Get close: The art of photographing flowers and other small subjects

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In the early 1990s my first photographic income came from documenting 50 Missouri native wildflowers. They appeared in the debut photo catalog of the Missouri Wildflower Nursery ( located outside Jefferson City. It took a year to find and document the blooming plants on the nursery’s shot list; thus I evolved into a close-up specialist.
The following are timeless tips meant for those using a digital single lens reflex camera, but many apply to point-and-shoot and cell phone cameras as well.

  • Use a tripod, ALWAYS. It’s your support system and aids in sharpness and allows for precise positioning for a strong composition.
  • Choose a lens that provides close focusing. A true micro/macro lens is a flat-field lens, one capable of close-focusing a flat subject such as newsprint and retaining edge-to-edge sharpness. A curve-field lens provides sharpness in the photograph’s center but falls off toward the outer edges. With either a flat-field or curve-field lens, keep your camera parallel to your subject for maximum subject sharpness.
  • If your lens options don’t get you close enough, you can purchase extension tubes (glassless tubes that go between the camera and lens) or diopters (magnifying filters that fit on the front end of lenses).
  • Set the lens on manual focus to precisely control the sharpest area of the photo, usually the eye(s) of a creature or main feature of other subjects. Use the appropriate depth-of-field setting for the subject. For blurred backgrounds use a wider aperture (f/2.8, 3.5, etc.); for more depth, close down the aperture (f/11, 13, etc.).
  • Know your gear. In the film days, there was no preview before making the photo, no review after making the photo (until the film was processed) and no histogram to check for appropriate exposure. This all changed with digital cameras and can help you adjust as you’re shooting.
  • Before attaching the camera to the tripod, select your lens and subject, followed by the precise position of the camera. Then “build” the tripod below the camera, knowing the camera angle you’ve chosen. This saves having to move the camera AND tripod around while hunting for an appropriate perspective.
  • To keep your horizon straight, position yourself squarely behind the camera, whether standing, sitting or lying on the ground. When photographing an intimate scene and the horizon doesn’t show, you and your viewers should still “feel” what looks straight, especially with live subjects.
  • When using a zoom lens, leave room at both ends of the zoom’s range, so you can zoom in or out from your subject. Work loosely, being sure to leave enough room for the editor to crop your photos to fit the space.
  • Use the camera’s depth-of-field preview feature, usually a button or lever on the front of the camera near the lens. Typically lenses work best in the middle range of the aperture, say f/8 to f/11, rather than at wide-open settings (for smaller amount of sharp focus) or closed-down settings (for larger amount of sharp focus).
  • Choose the highest resolution your DSLR offers, normally RAW format. This captures the maximum amount of information, which can be downsized later. Other options include “RAW + JPG,” “Large JPG” and other smaller file sizes. Choosing “RAW + JPG” allows the convenience of a JPG without the need for sophisticated processing software. Selecting only “Large JPG” results in no RAW file, which initially saves on file space but provides less control over your results.
  • Make many frames of the same subject, using various angles, lenses and magnification choices. This provides more options for later, when you review and select photos in the computer.
  • Finally, learn to be ruthless when critiquing your work (pun intended)!♦

— In addition to writing and photographing, Ruth Hoyt teaches nature photography in group classes and private instruction, guides photographers on tour and in workshops, and consults with private landowners who want to set up their property for photography. 

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