden light onto the subject coming in from the window. We moved the flower backwards and forwards until we got the effect we wanted which was the flower in the water drops and the flower behind it just enough out of focus to be visible but still blurred.

Brent decided to try other techniques and sprayed the screen door with water, creating a variety of water drop shapes within the small squares of the screen. Putting the same flower behind the screen, he moved the flower around and experimented with natural light and flash to light the screen. The natural light allowed the screen to fall off into almost silhouette, highlighting the water drops filled with flowers in every one, which is our favorite. You judge for yourself and experiment right in your own living room. All it takes is a flower (or other subject), light, and time.

Water droplets on window screen photographed in natural light.
Water droplets sprayed onto a window screen with a flower behind it, photographed using natural light.
Water droplets on window screen photographed using flash.
Water droplets on window screen photographed using fill flash to put a bit of sparkle in the water drops.

Spider Webs

Spider on web in sunset light, photograph by Brent VanFossenOne of the most fragile things found in nature, spider webs come in all shapes and sizes created by a wide range of the multi-legged creatures. Early in the morning you may find the webs covered with sparkling dew drops. Work quickly but carefully to photograph the webs as once the sun comes up, the air currents will shake and dry the condensation.

If possible, use a long lens to get photographically close to your subject, keeping a good-sized working distance between you and your subject. The webs are so delicate that the heat from your body can cause slight wind currents which can vibrate or shake the web, and also scare away the spider if that is your main subject.

As the sun comes up over the horizon and catches the web, you can use the shallow depth of field to blur parts of the web or condensation drops which can create rainbow effects in your photograph. A depth of field preview helps you determine the best aperture and depth of field for working with the spider webs, too.

Dew on Sheet Web photographed in the bushes, photograph by Brent VanFossen
Sheet spider web in scrub bushes.
Dew on sheet web photographed with natural light, photograph by Brent VanFossen
Dew covered sheet web photographed using natural light.
Dew on sheet web photographed with flash, photograph by Brent VanFossen
Dew covered sheet web photographed with flash.


Pine cones, photograph by Brent VanFossenTrees are subjects we never tire of. Their bark is a haven for all kinds of fun creatures to investigate. The bark itself makes for a collage of patterns and textures. The branches and leaves and cones offer a wide range of patterns, shapes, and textures, too.

Take care when working with tree bark to keep the subject as parallel to the camera back as possible to maximize your depth of field. As trees are curved in nature, this can offer some challenges. A reflector can add light to your entire image or bounce light in from the side to add more to the shadows on the reverse side for depth, or to illuminate into the shadows of the textured bark. Experiment with light from a reflector in gold and silver to see which works best. Gold tends to be best with warmer colored bark while the silver or white reflector does well with gray colored bark.

The heat of the day usually sends creatures, even insects, into hiding, so plan on exploring the tree’s wildlife early in the morning or late in the afternoon as the air cools and they become more active.

Birch bark curl, photograph by Brent VanFossen
Closeup of tree bark, photograph by Brent VanFossen
Closeup of tree bark with lichens, photograph by Brent VanFossen

Tree bark offers wonderful opportunities for textures and patterns. Lichen often decorates tree bark with texture and depth. Tree bark can resemble puzzle pieces and abstract art.

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