Close up photography of badges, coins and small objects
Small objects such as badges and coins can be difficult to photograph well, but this guide shows you a few free and simple tips. If you intend to do regular close up photography, then investing a small amount of time and money in the right equipment will definitely improve the quality and consistency of your work.
There are three simple rules essential for good, consistent close up photography
1. Using a tripod
- NO camera movement
- Sharp focus
- Good lighting
A completely still camera is essential for close up work. The closer you are, the more obvious any slight motion, whether from holding the camera by hand, or longer shutter speeds from the lower light levels indoors, or both! In short, do not hold the camera in your hands, or you are setting yourself up for constant disappointment.
There are many possible solutions. For example:
- some tripods have a centre arm that can be inverted, or rotated 90 degrees. If you already have a tripod, look carefully at the centre arm – it may already have a second threaded screw on the bottom.
- purchase a separate boom arm (A$60), or a simple copy stand (A$25).
- Another option is to build your own rig for overhead photography. YouTube has many tutorials. There are many ideas online because of (curiously), the popularity of overhead food photography!
If you must hand hold the camera, then ensure you select a fast shutter speed.
Quick Tip - if you only want to take a few photos…
2. Focus, focus, focus
If your tripod will only angle part way down:
- extend the back leg of the tripod to tip the tripod forwards, but not so far it falls over (or add a weight to the back leg).
- attach the object to a white card with Blu tack, then angle the card in front of the camera so it is exactly perpendicular to the camera lens, to avoid distortion.
Note: this is a good alternative for one or two shots, but not regular overhead photography, as it is quite fiddly.
When you are close to an object, your lens has a very shallow depth of field. This means the image goes blurry if you move the camera even slightly closer or further away from the object - sometimes even a few millimetres movement causes it to go blurry! We simply cannot avoid this slight movement if we are hand holding the camera. And using a fast shutter speed is not the solution, because the image is still out of focus.
This is one of the reasons a tripod is always recommended for close up work.
But even when your camera is perfectly still and sharply focussed, what do you do when you can’t move it any closer without going out of focus, yet there is still lots of space around the object?
Well you could spend a lot of money on an expensive macro lens, but generally there is simply no need. The secret is that even only using a small part of a sharp image is sufficient to obtain a perfectly good photograph. That is, you do not need to fill the entire viewfinder with the object:
- First set your camera to largest size / maximum quality images, so the image will be as large as possible.
- Move the camera in as close as you can with the object still staying in sharp focus. This may mean you leave a lot of "wasted" white space around the object – that’s OK. Take the photograph.
- Crop away all the "wasted" white space – all shaded area in the diagram to the right 🡺, afterwards. Your photo will still be sharp.
- Many close-up photos are blurred not because the photographer didn't get close enough, but the exact opposite - they got too close and the camera couldn't focus.
Example: if you set a typical 13.5 megapixel DSLR to maximum resolution, your photos will be 3000 x 4500px in size. You can crop away ALL the shaded area, and still be left with a very large, totally sharp 1500 x1500 px image.
3. Do you need a special macro lens?
No, you do not need a special lens. Most cameras will be able to take perfectly sharp photographs of objects such as coins, badges and medals using the above technique.
But if you regularly take photos of small objects, then a close up lens set is very useful.
They simply screw on to the front of your normal lens, and allow a closer focus and larger image than you can otherwise achieve.
They usually come as a set of four:
+1,+2,+4,+10, and cost around A$30 on eBay.
4. Use diffused lighting
With close up photography, you are usually looking at fine detail. Often the objects are shiny or metallic, so you want to avoid glare, and provide even illumination. Badges are not flat, but slightly convex, meaning they are difficult to evenly light without glary hotspots.
Using the built in camera flash is guaranteed to cause problems, as the shiny metallic object will simply reflect the glare back into the camera. We need soft, indirect light to evenly illuminate the object.
The effective solution to all these issues is simple - make your own diffuser.
Make your own diffusing cone.
- Use a roll of kitchen greaseproof or baking paper.
- Tear off a square piece
- Create a cone shape, and use tape to hold it in shape.
- Cut the top and bottom off as shown.
Time = 5 minutes
Cost = $0!
Another way of achieving diffused, soft light if you are by a window is to tape a piece of baking paper directly to the window glass. By itself, this gives an uneven light, so you then need to place a white card on the opposite side of the object, as a reflector card to bounce the light back and even up the lighting.
If you are doing regular close up photography, you can make a stronger, larger diffusing cone using a wire frame – in this case, an old lamp shade. Just roughly glue the baking paper onto the wire frame, wait for it to dry, and then trim it to size:
5. Use self-timer or wireless remote shutter release
As mentioned above, an absolutely still camera is critical. Do not use your finger to manually press the shutter release, even if it is sitting on a tripod, as this will cause tiny vibrations. There are two solutions:
Solution 1 - Set your camera to self-timer mode and 10 second delay. On a tripod, this will give it sufficient time to settle down and prevent any blur caused by vibrations when you press the shutter release button.
Solution 2 - The best solution (by far) is that most cameras operate with a wireless remote shutter release. You can stand anywhere you like, and it frees up your hands if you are holding a reflector card near the item.
Cost? A ridiculous $3.50 online.
(As a free bonus, taking group family portraits (including yourself) becomes a breeze if you have a tripod and remote shutter release.)
6. What difference does lighting make?
The difference good lighting makes to effective photography of small items is often underestimated. The key to effective lighting is control – strength, location, number of lights, softness and diffusion. And each of these impacts how your item looks in the finished photo.
There is no “one right way”, but many different successful techniques using natural and artificial light.
These four photos are identical. The only difference is the style of lighting. Look carefully:
- Inbuilt camera flash - you can see the glare, and uneven lighting
- Direct sunlight – taken next to a window, the lighting is even, but casts strong shadows. (This could have been softened by placing a white reflector card opposite, on the bottom right to balance it.)
- Small diffusing cone – very soft light coming evenly from all directions, showing nice saturated colours. But the light is too soft, the object has lost texture, looks flat and two-dimensional
- Large diffusing cone – somewhere between 2. and 3. – soft shadows, nice texture and colour. It looks three-dimensional, like you could reach in and pick it up.
Which is your preference for these four styles of lighting?
Lighting makes a big difference, and what works in one situation - say a shiny medallion, may be quite different to what works best for a small document.
But if you have created a photographic set up as suggested in this article using a tripod and remote shutter release, then your hands are free, and the camera and object are both fixed in place. This means the only variable is lighting, and you are free to move a light closer or further away, add or remove a diffusing cone, and add or remove a reflecting card.
Each time you change something, review the photo as you take it. Observe closely, and you will quickly start to see the differences made by lighting.
7. Other considerations not covered here
There are two other important factors not considered in this article:
- The source of light – daylight or artificial?
- Photo editing software – essential for cropping, improving contrast and so on.
Your light source can be daylight, if a bright window (but not direct sunlight) is available. Artificial light is fine, as long as the Auto White Balance (AWB) is set to automatic. If you are regularly doing close up photography, then a pair of photographic lights are an excellent investment, because you can do your photography anywhere and anytime you want, with predictable results every time.
Photo editing software – there are many software programs available, from free to professional level. If you have not used one before, a simple free program will often handle all the basics you need.
8. Next Steps
The internet is full of helpful photography tutorials. Most are very easy to understand. YouTube has 1,000s of videos. Although some require special equipment, many make a virtue out of showing how you can use everyday materials and simple tips to vastly improve your photography.
Taking consistent great photos is not a matter of luck, long experience, in depth training or expensive equipment. Instead, it requires a few inexpensive tools, careful thought, and thinking about your own photography. Everyone can do it – including you.
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