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You’ve got a perfect macro subject, the perfect angle, and the perfect composition. You’ve checked your focus, and it’s spot on. Your finger hovers over the shutter button. One quick press, and you’ll have the shot. It’s all there before you…right?
Maybe not. There’s one more thing that I’d urge you to check before you shoot – and that is the background.
See, while subject, lighting, and setup matter a great deal in macro photography, the background matters too, far more than people often realize. This is quite understandable; it’s the background. As long as you’ve got the perfect subject, why worry?
But when it comes to macro photography, the background can make or break a shot. You’re often working with a limited compositional palette, of sorts. Lines, colors, shapes; macro photography simplifies things, which is not to say that it makes photography easier. Instead, it magnifies each element, making attention to detail all the more important.
Fortunately, getting good backgrounds is not that difficult. As you start to become conscious of backgrounds and of their importance, your eye will develop. But to jump-start your technique, here are five tips that will dramatically improve your macro images right away.
I said I’d give you five tips, but this one right here is the big one. This is the starting point that should drive all other background considerations.
When I say simplicity, I’m not necessarily advocating a static, uniform, black or white background (although that can work well). What I mean is that you don’t want clutter. You don’t want a background full of distracting shapes and lines that draw the eye away from the main subject.
For instance, one of my favorite types of backgrounds is just a single color. Nothing fancy, but nothing distracting, either. If you’re shooting in a natural area, maybe you can position yourself so that your subject has some trees behind it. Then you can capture a nice, green wash for your background.
And if it’s autumn, even better. The golds of the changing leaves make for some beautiful hues.
The key consideration here is that the background isn’t distracting. Aim for the background to complement the subject without overpowering it. In general, you’ll be safe with a uniform wash (but it’s also possible to go with something a little more complex, as you will see in tips four and five below).
When it comes to macro photography, sufficient separation between the subject and the background is crucial. That is, you’re going to want to find a subject that is a significant distance away from whatever sits behind it. When you focus on your subject in the foreground, distant background elements will generally become a pleasing blur, creating the solid wash that I discussed above.
So what exactly is a significant distance? In general, this is going to depend on a couple of things.
First, camera to subject distance. The closer your camera is to the subject, the closer the background can be to the subject. If your camera is just five inches from a flower, then you’ll probably be okay with a background that’s only 10 inches behind that flower. However, if your camera is five feet from the flower, then you’re going to need perhaps ten feet of distance between the flower and background.
Second, depth of field is a factor. Briefly, depth of field refers to the amount of the subject that is sharp and in focus, which is altered by widening and narrowing the lens’s aperture.
The shallower your depth of field (achieved by using a wide aperture, generally in the f/1.8-5.6 range), the closer your subject can be to the background, while still allowing for a nice uniform wash. But when you’re using a narrow aperture (e.g., f/8-32), you’ll need to be a lot more careful. Without a large distance between your background and subject, you’ll find that whatever exists in your background (leaves, stems, trees, etc.) will remain well defined, and will, therefore, distract from the subject.
This one is easy to pull off, and can result in some really pleasing images. All it takes is a willingness to get low to the ground so that you can place the sky behind your subject. If you take the picture as you normally would, exposing for the main subject, then you’ll find that the background will be rendered as a pleasing, uniform white.
Often, macro photographers like to position the sun behind them, so that the light is coming over their shoulders and falling on the front of the subject. While this can be a great strategy, sometimes switching things up can result in creative effects.
One of the most interesting techniques is to wait until the sun is low on the horizon. Then position the subject between yourself and the sun, get down low, and expose for the main subject. Don’t aim to get the sun in your shot. Instead, try to capture some of that golden light that sits just beside the sun.
It’s critical that you do this in the late evening. Any earlier and the sun will be too bright. You won’t get those rich, golden colors, and it will be tough to expose for the main subject.
I’d also urge you to be careful; do not look at the sun through your camera viewfinder. This will be damaging to your eyes. Instead, capture the image while using your camera’s Live View function.
While a uniform wash often works quite well as a background, you may want to give your shots something extra. A little bit of pop. That’s where vibrant colors can come in handy.
For now, I’m not necessarily suggesting that you match colors like clothes, nor am I suggesting you use color theory. There’s no need to be that particular, not when you’re starting out. Instead, just try to look for colorful spots in the background, and compose the shot so that the main subject has a bit of color behind it.
When you’re out in the field, you may not see an abundance of options, but pause and glance around. Try looking through the viewfinder while shifting your camera angle. It may turn out that certain areas become startlingly beautiful once they’re out of focus.
One of my favorite techniques when shooting flowers is to adjust my composition so that a second bloom is a bit behind the first, while shooting with a shallow depth of field. Rendered as an out-of-focus patch of color, this background bloom complements the main subject.
Macro photography requires careful attention to your background, but don’t let that hold you back. By achieving good separation between the subject and the background, by shooting toward the sky, the setting sun, or including vibrant colors, and by—above all—concentrating on simplicity, you’ll be well on your way to getting fantastic macro images.
If you have any tips that I didn’t mention here, I’d love to hear them in the comments!