Shooting Intimate Details for More Impact AND More Options
By F. M. Kearney
With the spring season now in full bloom, it might be tempting to try and shoot everything as quickly as you can before it fades away. That practice (sometimes referred to as “spray and pray”) is sure to get you a large variety of images, but it’s doubtful most of them will be very unique or memorable. Quality photography takes time and a lot of patience. After shooting the overall scene with a wide-angle lens, try switching to a longer lens to get intimate details.
The opening photo of this article is the azalea garden in the New York Botanical Garden. Beginning photographers might shoot a handful of shots, then quickly move on – anxious to see the next “shiny object” around the bend. However, more serious, or professional photographers could probably spend an entire day shooting this area. With a long lens, you can isolate dozens of compositions within this scene alone. Keep in mind that this is just one small section of the entire azalea garden.
If you’re a regular reader of my articles, you probably recall me saying that I rarely use my zoom lens for taking pictures of something that’s far away. I don’t shoot wildlife, so in most cases, I can easily and safely approach my subjects on foot. I primarily use my 70-200mm zoom for two things: to gain a compressed perspective (as I illustrated in this article here) or to shoot intimate details of nature. The images below are just a few of the many photos I was able to get from this garden. There are only so many wide-angle, group shots you can shoot of anything before you begin to run out of different compositions. But, when you come in tight and concentrate on tiny details, your possibilities are endless. Once you become accustomed to seeing “pictures within pictures,” you will realize just how easy it is to spend an entire day photographing a small garden.
“Extracted” scenes from the azalea garden. © F. M. Kearney
This “visual extraction” technique is not only a good way of getting more interesting images; it can save the day if the overall view is less than optimum. The azalea garden was quite beautiful and could easily stand on its own as a great photo. The same, however, could not be said for the cherry blossoms here. I shot it in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden when the blossoms were at their peak. This garden is famous for an area known as Cherry Esplanade – a broad green lawn bordered by precision rows of Japanese cherry trees. It’s a virtual photographer’s dream and a spectacular sight to see – even for those who aren’t into photography. The reason you’re not seeing it in this photo is because they were holding a plant sale on the lawn on the day I visited, and the entire area was covered by a large white tent. This completely ruined any chances I had of shooting unobstructed views of the Esplanade. The only overall view I could get without the tent in the shot was on the extreme left side of the lawn. I took it shortly after the garden opened – before the area became clogged with visitors. Nevertheless, it was not the image I had planned to take.
These setbacks are the kinds of things you come to expect if you live in an urban area. Shooting nature can be unpredictable. Shooting nature in the middle of a large city can be monumentally unpredictable. Besides the normal weather obstacles, you also need to contend with people, buildings, traffic and sometimes… large white tents. Fortunately, no obstacle will ever prevent you from taking advantage of all the little details the scene has to offer. Below are just a couple of photos I was able to extract with my zoom lens. By concentrating on all the intimate details of the scene, I forgot all about the tent!
Yoshino cherry blossoms (left) and Japanese cherry blossoms (right). © F. M. Kearney
Using Extension Tubes
If you’ve ever tried to shoot floral close ups with your zoom lens, but were unhappy with the results, it’s probably because you weren’t able to get close enough. This is not uncommon since the minimum focusing distance of most zooms is around 3 feet. You could use a macro lens to focus much closer, but these lenses are not cheap. They range in price anywhere from several hundred to a couple of thousand dollars. Extension tubes are a much more affordable alternative.
If you’re unfamiliar with extension tubes, they’re basically just hollow rings (containing no glass elements) that are placed between your lens and your camera. Why? Because the farther the physical distance is between your lens and camera sensor, the closer you will be able to focus on your subject – thus creating a higher magnification of the subject and mimicking the function of a macro lens, but at a considerably lower cost. The images above are the extension tubes I use with my Nikon lenses. It came as a set of three tubes in various lengths: small (12mm), medium (20mm) and large (36mm). They retail for just under $80. The longer the length, the higher the magnification. The tubes can be used individually, as seen in the photo on the left, or stacked together for maximum magnification. These tubes are made by Vello and are specifically designed to work with Nikon lenses. Vello also makes tubes for Canon and Fijifilm lenses as well. There are other manufacturers of extension tubes that are designed to work with other lenses. But whichever tubes you use, make sure that they’re equipped with contact points to maintain the communication between your lens and your camera – allowing for continued auto focus and auto exposure capabilities.
Downsides of Extension Tubes
As great as extension tubes are, it’s important to know that there no “free lunches.” Some light loss will be experienced when using them. This problem is exacerbated as you stack more tubes together. Whenever I stack all three, the light falloff is greater and vignetting (the darkening of the corners of the frame) becomes extremely noticeable. Even though I set my camera’s Vignette Control to “High,” I still can’t remove all of it. However, these issues are easily fixed. If necessary, I can raise my ISO to counteract the light loss, and I can crop out the vignette in post.
There seems to be some disagreement as to the resolution of images taken with extension tubes. I’ve read articles expressing conflicting views. But, since they don’t have any internal glass elements, which could degrade an image, the general consensus is that the resolution of an image taken with an extension tube is directly comparable to the resolution of the lens to which it’s attached. Personally, I’ve never experienced any problems with resolution.
Extension Tubes vs. Teleconverters
One final note to clear up any possible confusion. Extension tubes look almost identical to teleconverters, but their purposes could not be more different. As you are now aware, extension tubes are just hollow spacers that “extend” the distance between your lens and camera to allow for closer focusing. Teleconverters connect to your camera the same way as the tubes, but their function is to increase the focal length of your lens. In other words, if you attach a 2X teleconverter to a 200mm lens, it now has the reach of a 400mm lens. Teleconverters contain glass elements and cost several hundred dollars. So, if you’re interested in shooting close ups, be sure you get the correct device.
Pistil of a rose mallow hibiscus (top left), informal decorative dahlia petals (top rght) and backlit side of a daylily (bottom) © F. M. Kearney
The photos above are examples of the magnification levels I’m able to achieve by using extension tubes. Information about extension tubes is not contained in the metadata of an image, so I’m not exactly sure which tubes I used. However, I know I needed to combine two or more in order to come in this tight. I could have gone in even tighter, but I generally prefer to show enough of the flower so that it’s easily recognizable. Also, if the background is colorful, I like to include a portion of it to create a soft color wash.
So, when you’re out photographing all that spring (or any season) has to offer, don’t stop at just the obvious wide shot. Coupling your zoom lens with inexpensive extension tubes will open up a whole new world for you. When all the other casual photographers have long since moved on, you’ll still be there extracting all the little gems that they overlooked.
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).