Photo Masterclass part 19: Extreme close-up

If you can get really close to your subject, you can enter a new world of wildlife photography. It’s a place of great beauty, seldom visited by most other people. But you need to draw on your imagination and all your artistic skills to create a vision from the detail. 

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Photo Masterclass part 19: Close-up photography spread

If you can get really close to your subject, you can enter a new world of wildlife photography. It’s a place of great beauty, seldom visited by most other people. But you need to draw on your imagination and all your artistic skills to create a vision from the detail. 

This month we’re looking at an alien world, where we can transform the familiar into the unfamiliar, create beauty out of the mundane and reveal details far removed from what most people see in normal daily life.

We’re delving into the world of macro-photography, shooting subjects most photographers would pass by without a second thought.

Shooting extreme close-ups is a field of photography in which some technological knowledge is essential.

It’s not as simple as moving in a little nearer and hoping for the best. There are new challenges, such as focusing closely, more awkward lighting and a shallower depth of field.

Then there is the difficulty of finding suitable subjects in the first place. Being a good naturalist helps, but the trick is to stop and search.

If you look close enough, it’s amazing how many photogenic shapes, colours and textures you can find within a few metres of where you are standing.

Train your eye to discover beauty where others may see only a tangle of grass or a lichen-covered rock. There is a whole new world out there full of visual surprises and tantalising picture possibilities – literally at your feet.

The only limiting factor is your imagination. Technique can never replace artistic vision (you have to shoot as an artist not a technician) and this improves with practice.

The more subjects you photograph and the more you experiment, the more you learn about what makes a striking image.

And the great advantage is that you can make uncommonly good pictures out of common subjects anywhere – in the house, in the garden or in a wilderness far from home.

 

Meet the photography experts: Gilles Martin

 

Wildlife photographer Gilles Martin has been taking shots of animals since the age of seven. He has written a dozen books and his images are published worldwide.

Gilles Martin was drawn to wildlife as a small boy, living along the Loire in Touraine, where his father painted watercolours of the river. His grandfather gave him his first camera when he was just seven years old and he hasn’t looked back since.

“I think macro-photography has the edge over other wildlife photography,” he says, “because you have more control over all the technical details, such as depth of field and lighting.” But it’s the aesthetics of a picture that Gilles finds most challenging and satisfying.

“I shoot two kinds of image: one showing the subject as a readily identifiable animal and the other far more abstract. I prefer the abstracts,” he laughs, “because they force me to be more creative.”

He loves accentuating details that show beauty without giving away the identity of the animal.

Gilles sometimes works in a studio, particularly when photographing very small creatures that require extreme magnification, but he prefers to shoot in the field. “I use a mobile studio,” he explains, “which I take everywhere.”

This consists of everything from a camping table to light fibre-optics, complete with their own generator. His favourite subjects are insects.

“You need to be a good naturalist to find and work with insects,” he says, “and you need excellent reflexes to freeze them in action.”

Never short of ideas and grand plans, Gilles is working on a project to photograph as many endangered species as possible, as a kind of photographic Noah’s Ark.

“My aim is to use photography to raise the alarm before these animals disappear,” he says. “The more insects I can squeeze into the ark, the better.”

 

Gilles Martin’s top close-up photography tips:

 

  1. Get down to eye-level

    The golden rule in most wildlife photography is to take pictures at your subject’s eye-level, and this applies equally to macro-photography. Few people see insects and other small creatures from this angle, so it transforms your images from ordinary snapshots from a human perspective into striking pictures with eye-to-eye intimacy and drama.
     

  2. Watch the background

    First, pick an interesting subject, then select a simple, attractive and natural-looking background. Many people are so focused on their subject that they forget about the backdrop altogether, but Gilles believes the two are equally important in the final image. Change your angle slightly to make the background more pleasing, or control it with your depth of field.
     

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