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Chapter 3 Composition for the Close-Up > Planning Your Shots and Angles

Planning Your Shots and Angles

One of the great aspects of close-up photography compared to normal photography is that your subject is small enough that it is easy to move around it. This means you can change your angle to the subject quite easily. Changing the angle of your camera to the subject affects composition, light, plane of focus, background, foreground, and so forth.

When photographers first start doing close-ups, they often shoot with the same identical angle, camera pointed down at the subject at about a 45-degree angle. This can be a perfectly fine angle, but it can also be very limiting. Subjects don’t always look their best when you are looking down on them. Sometimes the subject will look better when the camera is below it, or “eye-level” to a grass flower (Figure 3.4). Sometimes the subject will look its best when you are vertically directly over it. The point is that there should be no arbitrary angle to your subject that you always use. It is just too easy to change that angle for close-up work.

Figure 3.4 By getting down to the level of your close subject, your photograph will be more original than the standard 45-degree angle shot.

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Watch That Background

The background for your subject is extremely important for close-up work. So often photographers think that because the background is out of focus, it is no longer as important. That is simply not true. The background is always important, and when it is forgotten, you will often end up with distractions that hurt your photograph, as seen in Figure 3.5.

One challenge that you will face as a close-up photographer is that what you see through your viewfinder is not exactly what the camera is going to capture. While focusing, your camera sets your lens to its widest aperture or f/stop. This makes focusing easier because depth-of-field is at its narrowest. But that also makes the background look more out of focus. When you take your picture, the lens stops down to the taking aperture so that you will have more depth-of-field. Even if the background does not become sharp, it will become more defined, and it is that definition that can highlight distractions that you don’t want.

One thing that can help is to use the depth-of-field preview button or lever if your camera has one. If you’re looking through the viewfinder, this will make your image look very dark so that it can be hard to see what is happening in the background (though with experience, you can learn to do it). If your camera has Live View, then using the depth-of-field preview lever works quite nicely because you see how sharpness changes and the image will stay bright on your LCD.

Figure 3.5 A background can still be distracting even when it is out of focus.

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As you examine your background behind your subject, and you can do this when you play back your images, too, here are some things to look for:

Image Light. The light on your subject is important, but so is the light on the background. Any time there is something in the background that is bright away from your subject, you have a distraction. That will always attract the viewer’s eye away from your subject. Look for light in the background that complements your subject (Figure 3.6).

Image Contrast. Contrast in the background can be both good and bad for your subject. Contrast in the background is great when it allows your subject to stand out better against the background. A bright flower against a dark background or a dark object against a white background will help the subject stand out. But when there is something that is very contrasty away from your subject, this will be a distraction and attract your viewer’s eye away from the subject.

Figure 3.6 By moving just a short distance, a bright spot changes from a distraction to a way of highlighting the subject.

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Image Sharpness. Again, you can help your subject stand out against a background when the background is distinctly out of focus compared to the subject. As you move around your subject, notice that the background will change in distance behind your subject. If you shoot down on your subject, the ground will be much closer behind your subject, and therefore sharper, than if you get lower and discover that things behind your subject are now quite far away.

Image Colors. It can be very frustrating to have a nice, sharp picture of a close-up subject and discover that there are bright colors in the background that are distracting from it. Colors like red, yellow, and orange are particularly problematic because they will almost always attract the viewer’s eye, even if they are totally out of focus.

You will sometimes hear photographers refer to a background blur as having a good or bad bokeh. Bokeh comes from boke, a Japanese word meaning blur or haze. Bokeh has become very popular as a way of describing the out-of-focus qualities of your background. This is not different from your out-of-focus background, but it is simply a new term to describe the look.

Working with Foregrounds

Foregrounds are also important to your photography when you are up close to your subject. It is interesting that photographers will often avoid foregrounds when they are up close because they want to be sure to see the subject clearly. You can bend branches down, move flowers out of the way, and so forth. Sometimes that’s important to do. Sometimes you don’t want to have a foreground; you simply want to see your subject against a simple background.

But foregrounds can also add interesting aspects to your composition (Figure 3.7). A classic way of creating a composition is to layer your image with a foreground then the subject in the middle ground and then the background behind. Foregrounds can add more information about your subject to help your composition communicate better to a viewer. Once again, the challenge the photographer has is to keep that foreground as a supporting element to the image, not the star or a distraction that takes away from your star, the subject.

How you look at and see a foreground is very similar to the way you look at the background, except now you’re looking at things in front of the subject. Here are some of the same things you read about for backgrounds, but now changed for getting better foregrounds:

Figure 3.7 With flowers in the foreground and background, this close-up gives an impression of a dense field of flowers.

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Image Light. Once again, the light on your subject is important, but you have to watch what it is doing in the foreground, too. Bright light that breaks up the foreground so that it is less clear as a foreground will cause you problems. Shadows in the wrong places in your foreground can make the picture look very confusing.

Image Contrast. Contrast in the foreground also works quite well when it allows your subject to stand out better in the image. A dark bit of foliage can act as a frame for a bright flower behind it, for example. Bright foregrounds can be a little harder to work with because they can dominate the composition and make a darker subject harder to see.

Image Sharpness. A great way to define your composition is to shoot through some objects in the foreground that are totally out of focus. This creates a contrast with the sharp subject that really helps it stand out, as shown in Figure 3.8. This also gives a very different look than having that same contrast in the background.

Image Colors. Color can be an excellent part of your foreground, especially if it is helping the subject by creating a visual pattern from foreground to subject. That can lead the eye to your subject. Out-of-focus foreground colors can also add an interesting mood or feeling to your photo.

Figure 3.8 An out-of-focus foreground creates a sharp contrast with the in-focus subject, helping the subject to stand out.

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One other thing that you can do with foregrounds and backgrounds is to look for visual relationships in your composition. What this means is that you look for something in the foreground that relates to your subject that then relates to something in the background. This can create interesting visual movement of the viewer’s eye through the photograph from foreground to background. This could be as simple as a line of mushrooms going from foreground to background on a forest floor or a group of flowers that starts with an out-of-focus flower in the foreground, then a sharp flower, then more out-of-focus flowers in the background.

Isolating the Subject

As you work your subject with foreground and background, you will discover ways of isolating your subject and making it stand out as the star of your composition. As you have read above, backgrounds and foregrounds can cause you problems by adding distractions to the photograph that keep your subject from being the star you wanted it to be in your image. Or they can help by emphasizing the subject.

Isolating your subject in the image can be an excellent way of composing your photograph. This ensures that anyone looking at your image will see and be impressed by the subject just as you were. Sometimes this isolation of the subject can also create a very dramatic image that has a lot of impact. Here’s how to isolate your subject using some of the same ideas you learned from backgrounds and foregrounds:

Image Sharpness. One of the best ways to isolate your subject in the image is by having the subject very sharp and everything else being totally out of focus, as shown in Figure 3.9. Don’t be afraid to shoot with a wide aperture or f/stop (small number) for your lens in order to do this. You’ll also find that this effect is strongest when you use a telephoto lens.

Image Contrast. Contrast is a terrific way of isolating your subject within the image frame. Any time you can put your subject against something that is brighter or darker than it is, you will help define and isolate it within the picture.

Image Light. A great way to use light for isolating your subject is to find a spot where the light on your subject is very different than the light on the background. When the light is bright on your subject and the background is dark, this acts like a spotlight in a theater to show off your subject.

Image Color. Colors have contrast and whenever you can use a different color than your subject’s color behind your subject, you will help the subject stand out. While it is possible to use a contrasting color in front of your subject, this tends not to work as well for isolating your subject.

Figure 3.9 A telephoto lens and a wide aperture helped isolate the fern frond subject of this close-up.

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Environmental Close-Ups

While isolating a subject is a good and popular way of shooting a close-up, another way of approaching your subject is to look for an environmental close-up. This is like an environmental portrait where a photograph of a person shows both the person and a location. What you’re looking for is a way of putting your subject into its surroundings or its environment so that the viewer gets an idea of where the subject lives or is situated.

Both foregrounds and backgrounds are important to an environmental picture. Sometimes you will find that the image will look best with the foreground featured as a part of the setting for your subject; at other times it will be the background, and sometimes you will use both. The key is to look for what can be used as part of the composition that will both show off of the subject and create a relationship between that subject and its setting.

This can be hard to do for close-up photography because there can be so much detail that the composition is hard to understand. The challenge is to create an image that both shows off the subject and its surroundings while still keeping the subject the most important part of the picture. Here are some things to try:

Image Use a wide-angle lens. Many wide-angle lenses are now designed to focus quite close (Figure 3.10). Set your lens manually to its closest focus distance then move in to see what you can get. When you get close to a subject with a wide-angle lens, the background will shrink while the subject stays big. That can help you define your composition.

Image Choose a small f/stop (such as f/16). Small f/stops will give you enough depth-of-field to define the setting around your subject. Even though depth-of-field might not cover everything, you will often be able to get the setting defined enough to be understandable.

Image Shoot from a low angle. When you get your camera down low to your subject, you’re often able to reveal the background setting or environment. If you have a tilting LCD on your camera, this can be easy to do. If you don’t, put your camera down near the ground and try it anyway. Then check your shot in your LCD to see if you got what you wanted or to see what you need to do to refine the composition.

Image Place your subject carefully. When you shoot with a wide-angle lens and a small f/stop, you will often have a lot of definition in the detail all around your subject. That can be distracting if it is all right behind your subject. Sometimes you can move just inches and change what is immediately behind your subject so that the subject stands out amongst all of that detail.

Figure 3.10 When the camera is down low with a wide-angle lens, the environment around your subject is revealed.

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