Getting in Close to Your Subject

Text and photographs copyright Tam Stewart, 2004.

I've been active in macro/close-up photography for 2-1/2 years and spend four or more hours in the field nearly every day, weather permitting. It's a warm weather activity for me, because the insect life I specialize on is only to be found from late spring through mid-autumn. In the colder seasons I shoot birds. One of the nice things about macro photography, particularly for an older person, is that the equipment is relatively compact and lightweight and can be carried about for hours at a time - try that with a 500 mm f/4.0 lens attached to your camera!

A lot of people ask me how I get close enough to my subject matter without scaring it off. Well - it can be a problem. There have been many disappointments, but in the end, these are offset by the rewards that come with patience and perseverance and a successful shoot. Here are a few pointers for getting close.


Look Far Enough Ahead - A year ago, after walking down the same trail every day for a couple of months, I became aware that there were things on the path that were flying away about 15 feet ahead of me, beyond my normal range of scanning for subjects. I hadn't noticed their presence up to that point. I decided to find out what they were and discovered tiger beetles as a result. That led to several days of working tiger beetles. It's hard to get much closer than about two feet from these insects, and to get that close, you have to sit still where they're active and wait for them to come to you. They can be quite entertaining.


Move Slowly, Very Slowly - Almost no speed of movement is too slow. In fact, if you don't move at all for a time you'll often find that insects come out of hiding or land right around you. On many occasions, I've noticed that insect activity increases around me after I stop and spend some time in one spot working a subject. On other occasions, I've discovered things that were right next to me the whole time after I'd stopped and worked another subject for a time. The paper wasp image in my gallery is a case in point. I'd spent half an hour photographing a spider when I first noticed the wasp nest about a foot from my head. What a surprise! Anyway, I immediately switched subjects and was much more careful about my movements. The wasps were photographed from a distance of about 12 inches. I returned to observe them over a period of two weeks, taking photographs on several occasions.


Dragonflies - come in many flavors. Some you can reach out and touch - while others won't let you get much closer than six feet without some careful work. One day I left my equipment bag only partly shielded from the sun in a field while I went after butterflies. When I came back, it was getting late and the air had cooled, and there was a male common whitetail soaking up heat resting comfortably on my still warm bag. As I approached, the whitetail took off and put on a high-performance and noisy aerobatic display for my benefit - I suppose to intimidate me and scare me off. I was entertained instead, and decided that in exchange for letting him sit on my bag a while longer I'd take some close-ups. Afterwards, I thought I'd see how tame he was. After several attempts and encore aerial displays, I coaxed him onto a finger where I took another photo of him. I learned from this, that with some practice and a bit of luck, there's no limit to how close you can get to dragonflies. Since then, I've worked dragonflies and damselflies of many species onto my fingers where I've photographed them and examined them up close. Getting close involves learning insect behavior that varies from species to species.


Butterflies and Moths - can also be approached within inches at times. When puddling or mating they're particularly approachable, and often while nectaring or perching on a leaf, depending on species. Others are extremely sensitive and won't be approached at all. We depend on chance with the latter, once in a while we get lucky.

  Getting In Close - Once a prospective subject is spotted, it's time to wake-up and set your camera and to consider how to exploit the situation. Hopefully, you'll spot the subject while some distance away, where you can stop and work out your plan of attack. You don't want to move in close then have to move laterally for a good shot. Move laterally first then move straight in. If you're going to lie down, lie down at a safe distance and then crawl forward. Move the camera up to your face while some distance away. It's the closest thing to the subject and can be the most threatening appearing. Once in close, hold the camera steady while you move behind it - it will mask your body movements to some extent. Finally, check for blades of grass or other plants between the subject and camera. If you're shooting digital, check the display after a shot to make sure there isn't something in the way you couldn't see in the viewfinder. It happens!

Once you've worked a subject in close for a time, it may become accustomed to your proximity and you can move in even closer or, perhaps laterally or vertically for a different angle. You should take maximum advantage of the time and effort already invested by fully exploiting the situation.

Above all - have fun!

All content copyright Michael Keniston 2003, 2004
Design and graphics copyright Reasonable Expectations Productions, 2003