Are you fascinated by the little details of our natural world? Do you sometimes wonder what it would be like to experience your surroundings from the perspective of an ant or a grain of sand?
Close-up photography is one way you can get closer to visualizing this experience while also expressing yourself creatively. This exciting photographic niche offers boundless room for artistic experimentation.
While popular, especially in nature photography, your choice of subjects is practically limitless, making it highly stimulating from a creative perspective!
It’s with great enthusiasm that I get to tell you a few things today about what close-up photography is like and how to start shooting in this medium. Without further ado, let’s find out how to take amazing close up shots from the very beginning.
What is Close-Up Photography?
It’s all in the name! Close-up photography is about reproducing diminutive subjects with all their small details at a scale close to life-size or larger. You can practice capturing close-up photos pretty much anywhere, in natural light or in the studio.
Of course, subjects that remain still in your frame are preferable to those that are difficult to track at high magnification. This makes flowers, ceramics, fruit, trees, gemstones, and more perfect beginner-friendly candidates for a close-up photo.
Other nice ideas I recommend you to try out are small mechanical objects. Think watches, small tools, and even some of your own photography gear! Textiles, jewelry, and ceramics can work great as well.
Some of you may also want to experiment with close-up portraits. While challenging, these can be seriously expressive photographs when done right.
This doesn’t just extend to human subjects, either: close-up wildlife photography is a world of its own, with countless talented followers and its own visual style.
Some photographers also cross genres, re-examining architectural photography from a close-up perspective, for instance.
How Close-Up Photography Works
If you look at the focus scale on your lens, you’ll see that it bottoms out at a certain minimum focusing distance. What that distance is depends greatly on the optical design of your lens. Some may reach as close as 20 centimeters. Others will require you to put at least a meter or more between yourself and your subject to get a sharp image.
Note down and set that minimum distance, whatever it may be on your lens. While it’s perfectly possible to practice close-up photography with auto-focus enabled, manual focusing comes with a lot less hassle for the vast majority of us.
Despite the name, a close-up is not necessarily all about getting as close to your subject as you possibly can. Rather, the secret to shooting macro lies in the magnification factor. That is, how much larger your subject appears in your final image compared to its dimensions in real life.
Higher magnification reveals more details and allows you to ‘dive into’ the micro-perspective of your subjects more. While magnification definitely has something to do with close focus, it’s important to not confuse or conflate the two.
The Difference Between Close-Up, Macro, and Micro Photography
You might have just noticed me referring to macro photography, and I’m willing to wager a guess that that’s not the first time you’ve come across that term.
To clear up the confusion, close-up photography, and macro photography are usually held as synonymous. To be a bit more pedantic about it, some define macro photography as only encompassing those kinds of close-ups that reach 1:1 magnification (life size) or larger, whereas close-up photography is the more general term describing all pictures taken at very short distances. However, this distinction is not universally agreed-upon, and different photographers might disagree about where exactly to draw the line.
However, there is one more term in this field that is much more distinct. I’m talking about micro photography, which does warrant some additional explanation.
If you’re a Nikon shooter, you know that Micro is the label Nikon uses to refer to their Macro lenses (more on that in a bit). Despite the confusing labeling, there is a certain logic behind that.
As I just explained, some photographers define macro photography as anything that represents small subjects at a magnification at least equivalent to life size. Following that, micro photography includes any image size beyond the macro scale.
Within the scope of this definition, most would argue macro photography stops and micro photography begins at a magnification ratio of about 10:1 (ten times larger than it appears to the human eye). Of course, the term ‘micro photography’ is also employed when talking about photomicrography, which some may consider a subset of close-up photography.
Keep this in mind as we talk about magnification and focal length in the context of close-up photography!
What Equipment Do You Need for Close-Up Photography?
Before we get technical, I want to stress that you can get a good grasp of close-up photography even with the kit lens that came with your digital camera. While a dedicated setup for macro photography is superior, not everyone will be passionate enough about this medium right away to justify the expense.
I highly suggest trying out close up photography on your own with the kit you have at the moment before thinking about adding more equipment!
With that said, let’s take a look at the best upgrade options you have for maximizing your results in capturing close up photos.
The Issue of Focal Length and Lenses
The close-up photo performance of your camera lens depends, as I mentioned earlier, on its optical construction. Many factors play into this – for example, how the internal lens elements are arranged relative to each other and how long the focus throw of the lens is.
Another common factor is the focal length. You would think that telephoto lenses would be the end-all, be-all of close-up photography. After all, a longer lens magnifies your subject more than a wide-angle lens, right?
While this is true, it comes with a very significant caveat: very long telephoto lenses offer abysmal minimal focusing distances. For example, my Nikon 80-200mm f/4.5 can’t go any closer than 1.8 meters.
Those are truly titanic distances if you’re trying to frame something the size of a pinhead!
Hence, don’t necessarily go for the longest lens your budget allows for. There’s a lot more to a good macro lens than focal length alone!
Using a Conventional Telephoto Lens
All that isn’t to say that if you’re stuck with a telephoto right now, you’re out of luck. Far from it! Great close up shots are possible with just about any piece of glass as long as you’re creative and determined enough.
While you likely won’t be able to achieve the higher magnification ratio of a dedicated macro lens, a telephoto can still perform well with the help of some of the following techniques.
Adding Filters to Improve Close Up Photography Performance
The most basic trick you can pull to improve the close-focusing performance of any old lens is to add a filter. Specifically, I am talking about screw-in close-up filters. These filters work like reading glasses: they simply magnify the image that your lens sees, “zooming in” a little to allow you to get closer.
Of course, don’t expect to transform a big telephoto lens into a macro wonder with the help of a cheap close-up filter. At the same time, these kinds of gadgets are not to be underestimated!
While every close-up filter does unfortunately come with a slight loss in sharpness, well-made examples can seriously reduce the minimum focus distance of your lens, making it so much easier to take a stunning close up photo with any gear.
Keeping Your Gear Stabilized
Because focus is so much more sensitive at shorter distances and because you will be dealing with extremely shallow depth of field, stabilizing your camera is a must. This is one of those cases where in-camera image stabilization or optical vibration reduction won’t help you out. Either a monopod or tripod is basically a must.
Keeping your camera locked solidly in place as you compose and narrow down precise focus and depth of field is an essential aspect of taking close-ups. Hence, you really won’t want to skimp on a proper tripod. If that’s not within your budget at the moment, think about how you can utilize your environment to your advantage instead.
For example, if shooting macro at home, consider surfaces like tables, desks, and even chairs or piles of books as improvised tripod substitutes to keep your camera stable.
Investing in a Macro Lens
The holy grail of any aspiring close-up photographer, a macro lens can be expensive, finicky, and cumbersome. But it can also be incredibly rewarding to shoot with, allowing you to discover detail and beauty that are hardly possible without it.
By using unique optical arrangements, a macro lens can focus much closer than any conventional counterpart. Usually, such lenses not only feature a focus scale but also a separate one for the magnification ratio so that you can keep track of your subject’s image size relative to life size.
For photographs of the miniature world, no matter the subject, a macro lens really does feel like a godsend sometimes. While most macro lenses nowadays do feature auto-focus, remember that close ups heavily benefit from fine adjustments in manual focus.
Hence, expect the ergonomics of a macro lens to be different from what you might be used to. Also, consider that only a few high-end macro lenses are zooms. The optical characteristics of high detail at extremely short working distances are much easier to engineer in the form of a prime, fixed-focal length design.
Because of this difference and other aspects of their design, macro lenses tend to be very highly optimized for the one particular use case they are intended for: photographs taken close up at high magnification. Using a macro lens for regular landscapes or portraits, then, might yield surprisingly middling results – but don’t be put off by that and assume that you’re dealing with a subpar piece of glass!
Your Potential Future Best Friend, the Extension Tube
If you’re willing to upgrade your gear a little for the sake of your macro shots, but aren’t quite ready for a full-on macro lens yet, say hello to extension tubes. In a similar fashion to close-up filters, these ingenious gadgets work based on a very simple optical principle.
Attaching to your camera’s lens mount, an extension tube physically lengthens the distance between the rear element of your lens and your camera’s sensor. This effectively reduces the minimal focus distance. Or, put more accurately, it shifts your lens’ focus to the back.
This means that, with most kinds of extension tubes in place, your lens will no longer acquire good focus at far distances, let alone at infinity. However, for the purposes of taking a close-up image, this is a negligible sacrifice to make.
Achieving Maximum Versatility With Bellows
The final piece of the gear that I want to look at today is bellows. In large-format photography, bellows are often an essential component of the camera body, used for controlling focus, depth of field, and perspective correction.
Bellows designed for macro and close up photography in smaller formats with a telephoto or macro lens work in a similar fashion. With their flexibility, they allow you to attain truly extreme close-up focusing distances. Since bellows movements (in all directions) also affect depth of field, they give you huge amounts of control over the general look of your picture, too.
While expensive and not available for every camera-lens combination, bellows are an investment truly worth considering for those serious about their close-up photos.
Managing Depth of Field in Close Up Photos
Depth of field plays a huge role in any close-up photo. Because of the physics involved in short-distance, high-magnification photography, you need to compensate for much more shallow depth than what you are probably used to.
Since you’ll be composing at or near the closest focal distance your lens allows, your depth of field will be at its thinnest. This gives you an interesting creative choice. Leave the aperture wide open, and you will get mostly soft, dreamy-looking close-up photos with very narrowly defined areas in focus.
Stop down the lens, on the other hand, and you can achieve truly pin-sharp close-ups.
Here are a few more quick tips to help yourself stay on the right track when it comes to depth of field!
The Allure of the Minimum Focusing Distance
Most macro lenses, unlike those intended for greater working distances, are actually at their sharpest when focused really close. This, coupled with the often eye-watering magnification specs of those lenses, makes it really attractive to dial in the minimum focusing distance right away and have at it without wasting a second thought.
However, I suggest keeping some distance from such extremes. At the very edge of the envelope, your lens can become not just very difficult to focus. You might actually get better images out of a slightly lower magnification, particularly as a beginner.
Try putting your compositional ideas first and select the focal distance you think will work best towards that end.
Another issue relates to using your aperture. You might notice how macro lenses offer very small apertures not commonly available on wide angles and normal primes.
If you want to achieve sharp close-ups, dialing in f/45 is not a good idea. This is because of a little something called diffraction, an optical phenomenon that can truly ruin the sharpness of your shots.
While diffraction is a complicated topic that deserves its own guide, know that it means the smallest aperture is usually not the sharpest. Instead, stop down as far as you can to bring depth into a manageable zone – but not too far beyond that!
Experimenting With Different Subjects and Improving Your Close-Ups
The most exciting aspect of close-up photography is not assembling your gear and selecting the best lens for the job. Of course, the real fun lies in the new perspective you gain on the often ordinary objects and details in your photograph.
There is no such thing as an “overdone” or cliché subject in close-up photography. Flowers, insects, and leaves may be common motifs, but that shouldn’t deter you from experimenting with them!
Close up photography is all about gaining a new perspective on the world around us (literally). You can’t do that without developing a certain sense for your subject and the little details it hides from the naked eye.
And by far the best way to form and grow that sense is to play around and try out new compositions!
For me, some of the most exciting macro and micro photos have come from entirely unlikely places. Blots of ink, tufts of dandelion seeds, a light bulb, and a ladybug sitting on the stalk of a mushroom have been some of my personal favorites. What can you think of?