Hi guys! Now that we have already addressed three parts on How To Take Better Macro Shots, covering (i) Choice of Subject, (ii) Composition and also (iii) Lighting; today we proceed to looking at background selection for your macro shots.
Just like any other genre of photography, the background is very important as it is supposed to complement your subject which will make up the final, desired photo. Your background could be purposely blurred out (also known as Bokeh) so as to attract viewers to look at your main subject (see Photo 1); or you could keep the background sharp so that viewers would know additional details or features of your shot e.g. time, location, what the subject was doing etc. (See Photo 2)
Of course, there is no right or wrong when it comes to the way you present your photos, so long as the message you wanted to convey is conveyed.
Now, back to Macro Photography. Fortunately for us, as we get really close to the subject for a highly magnified shot, the Depth of Field becomes insanely shallow. Although this may be a problem in getting a properly focused shot (for solutions, see Overcoming Shallow Depth Of Field In Macro Photography), the background blur or Bokeh will become very smooth and Out-Of-Focus (OOF); so more often than not, you don’t have to worry too much about what is in your background, especially if it is far away from your subject.
Nevertheless, there are still some aspects to pay attention to before you take your shot:
1. Distance of the Background from your Subject
Well, there is no need for you to go and measure the exact distance between your subject and the background which will be framed: All these will come as you become more experienced. However, if your background is obviously very far away from your subject, e.g. you are photographing a dragonfly perching on a fallen tree branch on an empty field; you are going to get an entirely black background if you are still using normal macro settings (i.e. Flash on and low ISO value). Your shot will look like it was taken during the night. This is because the background is too far away for your flash to reach, and as a result your camera sensor detects nothing and thus the resulting dark background. This effect is especially evident when natural light is limited. However, you can learn more about minimizing dark backgrounds in Flash Macrography by reading here: 5 Ways To Minimize Dark Backgrounds in Macro Shots.
There are three ways in which you could deal with this particular issue:
- You change your shooting angle so that the background (e.g. foliage, branches etc.) is close enough for your flash to hit, and your camera sensor to register. Of course, this method is only applicable if there is such a background in range.
- You increase your ISO sensitivity (to be able to detect the background “illuminated” by natural light) and decrease Flash power (to avoid overexposing your subject now that ISO was increased). This method is only effective during daytime. When natural light becomes limited, you have to really compromise on image quality just to get a properly exposed background.
- You design or buy a very good flash diffuser. If the background will become dark, so be it. If the light originating from your flashgun is extremely well diffused, you will still get an awesome macro shot, where the dark background simply brings out more emphasis on your subject!
2. Quality of Background
The background will often become Out-Of-Focus (OOF) when you shoot macro. The amount of OOF or Bokeh you get for the background depends on your level or magnification as well as the distance of the background from your subject.
In general, the higher your magnification and the farther away the background is from your subject (more apparent during daytime), the blurrier your background Bokeh.
During times when you cannot simply blur out the background with shallow Depth Of Field (DOF) i.e. if the subject is too large and you need to shoot at lower magnification to be able to frame the whole thing OR if the background (especially so if ugly) is just too close to the subject, it is best to simply change your shooting angle. Adjust your angle until a point where the background looks smoothly OOF before you release the shutter button. Most subjects will still look good at a different perspective, but now that the background is nicer, you get an overall better macro photo!
3. Color of Background
This particular point is pretty much similar to that of Quality of Background, but emphasizing more on background color. Even if the background is rendered OOF, the colors of the OOF regions may still become very distracting, especially so if it is not a “natural” color you see in the wild (assuming you are shooting in the wild). The solution is again simple; simply change your shooting angle if possible.
One of the good things about color is that you can still “save” your photo by changing the Hues, Saturation and Luminance in post-process.
Alright! These are some of the main points and “natural” solutions to consider if you want a good background for your macro shot. If you are not happy with the solutions provided, there is still one workaround to get an awesome, if not flawless background for your macro photos- You make your own background.
Some people do not like to compromise one bit on image quality, composition, lighting and also the background; so the solutions above just don’t quite cut it for them. As a workaround, they simply place an “artificial” substance in the background to be photographed. These substances could range from a piece of leaf to a printed paper showing some awesome background Bokeh. Although “unnatural”, this method is really effective in generating a background, and if done correctly; it will be hard to tell whether the background is real or not.
Of course, unless if you have a tripod or mechanic hands, you will still need a friend or a simple clamp stand to help hold up the artificial background while you take your shot, which might be a hassle to some.
Foreground Blur or Bokeh
This may not exactly be on topic, but I reckon it would be beneficial to point out the importance of Foreground Blur to a macro shot, especially so if you are trying to add more depth to the photo. This method is usually used when you are photographing a subject and its surroundings.
If done right, Foreground Bokeh can be as pleasing to look at as Background Bokeh. The trick is to include some foreground (foliage etc. in front of your subject) into the corners of your frame. As long as the foreground is not distracting or blocking the subject, it will improve the aesthetic value of your photo.
Okay, now that you have got a little bit of clue on how to improve the background (and foreground) of your shots, do remember to take some time to think each time you are about to snap your photo; trust me, it will make a whole world of difference! Of course, as mentioned earlier, there is really no right or wrong when it comes to taking macro shots, so it doesn’t really matter which background method you use to get your shots 🙂
The next article is the last of the series, which focuses on getting sharp and clear photos, feel free to check it out: Taking Better Macro Shots Part 5- Sharpness.
Until the next time, happy trying and good shooting ya guys!
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