Al Campbell, Field Editor

September 23rd, 2002

Photography Up Close
By Al Campbell

Due to popular request, I'm going to take a break from the dull and boring stuff I write each week and do a series of columns on close-up photography. It seems there are number of readers who think they want to learn stuff like fly tying and such, to include photography of tiny subjects. It also seems that some of the same people think I know something about that subject. I'm not really sure this will be any less boring to you than the stuff I usually write, but I'm willing to give it a try.

SLR Camera

First of all, if you want to take pictures of something, you need a camera. If you want to take pictures of something tiny, you need a camera that works in a type of mode called macro. That usually means either a digital camera or one that can use interchangeable lenses (called Single Lens Reflex (SLR)). Granted, some cameras that don't have interchangeable lenses have a macro mode, but they usually won't focus close enough to something as small as an insect or artificial fly to do a lot of good. That's why you need something that has lenses that can be changed.

Macro I'll discuss digital cameras and their benefits/drawbacks in a later column. Right now, I want to focus this article on a type of camera known as a 35mm SLR camera. That's the type of camera that's most often used in outdoor photography and macro photography. What makes this kind of camera so adaptable to macro photography is the fact that you can change lenses or add accessories to your lenses that bring tiny stuff into focus at a close range. All you need is the camera body and some lenses adapted to the task you have in mind.

Magnifying Filters

The first and least expensive way to get close-up pictures of tiny stuff is to add magnifying filters to the end of your camera lens. These filters can be purchased in just the right size to fit over or in the end of the camera lens you already have on your camera. They will magnify the image your camera sees, and allow you to focus the lens closer to your subject than you could normally focus. Pretty easy, huh? Well, not that easy.

Magnifying filters have several drawbacks. First, they create an image on film that might be sharp in the center, but is almost always fuzzy and out of focus around the edges. The additional layers of glass cause a slight distortion of the image and reduce the sharpness of the picture. Added lenses reduce available light so you'll need more light and a good tripod if you want pictures that are even slightly close to sharp.

Another problem you'll encounter is something called depth of field. That is the space of air that's in focus in front of your lens. As you move your camera closer or further away from your subject, the image will come into focus and go out of focus. That thin slice of air where the image is in focus is called depth of field. The more you magnify the image, especially with magnifying filters, the thinner that depth of field becomes. Depending on the lens you're using, and the types and numbers of filters you're using, that slice of air can be reduced to less than a millimeter. That means the legs on that insect or the hackle closest to you on that fly you just tied is in focus, but the body and everything else is fuzzy.

F Stop

You can move farther away from your subject before you focus the lens to increase the depth of field, but then you reduce the size of your image and the details in the resulting photo you want to take. You can reduce the size of the lens's aperture (the small opening in the lens that the image passes through) to increase the depth of field somewhat, but that sometimes reduces the sharpness of your photograph proportionately. By the way, reducing the size of the aperture (setting the lens to a higher aperture (F-Stop) number) always increases the depth of field, but on the outside ranges of the aperture settings the image is the least clear. The best aperture setting for clarity is somewhere in the middle like F8 to F11, but that often doesn't provide a usable depth of field.

Extension Tube A better way to bring that image in close for photography is to add a bellows or some extension tubes between your camera body and the lens. That moves the aperture of the lens further from the film, thus increasing the size of the image; and improves the depth of field slightly over what you get through magnifying filters. It also keeps the image sharp all the way to the edges, unlike what magnifying filters do to your image. The more powerful your lens, the further from the lens the image will come into focus, and the larger that image will be; but also, the thinner the depth of field.

Another drawback to either of the above mentioned ways to get close to your subject is the fact that either method reduces the light that gets to the film, so the shutter speeds will be slower and the need for a good tripod will be greater. Any movement will create a fuzzy picture. You'll need a lot of light if you want anything close to sharp pictures.


If I lost you with the word aperture, you can see what I mean if you conduct a small experiment. Take a small nail and punch a hole in a piece of cardboard. Then, take another, larger nail and punch a bigger hole in another piece of cardboard. The diameter of each hole is the aperture that any image will pass through. Now, place a subject in a well-lit area, grab a piece of waxed paper or tracing paper and cover your head and the paper with something dark. Next, place the hole in the cardboard fairly close to your subject. Now, move the waxed or tracing paper behind the cardboard close enough to the hole that any image passing through the hole will appear on the paper. You will notice that the (inverted) image passing through the smaller hole will be darker, but will be in focus at more variable distances from the hole (aperture) than the image passing through the larger hole (aperture). You will also notice that you'll have to place the waxed paper further from the cardboard with the small aperture to get a good focus, but the image will be slightly larger. That is the effect of aperture. You can see the aperture of a real lens in the attached photograph.

Perhaps the best way to capture a small subject on film is to use a lens dedicated to macro photography. This is also the most costly way to do it. Macro type lenses offer the greatest image control and best image quality of the three methods of taking close-up pictures. They also pass the most light to the film and give you the best depth of field possibilities of the three methods. Unfortunately, they cost money, and a good macro lens can cost a bundle. The 105mm macro lens I used for some of my intermediate tying series photography costs roughly $600 at most photography stores. Some lenses can cost a whole lot more. I guess you get what you pay for, but the cost isn't something to take lightly.

Another consideration you need to think about when capturing images on film is something called grain. All types of film are made with a substance placed on that film to capture the image and store it for developing. The faster the film, the less light you need, but the larger the grain of the substance that captures the image will be. That means you want a slow film if you want sharp pictures that don't appear coarse or grainy. Faster film also has less color density, so pictures taken on fast film won't have the brilliant colors of pictures taken on slow film.

You should be aware of the fact that slide film offers better color quality than print film. The process used to transfer images from color print film to paper almost always produces a color shift that, depending on the quality and care of the machinery and person developing the film, can lead to colors that aren't true to the item you took the photo of. Some print labs will have a color shift to the blue side of the light spectrum, and others will shift towards the red side. Many labs will blow out the hot colors like red and orange and subdue cool colors like green. The resulting photo won't be true to the colors and shades of the subject. This is especially true with fast labs like one-hour shops use. If you want better prints, plan on paying substantially more for quality developing than the fast labs cost. Slide film doesn't have the color shift problems that print film has; at least, not as often.


As you look at my fly tying series, the beginner series was photographed using a telephoto lens and extension tubes with print film. The intermediate series is where I shifted to a dedicated macro lens, and near the end, I started using slide film after I purchased a slide scanner. You'll see the difference each upgrade had on the quality of the pictures you look at. The advanced series has been photographed using a (good, costly) digital camera.

We'll discuss digital photography next week. See you then. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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