Sometimes Close-ups Are Better From Far Away

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In this post, Steve Berardi from the PhotoNaturalist explains why sometimes close-up photos are better from far away.

When you think of close-up photography, you probably think of getting in close with a macro lens. After all, it’s called “close-up” photography, right?

Although you can certainly create some awesome images when you’re up close to an object, sometimes it also helps to get farther away. This will give you a lot more control of what to put in the background.

This is best illustrated with an example, so let’s say you have this toy Lego that you want to photograph in front of a blue water bottle. We’ll start with a super closeup photo at about 60 cm away from the Lego:

lego_1.jpg

But, this photo has a pretty distracting background–you can barely see the blue water bottle and there’s a distracting wine bottle off to the left there. So, watch what happens as you move farther away from the toy Lego:

lego_2.jpg

Finally, at 240 cm away you have that nice blue background. But, you might be wondering what’s going on here: why did you have to get farther away from the toy Lego to get that better background?

Well, there’s a fundamental rule about image composition that’s important to remember:

As you move closer to an object, that object increases in size more quickly than objects in the background.

That means, as you move farther from an object, that object will decrease in size more quickly than the objects in its background.

So, in the example above, as I moved the camera farther from the toy Lego, the toy Lego got smaller in the image faster than the blue water bottle did.

If that sounds confusing, don’t worry, because the basic idea is simple: as you move farther away from an object, you get more control of what to place in the background.

And, since the background plays such a large role in a close-up photo, many times you need this extra control.

What matters is the distance from camera to subject

In the photos above, the only thing that changed between each photo was the distance between my camera and the Lego. I used the exact same camera settings for each photo (f/5.6, 0.8 sec, ISO 400), and the exact same lens (100mm f/2.8 macro).

Normally, as you move farther away from your subject, you’d also want to use a longer lens to fill the frame, but I wanted to make it clear that it’s the distance that really matters here. So, I used the same lens at each distance and simply cropped the photos in post-processing.

There’s a common misconception in photography that focal length causes these differences in perspective, but it’s really the camera to subject distance that matters. For a similar example, checkout this post I wrote about landscape photography.

Can’t you just move your background closer?

Another option that’s available sometimes is to just move your background closer to the object you’re photographing. But, this isn’t always possible (especially with nature photography, where you’re often stuck with the background that’s already there).

Keeping your background farther away from your subject also helps keep it out of focus, which is another important aspect of closeup photography. That out of focus background will help make your subject look sharper.

steveb.jpg
About the Author: Steve Berardi is a nature photographer and software developer, who can usually be found hiking in the mountains of California or the forests of the midwestern United States.

You can read more of his articles on nature photography at the PhotoNaturalist.

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  • Awesome post! I’m all the time trying to teach my friends and family about manipulating their backgrounds, this works as a great illustration!

  • Amy

    This is so true! I’ve come to learn this in the past few weeks the hard way. My daughter recently had her baby and I was trying to get a close-up of his face, but my camera wouldn’t focus correctly using auto-focus. However I stepped back a few steps, re-focued and voila! It worked. The same thing happened when I was taking a pictre of some rolling pins. Too close and it didn’t look quite right. So I took a few step back and it was so much better.

    Thanks for your post!

  • Hi, Steve.

    I’m confused about you saying the settings didn’t change between the three sample photos. I get the perspective and the distance to camera stuff, but I have a doubt: the last two shots are seriously cropped, right?

  • Noticed this when trying to frame and focus this photo. Good to know the reasons behind it!

    http://500px.com/photo/1489806

  • I completely agree with this. And this lesson really applies to the field of photography that I do.

    I do car photography for my website http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    Zooming out and being close to the subject, in my case – the car, creates an effect where the car looks out of proportion. Moving backward and zooming in creates a more natural look and feel to it, and the proportions are more correct.

    Also, when shooting cars with models, moving backward and zooming in makes the model look thinner, and sexier, than being up close and zooming out.

  • Tom_Vienna

    Hallo Steve, thank you for this easy to understand example!

    by the way: I understand that its the camera to subject distance that matters – but you also changed the crop-factor by croping the image – this means you changed also the focal lenght 🙂

  • Jake Townsen

    Good points. I think it would be great to mention the concept of “Compression” in this post, since that is what you are doing when backing off and zooming in. Compression makes objects in the background appear closer to your subject than they actually are, and also makes background objects appear larger and more diffused. This is how telephoto lens’ work. Whereas wide angles push objects further away.

  • I really like taking one composition concept and creating an entire post on it. This is a great tip and makes things explicitly clear. Background is key!

  • Totally agree – this shot of this model was around 30 ft away…it is Bokehliscious

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/vintage-glam/

  • I wrote a similar article recently discussing compressed perspective.

    http://hertsphotographer.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/compressed-perspective

    I also use a long lens to get natural close-up shots of people at events – visitors and performers/participants. You get much more relaxed shots with a less distracting background.

  • Interesting…I knew of this concept, but actually seeing an illustration of it with the Lego man.

    Efrain–the lens used was a zoom lens and the photographer zoomed in more, the more he backed up.

  • HermanVonPetri

    Bekah & Efrain,

    The author was very clear that he kept the lens at only 100mm for every shot. The only things that changed were his distance away from the figure and how much he cropped the shot afterwards.

    Of course, most photographers would zoom in more as they backed away, but it isn’t necessary to achieve this effect as long as you have enough resolution to crop down to the subject.

  • Joe Bodego

    You got a point there but I find the Nikon 105mm Micro lens is an amazing closeup lens.

  • BFeldman

    I think the first shot looks the best

  • Ruth

    So would it create the same effect if you keep the far distance but zoom in to fill the shot instead of cropping i afterwards?

  • This post was great! I always see a huge difference in portraits when I use a zoom at around 200mm+ and when I use a prime lens, for example.
    Aside from the photos looking very natural, I don’t have to get too close to my subject’s personal space, which most of the time helps them in being more comfortable.

  • Ruth, yes..it would.

    HermanVonPetri–you’re right! I was mistaken, thanks for pointing that out. 🙂

  • bongtschik

    Yes, that’s right, ruth.

  • Thanks everyone for your nice comments, glad you enjoyed the post!

    @Efrain – You’re right, I seriously cropped the last two shots. Normally, I would also use a longer lens as I moved away from the toy Lego, but I wanted to make it as clear as possible that what matters the most here is camera to subject distance. So, I purposely used the same lens for each photo and cropped the last two photos.

    @Jake – Great idea about mentioning “compression” here, that probably would’ve helped a lot of people understand this better. I’ll have to remember that for the next time I try to explain this concept. Thanks!!

    @Ruth – Yes, the last two shots would’ve looked the same if I used a longer lens to fill the frame. The bokeh would likely be different if I used a different lens for each shot, but the relative sizes of objects in the image would all stay the same.

    -Steve

  • I love taking my close-ups form far away, love the extra added effect

  • Trevis Thomas

    @steve

    I don’t believe that the last two shots would look the same had you zoomed instead of cropped. The different focal length lenses have different fields of view. Cropping doesnt change fov.

    Maybe im not understanding. I guess I should perform the experiment myself.

  • so true ,simple and clever!

  • Trevis Thomas

    @steve

    I don’t believe that the last two shots would look the same had you zoomed instead of cropped.  The different focal length lenses have different fields of view.  Cropping doesnt change fov.  

    I guess an experiment is in order.

  • Molly Rose

    I do this ALLLLL the time. XD My macro lens is all right, but I’ve gotten some amazing pictures from zooming because I couldn’t get any closer to the subject (*cough*horses*cough*).

  • Filipe

    hello, first of all I thank you for all the tips during all this time/years.

    Regarding these post and one truble that I have I’m wondering if you could help me.

    I love to photos from eyes but can’t take them correctly!!! 🙁

    I have tried everything but if I close up the lens to the eye I can’t get enough light, if I get the lens far away I can’t focus the iris or the eye correctly!!!! 🙁

    the best I got was with my 24-70 with extensive tube rings and side lamp but I had difficulty to focus!!!

    What should I do? what setings do you recomend? what focus? what light mettering? what and how should I light the eye?

    best regards for all,
    Filipe

  • rd

    While it’s a really good article and something to think on – you also need to pay attention to the clarity and color distortion of the lego as you move farther away. A distinct, almost red orange, and clarity of form. then it becomes paler and less clear, the lines, as you moved away. I use this in taking pictures of flowers, especially, but almost always I have to go back and adjust the color because as you can see, it washes out.

  • Scottc

    It’s great to see this finally explained in plain language!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5856194847/

  • Ruth

    Thanks for clearing that up, guys =) will definetly think about this rule in future.

  • @trevis – I actually shot the photos at different focal lengths too. I included them in the first draft of this post, but decided to take them out and keep the focal length constant (only to illustrate the concept more clearly). But, here are a couple more images I shot that help show all that matters here is the position of the camera:

    http://photonaturalist.net/images/lego.jpg

    The two shots on top were each taken with completely different lenses (a Canon 70-200mm and then a 300mm lens, both with extension tubes attached so I could focus closer), and the two shots on the bottom were both taken with the exact same lens (a Canon 100mm macro). As you can see in the photos, the relative sizes of the lego and water bottle are the same at the same distances (i.e. focal length has no effect on the relative sizes of the objects, it’s ONLY the distance from camera to subject that matters).

    The lighting is a little different between the two sets of photos, but that’s because I had different lights on in my kitchen for each set (I’m mostly a natural light guy, so please forgive my poor artificial lighting skills, heh). And, the bokeh is a little different, but that’s most likely because of the lenses (each lens typically has their own subtle differences in bokeh).

    Hope these extra shots help make this concept MORE clear, and not more confusing, hehe 😉

    Steve

  • Trevis Thomas

    @Steve

    Unless i’m missing something, doesn’t this article shows pretty much the opposite of what you’re presenting:
    https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-use-your-zoom-lens-as-a-compositional-aid

    The samples that you presented with 100 vs 200 vs 300 do seem to support your position but I think that the difference is just subtle at these relatively long focal lengths. Once you get shorter (under 100mm) the difference that FoV makes becomes obvious.

    If it were purely distance to subject then couldn’t I could get the same shot from a 24mm as i can from a 75mm lens? But cropping the 24mm shot doesn’t give you the same look. The difference is field of view.

  • Dave R

    Your point that: “As you move farther away from an object, you get more control of what to place in the background…” could not be more true. As well as controlling the background size, its X & Y positions are also more controllable. Side-to-side or up-down movement of the camera produces a greater effect at longer distances too. This is great for clearing clutter from the background.
    Dave Rayner

  • Chance

    @filipe

    Eye photos are fun. I took this one with an old manual focus lens on my Canon 450d. The popup flash on the camera works great for bringing out detail in the iris, and to further enhance it, a light hdr. The hardest thing about it is getting the focus correct. I set the focus distance to as close as it could get (about 12 inches). Closer, and there is a chance that the lens will block the flash. Also, if you are using on camera flash, be careful that the lens isn’t too long physically if it has a close focus distance.

    http://mizu-psi.deviantart.com/art/Globe-255109566

  • @trevis – The post you linked to actually supports what I’m saying here. As Darren mentioned in the post, he didn’t just change focal length between the shots, but he ALSO changed his distance from the subject. And, it’s the distance that ultimately changes the perspective of the image.

    You COULD get the same image from a 24mm lens that you could get from a 75mm lens, as long as your camera was in the EXACT same position for both shots. You’d just have to seriously crop the image created with the 24mm lens. But, if you cropped that image from the 24mm lens, to match the FOV that the 75mm lens captured, then the relative sizes of all the objects in those two images would be the same.

  • Salomanuel

    the background looks great but what about the HUGE loss of color?
    the awesome-orange became a shaded greyish!

    why it’s like that? it’s because of the crop and the poor performance of the camera at the full resolution?

  • Very interesting article to help get into close-up photography.
    Those interested in the technical aspects can visit this page on my website: http://obkphoto.weebly.com/focal-length.html

  • Nice neat little article, same rules apply to DoF blur

  • Yes, though it may sound counter-intuitive, sometimes it’s better to move back when taking close-ups. Try a zoom lens with a macro setting.

  • Thank you, I have just been searching for info approximately this subject for a long time and yours is the best I have found out so far. But, what concerning the bottom line? Are you positive in regards to the source?|What i don’t understood is in fact how you’re now not really much more well-favored than you may be right now. You are so intelligent.

  • Lucile

    glad to have found this article as my camera club is having a session on macro this week & we need to bring in a picture. great article. thanks.

Some Older Comments

  • Lucile April 10, 2013 02:37 am

    glad to have found this article as my camera club is having a session on macro this week & we need to bring in a picture. great article. thanks.

  • Lego building set November 5, 2011 10:56 pm

    Thank you, I have just been searching for info approximately this subject for a long time and yours is the best I have found out so far. But, what concerning the bottom line? Are you positive in regards to the source?|What i don't understood is in fact how you're now not really much more well-favored than you may be right now. You are so intelligent.

  • Eric 'Bubba' Alder September 20, 2011 03:16 am

    Yes, though it may sound counter-intuitive, sometimes it's better to move back when taking close-ups. Try a zoom lens with a macro setting.

  • Paul September 18, 2011 08:24 pm

    Nice neat little article, same rules apply to DoF blur

  • Othmane Bekkari September 13, 2011 12:31 am

    Very interesting article to help get into close-up photography.
    Those interested in the technical aspects can visit this page on my website: http://obkphoto.weebly.com/focal-length.html

  • Salomanuel September 12, 2011 08:57 am

    the background looks great but what about the HUGE loss of color?
    the awesome-orange became a shaded greyish!

    why it's like that? it's because of the crop and the poor performance of the camera at the full resolution?

  • Steve Berardi August 28, 2011 04:40 am

    @trevis - The post you linked to actually supports what I'm saying here. As Darren mentioned in the post, he didn't just change focal length between the shots, but he ALSO changed his distance from the subject. And, it's the distance that ultimately changes the perspective of the image.

    You COULD get the same image from a 24mm lens that you could get from a 75mm lens, as long as your camera was in the EXACT same position for both shots. You'd just have to seriously crop the image created with the 24mm lens. But, if you cropped that image from the 24mm lens, to match the FOV that the 75mm lens captured, then the relative sizes of all the objects in those two images would be the same.

  • Chance August 27, 2011 01:29 am

    @filipe

    Eye photos are fun. I took this one with an old manual focus lens on my Canon 450d. The popup flash on the camera works great for bringing out detail in the iris, and to further enhance it, a light hdr. The hardest thing about it is getting the focus correct. I set the focus distance to as close as it could get (about 12 inches). Closer, and there is a chance that the lens will block the flash. Also, if you are using on camera flash, be careful that the lens isn't too long physically if it has a close focus distance.

    http://mizu-psi.deviantart.com/art/Globe-255109566

  • Dave R August 27, 2011 01:14 am

    Your point that: "As you move farther away from an object, you get more control of what to place in the background..." could not be more true. As well as controlling the background size, its X & Y positions are also more controllable. Side-to-side or up-down movement of the camera produces a greater effect at longer distances too. This is great for clearing clutter from the background.
    Dave Rayner

  • Trevis Thomas August 26, 2011 11:19 pm

    @Steve

    Unless i'm missing something, doesn't this article shows pretty much the opposite of what you're presenting:
    https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-use-your-zoom-lens-as-a-compositional-aid

    The samples that you presented with 100 vs 200 vs 300 do seem to support your position but I think that the difference is just subtle at these relatively long focal lengths. Once you get shorter (under 100mm) the difference that FoV makes becomes obvious.

    If it were purely distance to subject then couldn't I could get the same shot from a 24mm as i can from a 75mm lens? But cropping the 24mm shot doesn't give you the same look. The difference is field of view.

  • Steve Berardi August 26, 2011 10:47 pm

    @trevis - I actually shot the photos at different focal lengths too. I included them in the first draft of this post, but decided to take them out and keep the focal length constant (only to illustrate the concept more clearly). But, here are a couple more images I shot that help show all that matters here is the position of the camera:

    http://photonaturalist.net/images/lego.jpg

    The two shots on top were each taken with completely different lenses (a Canon 70-200mm and then a 300mm lens, both with extension tubes attached so I could focus closer), and the two shots on the bottom were both taken with the exact same lens (a Canon 100mm macro). As you can see in the photos, the relative sizes of the lego and water bottle are the same at the same distances (i.e. focal length has no effect on the relative sizes of the objects, it's ONLY the distance from camera to subject that matters).

    The lighting is a little different between the two sets of photos, but that's because I had different lights on in my kitchen for each set (I'm mostly a natural light guy, so please forgive my poor artificial lighting skills, heh). And, the bokeh is a little different, but that's most likely because of the lenses (each lens typically has their own subtle differences in bokeh).

    Hope these extra shots help make this concept MORE clear, and not more confusing, hehe ;)

    Steve

  • Ruth August 26, 2011 06:32 pm

    Thanks for clearing that up, guys =) will definetly think about this rule in future.

  • Scottc August 26, 2011 08:47 am

    It's great to see this finally explained in plain language!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5856194847/

  • rd August 26, 2011 07:46 am

    While it's a really good article and something to think on - you also need to pay attention to the clarity and color distortion of the lego as you move farther away. A distinct, almost red orange, and clarity of form. then it becomes paler and less clear, the lines, as you moved away. I use this in taking pictures of flowers, especially, but almost always I have to go back and adjust the color because as you can see, it washes out.

  • Filipe August 26, 2011 07:35 am

    hello, first of all I thank you for all the tips during all this time/years.

    Regarding these post and one truble that I have I'm wondering if you could help me.

    I love to photos from eyes but can't take them correctly!!! :(

    I have tried everything but if I close up the lens to the eye I can't get enough light, if I get the lens far away I can't focus the iris or the eye correctly!!!! :(

    the best I got was with my 24-70 with extensive tube rings and side lamp but I had difficulty to focus!!!

    What should I do? what setings do you recomend? what focus? what light mettering? what and how should I light the eye?

    best regards for all,
    Filipe

  • Molly Rose August 26, 2011 07:15 am

    I do this ALLLLL the time. XD My macro lens is all right, but I've gotten some amazing pictures from zooming because I couldn't get any closer to the subject (*cough*horses*cough*).

  • Trevis Thomas August 26, 2011 03:28 am

    @steve

    I don't believe that the last two shots would look the same had you zoomed instead of cropped.  The different focal length lenses have different fields of view.  Cropping doesnt change fov.  

    I guess an experiment is in order.

  • marius tipa August 26, 2011 02:51 am

    so true ,simple and clever!

  • Trevis Thomas August 26, 2011 02:30 am

    @steve

    I don't believe that the last two shots would look the same had you zoomed instead of cropped. The different focal length lenses have different fields of view. Cropping doesnt change fov.

    Maybe im not understanding. I guess I should perform the experiment myself.

  • Nadia August 25, 2011 08:55 pm

    I love taking my close-ups form far away, love the extra added effect

  • Steve Berardi August 25, 2011 11:06 am

    Thanks everyone for your nice comments, glad you enjoyed the post!

    @Efrain - You're right, I seriously cropped the last two shots. Normally, I would also use a longer lens as I moved away from the toy Lego, but I wanted to make it as clear as possible that what matters the most here is camera to subject distance. So, I purposely used the same lens for each photo and cropped the last two photos.

    @Jake - Great idea about mentioning "compression" here, that probably would've helped a lot of people understand this better. I'll have to remember that for the next time I try to explain this concept. Thanks!!

    @Ruth - Yes, the last two shots would've looked the same if I used a longer lens to fill the frame. The bokeh would likely be different if I used a different lens for each shot, but the relative sizes of objects in the image would all stay the same.

    -Steve

  • bongtschik August 25, 2011 01:26 am

    Yes, that's right, ruth.

  • Bekah August 25, 2011 12:38 am

    Ruth, yes..it would.

    HermanVonPetri--you're right! I was mistaken, thanks for pointing that out. :)

  • Fernanda August 25, 2011 12:20 am

    This post was great! I always see a huge difference in portraits when I use a zoom at around 200mm+ and when I use a prime lens, for example.
    Aside from the photos looking very natural, I don't have to get too close to my subject's personal space, which most of the time helps them in being more comfortable.

  • Ruth August 24, 2011 08:44 pm

    So would it create the same effect if you keep the far distance but zoom in to fill the shot instead of cropping i afterwards?

  • BFeldman August 24, 2011 11:52 am

    I think the first shot looks the best

  • Joe Bodego August 24, 2011 07:41 am

    You got a point there but I find the Nikon 105mm Micro lens is an amazing closeup lens.

  • HermanVonPetri August 24, 2011 06:44 am

    Bekah & Efrain,

    The author was very clear that he kept the lens at only 100mm for every shot. The only things that changed were his distance away from the figure and how much he cropped the shot afterwards.

    Of course, most photographers would zoom in more as they backed away, but it isn't necessary to achieve this effect as long as you have enough resolution to crop down to the subject.

  • Bekah August 24, 2011 06:30 am

    Interesting...I knew of this concept, but actually seeing an illustration of it with the Lego man.

    Efrain--the lens used was a zoom lens and the photographer zoomed in more, the more he backed up.

  • Steve Beeston Photography August 24, 2011 04:28 am

    I wrote a similar article recently discussing compressed perspective.

    http://hertsphotographer.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/compressed-perspective

    I also use a long lens to get natural close-up shots of people at events - visitors and performers/participants. You get much more relaxed shots with a less distracting background.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck August 24, 2011 03:57 am

    Totally agree

    Sometimes a bit of DOF is fun

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/07/03/shine-on-you-crazy-diamond/

  • Erik Kerstenbeck August 24, 2011 03:22 am

    Totally agree - this shot of this model was around 30 ft away...it is Bokehliscious

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/vintage-glam/

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer August 24, 2011 03:19 am

    I really like taking one composition concept and creating an entire post on it. This is a great tip and makes things explicitly clear. Background is key!

  • Jake Townsen August 24, 2011 02:49 am

    Good points. I think it would be great to mention the concept of "Compression" in this post, since that is what you are doing when backing off and zooming in. Compression makes objects in the background appear closer to your subject than they actually are, and also makes background objects appear larger and more diffused. This is how telephoto lens' work. Whereas wide angles push objects further away.

  • Tom_Vienna August 24, 2011 02:34 am

    Hallo Steve, thank you for this easy to understand example!

    by the way: I understand that its the camera to subject distance that matters - but you also changed the crop-factor by croping the image - this means you changed also the focal lenght :-)

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com August 24, 2011 02:32 am

    I completely agree with this. And this lesson really applies to the field of photography that I do.

    I do car photography for my website http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    Zooming out and being close to the subject, in my case - the car, creates an effect where the car looks out of proportion. Moving backward and zooming in creates a more natural look and feel to it, and the proportions are more correct.

    Also, when shooting cars with models, moving backward and zooming in makes the model look thinner, and sexier, than being up close and zooming out.

  • Jean-Pierre August 24, 2011 02:09 am

    Noticed this when trying to frame and focus this photo. Good to know the reasons behind it!

    http://500px.com/photo/1489806

  • Efrain Bojorquez August 24, 2011 01:30 am

    Hi, Steve.

    I'm confused about you saying the settings didn't change between the three sample photos. I get the perspective and the distance to camera stuff, but I have a doubt: the last two shots are seriously cropped, right?

  • Amy August 24, 2011 01:23 am

    This is so true! I've come to learn this in the past few weeks the hard way. My daughter recently had her baby and I was trying to get a close-up of his face, but my camera wouldn't focus correctly using auto-focus. However I stepped back a few steps, re-focued and voila! It worked. The same thing happened when I was taking a pictre of some rolling pins. Too close and it didn't look quite right. So I took a few step back and it was so much better.

    Thanks for your post!

  • Kristen August 24, 2011 12:54 am

    Awesome post! I'm all the time trying to teach my friends and family about manipulating their backgrounds, this works as a great illustration!

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