5 Tips for Killer Macro Backgrounds

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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.

Macro backgrounds coneflower 1

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.

1. Simplicity is key

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.

Macro backgrounds pink cosmos 2

The background here is a simple green, which allows the colorful subject to pop.

And if it’s autumn, even better. The golds of the changing leaves make for some beautiful hues.

Macro backgrounds daisy 3

Once I found this flower, I shifted my position to include distant trees, which were exhibiting some lovely fall colors.

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).

2. Achieve good subject-background separation

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.

Macro backgrounds blackeyedsusan 9

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.

Macro backgrounds cosmos 4

This flower was a few feet in front of the background. The large distance, plus the shallow depth of field at f/2.8, allowed for the background leaves, drenched in evening sunlight, to blur in a pleasing manner.

3. Shoot toward a cloudy sky

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.

Macro backgrounds highkey 5

I got down to a level with this subject so that it was positioned just above the horizon, and I could capture clouds as the background.

4. Shoot into the sun

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.

Macro backgrounds sunflower 6

I took this image while lying on my front lawn, as the sun sank below the horizon. These colors are essentially straight-out-of-camera.

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.

5. Use the surrounding color

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.

Macro backgrounds fairytale 7

For this image, I angled my camera so that a few yellow flowers in the background contrasted with the reds of the subject.

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 backgrounds yellow 8

Here I positioned myself so that a second flower, a little behind the first, was rendered nicely out of focus.

In conclusion

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!

 

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Jaymes Dempsey is a macro and bird photographer from southeast Michigan. To see more of Jaymes's work, check out his website or his blog.

  • a piece of colored paper behind the subject is a simple and very inexpensive way to modify the background

  • That’s a great point–do you have a favorite color or two that you really like? I’ve experimented a bit with black and white paper, but I’ve never branched out to some of the more interesting colors, I should probably try it sometime!

  • I recommend a pack of multi-color pastel paper at the craft store. The color depends on the subject, but blues, greens and yellow work well for a lot of subjects

  • Click and Learn Photography

    Really good article, thanks! One thing I’m always battling against in macro photography is a cluttered background and this is a great way to work around it!

  • That makes a lot of sense; thanks for the recommendation!

  • Thanks! Good luck with your macro shooting!

  • Mick Rossman

    Semi transparent colored tissue paper could add texture and light play into the equation.

  • Eric Adone

    Fantastic work… Can I ask what is your favourite lens? And I suppose the best results would be with a full frame body or even better with a 645 format like Fuji digital camera?

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  • That’s a really interesting idea, thanks! It seems like it also might have neat effects if put just in front of the lens in a sort of ‘cram’ technique–I’ll have to try both of those out.

  • Mick Rossman

    Thank you, I still use gels also, 🙂 and DC-fix frost applied to plexiglass which makes a great diffuser, I do use available background as you wrote in your article. You have lovely macro photos.

  • Thanks! My favorite lens is probably the Canon 100mm f/2.8L. But the thing about macro lenses is that they all tend to offer pretty great image quality, even the less pricey ones. When I started macro photography, I used the basic Tamron 90mm macro, and I’d still be happy with it in the field–the difference between it and my 100mm f/2.8L is there, but it’s not huge. The cheaper macro lenses have some limitations, but nothing disqualifying.

    As for camera bodies, it’s true that full frame bodies (plus medium format cameras like you mentioned) are going to allow for better image quality, all else being equal. However, the difference between full frame and crop sensor bodies often isn’t significant. There are tons of photographers putting out professional quality work that are using crop sensor bodies, for instance.

    Let me know if you have any other questions!

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  • Eric Adone

    Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. One of my first and loved lens was a Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8. Used it for portraits and close-ups. Very very sharp ! Great lens I agree. I’m looking for a Nikkor 105mm, f/2.8 now which I think would be nice and comfy to work with or even the 85mm, f/1.4. What about the lens baby system? Could fit your shooting style too.
    Did you experiment with those lenses?
    Another question would be to what extent do you edit your picture ? Are the well balanced and esthetic “blurry effect” only due to very shallow DOP, straight out of camera?
    Eric

  • No problem! I have heard good things about the Nikkor 105mm, though I’ve never used it–and I’d love an 85 f/1.4, I’m a huge fan of lenses that offer really shallow depth of field. What sort of subjects do you generally shoot? You’re right about the lens-baby, I really would like the tilt-shift effect a lot. Currently I’m working on duplicating the look with freelensing, which is fun but is really hit and miss.

    As for the blurry effect, yeah, it’s all just straight out of camera–I use a shallow depth of field and focus extremely carefully.

  • Stormsurf

    Some mention should be made of the role of perspective in this kind of photography. I usually use a 200mm micro. A tele makes fuzzy backdrops easier. And the quality will be quite different due to perspective.

  • Peter

    Nice article Jaymes. Pick up fabric off-cuts from the Charity/Op Shops is a good way of getting different colored fabrics to use etc.
    Eric I shoot with both FF & Crop body cameras. I think they both have their advantages & disadvantages. One of the Crop body advantages is that on say a 100-105mm macro lens you will have to be a little further back from your subject so you are less likely to block the light on your subject as much, although If you have the luxury of owning a 180-200mm macro lens this would not be a problem on a FF. I only have a 100mm f2.8L, so I switch cameras as required. My 70-200 f2.8 is too big & bulky for macro & doesn’t get in close enough.

  • That’s a good point–you’re absolutely right, the different focal lengths do make for different quality backgrounds, with longer lenses working better for nice bokeh.

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