Al Campbell, Field Editor

October 7th, 2002

Photography Up Close
Natural Lighting
By Al Campbell

If you want good close-up pictures, lighting is something you need to understand and control. That doesn't mean you have to control the intensity of the sun or anything like that, but it does mean you have to control the angle of the light and how it effects the light meter on your camera. If you don't control the lighting situation, your close-up photography will be hit and miss at best.

I don't think every shot will turn out perfectly. I rarely get more than a couple of really good pictures from a standard roll of 36 exposure film, and the results with digital cameras are pretty close to the same. Focus (something we'll talk about in a later article) and lighting are very important items that must be controlled if you want good pictures, but you'll still have plenty of shots that just don't turn out well. Use those mistakes to learn more about your equipment and how it works. Practice is very important to success.

We'll discuss outdoor lighting first. You might think you don't have any control over that situation, but in some ways, you have more control over natural light than you do over artificial light. You can control the angle better, and the shadows and background can be manipulated easier. Since natural light is often brighter, you usually get a faster shutter speed, so you can reduce the aperture opening for greater depth of field, and still have less need for a tripod. There are a few other tricks that can help too.

First, you need to control the shadows. Allowing a shadow to dissect your subject will ruin the picture every time. Rotate that branch until the insect is in the light you want. While you're at it, hold that branch so the wind can't make it wiggle and ruin your focus. Maybe bending the branch will produce the best light. Take control of the situation and create the best lighting you can.

Poor caddis

The focus on this caddis is fair, but the shadow on the back of the wing won't work. Obviously the camera measured its light from the dark area just below the insect, so most of the fly is too light. The background is fair, but it would look even better if the light was measured on the insect and not the background. Bending the branch to the right angle could have improved the background, changed the measured lighting, and removed that shadow.

Another poor caddis
This caddis in the shade on a bridge railing. The focus is right, the details are ok, but that painted surface isn't at all interesting to look at. Once again, the lighting was measured off the background, but this time the results are a caddis that's too dark. Using one of those reflective window shades you put in your windshield would have reflected enough light to fix the dark insect and maybe save this photo (except the poor background).

Problems here too

The caddis is in focus, the light metering is ok, the background isn't bad, and even the bridge railing under the caddis isn't too much of a distraction. However, the angle of the light is producing a nasty glare off the wing of the caddis. A soft shade like a cheesecloth net would have subdued the light enough to soften that glare. A thin cloud will also subdue the light well, but still allow good lighting for photography.

Throw this one away

Throw this one away. The background won't do at all. There is a shadow on the insect, and that is where the light was metered. Everything else is too light to work. It will take a lot of branch bending and maybe a soft shade to improve this picture.

Control the background. Move the camera's angle around to get the best background. Deep green leaves and such are almost always pleasing to the eye. Painted bridge rails just don't look right. Slip a twig under the insect and try to get it to crawl onto the twig so you can move it to a better location for light and background. Use your view through the viewfinder to choose the right location and angle. The background can make or break any photo.

Blown out background

In this picture, I pulled the branch down carefully until it was horizontal and the background was right. The bonus was that I was able to pull it into the subdued lighting of partial shade so the colors are more full and there aren't nasty shadows and glare. The green background is delightfully out of focus to give depth to the picture adding a third dimension. Controlling the branch that way helped overcome the wind and allowed me to carefully manage the camera's light meter and focus.

Much better!

By moving the branch around, I was able to place the direct light of the sun above and behind this caddis to remove the reflecting glare from its wing. By using direct light this way, I was able to get a darker and deeper green background that focuses your attention on the subject. A bonus is that the direct light is brighter, so shutter speeds are faster and there is less chance for a blurry image due to movement.

Experiment with backlighting. Sometimes the best picture is a silhouette. Super-detailed photos are nice, but nothing sets a mood better than a silhouette. I've had just as many oohs and ahhs at slide shows over good silhouettes as I've heard over detailed photos that showed every muscle and hair on an insect. There's just something about a good silhouette that can't be found in any directly lit photo.

Wow appeal

Here I used the natural shade of a leaf and the selected background of a well lit leaf to create a silhouette of a caddisfly. The partial lighting of the wing provides just enough detail to identify which variety of caddis we are looking at, but the est is merely outlined on the lighter background. Move your camera or subject around until you get the right background for this type of shot.

Baetis spinner

This baetis spinner (mayfly) photo was captured on slide film. I eased the branch it was on down and over into the partial shade of another branch and in front of a well-lit branch. The branch in the background is out of focus to provide depth to the photo. The lighter background illuminates the veins in the insect's transparent wings and tails, while the body is a dark silhouette of a very small mayfly.

Good ant photo

Many insects are transparent in bright light. Placing the light (or in this case, the subject in relation to the light) at the right angle will allow the light to shine through the insect's body. More than a mere silhouette, it illuminates details that would otherwise be lost to direct lighting.

If you decide to use a 35mm camera, invest in a monopod to help you hold the camera steady while you move things around for a better picture. A monopod will really help you minimize shake that can blur what would have been a great photo. Monopods are much lighter and easier to use than tripods, and they allow a greater amount of flexibility to capture the best angle and background.

Digital cameras are usually much lighter and more compact than 35mm cameras, so holding them in one hand while you manipulate the image with the other hand is easier. However, a monopod will ease the weight your arm must carry and help you steady the camera for crisper shots.

Hopefully you can see something I have hinted at all through this article. Good photos are made, not just captured. Your best close-up photos will be the ones you made happen by controlling the elements of the photo like background and lighting. You may spend hours just to capture one or two great photos, but that sure beats spending hours just to capture a hundred poor photos. Practice is the only way to learn how to get the best photos with your gear, but knowing how to create those photos will save you many hours and dollars. It's worth the time and effort to control the picture before you snap that shutter.

Next week we'll look at artificial lighting and how to get the best results. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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