Photo Masterclass part 19: Extreme close-up

If you can get really close to your subject, you can enter a new world of wildlife photography. It’s a place of great beauty, seldom visited by most other people. But you need to draw on your imagination and all your artistic skills to create a vision from the detail. 

Photo Masterclass part 19: Close-up photography spread



Experiment with lighting

• Work with natural light as much as possible. The best light tends to be at the beginning and end of the day (when conditions are usually calmer, too) or when the weather is overcast.

• Buy or make a reflector to bounce light into the darker areas of your subject. This will fill in the shadows, reduce contrast and create more subtle lighting.

• Don’t be afraid to use artificial light – but make it look as natural as possible. Using more than one flashgun helps to balance the light and remove unwanted shadows.


Watch the focus

Make sure your subject is sharp. Use your camera’s depth-of-field preview button to check that key elements are in focus (eyes are particularly important). Very often, at close range, only a millimetre or two from front to back will be pin sharp.

• Shoot from a different angle if you’re struggling to keep key elements in focus. But remember to keep the background out of focus (and therefore simple and clean).

• Learn how the depth of field decreases as magnification increases (and, of course, as the aperture of the lens increases).


Look for texture and pattern

Look for natural subjects with eye-catching textures – anything from tree bark to spiders’ webs. Then concentrate on their finer details for more abstract and impressionistic views.

• Create shadows to emphasise texture by shooting in stronger, more directional light. Low-angled, bright sunshine or the light from a single flashgun will create strong, well-defined shadows.

• Experiment with backlighting. Leaves, in particular, can look spectacular when backlit (with the light source behind the subject) because this emphasises the intricate pattern of their veins.


Think outside the box

• Be creative by experimenting. Once you have mastered the technical challenges of close-up photography, throw caution to the wind and break all the rules. You have to think like an artist in order to achieve something different.

• Try throwing everything out of focus to concentrate on colours and shapes rather than details. Learn to balance colours with the greatest visual impact and use shapes to make pleasing graphics.

• Focus on the unexpected, such as an insect’s antennae instead of its eyes, or the edge of a leaf instead of the centre.



There are many ways of taking extreme close-ups using a variety of ‘normal’ lenses, ranging from wide-angle to telephoto. But macro lenses are designed specifically for the purpose and can produce dramatic results. 

They are not cheap, but can focus from a few centimetres to infinity and so double as excellent lenses for everyday shooting.


What to look for:

  •  Focal length – the main consideration is working distance: the longer the lens, the further away you will be shooting.
  • This is important if you are photographing wary subjects that will fly, run or crawl away if you move in too close (or if you are shooting venomous snakes and need a safe working distance).
  • Macro lenses typically range from 60mm to 200mm, but one of around 100mm would be a good all-rounder.


Cheaper alternatives:

  • Close-up filter – an inexpensive lens that screws onto the front of your normal lens, just like a filter. This is a great way to get started in close-up photography.
  • Extension tube – achieve extreme close-ups by putting a hollow metal tube, called an extension tube, between the lens and the camera body. Quite simply, this makes it possible to focus the lens much closer.


Dos and don'ts

  • DO use a tripod whenever possible. Close-up techniques not only magnify the subject but also the blurring effects resulting from camera shake.
  • DON’T be afraid to use electronic flash – it is often the best way to light small creatures and helps to solve the problems of camera shake and depth-of-field.
  • DON’T be tempted to cool invertebrates in the fridge – a method used by the unscrupulous to make their subjects less active and easier to control.


Click here to read previous masterclasses from the series.  


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