Detail and Close-up Photography

Desert Photography Primer - Part 4

Text and photos by Chris Wray

The previous 3 parts of this series have covered suggestions for choosing lighting and creating compelling photographs within the desert. I would like to continue on our quest for photographic ideas and possibilities by looking closer at our subjects. In fact, let's see how close we can get.

When I offered the ideas for landscape photographs, I suggested one of the ways to enhance the image is to isolate the subject. I showed examples of how telephoto lenses allow for close cropping in landscapes. What do you do if you want to get even closer?

The standard lens on your camera can probably focus to within about 3 feet. Some may get you in even closer. The equipment you already own may allow photography you have not considered before. If a lens can focus closer than normal, it is called a "macro lens." Technically, to be a real macro it should focus within inches of the lens, close enough to make the image on the film about life size to the actual object. Hence, many macro lenses and other close-up equipment will list the magnification ratio possible. A 1:1 lens allows for life size on the film. Many zoom lenses sold today are labeled as "macro," even though they rarely go beyond 1:4, or 1/4 life size. These lenses are still quite useful for close-up work.

Typical desert subjects that lend themselves to a close view are plants, animals and details of man-made items. The image shown as the opening for this article is a view of dried palm fronds hanging from the tree. This is not an extremely close view, but it does show how close cropping begins to reveal the patterns and texture of many subjects.

Animals are great for close-up photos, if they hold still long enough. One of the animals that will hang around for your photographic pleasure is a large rattlesnake. This is the type of photography when a telephoto lens is essential. I suppose it would be safer to photograph desert mice, but they run too fast. A flash will stop animal motion at night, and offers a way to capture faster creatures. You can also set the camera on a tripod, open the shutter for a time exposure, and wait with a flash in hand. You then trip the flash with its test button when you think the animal is within the scene.

Another use of a close focusing lens is documentary work. The pictographs were made under a boulder pile in Baja, California. The panel was lit by reflected sunlight. This photograph is also from several feet away, but you will not know ahead of time what is possible for subjects like this. You may be in tight quarters where a good macro lens and a tripod are essential.

One of my favorite uses for a close-focus lens is isolating details and writing on relics and ruins. The AT&SF logo with ghost lettering behind it is a good example. This image is quite recognizable, but the concept can be taken further.

The tank with the slogan "See This Rim" was made at Joshua Tree. You could get even closer with a statement like this and just take a part of it. What would happen if the frame were filled with only the "See This" portion? This tight cropping of writing allows us to use other people's comments to make a statement.


The old Dixieland School near Highway 80 in Imperial County is covered with graffiti, including "The Truth Hurts!" If you live anywhere near an urban area, you know how easy it is to find painted sayings on old buildings. Sometimes these can be quite interesting, as long as you are not shocked by reading the writing on the wall.


When you move in even closer to an item, the abstracting of the image becomes possible with an actual macro lens. The red and white curve is the leg attachment to the basin of an old washing machine. Looking through the viewfinder, you can move around an item like this and find countless compositions and forms.


Whenever you get close to your subject, you will notice that the depth-of-field within the image suffers greatly. This is always true, regardless of the type of macro attachment or lens. You can still help the situation by closing the lens down to a small aperture, if possible. Macro photography is best done with a tripod.

Macro Equipment

Several items are made to allow extremely close photography. The simplest macro equipment are close-up "filter" sets. These are actually magnifying lenses you mount to your lens using the filter threads. These are the cheapest way to get close, but they are not the best optically. They often result in the corners of the image not being sharp. For occasional use, though, they may be all you need. You can use them individually, or stack several together for more strength.

Extension tube sets are the next level up. These are hollow tubes which simply move the lens further from the camera body, allowing for closer focus. You retain the quality of your normal lens. Tubes for modern, hi-tech cameras come with all the electronic contacts to enable the use of metering and autofocus. Tubes can also be used singly or combined.

Macro adapters are also available. These are like a tube, but include an additional magnifying lens within the adapter.

A true macro lens is the nicest, and most expensive, way to get close. Manufacturer's macro lenses usually allow a 1:1 ratio for the object. Several after-market companies make the lenses, but most of these are 1:2 at best. For 35mm cameras , many macros are about 100mm. This allows you to be further from the subject and still achieve good magnification. A 50mm macro needs to be 3 or 4 inches from the item to get 1:1.

The lens used for the washing machine image is a bellows attachment, yet another way to go macro. This device also moves the lens away from the camera so it focuses closer, like an extension tube. Unlike tubes, though, the bellows allow for a smooth and constant focus from a few feet to about 3 inches.

The bellows were also used to make the image of the black-and-white stripes. I was walking around a pile of historic junk in the East Mojave and saw this curled piece of rubber. I thought it was a car tire, but then I found it had nails. It turned out to be the sole of an old shoe. The macro view allowed me to create an abstract photograph of an otherwise un-photogenic item.


If we want to carry the effect further, we can choose a subject that will not only look like itself, but will take on other qualities in our photograph. The sandstone concretions in a canyon near the Salton Sea suggest other forms. The photograph is simply of rock -- anything else you think it resembles is strictly up to you. This personalizing of the image is the essence of abstraction.

By moving closer to our subject, we can begin to isolate its character and abstract the image. If we wish to move a photograph further from reality and create a stronger emotional response, we can remove the color. Black-and-white photography is the next, and final installment of this 5-part series.

Desert Photography Primer

(1 of 5) - Basic Knowledge & Exposure
(2 of 5) - Desert Landscapes
(3 of 5) - Types of Desert Light
(4 of 5) - Details & Close-ups
(5 of 5) - Black & White Photography

More on Desert Photography


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