In the previous article, we have already discussed the benefits of using a flashgun for better photographs in Macro Photography (For more details, please read Using Flash In Macro Photography). In short, by using flash you will be able to (i) “freeze” moments and enable sharp photos, even when the subject is moving and (ii) Keep ISO sensitivity low so as to retain more details and colours in your shots.
However, as you start shooting, you will undoubtedly notice that most of the time, the background of resulting photos will appear pitch black and featureless. This is a common phenomenon when the background is too far away for the flash to reach and light up. This happens even when the background is decently bright (to your eyes) due to the low ISO sensitivity levels used.
Of course, having a background that is completely dark may not necessarily be a bad thing- it removes the background altogether, allowing viewers to concentrate on the subject(s) itself, and you can make sure your subjects are evenly lit by providing good flash diffusion (For more details, please read- 6 Things About Flash Diffusion That You Should Know). However, there may be instances where the photo might look better if a little bit of the background is included, giving a sense of depth and story to the photograph. It all depends on personal preference and taste.
Personally I would prefer to display a background when framing a subject (especially a whole body shot) into a small area of the frame. In this case, it makes more sense to display not only the subject, but also the environment where it is found.
So, what exactly do you need to do in order to get rid of the dark background? There are several methods:
1. Shoot using Natural Light. Okay, this isn’t really a very relevant method considering we are talking about Flash Macrography, but for the sake of the beginners I would like to just share this here and I hope you guys will bear with me on this one XD
When you photograph your subjects using Natural Light i.e. no flash, the lighting (on the subject and background) will be as natural as what you see with your own eyes! However, in order to get these type of shots you usually have to bump up ISO by a lot (sacrificing image quality) and keep the shutter speeds low (higher chances of getting blurred shots). The poorer image quality (high noise levels and blurriness) becomes more obvious when you are photographing your subjects up-close.
Handheld “macro” shots taken using Natural Light should be taken from a relatively farther distance for better results: get too close and you will have problems getting the shot right, even if you have a tripod. This is due to the shallower Depth-of-Field (DOF) at higher magnifications. Learn more about magnification and DOF by reading (i) Macro Photography- 1:1 Magnification Explained and (ii) Overcoming Shallow DOF in Macro Photography.
2. Use an artificial background. The main reason why you get a dark background in Flash Macrography is because the flash is not powerful enough to reach and lit whatever is in the background, and thus not recorded by your DSLR sensor.
This can be easily solved by introducing your own background- a piece of leaf or even printed papers with coloured backgrounds! Some people prefer to use natural-looking artificial backgrounds so that the subject blends in properly, whereas some wants the shot to be as contrasty as possible; it all depends on your preference, and how you wish the final results to be.
This method is especially useful if you are going on Macro Sessions with friends who can help you hold the artificial background as you photograph vice versa.
3. Change your camera settings. Although it takes a little bit of practice, you can actually get a properly lit background if you get your DSLR settings correct. Most Macro Setups are specifically designed for up-close shooting, so the settings are often: ~ISO100, 1/200-1/250, ~F16, and flash power at ~1/2-1/8. These settings will always give you dark backgrounds where the flash fails to reach.
The three camera settings that really determines whether you get dark backgrounds or not are (i) the ISO value, (ii) shutter speed and (iii) your flash power. (Confused? Please check out the basics here: How To Shoot Macro For Beginners.)
By increasing ISO sensitivity (you often don’t have to increase a lot) and reducing shutter speeds (1/50 is generally the minimum possible, with flash, to avoid shakes), you will be able to get a much brighter background (of course, assuming you are testing this during the day! XD). However, if you do not lower your flash power, you will get a decently lit background but an overexposed subject! So, try lowering your flash power a bit; it will take some experience and practice to guesstimate how much to lower. Keep trying until you get the correct exposure for both the subject and background.
This technique doesn’t only apply to Macro shots but all types of Flash or Strobist Photography, so definitely worth learning, give it a try!
4. Change your shooting angle. Last but not least, this is one of the easiest and most effective methods in preventing dark backgrounds, which is to simply adjust your shooting angle so as to include some background e.g. leaves that are within the range of your flash that will be recorded into your final photo. As a very lazy guy who doesn’t like to change my DSLR settings, I almost always shoot using this method.
Sometimes you find that shooting a subject from the left side produces nasty backgrounds, but by simply switching to photographing the same subject from the right side, you get a whole world of difference! To know more about getting good compositions and backgrounds for your Macro Photographs, please read (i) Taking Better Macro Shots Part 2- Composition and (ii) Taking Better Macro Shots Part 4- Background.
Of course, this method only works if there are suitable substances within flash range in the background.
5. Crop away! Well, this post-processing method might be considered as cheating but its still a wonderful trick to have up your sleeves! To learn more about post-processing and cropping, please read: Basic Post-processing Techniques For Macro Photography. Most Macro Shots out there are cropped, especially so for very tiny subjects. By cropping carefully, you can easily remove, or at least minimize dark backgrounds within a shot.
Alright guys and girls, that’s it for today~
I hope you will have a fun time getting rid of dark backgrounds this time around! I need to stress again that having a dark background isn’t always bad. It all depends on what you want your Macro Shots to look like at the end of the day! Of course, a good photo is not only about its background, there are several other important aspects that make a photo POP, as covered in Macro Photography- Taking Photos That People Like!
Until the next time, Happy- Macroing!
** Flash powers are mere estimates. I apologize for not being able to recall the precise settings in many of my photographs.
** All photos in this website are taken and owned by me. The use of any photos here is not allowed without my permission.