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Getting Backgrounds Right in Macro Photography

Background is as important as the main subject in all genres of photography, especially macro. Backgrounds have a huge impact on the photograph; it could be used to emphasize the subject and to relate it to its environment.  One can achieve a completely different look to a photograph just by changing its background.

macro photography background
Photo by: Thomas Shahan

To achieve an interesting background the photographer should get many variables right. The color of background, its brightness, saturation and even the amount of blur affect the final result.

Choosing the right background color

To create aesthetically pleasing backgrounds one must make sure the color of the background chosen would work well with the subject being photographed.

A very useful tool which helps you choose the right color background for your macro photograph is the color wheel.

color wheel
color wheel

Using Complementary Colors

Colors that are opposite in hue (colors that are opposite to each other in the color wheel) to the color of the subject works well as backgrounds.

getting backgrounds right in macro photography
Photo by: Tarique Sani

Using complementary colors will help emphasize the colors of the subject and make it stand out from the background.

Using Analogous Colors

background macro photography
Photo by: Rovanto

Color schemes using colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel are called analogous color schemes. Colors that are adjacent to each other in a color wheel are naturally harmonious and using them will help create an organic feel to the image. Analogous colors work well as backgrounds when photographing highly camouflaged insects and animals.

Brightness Level of Background

The brightness level of background is also very important to create interesting photographs. Usually photographers prefer to work with different brightness levels for the subject and the background. The reason for this is that if the subject and the background is of same brightness level then the final image will have very little contrast making the image uninteresting. However one should remember not to overdo it as backgrounds that are too dark or too bright could also throw an image off balance. The trick is to achieve a lighting ratio that works.

macro photography tips
Photo by: Walwyn

  • A completely black background often caused when using flash looks artificial and is therefore considered far less appealing. 
  • A background that is a stop or two darker than the subject works really well and makes the subject stand out, especially subjects that are very colorful.
  • A very bright background can work well in some situations if not in all. A background that is brighter than the subject will work as long as it doesn't divert the viewers’ attention from the main subject.

Amount of Background Blur

A photographer can control the amount of blur in his/her shots by controlling Focal length/shooting distance, aperture, subject magnification, adjusting subject to background distance etc.  In general majority of photographers prefer a clean background with not much detail so as to bring all attention to the main subject. However the choice of a very smooth even toned background or one with recognizable shapes and details is more a matter personal choice.

bokeh background macro photography
Photo by: Bùi Linh Ngân

Depending on the subject and what constitutes the background one may work better than the other. It is recommended to experiment a bit and find out what difference a background with or without detail make on your shots.

Making a Background

The simplest method of obtaining the desired background is to use colored paper. Plain color paper works very well, they are easily available, cheap, easy to carry and to work with and they come in all sorts of colors. For macro photography choose thicker sheets over thinner ones. You can cut the paper into smaller sizes, since the size of the subjects being shot is very small. 

Backgrounds can also be made by using different color gels on flash. An alternative which gives you much more control is to use a field monitor to display a Photoshop color. A much cheaper alternative is to use your Smartphone or Tablet; just import a jpg made on the PC to display a color gradient on them. We will discuss this in more detail in a future article.

Related Reading

  1. Compositing Images for Increased Depth Of Field In Macro Photography
  2. HDR Macro
  3. Diffraction and Macro Motion Blur
  4. Macro Photography - High Magnification, High Fstop, and High Detail
  5. The Sunny 16 Rule For Macro

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