Simple techniques for shooting close-up photos

Close-up photos pull you directly into a subject so you can examine its details from a unique perspective. A close-up tends to focus on a specific thing—an insect, a plant, a flower, or a face, for example. Or it can highlight something we don't usually pay much attention to, but which turns out to be captivating, dramatic, or revealing when intimately observed.

Close-up photos can tell a powerful story in a single shot: Taking a photo of a person's weathered hands, for example, might be a way to convey the fact that they have worked hard all their life. This iconic close-up photograph from Uganda showing the contrast between the hand of a malnourished boy and that of a missionary tells a powerful story about famine.

Two examples of close-up photography. In each case the focus is on just one part of the horse's face, which is isolated from the background.

Close-up vs. macro

Often we hear the word macro used in reference to—or even interchangeably with—close-up photography. But there is a key difference. A close-up is an image shot at close range, where the subject is isolated from its environment. Any camera and lens can shoot a close-up. A macro photograph, however, is an extreme close-up that portrays the subject as life-size or greater-than-life-size.

Macro photos are characterized by both closeness and magnification. If you wanted to photograph the details of an insect’s eyes, for example, you would take a macro photograph.

A macro photo is generally expressed as a ratio—a 1:1 ratio is when the image is life-size. To take a high-quality macro shot, you must use a special macro lens whose performance is specifically geared to close-focus shooting. A normal lens can't focus when it's very close to the subject and thus can't take an image at a ratio greater than 1:1. A macro lens, however, can focus when positioned very close to the subject, allowing it to achieve greater-than-life-size magnification, a shallower depth of field, and thus clearer focus on tiny details.

Here is an example of a close-up photograph (above) and a macro photograph (below).

Equipment

If you're aiming for high-quality macro shots, then consider investing in a dedicated macro lens. Almost all manufacturers of DSLR cameras offer a variety of lenses, including macros ranging from short (30mm to 60mm) to medium (60mm to 105mm) to tele macro (105mm to 200mm).

However, for regular close-ups, zoom lenses like a 55mm to 200mm or a 70mm to 300mm lens will work well. Even a fixed 50mm lens with an f/1.8 aperture can produce some nice close-ups.

Macro mode

Certain point-and-shoot cameras or DLSRs let you switch into macro mode simply by turning the dial to a macro setting (usually a tulip symbol). This allows you to focus at a very short distance from the subject. The quality of this macro setting, however, is very different from the quality you get when you use a dedicated macro lens. A camera's macro setting will not shoot a subject so that it appears greater than life-size.

Focus and composition

For a great close-up, isolate your subject from its background by using a shallow depth of field (set the aperture to a low number) and/or picking a nondistracting background, if possible. Focus carefully and pick a specific focus point so your subject comes out looking sharp against a softer background. If you use a camera or lens with autofocus, make sure the lens is focusing on the object you want. Without a macro lens, you may have trouble focusing precisely, but you can remedy this by moving the camera a bit farther away from the subject. If you are using a zoom lens, then move back and zoom into your subject.

Focus is critical in close-up images. The point of focus in this image was meant to be the reflection in the eye (right) rather then the veins (left image).

Lighting and image stability

A common problem with close-ups is that if your light source is behind the camera, it will cast a shadow over the subject. Fix this problem by using a flash or other off-camera lighting. An off-camera flash will help avoid flattening the image and creating a shadow cast by the illumination. In the image on the left, a shadow is cast over the subject. In the image on the right, I took the strobe off the camera to eliminate the shadow from the camera. However, there is still an on-camera flash causing the slight shadow in the background.

In the image on the left, a shadow is cast over the subject. In the image on the right, I have taken the strobe off the camera to remove that shadow. An on-camera flash is causing the slight shadow in the background.

Keeping images sharp

Another common problem with close-up photography is image blur. The most common cause of image blur is the lens’s inability to focus at such a close proximity to the subject. To prevent that, first switch your camera to the macro setting (if it has one) and try again. If that fails, move the camera a little further away from the subject, or if you're using a zoom lens, back up and zoom into the subject. Image blur can also be caused by slow shutter speed, low light, or a moving subject. To prevent this kind of blurring, set your camera up on a tripod or raise your shutter speed.

In the image on the left, the lens (a Nikon 50mm) was too close to the subject to focus automatically, thus creating a blurred image. In the photo on the right, I moved several inches away from the subject and was able to focus properly.

Close up photography is about capturing that small detail in a fleeting moment. Regardless of the kind of camera or lens you're using, you can make your close-ups expressive and evocative.

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