Understanding all the technical aspects of closeup photograph does mean going back to basic photography skills such as exposure and depth of field. While the extensive topics involved in both of these are beyond the scope of this book, here is a quick review and information on how these relate to closeup photography.
In the world of closeups, the concept of a fast moving subject is very different from what we know about the bigger world. Cars move fast. Football players run fast. So do cheetahs and antelopes. And fast moving subjects require fast shutter speeds to stop their motion on film.
For miniature subjects, the challenge of working with moving subjects escalates. Exposures are slow because we are typically photographing subjects found in very dim and low light areas, and our camera can block the light as well. Due to the low light, we’re forced to shoot at very slow shutter speeds – 1/2 second to 4 seconds are common exposures. And then we have magnified the images so much, any movement is too much. The slightest breeze, even if unfelt, will cause a spider web to flutter and sway. On a cold morning, your body heat is enough to start air currents moving which can ruin your photo.
Depth of Field
Depth of field is simply the area of your picture, from front to back, that is sharply in focus. Large apertures like f2.8 and f4 have a very narrow depth of field, while small apertures like f22 and f32 have a relatively large depth of field.
At high magnifications, depth of field becomes precious and very hard to come by. At life-size magnification, depth of field at f2.8 is only about 1/32th of an inch (0.8mm) regardless of lens used. This means that if you placed a quarter on a dollar bill and focused on the face on the quarter, the bill would be out of focus in the distance. Not much room for error, is there?
One of the challenges in working with closeup subjects is battling long exposures that come with small apertures which bring greater depth of field. Working with flash (full or fill flash) and other lighting accessories help increase your shutter speed, but often you are working with shutter speeds from a 30th of a second to several seconds. A tripod is essential.
Flat on/Paralleling the Subject
It is important to position the camera to maximize the available depth of field. This can be accomplished by keeping your camera back parallel with the most important plane of your subject. We call this “paralleling the subject” or being “flat on”. Since closeup photography often involves working with a very narrow depth of field, the more your camera’s film plane (back of the camera) is parallel to the flattest part of the subject, the greater your chances everything will be in focus across your image.
In the case of a raindrop covered leaf, place the camera back parallel to the surface of the leaf, and get the whole subject sharp with a relatively large aperture of about f8. It will not always be obvious, however, what is the most important plane of your subject. For a daisy, should you shoot from the side to keep the entire stem in focus, losing detail in the front and back petals, or should you shoot more down on the flower to keep the petals sharp and let the stem go out of focus? These are creative choices.
Closeup photographs often require long exposures if natural light is being used. Depending on the model of your camera, these exposures may be longer than your camera allows you to set. For example, on the Nikon F4, manual mode only allows exposures up to 4 seconds long. We are frequently shooting at about 8 or 15 or even 30 seconds. So how do you get a long shutter speed if your camera won’t let you set it?
Start by getting a “proper’ exposure at whatever speed and aperture your camera will allow, then mentally adjust down step by step to the proper exposure at the aperture you desire. For instance, if 4 seconds at f5.6 is correct, and your goal is f11, that is a 2 stop difference, so count up in time and down in aperture. For example, f5.6 at 4 seconds to f8 at 8 seconds, to f11 at 15 seconds.
- Stopwatch and bulb setting
- Most cameras have a bulb or B setting which holds the shutter open for as long as your finger is on the shutter button or cable release. To cut vibrations, we recommend the cable release. The best method to record long exposures is to have a watch with a second hand or a stopwatch, set the camera on B, measure off the proper exposure, and allow the shutter to close. If you don’t have a watch with a second hand, you can count the seconds yourself, so long as your timing is pretty close. Even if your counting is off by a full second in a 15 second exposure, that is still only a fraction of a stop and will not be noticeable. We’ve used this method with excellent results.
- Data back
- An accessory that may be available for your camera system is a data back. Adding this to your camera can be expensive, depending on the kind and the camera. A data back replaces the film back of your camera body and has a small computer built in. It will allow you to program exposure times up to 99 hours and 99 minutes. It may have other features such as time and date stamp, and recording exposure data either within the frame or in the space between photos on a roll of film. If you do lots of long exposures, a data back might be valuable.
The equipment is probably more important in closeups than in any other area of photography. So what kinds of things are important to look for in cameras and lenses and tripods and such? What follows is based on our experience.
- Manual override
- Probably the most important camera feature for the serious photographer is the ability to take complete control of the creative process. To deliberately make every choice and have the camera respond is essential. Look for a camera which will let you turn off the program modes and manually set the aperture, shutter speed, and focus when needed. There is nothing wrong with using the advanced features when they make sense, but nothing is more frustrating than having a camera play stubborn and refuse to let you make the calls.
- Viewfinder coverage
- Camera manufacturers have designed most camera bodies with less than a 100% viewfinder – a common coverage is about 92%. When you look through the viewfinder, you only see 92% of what will actually show up in your slide or negative. You carefully compose to eliminate that piece of sky from the corner of the picture, only to have it show up when your film comes back. And you swear that you looked around the entire frame before firing the shutter.
Why would a camera be designed like that? The main reason seems to be cost. It is technically difficult, and therefore expensive, to make a pentaprism which will show 100% of the image. And the resulting viewfinder image would be smaller and harder to see. The cameras which have 100% viewfinders are the professional models like the Nikon F5, F4, Canon EOS 1 series. These cameras also have what is called a “high-eye point” viewfinder, which allows a larger viewfinder image. In a very price-competitive market, few cameras have these features.
The other reason, the manufacturers tell us, is that automatic print machines crop our pictures some when they print them. And slide mounts cover a part of the image. So the 92%, or whatever percentage your model has, is the manufacturer’s approximation so that what you get back from the photo-finisher matches what you saw when you took the picture.
Unfortunately, we find that the approximation is not very accurate for us, and we have to zoom out slightly to check the edges for intruders before exposing our film. We recommend that if you can afford them, 100% viewfinders make tight compositions 100% easier.
- Cable release
- When shopping for a camera body, look for a socket for attaching a cable release. Cable releases are important any time you are working with large lenses or high magnification photography. The slightest vibration is multiplied by the magnification of the lens, and your finger on the shutter button might be enough to cause an unsharp image.
A cable release connects to your camera, and allows you to trip the shutter without touching the camera body. Vibrations are reduced and sharper photos result.Losing ThingsLens caps and cable releases are frequently lost out in the field. Painting them with bright colored nail polish or putting bright colored tape on them helps locate them among the leaves and clutter on the ground.Another solution is to use the self timer button on your camera. By setting the camera for a delayed exposure from the time the button was pushed, the vibrations can dampen out before the picture is made. Some less expensive cameras can’t be used with a cable release, and sometimes you just don’t have one with you (maybe it broke). This is another option. The disadvantage is that you might have to time your exposure between gusts of wind. It may be absolutely calm when you fire the camera, but 10 seconds later the breeze has picked up.
- Mirror lockup
- As just mentioned, vibrations can ruin a picture. Using a tripod and cable release will solve most of your camera vibration problems, but there is another potential problem caused by the movement of the reflex mirror. As that mirror snaps out of the way to allow the light to pass through the shutter and on to the film, small vibrations are transmitted throughout the camera body, causing unsharp pictures. The worst shutter speeds are between 1/4 second and 1/15 second. The problem shows up with lenses longer than 200mm and with high magnifications.
The solution is to place your camera on a firm tripod, compose and focus. Then, move the lever which locks the mirror up and out of the way (the viewfinder will go dark). Using your cable release, take the picture. Return the mirror so you can compose the next photo.
Many cameras do not have a mirror lockup button, particularly the newer ones, as the camera manufacturers think (probably correctly) that most people don’t know how or why to use them. Some cameras combine the mirror lockup function with the self timer. On the older Nikon FE2, the mirror locks up when the self timer is activated. Up to 10 seconds later, the shutter fires. On Canon EOS models, a custom function allows you to lock up the mirror with the self timer function, and 2 seconds later, the shutter fires. These may be acceptable work-arounds, but the best solution is to have a dedicated mirror lockup button/function.
- Depth of field preview
- This is another feature which does not exist on many newer cameras. The depth of field preview button closes the lens aperture to the selected fstop so that you can preview the depth of field before taking the photo. For those who don’t recognize the name, this is the button that makes everything in the viewfinder get darker. The depth of field preview button is useful to see if you have chosen an aperture which will hold the subject sharp, while controlling how out of focus the background is. By closing the aperture to the chosen f-stop, the image seen in the viewfinder gets darker, and it may be hard to really see what is there. With a little practice, however, you can see enough to help you in your aperture choice. The final photo will look normally bright, because you are compensating for a smaller aperture with a longer shutter speed.
Tripods are critical to the success of macro photography. When the photographer is challenged by low light, slow shutter speeds and magnified images, a tripod is the only solution. The tripod holds the camera still, allows it to be precisely positioned and maintain its position while the photographer has his or her hands free for all the critical adjustments that need to be made.
A good tripod must be sturdy and flexible. It should reach eye level and then be able to drop close to the ground. A good tripod for closeup work is usually not light. It needs to be strong enough to support your camera system and the weight of the lens while holding them steady. And it helps if it has some of the following accessories or flexibility.
- Reversing Center Post
- Some tripods like the professional series tripods from Bogen/Manfrotto, SLIK, Gitzo and others, feature a center post that will either unscrew or come out to be fitted upside down and back into the center post hole. This allows the camera to be used close to the ground. The problem is that the camera is then upside down. A tripod collar will swing the camera to an upright position, if the lens you are using allows for that. Otherwise, a mirror will help you find the buttons and read the dials.
- Super clamp
- Bogen makes an accessory called the Super Clamp. This handy device will grip anything up to about 2 inches in diameter and has a screw stud for attaching a tripod head or a flash or other device. The Super Clamp is easily attached low on a tripod leg for low subjects, and lets you get down without having to crawl under the tripod.
- Tripod collar on lenses
- Most big telephoto lenses and some of the smaller lenses have a tripod mount on the lens itself. This allows the attach point to be under the center of balance. The heavy lens does not stick out into space. They also incorporate what is called a tripod collar, allowing you to rotate the lens for a horizontal or vertical (or anywhere in between) without flopping the tripod head to its side. This keeps the weight over the tripod for better balance, but just as importantly, allows you to re-compose without readjusting your tripod. In closeups, a small movement of the tripod can result in a BIG change in composition.
- Focusing rail and Arca-Swiss mounts
- One of the challenges associated with closeup photography is when you run out of focus and have to move your camera and tripod back and forth by small increments to achieve your closest focus. To ease this process a focusing rail is a device which mounts between the tripod head and the camera. It allows you to precisely move the camera forward and backward, and sometimes sideways, without repositioning the tripod. It usually uses a rack and pinion adjustment system and locks in place at your chosen position. For extremely precise focusing, this is excellent, saving the pain of repositioning.
A different system is the tripod head standard developed by the Arca-Swiss company. The tripod head has a clamp which grips a dovetail mounting plate that is installed on every piece of equipment which will be attached to the tripod. The advantage is the speed with which the camera can be removed from the clamp, hence the term “quick-release’. The clamp can be tightened at any point along the dovetail plate, so like a focusing rail, the camera can be moved forward and backward without repositioning the tripod. You just don’t have the advantage of the rack and pinion adjustment. This system is used by most professional nature photographers for its ease and strength.
Take a lesson from Lorelle when it comes to buying a tripod.
“My first tripod was good looking but cheap. A K-Mart special for USD$14.95. It broke three weeks later. I replaced it with a better model for USD$24.95. That lasted about a month. The third tripod, after much investigation, I bought on sale for $59.99 down from $89.99. It broke three months later on a trip. Thinking it a fluke, I replaced the same tripod for $89.99. When that broke four months later, I asked the pros what they were buying. Their tripods were not cheap but they were solid and they used the same tripod for YEARS not weeks. My purchase was finally a Bogen and it cost me $250.00. It’s been 10 years and I still have the same $250 tripod. After having already spent $189.88 for my four disasters, my lesson was an expensive one. And it isn’t unique. I’ve heard from many photographers who started out spending like I did. Don’t you make the same mistake. Buy smart and to last at the beginning.”