Shoot Quality Nature Close-ups the Easy Way
Updated: Apr 16
My photo career began in the seventies when I bought Canon photo gear to make images of wildflowers, frogs, and insects. Close-up photography has always been great fun for me since I can find so many interesting subjects without traveling much. Over the decades, I have enjoying making many hundreds of thousands of close-up images, and I continue to add new close-up experiences today.
A Yellowstone Checkerspot butterfly posed nicely for my Canon 180mm macro lens. Being early in the morning, it held still enough for me to make several images of it.
I enjoy teaching close-up photo techniques to others, and love to see their world open in unexpected ways. Close-up photography is easy to do once you make super photo techniques a habit. Here are my thoughts on what it takes to accomplish quality close-ups. And I teach these techniques in August Michigan and spring Smoky Mountain workshops. After all, there is no better way to learn how to shoot excellent images than to be instructed in the field with real gorgeous nature subjects in front of you.
The green darner dragonfly is still this cool morning. The cattail has a plamp holding it still that is attached to the stem just outside the picture area, and eight shots were used to focus stack this dragonfly at this angle to sharply capture its image. I used f/8 with a Canon 5D Mark IV and 180mm macro lens.
While there is a place for soft focus images, and you will get a lot of them if you shoot handheld, I normally want my subject to be in sharp focus with adequate depth of field. Here are some keys to sharp images.
1. Use a Tripod
Most close-up subjects photograph best in soft light, and not bright sunshine. You must shoot on a tripod with the slow shutter speeds so typically used. Use a solid one that is large enough to solidly support your lens and camera. I use Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod legs, but the model I use no longer is made. Plenty of newer models are available.
I have used www.kirkphoto.com ballheads for at least 30 years. For macro, the smaller BH-3 ballhead works fine, but I use the larger and more expensive BH-1 because I need it for the larger lenses I use in wildlife photography.
Use an L-plate to attach the camera body or the tripod collar found on long macros to the tripod. The lens/camera are balanced better and it is easier and quicker to change from horizontal to vertical or any angle between these positions.
The splendid Canon 180mm macro lens gave me extra working distance to prevent me from frightening this American toad. Any closer, and it would hop away! Working distance provided by long macro lenses is crucial!
4. Use a quality lens
Many lenses can be used to make close-up images, though, sometimes extension tubes or magnification filters need to be used. I have used 50mm, 100mm, and 180mm Canon macros over the years, but currently I only own the 180mm macro, and the 65mm macro that is a special lens able to focus from 1x to 5x only. While many suggest the smaller 100mm macro, to me the choice is simple. I opt to use the long macros – 200mm or 180mm range – for nearly all my macro photography. For most natural subjects, the Canon 180mm macro is far better than the shorter 50mm and 100mm macros. Anyone who does not agree hasn’t shot enough macro images in the field. The longer macro lens provides a tripod collar making it easy to change from horizontal to vertical or anywhere in-between. The angle of view of the long macro is far less making it is easier to capture an uncluttered background, and the working distance between the subject and the front of the lens is much greater. If you ever try to photograph a dewy spiderweb with a 50mm lens, and then a 200mm macro, you will fully understand the need for working distance. It is difficult to move a tripod into the best shooting position without destroying the subject if the working distance is small. Working on a tripod is much easier with a long macro!!!!
This is a ten image focus stack of some tiny Calypso orchids that grow in the forest near my home around the Fourth of July. I used a glossy photo as a background to avoid the natural background distractions, and fired a flash to backlight the orchids for each exposure in the stack. The ten images were process with Canon Digital Photo Professional and combined into one image with Helicon Focus.
5. Use the lens appropriately
Don’t use a filter on the lens unless necessary. When is it necessary? Some subjects, like frogs, are shiny, so use a polarizer to reduce the glare covering color and detail in the frog. Always use the lens hood made for your macro and put it on correctly. The sign of a beginner is to use a lens with a UV protection filter on it and no lens hood. Do the opposite! Skip the protection filter and use the lens hood that reduces flare problems and protects the lens at the same time.
6. Keep the lens, front and back surface clean, and the sensor inside the camera clean too!
7. The camera and subject must be still
Setting up on soft ground isn’t as easy as you might think. Once you have focused the subject, make sure you avoid touching the tripod or shifting your weight as the ground may tremble and cause the tripod to move ever so slightly sending the subject out of focus. And don’t forget to shoot when the air is calm. Use a plamp made by Wimberley (www.tripodhead.com) to support the subject and help hold it still.
I want to emphasize the subject must be still. Use the magnified live view image on the LCD to detect when the subject is moving at all. The subject must be completely still, not almost still, to achieve sharp results at slow shutter speeds.
Image-stabilization in the lens or the camera is helpful when shooting handheld, but dreadfully harmful on a tripod. The stabilization can activate a small motor that causes vibrations when nothing is moving causing a loss of sharpness. Turn off image-stabilization on the tripod! This is a common error.
9. Focus carefully
Autofocus does not work well in close-up photography, so use manual focus. The best way to manually focus is to use a magnified live view image of the area where the sharpest focus is desirable and manually turn the focus ring until that area is sharp. I never use autofocus when shooting close-ups, and I am not real fond of it for most other photos too as the problems with autofocus being inaccurate leads me to manual focus with a magnified live view image whenever feasible. In fact, when I am forced to use autofocus, I always AF microadjust my camera and lens combination - the topic of another blog posted on this site.
10. Avoid vibrations created by the mirror and the shutter
The mirror rising before the exposure causes the camera to vibrate, and it is a serious problem at slow shutter speeds between 2 seconds and 1/30 second. The opening and closing of the shutter also cause vibrations. To avoid both, use live view as both the mirror is up and the shutter open at the moment of exposure.
11. Focus stack for the ultimate in sharpness
Helicon Focus happens to be the software I use to stack images together. I shoot a series of images from the closest spot to the furthest spot using f/8 (a sharp aperture) to capture the depth in slices. Then I stack the images together to get tremendous overall sharpness. This is the most powerful tool that has come along for me in the nearly five decades I have been shooting photos. I first began to do it about ten years ago and it has revolutionized how I approach picture taking today.
This atlantis fritillary is quietly spreading its wings to warm up just a little more, before flying off to begin its long day of feeding and fluttering here and there. I used a magnified live view image to focus on the scales of the spread wings close to the body of the butterfly, and tripped the shutter by using the Touch Shutter. Also notice I have acquired a shooting angle where the camera's sensor and the plane of the wings are as parallel as I can make it. I call this "getting flat on."
12. Firing the Camera
Using your finger to trip the shutter will create vibrations that hurt the sharpness of your image. Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid it. Use a cable release or wireless release to trip the shutter to avoid touching the camera or tripod directly. If you have a Touch Shutter, then it is possible to set the camera to the 2-second self-timer, and gently touch the LCD to fire the camera when the counter runs out two-seconds later. I use the Touch Shutter – set to Sensitive – a lot. I also use a Pocket Wizard Plus X with a cord made by Pocket Wizard that plugs into my Canon 5D Mark IV and 1DX Mark II to fire the camera. It works well, and from a distance, I can fire my camera by using two Pocket Wizard Plus X devices that offer radio control. The wire to attach the Pocket Wizard Plus X to the camera is made by, surprisingly enough, Pocket Wizard. Just tell them what camera you have, to be sure to get the correct connecting cord to use your new Pocket Wizard Plus X.
Exposure is Easy
Hopefully, your camera provides a live histogram in the live view image. Simply adjust an exposure dial until the right-most histogram data is just touching the right wall of the histogram and fire away. Check the image for blinkies. The goal is to get a few blinkies if shooting RAW, and no blinkies if shooting JPEG. I usually adjust to get the first blinkies (flashing areas in the highlights.) What does that mean? If one exposure does not produce any blinkies and adding 1/3-stop more light does produce blinkies, then those are the first blinkies. I realize many authors tell you to avoid all blinkies, but if shooting RAW, remember both the histogram and the blinkies are derived from the embedded JPEG in the RAW file, and not from RAW data which covers a much wider contrast range.
The quality of the light is of tremendous importance. Normally I avoid bright sun in my close-ups, preferring softer light on cloudy days or when shooting in the shade, or before sunrise, or after sunset. I do like contrast but prefer to create my own with flash or LEDs as both work well. Whenever possible, I use sidelight or backlight. Frontal light without shadows is just too flat for me and does not reveal the shape of the subject. You do need some contrast to show texture!
I tend to look for the flow in the subject and let that flow across the image. For example, a frog looking to the left works best for me if I place the patient amphibian on the right side of the image letting it “look” into the image. And wide subjects tend to be horizontals and tall one’s verticals.
All of this is taught in my field workshops in much greater detail where close-ups are a big part of the workshop. My August workshop in Upper Michigan and the April workshops in the Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, TN are great close-up programs, but we also do many landscapes.
A damselfly is clearly seen by using natural backlight before sunrise and flash to light the dark side. I call this cross-light, as the two light sources of ambient and flash do indeed cross at the subject position.