Close-up shots pull you directly into a subject and make you focus on its detail. They’re great for highlighting something normally overlooked, and for revealing intimate attributes of larger objects.

A collection of close-ups can make an attractive page layout in a photo book of your trip and bring back memories of precious experiences.

A selection of close-ups can provide a more personalised perspective to make your shots stand out from the crowd. If you’re planning a photo book, a collage of close-ups can make a nice page layout highlighting a specific area of your trip.

This shot showing the details of the fabric was taken through the window of a kimono shop in Kyoto, Japan, using a standard 50mm lens.

We often hear the term ‘macro’ used interchangeably with close-up photography. But there is an important difference between these genres: whereas close-ups refer to images shot at close range and isolated from their surroundings, macro shots are extreme close-ups that portray the subject as life-size or greater-than-life-size. Special macro lenses are required for true macro photography but few travellers can justify including a macro lens in their kits unless they take a lot of shots that require 1:1 (life size) reproduction.

You don’t need a dedicated macro lens for shots like this, which was taken with a 200mm equivalent focal length using a fast f/4 maximum aperture to ensure a blurred background that doesn’t distract from the details in the main subject.

Zoom lenses with ‘macro’ focusing positions can be handy for achieving closer-than-average focus, although few (if any) of them are capable of true macro focus. Many fixed-lens cameras can focus to within one centimetre of a subject, which although not true macro reproduction can result in stunning close-ups of even quite small subjects.

Compact cameras with ‘macro’ focusing modes are ideal for capturing close-up shots.

Compact cameras with relatively small sensors make it easy to capture close-ups of subjects, particularly if they include ‘macro’ settings that adjusts the focus accordingly. Shoot raw files wherever possible when using small-sensor cameras to maximise the amount of image data you record and make editing more rewarding.

Aim to fill the frame with the subject when taking close-ups, particularly when you want to show patterns and textures.

Telephoto lenses can be useful for close-up portraits of people and animals. Medium tele lenses can also enable you to photograph objects in shop windows and on market stalls without drawing attention to yourself (or getting in the way of shoppers). Pictures of signs and other items that characterise an area are always worth adding to your portfolio.

Don’t restrict yourself to photographing flowers and insects; in some places, manhole covers have interesting designs that identify highlights of the area.

When taking close-ups, endeavour to fill the frame with the subject. Moving towards or away from the subject will change the perspective, whereas zooming from a fixed position simply alters magnification. Consider both effects when framing close-up shots.

Finding subjects for close-ups is largely a matter of having an eye for interesting details. This is developed over time, although if you research your destinations beforehand you will often discover potential subjects.

Keep a good working distance between the front of the lens and the subject when photographing small animals, such as insects and arachnids. The closer you get to the subject, the more likely the subject is to get ‘spooked’ and disappear. Static subjects like flowers or craft works are easier to photograph.

Use of a long focal length – in this case 200mm in 35mm format – allows you to get close-up shots without ‘spooking’ small insects or casting a shadow across the subject.

However, make sure the lens shadow doesn’t fall across the subject and interfere with shot composition. In many situations there won’t be enough room to use flash and you can’t use other forms of artificial lighting so hand-holding the camera is the only option.

Focusing can be tricky for close-ups because depth-of-field is restricted. Pay close attention to which parts of the scene are in focus. The closer you shoot and the more the subject is magnified, the smaller the depth-of-field in the shot.

In some cases, you’ll want as much of the subject as possible looking sharp. For others, it’s an advantage to have the main subject differentiated from a blurred background. Cameras that offer multi-shot focus stacking modes can be really useful for obtaining shots with maximum depth of focus. Fast lenses with long focal lengths are best for capturing sharp subjects against blurred backgrounds.

When shooting with wide lens apertures, watch out for bright highlights in the background, which can be sharply outlined and will distract the viewer’s attention from the main subject.

Don’t be afraid to crop images to pare down to details you want to record. Sometimes it’s impossible to get close enough to select the details you want. At others, something might get in the way.

If you know you’re likely to crop shots, make sure your image quality is optimal. Use low ISO settings, make sure the shutter speed is fast enough for hand-holding the camera (taking account of camera or lens stabilisation), and refine your shooting techniques.

Focus carefully and select a specific focus point or group of points to ensure optimal sharpness in the main centre of interest. Consider taking two shots – the first to define the subject and a second one to illustrate its environment.

Long telephoto lenses are normally needed for close-ups of animals and birds, particularly when shooting in the wild. It’s worth aiming for shots that include the subject’s eye because that can create a sense of intimacy with the subject and provide a sense of ‘connection’.

When taking close-ups of wildlife, focus upon the subject’s eyes to establish a sense of ‘connection’.

Look for patterns in nature, both in animals and plants. You can find these patterns in reptiles’ scales, birds’ feathers, tree bark and veins in a rock formation. Longer lenses make it easy to isolate them from the rest of the subject. Wide aperture settings can be used to optimise exposure levels because most of these subjects will be relatively flat.

Keep sensitivity settings low when using compact cameras with small sensors to prevent image noise from becoming visible in out-of-focus areas. ISO 400 should be the upper limit for all small-sensor cameras.

Useful links
ISO and image quality:
Shooting close-ups:

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Travel Photography 3rd Edition

Sponsor: Canon