Close-Ups and Silhouettes: Get a Different Perspective in Your Photos

Follow these tips for taking dramatic close-up photos of flowers and atmospheric silhouettes with your digital camera.

Put a New Spin on Your Photos

Sometimes, you just feel like shaking things up a bit. When you tire of all the portraits and landscapes, you might want to try your hand at shooting some common scenes from unusual perspectives. Close-ups, for example, let you zoom into hidden details of flowers and other small subjects. Silhouettes add a sense of drama and excitement to everyday scenes. When you're ready to try your hand at these techniques, check out the tips in "Use Your Camera's Macro Mode for Great Close-Ups"--and build on the information there with the tips in this slide show.

Get Close to Nature

There's no single right way to shoot flowers, but the most common approach is to use a macro lens or your camera's close-up mode. Macro photography allows you to fill the frame with the most interesting parts of the flower while "weeding out" the background.

Macro photography, especially when shooting flowers, has a unique set of challenges. Perhaps most important, the depth of field is quite narrow. Depending upon how close you are to the subject, it can be less than an inch. That means you need to think about the composition of your shot. Do you want most of the flower to be in sharp focus, or only part of it? Is it okay for a lot of the frame to be blurry?

Control Depth of Field

If you want to keep as much in focus as possible, consider all the ways that you can control depth of field. As you might know, your camera's aperture is the primary way to do this. For close-up flower photography, switch your camera to Aperture Priority mode. The larger the f-number, the deeper your depth of field will be (but the longer your exposure time). You'll need to balance the depth of field with the shutter speed so that you don't accidentally introduce camera shake or blur in your shot --especially if it's windy. I captured this rose with an extremely narrow depth of field, so the foreground and background are blurred.

Consider Your Perspective

The distance to the subject also affects depth of field. The closer you get to the flower, the narrower your depth of field. If you can back up a little, you might be able to keep everything in focus.

Likewise, consider your perspective. If you photograph a flower so that it has a lot of depth, you'll have trouble keeping all of it in focus. But can you shoot the same subject from another angle? You could try shooting perpendicular to the axis of the lens: If the subject is largely flat--more or less the same distance from the lens across the entire frame--then having a lot of depth of field isn't nearly as important. I shot this photo perpendicular to the axis of the lens, so the entire flower is in sharp focus.

Keep Your Flowers Sharp

Don't forget to keep your camera stable. If you are shooting at a high f-number to maximize your depth of field, you're going to be saddled with a relatively low shutter speed, which can easily cause camera shake. Put the camera on a tripod. But flowers tend to move as well, and a tripod can't prevent that. Even a gentle breeze can cause petals to flutter in the wind. You already know that you can minimize the effect of wind by shooting at a faster shutter speed--either by sacrificing depth of field or by increasing ISO. And be patient: Wait for the wind to settle down before pressing the shutter release. Or carry something to block the wind--it can be as simple as a large piece of paper, some poster board, or one of those flexible reflectors you can buy at a camera shop.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Elsa Barthes.

Keep the Colors Sharp

Finally, how do you get good exposure? The most important rule is to avoid the midday hours. When the sun is directly overhead, you'll get high-contrast shots with areas that are dramatically over- and underexposed. And bright sunlight is not your friend when trying to preserve the delicate colors and many nuanced tones in flower petals. You will get better photos on overcast days or when the sun is low in the sky. Your most interesting photos will often be when you shoot in the shade, so there's no direct sunlight. That said, rules are made to be broken. For a change of pace, you might want to try shooting from underneath the flower, positioning your subject against the sky for a rich blue background. To take this photo, I positioned myself on the ground under the flower and shot up to frame the subject against the sky.

Tips for Shooting Dramatic Silhouettes

As any horror movie director will tell you, what you don't see is often scarier than what you do. And while filmmakers know that the unseen can certainly be scary, photographers rely on the fact that often it's just plain dramatic. That's the idea behind silhouettes, which engage you by masking details in inky black shadows. By coyly hiding important elements of the photo in plain sight, silhouettes are some of the most iconic elements you can add to your photography repertoire.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Peter Pearson.

Set Up the Scene

The basic idea behind any silhouette is that your subject is dark and underexposed, but set against a bright background. So for the best results, look for situations in which you can take advantage of a lot of contrast. Sunsets are a perennial favorite for silhouettes, but if you get low to the ground and aim upwards, you can get striking results by placing someone (or something) against a bright blue sky. Your options hardly end there; I've seen gorgeous silhouettes set against brightly lit stained glass windows inside churches, for example.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Lin Fuchshuber.

Expose for the Background, Not the Subject

Most digital cameras can expose your scene pretty well even in terribly harsh, high-contrast situations. That's exactly what we need to avoid, though, so you should outsmart your camera by overriding the automatic exposure control. There are a few ways to do this. If your camera has an exposure lock button, you can point the camera at the bright background and then press the exposure lock. Keeping the button pressed, compose the shot and then take the picture. Another option is to point the camera at the bright background while in automatic exposure mode and take note of the f/stop and shutter speed. With both options we want to keep light off of the subject, so your camera's flash should be off. Then put your camera in manual mode, dial in those settings, and compose and take the picture.

Photo courtesy Flickr user latteda.

Keep the Subject in Focus

Focus is something else to consider when you take a silhouette. Depending upon how you frame the shot and the settings you use to set the exposure, your camera might accidentally lock the focus on the background. For your silhouette to have dramatic impact, though, it needs to be sharp. In most cases, fixing this problem is just a matter of ensuring that the focus locks on the subject when you press the shutter release. You might want to check your camera's user guide and make sure that the exposure lock button doesn't also lock the focus, for example. Worst case, you might need to switch to manual focus and set it yourself.

Perfect the Silhouette on Your PC

Finally, keep in mind that it's rare to capture a perfect silhouette "in the lens." Most silhouettes will require some touch-up in a photo editing program. The most common problem you'll have is that the silhouette isn't perfectly black--you'll still see some color or detail. Fix that with your photo editor's Burn tool. Burn is a brush that darkens the scene wherever you paint, and many photo editors offer the tool. If you're using Adobe Photoshop Elements, the Burn tool is in the second cubby from the bottom of the toolbar. In the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen, choose a size that's a little smaller than the area you want to darken. Then paint over the subject to remove all trace of color and detail.

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