Macros: Importance Of A Good Background

The background is equally as important as the subject

For those who have spent time with me in the field, you’ve heard me say the following: “The background is equally as important as the subject.” This is especially true in macro photography given the diversity of subjects along with the creative aspects that are often incorporated. For instance, a technique known as selective focus is often used to highlight a single portion of a selected petal of a flower. If the background has bright highlights that draw the eye, the selective focus effect falls short. If the background is busy and the eye isn’t drawn to the selected petal, the effect falls short.

There is a phenomenon I refer to as “tunnel vision composing.” Many photographers zero in on the subject and ignore the background and all corners in the frame. The syndrome is very common so don’t feel bad if it ails you. A photographer targets the primary subject and subconsciously ignores everything else. The good news is it’s an affliction that’s easily overcome. Slow down and study the entire viewfinder before you press the shutter. As the photographic disorder is slowly eradicated from your system, you’ll be able to make a cursory glance around the viewfinder and notice any distractions.

Patience: In macro photography, it’s good when the subject pops from the background. One way to achieve this effect is to photograph the subject against a wash of color. The more simple the background, the more the subject pops. Wait till it moves to a different location or simply find a different subject. As much as you want the photo to work, if the background is busy, don’t fight it.

Move in Closer: One way to help throw a background more out of focus is to keep moving closer. The closer you get to the subject, the more you narrow the angle of view which helps eliminate parts of a background. Additionally, the closer you get to a subject, the more it’s magnified which inherently narrows the depth of field. As depth of field decreases, background and foreground objects fall more out of focus. The caveat is the lack of depth of field also impacts the subject so it’s essential you make note of how it effects the field of sharpness on the primary components. It’s important to note that if the subject is too close to the background, it’s impossible to throw it out of focus.

Make Your Own Backgrounds: If you have complete control over your macro subject, a great trick of the trade is to introduce an artificial background. I’ve used colored pieces of cloth, sheets of cardboard, and even the back of my green jacket. If it has texture, be sure to place it far enough away to fall out of the depth of field range. Solid colors work well as do ones that are dappled in paint. For instance, I painted a green board with blotches of dark and light green. When placed far away from the subject, the blotches fall out of focus and it looks natural. Experiment with different distances and apertures to see where it needs to be placed so the effect looks realistic.

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