Photos and Text By Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of Handmade Business

"Pete" Steele is an Indiana jeweler who makes lots of small metal pieces, some less than an inch tall. Photographing Steele's work reminded me that for many craftspeople, photographing small work can be a challenge. Yet, close-up photography needn't be difficult or seen as a barrier to including small work in a jury submission. It does, however, require two concerns: the lens and the lighting.

Choosing a lens
Most digital cameras come with lenses that have some sort of "macro" or close-up capability. Unfortunately, simply having this ability doesn't mean it is what you need. For example, I have a point-and-shoot (PandS) camera that focuses to within about an inch of a subject. However, it does this at the widest angle part of its zoom range. When taken with a wide-angle lens, close-up pictures have a lot of distortion (the middle of the subject looks a lot bigger than the ends and there is noticeable curvature).

Even with so-called "normal" lenses, you still get a bit of this curvature when photographing at close distances. For the best results, you need a telephoto lens or zoom lens (at its telephoto setting) with close-focus abilities.

When you buy an interchangeable-lens digital Single Lens Reflex (dSLR) camera, make sure the "kit" lens that comes with the camera can take close-ups at the telephoto end of its zoom range. Check carefully because, as odd as this might sound, some of these lenses won't photograph close-up when in auto-focus mode. Some have to be set to "manual" to get really tight shots.

On some digital cameras, a separate button on the body extends the camera's ability to focus close-up.

If the kit lens doesn't get close enough, you have two alternatives: a separate "macro" lens or a "close-up" attachment lens. These inexpensive magnifying lenses screw onto the lens you already have and let you focus very close. Simple and efficient, they are sold as individual lenses or in sets of three levels of magnification. A set of lenses that works with both 35mm film cameras and digital cameras will typically cost less than $50.

Another close-up photography option is the Superzoom cameras--hybrids that are bigger than a PandS but not quite as large as a dSLR--that have extraordinary zoom ranges. They go from a fairly wide focal length to an extreme telephoto one. And most have the ability to focus close-up in the telephoto part of their range. A typical Superzoom costs about $400--more than some PandS cameras but half the price of most entry-level dSLRs--making them worth considering for close-up craft images.

Besides a good close-up lens, you must consider lighting when taking close-up photos. The good news here is that the inverse-square law of light works to your advantage. You can increase a light's intensity on a subject fourfold by moving it from four feet away to two feet away. In photo terms, you gain two f-stops, which is important in close-up photography because you need to stop a lens down to the smallest aperture to get the larger field of sharpness. The more light, the better.

I shot the pictures of Steele's jewelry in my "post office box" studio. To make it, I simply cut the front and top off of a large Priority Mail box and lined it with aluminum foil (the foil bounces a bit of sparkly light onto the jewelry). For a background, I photographed one of my graduated black-to-white seamless studio backgrounds and printed it out as a 6-inch-by-9-inch print. You could also use Photoshop or a similar program and open a "gradient" background in the work space and print it to size.

I put the background in the box and placed the jewelry on it to shoot. I set up a couple of lights to either side of the box and adjusted them for each piece as needed. This is also the moment to mention another reason to use a close-up lens at its telephoto setting: When shooting close-ups with a telephoto lens, the front of the lens is usually a foot or more from the object. This gives you room to light the piece and avoids the lens casting a shadow on the work.

To shoot close-ups, you need to use small apertures. Set the camera ISO to 100 or 200 and the exposure mode dial (the big wheel) to A (Aperture Priority). Then set the lens to the smallest possible aperture. On a PandS this is usually f/8 or f/11, while on a Superzoom and dSLR it will be f/22 or so.

If the camera shows a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second or faster, you don't need a tripod (especially when the camera has a built-in image stabilizer system). However, it might not be a bad idea to use one anyway so you can frame accurately in multiple frames. Move the camera so that the work fills at least half of the frame and take a minute to shut off the camera's auto-flash system.

The post office box studio is pretty simple and works with most small objects from jewelry to postage stamps. Best of all, it helps to alleviate some of the difficulty and mystery of shooting close-ups.

These pendants by "Pete" Steele of Snow Shadow Jewelry are just an inch or two in length and required my use of a close focusing lens.