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Shooting flowers is a passion for many photographers. Time spent out in the garden with your camera can become almost a form of meditative practice as you compose images surrounded by nature. It’s no wonder that so many photographers long to shoot beautiful flower images. But shooting close-up images of flowers can be an expensive business. Many tutorials will tell you that you need specialist macro lenses, proprietary macro extension tubes, or converters to reverse a lens that you already own. However, using close-up filters are a great alternative.
Close-up filters are an option for macro photography that rarely makes it into the tutorial list. Many will tell you that they degrade the final image too much; they cause distortion and focus issues. However, in this article, I’m going to make the case that these filters can enable you to think in a more abstract way as you embrace their unique and imperfect properties!
Close-up filters can also be called close-up lenses or macro filters. They are essentially a magnifying glass that screws into the filter thread on the front of your lens.
When you buy a set of close-up filters, you need to know what lens you’re going to use them on. This is because you buy them according to the filter size of that lens. I suggest picking either a standard zoom or a prime lens in the 50mm to 100mm range and purchasing your filters for the thread size of that particular lens.
Close-up filters differ to budget extension tubes in one key way – you don’t lose electronic control of your lens. That means the autofocus will (just about) still work, and the aperture control in your camera settings will still work. Because budget extension tubes do not carry an electronic signal between your camera and your lens, you have to use it manually. For that reason I prefer close up filters – it makes changing your settings on the fly much easier!
The last thing to know about close up filters is that they have different magnification strengths – just like buying a magnifying glass. The higher the number, the more you will magnify your subject and the closer you can get. All of the images in this article have been shot using a +10 close-up filter on a Fujifilm 35mm f1.4 lens (roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera).
Abstract photos can really help to free you up from the common “rules” of photography. You can start to think outside of the box without wondering if an image is sharp enough all over, or if the colors are perfectly rendered.
That’s not to say that abstract photography is a way to “save” a bad photograph. As much thought and consideration should go into an abstract as it would a more traditional image.
Once you’ve learned to let go of the rules you might find that expressing yourself through color, shape, and texture can be relaxing. Experimenting with abstract photography can bring a whole new dimension to your work. It can even make you think about other kinds of photography differently. You’ll be much more careful when placing colors and lines in images in the future if you spend some time creating abstract compositions.
Once you’ve got your close-up filter screwed to the front of your lens, head outside for a play. You won’t need a tripod at first – bump up your ISO and try handholding some close-up shots on a day with bright but overcast light (or shoot in the shade, of course).
I recommend turning your autofocus off. We’re going to be working with some really shallow depth of field and that means your camera will often lock the focus on to something you don’t want it to.
Instead, you can use your body to move the subject in and out of focus. Carefully lean a fraction closer or further away, and you’ll see different parts of the images go in and out of focus. It takes some practice to get the hang of, but after a while, it’ll feel really natural.
If you’re a little unsteady and struggle to get the right part of the image in focus, try shooting a burst of three or five images and select the best one later. You can also use a tripod if you want to (if it is a very still day with no wind). However, I find that a tripod can often hinder creativity when you’re trying to think fast and look for new and fascinating angles and compositions.
The aperture setting that you choose can change the whole feeling of an image. When you’re working this close to a subject, the depth of field can be as thin as a few millimeters.
By using a very shallow depth of field, you can draw attention to just one part of a scene and throw the background and foreground completely out of focus. However, when shooting close up, it does mean that the whole flower or object might not be all in focus. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing – just picking a small part of the flower to be in focus can be a stylistic choice.
What can be interesting though is the way that the close-up filters interact with a wide-open lens. You begin to get these hazy, dreamy images that are somewhat unpredictable. It’s almost like a Lensbaby Velvet in some respects – or possibly a bit like smearing vaseline on your lens!
Since abstract photography often takes a subject and then makes it unrecognizable, all you have left is the composition and colors. That means you need to start thinking about how to mix shape, lines, form, textures, and colors to express emotions or tell stories. You cannot rely on recognizable and familiar objects anymore.
There are many compositional rules out there to study and put into practice. I have always found it helpful to spend as much time as possible looking at other peoples art (both in galleries and online) and trying to understand what makes a composition pleasing. You don’t have to know all of the rules of composition by name. But having a sense of how the position of elements in the frame and the color wheel work together to create interesting compositions can be a huge help when shooting abstracts.
If you are shooting digital, don’t be afraid to shoot multiple images of the same scene and resist subjects. Try placing the main focus on different parts of the image, (including blurry foreground elements), and seeing how different aperture settings look.
You can also think about editing your photographs afterward to change the colors in the image. A slight shift in color, some noise added, or a touch of contrast on the focal point can really change the mood of the shot.
So for a very small investment (certainly compared to the rest of your camera gear), you can open up a new world of artistic abstract photography by using close-up filters. Also, better than that, it can happen entirely in your front garden!
Let us know if you shoot any images inspired by this article – post the results in the comments below!