The background can be just as important as the foreground.
By Niall Benvie
Benvie decided to use the false sharpness set up by placing an out-of-focus edge against a specular highlight and shot the bog arum at ƒ/4 to record the highlight of the sun as a large disc. Fill-lighting was provided by a white reflector.
For the past 20 years or more, there has been a trend among wildlife photographers, myself included, to minimize the contribution of the background in their photographs by rendering it as low key as possible. By doing so, the subject can be freed from visual competition and stand out clearly.
This approach can greatly underestimate the contribution that the background can make to the look and mood of an image. Rather than acting merely as a passive neutral surface, the background can be used to create depth, to set up tension and, under certain conditions, to give sharp edges to out-of-focus subjects. Moreover, by reversing normal expectations of an illuminated subject and shaded background, the viewer can be challenged to look at the subject, literally, in a fresh light.
How It Works
Within the two-dimensional space of an image, a sense of depth is created, not only by constructing perspective, but also by juxtaposing warm (advancing) and cool (receding) colors. The effect is heightened when the subject in the foreground is conspicuously shaded while the background is lit.
When I photograph wildlife, I’m always on the lookout for these bright backgrounds, but in reality, there are many more opportunities to use this technique in the macro zone. A telephoto (I use a minimum of 200mm) gives maximum control of the background. At any given aperture and magnification, depth of field is the same whether you use a 50mm or a 500mm lens, but the background looks radically different as the 500mm greatly magnifies out-of-focus, distant elements and makes them appear closer to the subject. The longer the lens, the more diffused the background. In practical terms, a 180mm or 200mm macro lens or 300mm on an extension tube are the most versatile and easiest-to-handle tools for the job.
After I find a suitable subject—one shaded under an open sky with a clear view through to an illuminated background—I decide how much background color to include and adjust the composition accordingly. In these lighting conditions, you can expect a strong blue cast, one I normally restrain with an 81B warming filter.
Left: Common horsetails are among the most ancient plants on Earth, and Niall Benvie wanted a hint of "in the beginning" in this shot. The rising sun tracks across the sky quickly, calling for a camera reposition every minute or so. A telephoto macro lens rendered the sun as a disc the width of the frame. Middle: A pool in shade caught light from a reflected rock face in Zion National Park. Forget the "correct" white balance in a shot like this; think instead of the contrast between warm and cool. Right: The blue of this wild cornflower growing near a barley field in Estonia was even richer in shade. Benvie used the complementary yellow of the barley to enhance the depth suggested by differential focus, and chose an angle placing the flower against the barley.