Closeup nature photography, or macro photography, presents the photographer with a wide range of challenges, from how to get close to how to capture a reluctant subject. For serious closeup photographers, the process involves not only an understanding of the technical and mathematical concepts but a deeper understanding of the natural science behind their subjects. Macro photographers who specialize in flowers become infatuated with the whirls, swirls and angles within the inside of a flower. Entomologists, capturing close images spiders or butterflies, are in awe of the variations in color and texture unseen by the human eye.
During our many years of photographing nature, we are continually awed by the response of someone looking over our shoulder to see what it is we see through our camera, and then their amazement when we invite them to actually see what we see. We are constantly surrounded with “I never knew that!” and “Wow! That is amazing!” but most of all our favorite response is “How did you ever see that?”
Learning to “see” closeup is a skill enhanced by photography. When you become aware of the little things around you, under your feet, hiding in corners, a new world opens up to you. The curve in a blade of grass suddenly becomes more important. A dew covered spider’s web suddenly becomes valuable as nature’s necklaces. Your step becomes gentler, softer, as you realize there is a whole world below that you have been ignoring.
Closeup photography is not limited to the things under your feet, but it is a good place to start. The techniques within this book will help you see the world in new and unusual ways, moving closer and closer, as much as your equipment will allow. Tree bark covered with lichens will become patterns to puzzle out. A trip to a fruit stand with your camera will become more fascinating as you move in close on onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Vacation pictures will begin to include door handles, brick and tile, and the little things you missed before along your path.
As you open your eyes to the little things around you, you will find your inner eyes opening up to a new sense of peace and sensitivity within you. Macro photography requires intense concentration, focus, determination, and amazing levels of patience as you fight with equipment, wind, sun, and uncooperative subjects. Remember that as you learn, it will be difficult at first. Over time it will become easier as you master each step along the way. The rewards are part of the magic of the closeup world.
The Class Notes
These notes are meant to cover much of the detail taught in our program. Many aspects of photography are covered in depth and others are covered only lightly. Foremost, we recommend the first book purchase you make be John Shaw’s The Nature Photographers’ Field Guide (formerly known as The Nature Photographers Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques).
We also highly recommend John Shaw’s book, Closeups in Nature, to further explore the technical and artistic aspects of close up or macro photography. His step-by-step approach makes even the most complicated aspects of close up photography easy. We highly recommend reviewing our book recommendations for more nature photography books to learn more about specific areas of interest, or visit our book recommendations for even more nature and travel photography books.
If nature photography is new to you, we recommend that you explore our online basics of nature photography book, How To? What For?, to get a grasp of the terminology, equipment, and references we made in the following series of articles on close up photography. Close up photography is exciting but it is not for the newly initiated. Start with a solid familiarity with nature photography in general, then open up your mind to the fascinating possibilities of macro photography.
What is a closeup?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a close-up as
1) a picture taken at close range and
2) a close or intimate look.
Either definition applies, as we are about to look at photographs made at close range, showing a more intimate look at something than we usually see. We are going to look at the way leaves are scattered across the ground in the Autumn, then at the patterns in a single leaf. At the grasses which cover the ground, one blade at a time. We will look at a field covered with spider webs, the web shapes themselves, and portrait views of spiders.
We will discuss about the equipment and methods used to produce the images, both of which may be different than used for general photography. We will show you how to get the most out of what you already own, and give you some inexpensive ideas for your next purchase.
Finding a Subject
How do you find an interesting subject for closeup or macro photography? The answer is as simple as paying more attention to the little things. Go outside and look at your feet. Okay, so your feet look the same outside as inside. My mistake. Look at the things that are under your feet, beside your feet, and generally at foot level. Get low. Look into the flowers and weeds in the garden. Look under the flower at the insects that live on the stalks. Go outside after a rain shower and study the way the drops cling to everything in sight. Look into the drops and see the world upside down and magnified.
A favorite quote of ours is: “I spent the whole summer traveling, I made it halfway across my back yard.” There are so many things in the natural world to look at, and nature is so detailed, it offers a wide range of photographic possibilities.
It’s important to study the field guides for the particular area you’re photographing. Find out what kinds of plants and animals live there, and what is in bloom. Make a list of subjects and visit the habitats they call home. Make both documentary photos showing how and where the plant or animal lives, as well as more artistic interpretations that may or may not be identifiable as a particular species. Now, start looking for a different way to view the subject, whether from underneath, or really close up, or whatever. Look for any insects that live on the flower, patterns in the leaves or stem, and other small details you typically may notice.
When we do this, we never complete our list, because, usually right from the start, we find things we never knew existed, or see old things in new ways. The list keeps growing, and we go back to the same places time after time.
When there is a particular subject you want but can’t find, ask rangers at the national parks. Or ask anyone who is interested enough to ask why are you lying flat on your stomach in the mud and what are you seeing through the camera. Sometimes you can get some good tips. Read and study about the various subjects you find to learn more.
Basic composition elements include the Rule of Thirds (moving the image out of the center), simplification of the image, keeping horizontal and vertical lines horizontal and vertical, and avoiding distracting elements in the foreground and background. These compositional elements don’t change for closeup photography, but some become even more critical to your closeup techniques.
The Greeks researched art and found that when the subject of interest is moved away from the center, instead of having our eye locked onto the subject, it is free to rest on the main subject and then roam around the picture to return to rest on the main subject again. They call this the “concert of the eye”. When you capture closeup images, sometimes the main subject of the image is not the main subject but a part of the main subject. For instance, photographing this moth up close, the body of the moth is in the center of the image. Yet, is the body the most interesting part of the picture? Since we tend to look for eyes and heads, familiar subjects, when looking at photographs of animals and insects, possibly the main subject of interest is the fuzzy head of the moth rather than the body. Since the head is out of the center, the eye tends to rest on that spot and then explore the other elements in the image before returning to the head.
The closer we are to our subject with our camera, the shallower the depth of field, therefore what is out of focus becomes just as important as what is in focus. We call this process selective focus. We also examine other techniques for developing and mastering the creative aspect of closeup photography including creative uses of backgrounds and lighting later within this book.
One of the first things to understand when talking about closeups is the concept of the reproduction ratio. This is simply the ratio of the size of the image on the film to the size of the object in real life. If you photographed a steel ruler and after you got the film back from the lab, you placed the ruler side by side with the slide, and if one inch on the slide was the same length as one inch on the ruler, you would have a 1 to 1 reproduction ratio. You would have photographed the ruler at “life-size”. At a reproduction ratio of 1 to 2, or 1/2 life-size, the image on the slide would be half the size of the real ruler. When the reproduction ratio is a number greater than one, say 4 times life-size, or 4X, the image on the slide would be four times as big as the real subject. Prints made from the slide or negative, or slides projected on a screen, of course, show the subject as much larger, but the reproduction ratio refers to the image size on the film itself.