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. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. Wes B

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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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