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Capturing close-ups

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You don’t have to be a professional photographer to take the kind of photos that make people say “Wow!” All you need is a digital camera, curiosity about the world around you, and a sense of adventure. And some tips from the pros wouldn’t hurt either – which is why we’ve enlisted the help of a professional who specializes in digital nature photography.

Lets focus on an advanced photography technique that’ll open up a new, exciting realm of creative options: macro photography (or extreme close-ups). Since many digital cameras are able to get as close as an inch (2 to 3 cm) to your subject, you don’t even need a macro lens to take close-ups. With macro photography, familiar objects become unusual and abstract – and unusual objects become even more fascinating. Whether you want to capture butterflies, flowers, or ripples in a pool of water, macro photography reveals details the eye tends to ignore.

You’re in control

Before we move on to the fun stuff, you need to understand the basics of aperture and shutter speed settings: they are the two camera controls that give you the most creative control. Yes, it’s true that many digital cameras are automatic and don’t allow for complete control over these settings. But even these cameras have some level of control (through programmed photo settings, etc.). Even with a fully automatic camera, you can indirectly make an impact on, or at least take advantage of, the effects these controls have on your images.

Crash course: aperture and shutter controls

When you take a picture, you “expose” the film to light. The two parts that work together to control your exposure are the aperture and shutter.

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). Each number higher lets in half as much light as one number lower: the larger the f-stop number, the smaller the opening. A very small aperture makes everything (background and foreground) in focus. A large aperture makes only the subject you’re focused on in focus.

Shutter speed is how long the shutter stays open; it controls the amount of time light is allowed to reach the film. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second – 125 means 1/125 of a second. A shutter speed setting for a sunny day might be 1/125 second. A cloudy day might use 1/60 second (with the same aperture), exposing the film for a longer time.

Shutter and aperture work together: more light (larger aperture) means a faster shutter speed; more depth of field (smaller aperture) means slower shutter speeds.

Depth of field

You’ll notice that very few close-up photos are completely sharp from foreground to background; in other words, the depth of field tends to be shallow. Depth of field is a measurement that refers to the sharp, in-focus zone in an image. When the camera is really close, your depth of field can be very slight, which can make focusing on your subject very challenging.

You can increase depth of field in close-ups by using a smaller aperture (higher f-stop) – or by increasing the illumination of the subject to stop down the aperture. Or, you could use a shallow depth of field to your advantage to make a small object stand out sharply against a blurred background. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Macro photography: advice from a pro

Wild Portraits (www.wildportraits.com) is a company devoted to digital imaging of nature photography. Co-owner Ruth Happel Smiley has been photographing and recording nature for 25 years. Her photographs have been widely published in Audubon magazines and calendars, National Wildlife magazine, and many other nature magazines and books.

Here are five of Ruth”s tips for getting close-up with the natural world:

Camera positioning. 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, or only part of it will be in focus. If you can’t get the entire subject in focus, figure out what you want to center on, and make sure it’s parallel to the back of the camera.

Freeze flash. My simple point and shoot doesn’t have much in the way of manual adjustments, but it does close down the aperture more when you use the flash, and that gives you a better depth of field to work with. The flash also helps to stop any movement.

Use exposure compensation. To ensure that at least one of your shots is properly exposed, adjust the EV (exposure value) setting of the camera, usually from -2 or 3 to +2 or 3. The danger with +EV and digital cameras is the tendency for “blooming” – areas that are highly overexposed that can spill into adjacent pixels. This can even lead to a nasty white line across your image, especially if it’s shot at certain angles into the sun. However, I often try a range of EV values, especially when standard settings don’t seem to be capturing the shot.

Fast or slow? If you want to freeze the action, you need to shoot at a very fast shutter speed – 1/500 of a second or more. If you want to show something in motion, like flowers swaying in a breeze, you may want to shoot at a speed as slow as 1/15 or less – mounted on a tripod, of course.

Use depth of field to alter the composition. 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.

More on lighting and exposure

The challenge in lighting close-ups is having enough light so you and your camera can focus, and evenly distributing the light to prevent shadows. With flashes, you get deep depth of field, and the extremely short bursts of light at close distances prevent camera or subject movement from blurring. 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 as refractors, or set up a homemade miniature lighting tent to achieve diffused lighting. If you’re inside, try different household lamps. Since you’re using a digital camera, you have the freedom to experiment, check out the results, and try something completely different.

Wrap-up

Speaking of freedom to experiment, when it comes to close-up photography, digital cameras have a huge advantage because you can review your results and make adjustments as you go along. The more new things you try, the better you’ll get. Before long, you’ll begin to intuitively know how to find the perfect exposure and just the right lighting.

And macro 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. Above all, be daring, and bold photographs will follow.

Visit the HP Digital Photography Centre