Close-up Photography [Weekly Duel]

Today is the very first camera duel, a weekly feature we’re adding to ImprovePhotography.com.  This week’s theme is close-up photography.

We chose close-up photography for the first Improve Photography Duel because it’s something I’ve always struggled with.  I’m generally not a big fan of close-up or macro photography because they all look the same to me.  Once you’ve seen a nice flower picture… they all look the same.  It feels to me like macro photographers are so consumed with the magic of making something small look big that they forget to do anything creative with the composition or lighting.

So, we set out to try and do something different with close-up photography and get our creative juices pumping.

One quick not before we get going is that we called this the close-up duel instead of the macro duel because this isn’t macro photography.  Although many photographers use “macro” to mean any type of close-up photography, true “macro” means producing a 1:1 replication of the scene.  That means that an ant in real life would be reproduced to be the size of an ant on the image sensor.  True macro photography usually requires dedicated macro lenses, which most people don’t own; therefore, we chose close-up photography which is doable with nearly any lens.

Close-Up Photography Duel

Jim Here:  It’s finally starting to feel like Spring in Idaho, and the flowers in my front garden started to pop up this week.  I really liked the flowers, but I DEFINITELY didn’t want just a traditional “Yeah!  Look!  I made the flower look bigger!” kind of photo.   I wanted to add interesting lighting and a more dramatic mood to the photo.  So, I decided to do light painting.  I’ve never seen a close-up light painting, so I thought it would be fun to try.

Jim’s Process: I first tried to take this picture in my front yard where the flowers were.  I went out at 11PM to shoot the flowers so that I could fully control the lighting without fighting the sun (and yes, my neighbors probably think I’m a nutcase).  However, when I went outside at night to do the shoot, the flowers had closed up for the night.  So, the next morning I dug up the flower and brought it to the studio in a box (this is when Dustin started thinking I was a nutcase).  Having the flower inside made the process much easier.

Under the flower, the ground turned a bit yellow due to the light reflecting off the yellow/green stem of the flower.  I was going to get rid of that color cast in Photoshop, but in the end I decided that I kind of like the warm glow.  I showed the photo to a few people to get some feedback, and they were 50/50 on whether or not to get rid of the color cast on the dirt.

The camera was on a tripod (obviously), and I used an inexpensive Stylus Streamlight flashlight to paint the light on the flower during the exposure.  If you don’t have a flashlight like that, you could use the LED flash on your smartphone and get the exact same result.  I recorded a video of how I made this photo and I’ll release it on our Youtube channel in the coming weeks.

Jim’s Metadata:

Shutter speed: 30 seconds, Aperture: f/16, ISO 100.

Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8.

Lighting: Stylus Streamlight flashlight

Light painting technique in photography used on a close-up photo of a flower

Jim’s entry into the duel.


Dustin Here: Allow me to introduce you to my photo for this week’s Photo Duel!! I had such a blast doing macro photos for this duel that it was really hard to pick just one.

Dustin’s Process: I love the vibrant colors in a peacock feather – but I knew it needed more than just a great angle. That’s when I grabbed my medicine dropper and carefully placed water drops on it. The next challenge was to get the right amount of side lighting to bring out the texture in the feather, but enough light to expose everything the way I wanted it. With the use of my flashbender, I was able to wrap it around the lens and the feather to get the lighting that you see here.

Once I had the shot that I was in love with, I did basic edits in CameraRaw (such as: Exposure, contrast, saturation, etc) and then used Nik Software Color Efex Pro to give it a bit of a glow. That’s it.

Dustin’s Metadata:

Shutter speed: 1/160, Aperture: f/16, ISO 200

Camera: Canon 6D, Lens: Canon 24-105mm lens with Macro Extension Tubes

Lighting: YN-560 Speedlight with Flashbender light modifier

Water Dropped Peacock Feather - By Dustin Olsen

Water Dropped Peacock Feather – By Dustin Olsen


Let the Voting Begin!

Please note that you do NOT have to share this to your Facebook page or Twitter feed in order to vote.  It just gives you that as an option after you’ve clicked your vote.


  1. David

    Hey guys – great challenge. I love the idea of light painting Jim used and I’ve got to try it out. Dustin’s photo gets my vote, although, it may not be all that original.

  2. Diane

    I think they are both great. I like them both from different reasons. I find this challenge fascinating.

  3. Rich

    Dustin wins for me this week. I prefer the composition and it simply interests me more…sorry Jim! I like the weekly duel…have you (or are you) considering opening it up to your fans too – seems like a good way to get us off our butts to shoot!
    All the best

  4. Author
    Jim Harmer

    @Rich – You’re totally wrong about your vote :-), but yes, we’re planning to open this up to fans soon.

    We just want to do a week or two first so people can see how we do it.

  5. Melissa

    Hi, Fun idea. I like the creativity of Dustin’s feather photo but I also like the simple creative technique of Jim’s . I vote for Jim !!

  6. Tom Kunz

    I really like the flower and the creativity behind it. Great job guys!

  7. Andrea

    Both are great. Strong colors and great textures. I would like to see the flower shot closer. I think it would have more impact like the feather does. I would hang both on my wall. It would be interesting to see each of you given the same subject and see what you do with it.

  8. Laura Mahoney

    Jim – I’d have to agree with those folks that said “Remove the yellow cast” I would have voted for yours if it weren’t for that. Love light painting!

  9. Rosanna

    Not going to choose, they’re both neat in their own ways. Tie for me. Love the challenge and your willingness to share how the shot was captured! Thanks

  10. Terri Upadhaya

    I love the idea! I also love and appreciate the fact that you guys are sharing your settings and how to for the photos! Thanks much!

  11. Ginni

    Jim, I’ve been taking a lighting class at a local university and wanted to share something I learned in one of my classes. If you would have wanted to leave the flower in the dirt and take the photo during the day, using your light as the main source of light, set your ISO at 200, shutter speed at 200 and aperture at 5.6. When you take a test shot without your light, almost everything will be dark. Then shine your light source on your subject and take your picture. I had a lot of fun with that project and just wanted to pass along what I learned. The way you did your photo looks great too!

  12. Author
    Jim Harmer

    @Ginni – Thank you for sharing that. Good tip. In this situation, it didn’t work for me because I didn’t have a light bright enough to overpower the sun. I could have used a flash to overpower the sun, but that would be too large for such a tiny flower.

  13. Professor

    Personally, I think Jim nailed it. Furthermore the req. was “close up” NOT “EXTREME Close up”. The yellow highlight on the ground, very nice touch creating a surreal image. Looking forward to the amateur duels. I think it’s a grand idea. Simple suggestion, all those interested could be randomly paired off and we vote on each others’ submissions. Should be fun and interactive. Looking forward to it!

  14. Joni Solis

    Not voting either as I too like them both equally well and love the creative thought and effort of put into them both.

  15. Phil

    I voted for Dustin. I actually loved Jim’s flower for the flower, but it needed cropping or digital cleanup to make the flower really pop. The grass in the background, especially on the right, is very distracting.

  16. User

    I prefer Jims photo but in my eyes it doesn’t fit the topic of close-up very well.
    Just boring and always the same, sorry Dustin. You nailed the topic but the pic isn’t worth winning a duel :-/
    I love the weekly duel idea! :)

    (This comment has been edited to meet the Improve Photography comment guidelines)

  17. John

    I think the concept of the duel is great and can’t wait until you open it up to your fans. In this particular case I have to go with Jim’s photo. I like the idea of light painting and the result. While the peacock feather looks great it just doesn’t reach out and grab me like Jim’s photo does. Thank you both for your efforts.

  18. Barbara

    Both are very creative! Can’t choose one over the other though and just wanted to say that I love both of them!

  19. Sam Britton

    I absolutely love the flower, Jim. The peacock feather is beautiful, as well, Dustin. However, I vote for the flower.

  20. Kim

    I love the flower so much and wouldn’t change the highlight at the base of where it sat in the soil, and then the brightness of the feather was overwhelming. I agreed with many who had a hard time voting for just one.

    I voted for the flower, loved its simplicity and beauty.

  21. Maggie

    I love both but if I really have to vote, this time it will be the flower, I love the vividness of colour and light!

  22. Lyndsey

    Jim, I never thought I would see you take a flower photo! That being said, I absolutely love it! I like the warm color cast on the soil, too. Dustin, I love the texture in the peacock photo, the waterdrops absolutely make the photo for me. After much deliberation, my vote goes for the peacock feather, mainly due to the fact that it fills the frame and fits the “close up” theme to the extreme. They are both absolutely stunning photos. Well done to you both!

  23. Cookie

    Going with Jims on this one. Dustin’s is cool too, but something pulls me into Jims

  24. Author
    Jim Harmer

    @Lyndsey- Yeah… I surprised myself. I really can’t stand flower photos because they are SOOOO common, but I gave in to temptation this time :-)

  25. Lauri

    Not voting since Jim’s picture is not really a close-up; it is a good photo, though. Just want to say that the idea of this duel is brilliant. Waiting to see where it takes us in coming issues.

  26. Jane

    Both pictures are great however, I love the texture in Dustin’s picture. Both are really great pictures.

  27. Jay

    Both of these are absolutely stunning! In the end I was quite entranced by Jim’s dancing flower. I want to experiment with light painting more after seeing that example.

  28. Phil

    Well, golly, I look forward to spring every year to go hunt Texas wildflowers. They may be SOOOO common, but I always try to find something new to try; plus, crawling around down there is good exercise. Flower photos are what you put into them. I hope I’m not guilty of being too common for Improve Photography …

  29. Ajithaa

    I love both. However, the texture and water droplets on the peacock feather is a “plus”, which prompted me to cast my vote to the former.

  30. JB Haber

    Dustin, Beautiful colors. Since you placed the water droplets, maybe next time place them in such a pattern that they draw the eye into and around the photo. I think they’re just too random in this example.

    Jim, I love how the lighting and angle of the flower introduce movement into the photo. The contrast between the bud and full bloom also tell a great story.

  31. ilona

    I prefer Jims-such a sweet touch with a light :) Dustin’s one has beautiful colours, but Jim’s-better thought through shot.

  32. Kate

    Love the idea of the duel. I am enjoying reading about your creative and processing process. It is hard to choose between the two as they are quite different. Jim’s color is great, but the flower petals look a little too sharp. Dustin’s “macro” is more on point, but a the water drops are a little distracting. One might have been better. I still can’t decide! Will vote when the winner becomes clear. Thanks!

  33. Jan Mende

    I really liked Jim’s flower because I had a better sense of what I was seeing. The colors were beautiful and it reminded me of spring.

  34. Mike (Derby, England)

    Loved both shots but for me “close up” is about detail and revealing something you don’t normally see… Dustin feather photo does this best. That said, Jims pic is vibrent but just a little outside the brief, I loved the technique and methods and will definatly be trying out light painting in the future. Thanks guys.

  35. Brandi

    I can’t decide!! I’m excited to see Dustin’s with the 24-105mm and the use of extension tubes!! I have that lens and have been trying to decide if I wanted to add the 100mm to my lenses for macro. It’s been a hard decision. Maybe I can buy the extenders and decide later!!

  36. Terri Malloy

    I chose Jim’s because is was taken in a very simple way. Dustin’s was a beautiful picture but was manipulated more. I like the trueness of Jim’s. I love the duel concept and I look forward to next Monday!

  37. Beth Larsen

    I loved both images! I chose Dustin’s image as I loved the detail on the feather. I found the background in Jim’s shot distracting and took my focus away from the flower. Enjoy the dual idea and podcast.

  38. Dave A (Hudson Valley, NY)

    I prefer Dustin’s feather as part of this competition. Although Jim’s flower is nice, with some nice lighting, the opening bud is a bit washed out and the lighting a bit harsh for the subject. And it is not “macro” enough for me to call it that, though it certainly is a close-up. All-in-all though it is a nice image.

    Dustin’s feather is very nicely done, has a nice sense of depth and good depth of field. It is a true macro, and getting these things in macro is very challenging. After shot processing was not extensive, maybe as much as would have been done in a wet darkroom, just differently! Nicely done!

  39. Lubos

    Both shots have their joke. Jim reached contrast with night background. It’s very impressive. But I feel that the background is a little out for me.Dustin improved picture with drops of water that formed lenses and show the structure of the substrate. It’s a very effective method frequently used. Both pictures are great but the more I like Dustin´s photo.

  40. Dustin Olsen

    JIM!! There have been a lot of great comments on your photo and I most certainly agree with them! My favorite part of the photo is the warm lighting and the attention it gives the flower. Great composition and texture. It’s just a job well done! Nice work!

  41. Brooke

    Dustin, the feather would have been better without the droplets – too much. Angle shot is good and great macro image.

  42. Donna

    These are both beautiful but I think I’m going to have to go with Jim’s flower! Great job guys!

  43. Malynn

    They are both great photos. But when I hear “close-up” the feather is what I think of first. It truly is a close-up of water droplets on a small section of a large feather. Jim’s photo looks like it could be a painting. But its not so close-up as what I would think of when I hear the word “close-up”! I like this contest because its fun to learn from everyone’s comments!

  44. Amanda

    They both suck… Bahaha, totally kidding- obviously! :) I had a hard time picking one. It’s fun seeing some of your work and different perspectives.

  45. kimberly SH Jones

    Love them both…I would love to see you taking shots of the same thing WITHOUT any editing. I feel like that cheating lol. Dustin was very creative adding the water droplets and Jim went to alot of work, digging it up etc. I like the steamed light on Jim’s. Keep up the great work guys! Love the podcast.

  46. Melissa

    Dustin’s feather is great! Albiet so is Jim’s Crocus picture. The feather has good color, composition and the addition of the drops of water helps give the viewer a sense of scale.

    Great Podcast, enjoying the Beginning Photography class also.

  47. Stacey Mitchell

    Dustin due to a Peacock attack on my person while doing my duty as a UPS delivery guy up in Maryland country your picture must be – in my mind only- be on my do not look list.
    Do you believe that? I love what you did to add the touch of artistry – light angle – water drops and stunning color. You show what you and your new camera can do!
    Jim glad you left the earth a slight golden, yellow, I love the background it gives.
    I can not choose. Thanks to you both for inspiration.

  48. Douglas

    Both images are good.
    Both are somewhat “contrived”, not that thats a bad thing, I think Jims flower is better but could have benefited from cropping, theres just too much dark bkgd on right side for my tastes.
    Great idea and thanks to both for this weekly duel,
    Best regards

  49. Dave

    I liked the flower and use of lighting. I am now just trying to learn photography with lighting and the use of a flash as well. Both photos showed great imagination. Because each contributed to a uniqueness of style, I can’t choose a winner.

  50. Wes B

    Dustin, can I ask how you got the solid black background in your other close-ups? I love the negative contrast that those photos have, and I’m looking into stock photography, and I’d like to be able to recreate something similar. Thanks!

  51. Wes B

    Also, you guys did such a great job with both of these photos, I seriously cannot decide…

  52. Vicki

    I love the way Jim’s beautiful crocus leaps forward as if to seize the day and say “I’m here! Look at me!” after the cold winter.

    But…Also love the brilliant colors in Dustin’s photo of peacock feather with droplets of water.

    These are both gorgeous which makes it hard to choose which is “BEST”! Thanks for the instruction and inspiration.

  53. Dustin Olsen

    @Wes B – The way that I got the black background was using a speedlight and making sure that I was far enough away from any real background.
    Using the speedlight helps because you have that ‘concentrated’ light source that doesn’t have enough time to reach the background. You’d have to place light on your background if you wanted it to show up to.
    Hope that makes sense – if not – shoot me an email.

  54. Char

    Congratulations to both Jim and Dustin for their wonderfully creative nature shots! I am a naturalist, environmental educator and budding photographer who wishes to respond to Jim’s comments about close-up flower photos. While I will agree that there a lot of these photos, a close-up can reveal the wonderful “rhythms”,shapes and color variations that each species of flower carries. A close-up is an opportunity to magnify the extraordinary in each “ordinary” flower! And yes, kudos to those who pay attention to important details like proper exposure and creative lighting. In this case, Jim, I think you have done a beautiful job of elevating the tiny crocus to its proper level of importance in this season as it announces to the world the arrival of spring and budding new life! I’m not distracted by the background—the flower appears to be in its appropriate environment—and I love the sunny glow. Well done!

  55. Betty Manousos

    congrats to both of you!
    excellent work!

    plus: to dustin,
    thank you immensely for sharing your great photographic tips/tutorials with us. that’s very helpful and i am grateful!

    you’re awesome! :))

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