How To: Photograph Destinations Up Close

By: steve

October 21, 2010

It’s a big world out there. Sweeping panoramas, soaring mountains and the endless concrete jungle of cities. Yet the devil, as they say, is in the detail. Sometimes when we travel we get so caught up with the big picture, that we fail to see the beauty that is right in front of our eyes. Details and close-ups of small subjects can not only give you something to photograph when the weather is bad, they can show the world and your destination in a totally unique way.


Take a look around

In order to photograph something, you have to spot it first, of course. Try to modify the way that you travel and photograph: in a market, don’t just shoot portraits, look for close-up subjects of characteristic foods – especially the sort of shots that show repetition and patterns. When looking around cities, maybe photograph coins or details on cars or buildings. Don’t just hunt around for elephants: try to shoot bugs as well.



Car hood mascot, Havana by Steve Davey

Car hood mascot, Havana, Cuba. Once you have spotted a detail then focus up close to fill the frame.


In order to get a great shot of many of the details that are around us, you need to get in close, so that your subject fills the frame. This can present a number of technical issues, the greatest of which is actually managing to focus close enough.


Focusing Distance

All camera lenses have a closest focusing distance. For most DSLR lenses this can be as much as a couple of feet away. At such a distance, a small subject will just not be close enough for it to fill the frame. To get really close, you will have to use a so-called macro lens. These are fairly expensive, but if you are going to get in to close-up photography you will need to invest in one.



Tibetan prayer book, Ladakh, India, by Steve Davey

Handwritten script on a Tibetan prayer book, Ladakh, India. Shot using a macro lens to get in very close. The depth of field means that only a narrow band of the image is in focus.


Ironically, a relatively cheap and simple compact camera can often focus far closer than a DSLR. Many can focus down to a few centimetres away, giving true macro or even greater magnifications, but you’ll usually have to select the separate ‘macro’ setting. Sometimes buying a good compact camera will be cheaper than getting a macro lens for a DSLR – and you get a back-up camera for your travels as well.



Depth of field – the amount of a picture in front or behind the focus point that is also in focus – is very shallow when photographing close-up. This makes accurate focusing critical, but also means that if you want a lot of your picture to be in focus, you’ll either need to use a very small aperture, or compose the picture in such a way that most of the subject is a similar distance from the camera, and within the depth of field area. For instance, instead of photographing a lizard from the front, photograph it from the side.



Tiny chameleon, Madagascar. By Steve Davey

Tiny chameleon, Madagascar. This was only a couple of centimetres long, and was shot with a macro lens from the side so more of it lies within the depth of field and is in focus.



Light and Shadow

Lighting is always an issue with extreme close-up photography. As any movement is magnified along with the subject, you will often need to use some sort of external lighting to boost the light levels. This is especially the case if you’re seeking to use a narrow aperture to achieve more depth of field. Otherwise, even a gentle breeze can cause subject movement or camera shake.


One major problem is that the built in flash on both compacts and DSLRs is often completely useless, pointing completely in the wrong direction at extreme close-ups, and often over-exposing at a few centimetres away. It’s possible to buy separate ‘ring-flashes’ that fit around the lens and are designed for macro photography, but you can usually avoid needing one of these by increasing the ISO sensitivity, and also using a tripod. A tripod will also allow you to focus your picture precisely, as slight movements in by the camera will greatly affect the focus when shooting close-up.

To customise the light, it’s worth travelling with some balls of kitchen foil. They can be used to make mini-reflectors allowing you to lighten dark, shadowed areas.


Fruit, Chiang Mai, Thailand. By Steve Davey

Fruit for sale at a market in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Filling the frame with a repeating subject can give a very effective photograph.


To learn more about photography, why not join Steve on one of his exclusive travel photography tours. Destinations include Laos & Cambodia, Ladakh and Morocco. More details on

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