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The Art of the Detail Shot: Capturing Beautiful Detail Photographs

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One of the things that makes photography a successful art form is that it can show a viewer things in a different way. As photographers, we notice small details, weird juxtapositions and the small oddities of daily life. We use many tools to capture our subject matter in a different way: a variety of lenses, changing our camera angle, using long exposures, or very fast ones.

But this tutorial is going to focus on the technique of the detail shot. By getting up close and personal with our subjects, we can show our audience things they rarely experience.

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Defining Detail

I'm going to try to dispel some common beliefs about details shots. I believe they can have entire people in them, be shot with a wide angle lens and that they don't always have to be taken with a $2,000 macro setup. So for the purposes of this tutorial I'd like to propose three broad aspects of detail shots in order to define the subject.

First, a detail shot can be image with any subject matter that is small size or small in overall relation to the general subject. Detail shots often tell the story of the situation by focusing on a relatively small portion of it. Details shots also can be images that, through compositional techniques, draw attention to a specific detail of a subject that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

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Using Macro Lenses

I don't want to limit detail shots to macro images, but I also don't want to ignore them. A macro lens lets you focus on something that is very close to your lens. Some lenses have the function built into them. You can also purchase extension tubes or bellows to achieve this effect with any lens.

The last option is to purchase macro filters that screw onto the front of your lens. Lenses labeled as “macro" are like any other lens in the fact that you get what you pay for. A cheap “macro" lens may allow you focus as closely as half a meter. An expensive macro lens may allow you to focus much closer.

Bellows, extension tubes and filters can all work well, too. But when you're using them, your lens will not be able to focus on things in the distance. You'll have to take the device off to do that. Finally, keep in mind that the closer you're focusing, the less depth-of-field you will have.

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Creating Layers

Layers are what gives your image depth and creates interest of the viewer. Many detail shots just show one thing close-up and ignore the background. You'll see a few of those in this tutorial, but it's often good to include the background in your image. It gives the viewer something else to look at and places the subject in a context.

In the situation pictured below, I was hunting for good light at a concert like you would do while taking shots anywhere. When I saw the guitar lit so nicely, I decided to take a nice detail shot of it. As I was snapping away, I zoomed out slightly and shifted my position to include the drummer in the background who was bathed in yellow light. It added a nice contrast and a new layer to the photo.

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In Your Face

You don't see many close detail shots of faces, and even when you do, people don't typically consider them detail shots. The next time you're shooting a portrait or a photographing people, try to set your mind in detail shot mode and see what happens. I think you'll be pleased with the results.

The following image is a posed portrait. Shooting photos during an actual poker game might get you in trouble. I used a really deep depth-of-field to attempt to get everything in focus. I was happy with the result. I've been accused of putting the chips and cards in the image with photoshop, but the image was made completely in-camera.

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Non-Close Up Details

As I said earlier, I don't think of detail shots as simply an image where you're extra close to your subject. I also try to make photos that just emphasize a detail through my composition. I call these detail shots as well. They have the quality of getting to view something up-close with the added bonus of shooting at a normal distance and including background information.

You can emphasize your detail in a variety of ways. Try selective focus, panning with the detail while it's in motion, or emphasize your subject with light by having it lighter or darker than then background. The image below was made in a dance studio. In the photo, you can see the detail of the older dancers shoes, while the out-of-focus background shows the young dancers looking on.

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Hands are a classic subject of detail photos. For hands, be careful with your exposures. What the hand is doing is often just has important as the hand itself, so lighting can be tricky. In most cases, you want the details of the hand to be exposed the same as the whatever the hand is doing.

The same theory applies to focus. When working up close with a shallow depth-of-field, remember that it might be hard to get both the hand and the other subject in focus. You can stop down to increase your depth-of-field or you can adjust your position so both are the same distance away from your camera.

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Utilizing reflections is a great way to show people a scene in a different way, but in order for it to be a detail shot, the object doing the reflecting must add something to the story of the image. In the poker image above, the sunglasses add more information to the story.

The following image was taken at the scene of an accident. A car had been struck by a train. As a newspaper photographer this is not an uncommon scene to shoot. Instead of showing the whole scene, I focused in on the cracked windshield and allowed the reflection to tell the rest of the story. You don't see a car or a train, but you can immediately figure out what happened.

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Flowers are also a classic subject for macro photography and detail images. There are so many of these photos floating around that it's very hard to make your images stand out.

Using the techniques above of backing off just a little to show the background and using selective focus to emphasize the detail I choose, I think that this image (while by no means groundbreaking) is a little more special than your standard flower shot.

Another good way to make these kind of detail shots stand out is to over-emphasize the light. This could be mean waiting for the perfect time of day or using an off-camera flash to really make your photos pop.

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I am by no means a wildlife photographer, but I have on occasion been required to shoot animals. Unfortunately, I haven't made my voyage to Africa just yet, so I've mostly photographed birds and insects. These are small and usually fall into the detail shot category.

The first “fauna" image I'd like to show you is of a small bird being nursed back to health. In situations like this, be patient, move slowly and shoot a lot. When dealing with moving object and shallow depths-of-field, it's can help to over shoot and be sure that you're going to nail that perfect image.

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Butterfly photos are almost as prolific as flower images, but I find them exponentially harder to shoot. Pardon the pun, but butterflies are flighty. Their movements are unpredictable, and just when you think you're going to have all the time in the world to set up a shot, they just decide to fly away.

Utilizing fast auto-focus really helps when shooting butterflies, but what takes the image to the next level is when you can catch them interacting with people. The same goes for other insect and animal images as well.

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Using the detail approach is a great technique for capturing texture. Wood, fabric, skin and food are all great subjects for texture. The most important thing to remember when shooting texture is that the light will drastically affect how the texture appears.

Side light will emphasize flaws in smooth textures, but also brings out detail in very curvy ones or those with deep valleys. Front lighting can hide flaws, but it also makes things look flatter.

The other important aspect of light in these shots is shiny spots on reflective objects known as specular highlights. For the image below, I utilized side, almost back, lighting to really emphasize the texture of this food dish. You can also see the specular highlights on the sauce.

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In the same arena as lighting texture, there is the silhouette shot. Again, the technique of silhouette can be used for any type of shot. But in relation to detail shots, I find them useful with when trying to emphasize bold lines. The image below could have been shot in any number of ways, but by emphasizing the lines and shape of yucca plant, it places the viewer in a specific part of the world and bestows a certain feeling.

Keep in mind that silhouettes often involve a very distant background, so in order to shoot a close detail shot you'll either need to have an out-of-focus background or use an extreme f/stop in order to create as deep a depth-of-field as possible.

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Framing a larger object in a small detail can be tricky and even for me, it borders on not being a detail image, but it's something to think about when shooting close up.

You can create a comic look by making things appear to be inside another small object, or you can attempt to create repetition of form by repeating the shape of something small in the foreground with something larger in the background. Imagine the windows of dollhouse framing a real house. In the image below, I decided to show the handle of the gas pump and within it frame a person actually pumping gas.

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Easily Passable Details

The most enjoyable part of shooting details for me, or shooting photographs in general, is finding those little moments in the world that go unnoticed. I hunt for them. It's almost a bad habit. When driving in the car, I often try to point out fleeting bumper stickers or odd buildings to my friends instead to paying attention to the road.

But if you slow down and keep your eyes open, you'll notice all sorts of things. Take this tiny plant pictured below. Without getting too dramatic, I was awe-stuck to see it make such a pronounced mark a sheet of metal.

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This next photo of abandoned shoes makes me want to become a detective and try to figure out why they were just left by a park bench. Hunting up these tiny details that others might pass by is one of my favorite things to do and why I love shooting detail shots like the ones in this tutorial.

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Training Your Eye

While I do think some people catch on to photography more quickly, I do not believe that it's some sort of talent that some people have and some people don't. Looking back at my early work, it is anything but impressive. In fact, I feel that I still have a lot of room for improvement. I think almost anyone can be taught to think visually and to notice things, and those are the most important parts of photography.

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The last tip I have for you is to always stop. Anyone sees at least ten things a day that are worthy of a photo. Always take the time to stop and shoot them. Don't just pass them by in a hurry. If you're running five minutes late for a meeting, I doubt being six minutes late is going to make that much difference. Always stop and shoot. This last photo was taken during the Memorial Day for Police.

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