With close-up photography, familiar objects become unusual and abstract … and unusual objects become even more fascinating. Whether you want to capture flowers or ripples in a pool of water, close-up photography reveals details the eye tends to take for granted. All you need is a digital camera, curiosity about the world around you, a sense of adventure, and a handful of tips and techniques.
Depth of field. Since many digital cameras are able to get within an inch of your subject, they’re ideal for taking close-ups. But you’ll notice that very few close-up photos are completely sharp from foreground to background. That’s because when the camera is really close, your depth of field (the sharp, in-focus part an image) is shorter, which can make focusing on your subject a challenge.
Aperture and shutter speeds. To understand depth of field, it helps to understand the basics of aperture and shutter speeds. When your shutter speed or aperture changes, your depth of field is altered.
Aperture is the size of the opening that allows light in. The numbers on the aperture control are called f-stops (f16, f11, f8, and so on). The larger the f-stop number, the smaller the opening. You can use a lower f-number to blur the background and a higher f-number for more depth of field. Shutter speed is how long the shutter stays open; measured in seconds, it controls the amount of time that light is allowed in. (A common shutter speed for photos taken in sunlight is 1/125 of a second.) Very short shutter speeds are used to freeze moving subjects. Very long shutter speeds are used in low-light conditions (like at night) or to blur a moving subject.
Aperture and shutter settings work together. And they can be used in different combinations to produce the same exposure.
Using depth of field for effect. You could use a shallow depth of field to your advantage to make a small object stand out sharply against a blurred background. For example, you can have a very narrow focus on just one thing, like a flower, and throw the background and surroundings out of focus.
Or you can try to focus on several things at once, like a spider capturing prey in its web. Then you might want to have the sharpest focus on the spider, but make sure the prey in the foreground or background is reasonably sharp.
Positioning your camera. To deal with shallow depth of field, it’s especially important to position your camera parallel to the plane on which you are focusing. If you’re shooting an insect resting at an angle on a blade of grass, line up your camera with the body of the insect—rather than looking at it from an angle—or only part of it will be in focus. (Essentially, the back of your camera should be parallel to your subject.)
If you can’t get the entire subject in focus, decide what you want to center on, and make sure it’s parallel to the back of the camera.
Lighting and exposure. The challenge in lighting close-ups is having enough light so your camera can focus. You can increase depth of field by increasing the illumination of the subject to narrow the aperture. Using a flash, for example, gives you better depth of field. And the extremely short bursts of light at close distances prevent subject movement from blurring. The flash also helps to stop any movement.
But sometimes a flash will change the photo’s color or cause an overexposure because it’s too close to the subject. In these cases, it is best to provide another source of light. Get creative. Use aluminum-wrapped cardboard or mirrors, or, if you’re inside, try different household lamps.
Freedom to experiment. Close-up photography is just the beginning of where your newfound knowledge of exposure and shutter speeds can take you. Buy a book on night photography and capture the stars in the sky or the city lights. Or experiment blurring and freezing motion shots. Before long, you’ll begin to intuitively know how to find the perfect exposure and just the right lighting. Get a little practice with outdoor photography to learn more.