In this article, I will demonstrate how critically important three specific elements are when doing close-up photography. Aperture, background, and the general principles of composition will make or break your close-up photos, and learning how to work with these parameters will dramatically improve your pictures.
Let’s look at a step-by-step walkthrough of the process.
Step #1 – Choose your gear
The first step in taking a close-up photo is to make sure you have the right gear. Most lenses have a minimum focusing distance that isn’t close enough for macro-style shots, and as a result, do not work the best for this type of photography.
You can either get a true macro lens or, for a much smaller investment, a set of close-up filters that screw onto your lens. A macro lens will give you maximum sharpness, flexibility, and color fidelity but it will also cost hundreds of dollars.
Close-up filters are far more limited but are less than 10% of the cost of a macro lens. So it’s a great option if you’re just getting started with this type of photography. Buy a set of filters for your lens that has the largest filter size (look at the back of your lens cap for the size you need), then get inexpensive step-up rings to adapt them to fit your other lenses.
For example: If you have several lenses and one takes a 58mm filter, another uses a 67mm and your last one is 77mm – buy a set that is 77mm. Then get one set of step-up adapters to make them fit onto the other ones as well.
You may need one or more to attach your favorite filter to your lens but a set like this is very inexpensive and handy to have in your bag. The set above is only $16. For a full list of recommended gear you can use to do macro photography, including close-up filters: CLICK HERE.
NOTE: Another option that provides great image quality and a lower cost is extension tubes. Read: How to Use Extension Tubes for Macro Photography.
Step #2 – Choose a subject
After selecting your gear the next thing you need to do is choose a subject. I like to use the natural world, especially flowers, because of their bright colors and beautiful contrast but nearly anything around you will suffice when you examine it up close.
Here you can see a yellow coneflower on a rainy, overcast day. One of my favorite conditions for taking pictures. This is a great subject for close-up photography because the flower itself is actually quite large so you don’t even need to be especially close for a good shot. Still, a macro lens or set of close-up filters will definitely come in handy.
Refine the image
After choosing your subject, it’s time to start thinking about the aperture, the background, and other compositional elements.
Here you can see the effect that the aperture had on this flower. This first picture (below) was shot at f/4 and the background is slightly blurry, almost like a portrait effect that you might find on a mobile phone.
The image is decent but could be significantly improved by adjusting the aperture. Increasing the opening all the way to f/1.8 results in a much better image where the background is much blurrier and, as a result, the viewer’s attention goes directly to the flower.
The image above is much better, but getting closer can work wonders too. It’s also important to think beyond blur and look at other compositional elements as well.
The background in the picture above is boring and uninteresting, with muted browns and greens that add a sense of context but not much else. Watch what happens when I use a +4 close-up filter to get even closer to the flower while also adjusting the composition of the image.
Now we’re getting somewhere! Besides the physical distance to the subject, there are some important elements in this shot that help to elevate it above the earlier ones.
- The yellow flower is now framed between two vertical stems on either side, which helps the flower stand out against the other elements of the image.
- The bright yellows of other flowers now stand out against the dark greens, whereas before they were mixed in with the brown earthy tones.
- Best of all, the light coming through the trees creates a brilliant pop of light behind the flower which adds a sense of energy and excitement to the image.
All of these are intentional choices that show how important these compositional elements are when photographing subjects up close. But we’re not done yet! Some additional tweaks will make this photo even better.
Widening the aperture from f/4 to f/2.8 nearly obliterates the background, but still leaves the key compositional elements visible. You could go even wider depending on your lens, but at this point you start to get diminishing returns. Shooting close-up photos at ultra-wide apertures results in depth of field that is far too shallow for most practical situations, and you can quickly lose all sense of place and context in your images.
Just for fun let’s go even closer to see what happens. Here is the same flower shot with a +10 close-up filter and an aperture of f/4.
This picture is interesting but it has now lost some of the elements that made the earlier version so compelling. Gone are the vertical stems for framing the subject, and the brilliant mass of blurry white light is not nearly as interesting. While you can see some details on the flower that were difficult to make out before, it’s also not as sharp.
This illustrates a trap that you can easily fall for: closer isn’t always better. Just because you can take pictures with mere centimeters separating your subject and your camera doesn’t mean you should. You have to find a balance that produces a pleasing picture, even if it means backing off just a bit.
Here’s another example of how aperture, background, and composition elements affect close-up photography. This is an iris flower shot with a 50mm lens at f/2.8.
There is so much going on in this photo that the subject is barely discernible from all the other elements. You can see the flower in the center but there are other flowers just to the right, a weird grown mass on the left, and a bright blue sky drawing your eye away from the main subject.
From a compositional standpoint, this image is a mess! Getting closer will help, but the distance to the subject is not the only thing to consider.
Moving toward the flower with the assistance of a +4 close-up filter helps to isolate the subject, but it’s not enough to create a good photo. Look at the background. It’s pleasantly blurry, but it’s also full of purple spots from other irises.
At first glance, it’s still somewhat difficult to separate the main iris from the purple elements in the background, especially on a small screen like a mobile phone. But there’s also another problem. That vertical white post creating a line on the right side of the flower. It’s artificial and unnatural and serves as a distraction (unlike the green flower stems in the coneflower example).
So if you want to get good results in conditions like this it’s not enough to just get closer to your subject. You have to look at other things in the frame as well.
This final image is much better, but not just because I got even closer to the flower. I used a +10 close-up filter but that’s not all I did to improve the shot. The other purple flowers are still present in the background, but I adjusted the camera position and angle of view such that they are not distracting from the main subject. I also chose a shooting angle that eliminated the white beam.
Finally, I kept my aperture relatively large at f/2.8, which created a nice combination of background blur and subject sharpness. In retrospect, f/4 might have been preferable since it would have kept the very top of the flower in focus as well, but f/2.8 gave me a result that I am perfectly happy sharing.
Look close to home
You don’t have to go to far-off exotic locations to practice these principles, you can often find things to photograph literally in your own backyard.
The image below is of a salvia plant that is along the fence at the edge of my property. Every year it produces brilliant violet flowers that attract all manner of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. It’s a great opportunity for a photograph, but capturing the essence of this plant requires some thought, preparation, and practice.
Getting a good picture of this member of the mint family takes more than just pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. Look at the difference between the image above and the one below.
Both are the same plant, in the same location, but the one below was shot much closer with a better eye for composition. I also used a +4 close-up filter in order to close the gap between my lens and the flowers and to create a nice blurry background too.
The myriad of improvements go a long way toward getting a much better picture, but I’m not finished yet. The plant is relatively sharp with the depth of field mostly under control, but some things could still be better.
The background looks nice but there are a few simple, easy steps that could dramatically improve the shot. Moving even closer with a +10 close-filter helps, but doesn’t solve everything.
Now the flower is much more prominent and isolated in the frame. But when you’re shooting at close range like this, you have to take into account everything in the frame, not just your subject. Look at how the white spots of light, coming from the sun poking through my neighbor’s tree, sit high above the flower and leave an empty yellow gap that feels strange and unfinished.
This final image is markedly better in virtually every way possible.
The flower itself is sharp, the background elements complement the subject and do not distract the viewer, and the gap between the flower and the spots of white light has been minimized. It looks like the purple flowers are being cradled by the bright bokeh spots, and the whole image feels much more cohesive and complete.
But this image was no accident! It took me 43 attempts to get this shot! If you are shooting photos of close subjects, you will need every principle discussed in this article along with a great deal of patience as well.
Pay attention to the background
This final example shows how one simple trick can have an enormous impact on your close-up images. It’s related to many things I have already covered but shows a simple, clear example of the importance of paying attention to the background.
These chamomile flowers are beautiful but very small, which means you have to get close to get a good shot.
But remember to also consider both the aperture and background! Use an aperture that blurs the background and isolates your subject, and select a background that gives you the right mood and feeling for the shot.
For this shot, I used a +4 close-up filter on my 50mm lens and shot with an aperture of f/4. That was a great combination for isolating one single flower but something isn’t quite right here. Brick pavement fills the background and makes the shot feel strange, distant, and otherworldly as opposed to warm and comforting.
Fixing this takes fewer than five seconds and doesn’t require any special gear or photographic trickery.
I simply scooted over so the background was green instead of dull orange, and took a picture of the exact same flower. It’s an incredibly simple solution but the difference is enormous. The single flower now feels much more natural, normal, and comforting to look at.
Taking pictures at close distances doesn’t have to be difficult, but getting good shots does require a keen eye for detail as well as lots of patience and practice.
Look closely at the background, consider the aperture you are using, and keep your eyes open for any elements in your shot that you can use to enhance your subject. As well, watch for things that might detract from the quality of your photos but can be easily fixed.
Your pictures will be much better by keeping these simple things in mind. Please share some of your close-up photos in the comment area below and if you have any questions, please ask.