Frozen in Time

Tips for Photographing Tiny Subjects

This is a shot I took on the Big Island of Hawaii. We were driving along the road, and we noticed a small road way down below us in a beautiful valley full. So, we pulled off the main drag and found the road we’d seen from above. I’m glad we did. We found ourselves in a gorgeous spot – waves pounding the rocky shore on one side, and lush rain forest on the other.

I noticed these tiny water droplets strung like pearls on a spider’s web. So, of course, I pulled out my macro lens and got down to business.

Capturing a shot like this is tough. Even with a macro lens, it was hard to get in close enough for the shot I wanted. And the slightest breeze was enough to keep the web dancing… so getting a sharp picture required patience.

I took several shots – hoping that I could get one that was sharp. Thanks to a few moments of stillness, the photo I took with a 1.6 second shutter speed (ISO 100) is cleaner than another I took with a 1/6 second shutter speed (ISO 400. 🙂 Sometimes, you just get lucky. 🙂

A few tips for photographing tiny subjects.

1. Look for a clean background. Here, I used an aperture of 7.1. That setting gave me just a bit of depth of field to work with, and left my background completely blurred out. I was VERY close for this shot… just at the focus limit of my lens, so my depth of field is incredibly narrow.

2. Use a tripod to keep your camera steady while you are working. I sometimes use my camera as a monopod when I’m working with a moving subject – even leaving my ball head lose at times so I can pivot and adjust quickly, while maintaining as much stability as possible.

2. Look for patterns. Notice that I included only a few strands of the web in this shot. I looked at it carefully to find repeating patterns that were appealing to me. The Y-shaped strands give me the patterns I want, and the single strands break up the pattern just enough to keep things interesting.

3. Align elements that you want in focus along a flat plane – and keep that plane parallel to your camera’s sensor. As I mentioned before, I was working with a ridiculously narrow depth of field here, so anything outside my narrow plane of focus would be blurred. I adjusted my camera very carefully to be sure it was aligned as accurately as possible. Take a look at the images below to see how I align my camera to make use of a narrow plane of focus in different ways.

I adjusted my tripod and camera so that the edges of the leaves and the head of the gecko were within my plane of focus. The focus falls off behind the gecko, softening the background and the body of the gecko – and simplifying the scene. This composition works because the gecko’s head rests just at the edge of a leaf – within the plane of focus – and the repeating leaf patterns provide interesting negative space.


In the second image, below, I chose to set up my camera and tripod so that the gecko’s long body aligned with my plane of focus. I focused on the eyes of the little creature, which were lifted towards me – so the body is slightly out of focus. Notice that the edge of the tree trunk is soft. That’s because the trunk falls out of the plane of focus as it curves away from my lens.hawaii_4126-copy

My tripod is critically important when I’m photographing tiny subjects, because I need to be able to set up my camera (often at odd angles), and then adjust my settings quickly and efficiently. For a living subject – like my little gecko friends – I might not tighten my ball head, so that I can pivot my camera as my subject moves. The tripod provides far more stability than I can accomplish, even when the head is not fully tightened. If I need to be able to move my camera quickly, and also need a broad range of of motion, I sometimes fold my legs together and use it as a monopod. The extra stability means I can worry less about motion blur, and I can relax a little when it comes to shutter speed. When I was shooting these geckos, that simple trick gave me the stability, mobility, and flexibility I needed – while also allowing me to make quick adjustments, and keeping my arms from getting too tired from holding a heavy camera and lens

Here’s another example of how I aligned my subject within the plane of focus. In this case, I brought my tripod down low to the ground and locked it in place. I aligned my camera and lens so that the tip of my subject was sharply focused, and as the curving petal fell within the plane of focus. If I had chosen another angle for this shot, most of my subject would have been very soft.

California, USA

California, USA

You’ll notice that I often use the tips I mention in this post in my work. I have hundreds of examples that show repeating patterns, a narrow depth of field for a simplified background, and compositional elements arranged within the plane of focus.

Hawai'i, USA

Hawai’i, USA

I often use a combination of two or more of these techniques to create an appealing composition. Just remember – these tips aren’t meant to be hard and fast rules… they are merely suggestions. You are the artist – so you make the rules.

Frozen in Time

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.