Composition Basics in Macro Photography

Thoughtful composition can turn a good shot into a great image.

It's hard to overstate the importance of composition. For all of the emphasis we as photographers tend to place on which camera, lens or other gear to use, there's nothing that contributes more to a pleasing image than careful attention to the framing of your subject. In this article I'm going to discuss some of the compositional techniques most applicable to macro photography. I'll illustrate these with a lot of images, as these concepts are often much easier both to understand and apply with visual examples in mind.

I have already mentioned POV (point of view) in an earlier article as a critical aspect of composition in macro photography. Shooting from the same vantage point as the subject creates a feeling of intimacy which is so important in wildlife imagery.

Lead room

The concept of 'lead room' is important in macro as well as other wildlife photography. The idea is that the frame should contain extra space in the direction in which the animal's eyes are looking. Indeed, having a subject looking at the nearest edge of the frame can be unappealing. The use of appropriate lead room contributes greatly to a sense of balance in the image. Consider the examples below.

This gorgeous strawberry poison dart frog was facing right. I thus positioned it on the left side of the image, and left some lead room to the right.

Lead room doesn't have to be overly drastic to be effective. I'm not suggesting you shove your subjects all the way into one corner or the other. You want just enough additional space in the direction to which the eyes are looking to give the image room to 'breathe'.

Lead room doesn’t only exist to the right or left. This Dragonfly was looking downward and to the left, so that’s where I left extra space.

This basic understanding of lead room can be augmented for an even more appropriate application to macro. For creatures whose eyes are not prominent features, the amount of lead room should be based instead on the subject's shape and body structure. In macro, many of our subjects (like the damselflies shown below) have very long and narrow abdomens. In fact, the damselfly is so long, it's very tempting to just fill the frame with it. Yet here I would argue that the damselfly's center of mass should be used as the reference point from which to apply lead room, rather than the entire body. This is much easier to demonstrate than explain, as you'll see below.

Wanting to get good detail on this damselfly has caused me to leave too little room in front of it, resulting in an unbalanced image. A more successful and better balanced damselfly shot. There is sufficient lead room relative to the subject’s center of mass.

Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds offers another guideline for maintaining balance. Most of my images are either centered or follow the rule of thirds - this usually depends of whether the subject is looking straight at the camera or to either side.

As you can see by the rule of thirds grid overlay, the majority of the frog's body has been positioned outside the center of the frame. Placing the eyes and body of this red eyed tree frog in surrounding portions of the grid gives a good balance to the overall image.

Of course there are many situations in which it does make sense to center the subject in the frame, as you can see in the example below.

This fly is looking straight into the camera, so it was a good idea to position it in the center of the frame. This strengthens the visual quality of this alien-looking species.

Click here to continue reading our macro composition article...

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 73
riman
By riman (7 months ago)

How the hell did you get these shots!!! Amazing! esp the damsel fly,,i have tried and tried and tried again to get a dragonfly in flight and only wound up with blurry eyes and a headache! This is all great stuff but that fly is incredible!!
I was looking around trying to figure out what to specialize in and macro may be it..

1 upvote
FD6969
By FD6969 (Apr 4, 2013)

thank you for this article, I really like it

1 upvote
Senior39
By Senior39 (Mar 25, 2013)

WOW1 Great photos! The rules of space and thirds I understood clearly. "Stacks" threw me completely. What's this about?

1 upvote
CameraGirl101
By CameraGirl101 (Aug 4, 2012)

These photos are stunning...

http://www.txstockphotos.com/

2 upvotes
Leif S.
By Leif S. (May 27, 2012)

That fly head with the drops of water magnifying all the detail is absolutely gorgeous.

1 upvote
DaveMarx
By DaveMarx (Mar 16, 2012)

Sure, the rules never change, and can be applied to all the visual arts, but so what? This series is beautifully clear and concise - a few, well-chosen words, and photos that speak volumes. We can see exactly how these classic techniques are applied to a specific application, with masterful effect. Bravo!

2 upvotes
brliv
By brliv (Mar 15, 2012)

I shoot large stacks. But I can't imagine how to set up for a macro stack of an insect. Sometimes my stacks are 100 or more files and takes quite an effort to set up, time consuming... How do you keep these buggers absolutely still for 20 minutes or even longer without killing them?

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Mar 15, 2012)

My stacks are mostly of 3-15 images, so I can do them in a minute or even less...

0 upvotes
brliv
By brliv (Mar 15, 2012)

They are impressive images. I'd still like to know how one can "freeze" the bug without killing or maiming it

2 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Mar 15, 2012)

I'll talk all about dealing with bugs in a future article. Please stay tuned.

3 upvotes
JerryCanon10D
By JerryCanon10D (May 17, 2012)

Fridge ...

0 upvotes
Robert Gates
By Robert Gates (Mar 14, 2012)

For the final shot of the fly, what was the lens and the settings please? Great work! Thanks.

2 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Mar 14, 2012)

Hi Robert,
This shot was achieved using the Canon MP-E65mm macro lens.
It's focus-stacked from 13 images taken at 1/6sec, ISO200, f/8.
I hope this helps!
Erez

1 upvote
françoise Bouché
By françoise Bouché (Mar 14, 2012)

Thanks for the good tips and the beautiful photos.
compliments.
fr

3 upvotes
Bill3R
By Bill3R (Mar 14, 2012)

Thanks for the great article. I will never look at these tiny creatures in the same way again.

3 upvotes
siwerida
By siwerida (Mar 11, 2012)

fabulous pics - thanks. New to macro but not to birding with a 300mm f2.8 lens. Could I use an extension tube successfully with this lens for macro work?
All the best
Siw

3 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Mar 11, 2012)

Yes. A 300mm+ex. tubes is a great combo. I don't have experience with a 300/2.8 though.

1 upvote
siwerida
By siwerida (Mar 11, 2012)

Thanks - I'll give it a try & let you know though it may be quite a wait - have just bought the nikkor 300mm lens & don't normally pay that much for my cars - ah well!!

1 upvote
Mark H U
By Mark H U (Mar 11, 2012)

Excellent reminder tips and photos.
I can't wait for summer!

2 upvotes
Omar047
By Omar047 (Mar 10, 2012)

I love Macro Photography and would like to know how much Post Processing you do and for a beginner that really hates PP, what is a good PP process to begin with. I've tried the Piscaso and this was pretty easy and looks good when printing on my Epson R-1900. I need to take the next step but I'm really not sure which system to try. What did you use for your photos that you shared?
Thanks

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Mar 11, 2012)

All my images are post-processed to some degree. I'll talk about PP on a future article- please stay tuned.

2 upvotes
paolopan83
By paolopan83 (Mar 9, 2012)

How was the last picture made? I guess it is almost impossible to get the fly in the reght posiyion, spry it with water and capture it.

0 upvotes
Karl Gnter Wnsch
By Karl Gnter Wnsch (Mar 9, 2012)

Easy, the droplets are morning dew - insects need external sources of heat so get out in the dead of night and identify suiting subjects before sunrise and get cracking at the first decent light...

2 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Mar 11, 2012)

I'll talk all about dealing with bugs in a future article. Please stay tuned.

5 upvotes
eurotramp
By eurotramp (Mar 9, 2012)

What i fail to understand is that how are these rules "specific" to macro photography? These are general rules that can be applied to any kind of photography. Though i must admit the example photographs are very well done

2 upvotes
Karl Gnter Wnsch
By Karl Gnter Wnsch (Mar 9, 2012)

They are not specific to macro photography but it serves well to remind oneself of them and not let the amazement about the details of the subject completely rule your mind...

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Mar 11, 2012)

Some rules are more specific to macro, such as tight cropping and considering the special shape of insects. Others are less specific, but still important in a comprehensive series about any subject.
Glad you liked the images.

2 upvotes
BR41N1
By BR41N1 (Mar 9, 2012)

I really like your article. Thanks for sharing!

2 upvotes
jpdenk
By jpdenk (Mar 9, 2012)

An outstanding article, thank you!

2 upvotes
ecuadordave
By ecuadordave (Mar 8, 2012)

Thank you for your great article. I especially appreciate the accompanying example photos since literally sometimes "a picture is worth a thousand words". I hope Dpreview keeps articles like this coming! Thanks.

3 upvotes
10kzoom
By 10kzoom (Mar 8, 2012)

It is a good article for novices and for those of us advanced amateurs as a reminder.

One thing that could have been mentioned, however briefly, is the crop 'format'. Some of your images could have been improved yet again with the 'square format'.

http://www.dpreview.com/articles/9462076757/square-format-not-so-weird

1 upvote
Jim Salvas
By Jim Salvas (Mar 8, 2012)

Nice, but a few common composition guidelines were left out. How about S-curves? The golden section or golden ratio? Triangle compositions?

1 upvote
AnHund
By AnHund (Mar 8, 2012)

Very nice. Thanks.

2 upvotes
MP Burke
By MP Burke (Mar 8, 2012)

The images here make me think I have been guilty of some excessively tight cropping of damselfly images. In a month or two's time they should be on the wing again and I will try putting this advice into practice.

1 upvote
Vladilena
By Vladilena (Mar 8, 2012)

I am a novice in macro photography, and one thing I'd like to ask is : How do you keep the frog from jumping away while you are setting the shot?

3 upvotes
Rubenski
By Rubenski (Mar 8, 2012)

You can't. These pics didn't come without hundreds of missed shots first...

3 upvotes
glonislav
By glonislav (Mar 8, 2012)

Also lenses like 150-200mm allow you to keep distance, and lower chance to scare away frog or insect

1 upvote
Karl Gnter Wnsch
By Karl Gnter Wnsch (Mar 9, 2012)

@glonislav: Insects are mostly scared by movement perpendicular to their sitting position - like a swooping bird. This will invariably trigger their reflex to skedaddle. A photographer knowing his stuff thus will do anything to avoid this trigger - which means he will not be using the camera hand held but on a tripod with macro focusing rail which allows a straight closing movement. This then allows to use 100mm, or less focal length which will yield more of an impression of depth.

3 upvotes
Lexx81
By Lexx81 (Mar 8, 2012)

stunning images, very good advice... I really love macro photography...

4 upvotes
mutriu
By mutriu (Mar 8, 2012)

Helpful and nicely written indeed!

2 upvotes
CollBaxter
By CollBaxter (Mar 8, 2012)

Thanks . I enjoyed the read. Good advice.

2 upvotes
gufodotto
By gufodotto (Mar 8, 2012)

this is excellent advice for a novice like me. I always try to cram in as much detail as I can of my macro subject, sometimes positioning them along the diagonal rather than following any rule...

I'll try to pay more attention to composition and perhaps the final result will improve, from now on. :-)

1 upvote
bokane
By bokane (Mar 8, 2012)

Great photos and useful tips - but I'm still waiting for the killer (if that is the right word, maybe stunning instead?) post on how you get insects in the wild to stay still long enough to photograph them.

3 upvotes
Rubenski
By Rubenski (Mar 8, 2012)

I'll tell you the killer secret: be very patient, move like a snake and take your biggest macro lens with you.

3 upvotes
rramjit
By rramjit (Mar 8, 2012)

I guess this would not work for reverse lens photography then...

0 upvotes
glonislav
By glonislav (Mar 8, 2012)

Wake up early, about sunset. At this time many insects are literally sleeping. You can get quite close to them.

1 upvote
eenymac
By eenymac (Mar 8, 2012)

"Wake up early, about sunset."

Wow! That is early. I'd wait a bit longer though and maybe get up around sunrise. :o) During summer I am often at my usual spot at first light, also means nobody else about to scare off the subjects.

1 upvote
KenEis
By KenEis (Mar 8, 2012)

Shoot early in the morning. Even in the tropics insects will be cooler and more slugish in the early morning

1 upvote
glonislav
By glonislav (Mar 8, 2012)

sunrise, sunset... ;) English is not my native language, sorry for mistake ;)

0 upvotes
Karl Gnter Wnsch
By Karl Gnter Wnsch (Mar 9, 2012)

@bokane, the trick is to know what kind of behavior will trigger the skedaddle reflex of the insects - it's not the distance as such! It's the kind of movement, if you move directly and linearly towards the insect they will stay until you practically touch their eyes. But move perpendicular to their sitting position and they are gone from any distance. So hand holding the camera is an exceedingly bad idea as your normal movement contains such perpendicular movement components if you want or not.
Another thing you should bear in mind is that many insects will return to their last position or if a certain sitting position is well suited to their lifestyle they will often accept one provided by you - this applies to many of the carnivorous species such as dragonflies and hunting flies.

1 upvote
Rubenski
By Rubenski (Mar 8, 2012)

Beautiful pics but to be honest there's nothing new composition wise to be told. The same rules apply always in photography. Any good book on photography will teach exactly the same. The fact that you're shooting a very small animal or part of it doesn't change a thing. DOF is a bigger concern and needs a lot more practising.

2 upvotes
TakePictures
By TakePictures (Mar 8, 2012)

Totally agree. Although I'm not an experienced macro shooter myself, proper DOF must be THE issue in this type of photography. In the samples above, DOF appears very well chosen by the way.

1 upvote
Amadou Diallo
By Amadou Diallo (Mar 8, 2012)

Hmmm...It's really a shame then that we didn't publish an article discussing DOF in macro photography. We should have called it something like, I don't know, 'Depth of Field in Macro Photography'. Would have been even better if we had linked to it at the end of this article. Oh well, next time ;-)

11 upvotes
tesch
By tesch (Mar 8, 2012)

Depth of Field is always part of the composition. You can't think of things in parts, "everything" contributes to the total compostion.

Actually I would consider this an article on framing but I guess that's where it all starts.

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Chris Roussot
By Chris Roussot (Mar 8, 2012)

Excellent article, great photos, thanks

1 upvote
Alan87
By Alan87 (Mar 8, 2012)

Excellent series of articles - very helpful and so much better for being illustrated with such informative images. Thank you.

3 upvotes
yousef sayadi
By yousef sayadi (Mar 8, 2012)

very very nice macro...thanks

Comment edited 19 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
corkpix
By corkpix (Mar 8, 2012)

Thanks for another excellent macro article Erez.

2 upvotes
Pavlo Boiko
By Pavlo Boiko (Mar 8, 2012)

There is a lot to learn from. Thanks.
Wondering how Erez made the flyes to pose :)
It should be the next article subject

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
3 upvotes
jochen1
By jochen1 (Mar 8, 2012)

Truly beautiful shots, thank you for sharing them and for sharing your knowledge in the first place..

2 upvotes
bronxbombers
By bronxbombers (Mar 8, 2012)

+1

2 upvotes
Erik69
By Erik69 (Mar 8, 2012)

I love your articles, keep them coming! Thanks for sharing those great images in a big format!

2 upvotes
RayOie
By RayOie (Mar 8, 2012)

Thanks a lot for the article :)

2 upvotes
mskuma
By mskuma (Mar 8, 2012)

A great article with stunning examples. Thanks for writing it up.

2 upvotes
skimble
By skimble (Mar 8, 2012)

well explained and good you mentioned at the end to challenge this rules only than we will develop our own signature (as long as it appeals).
Thanks for the reminder of this basic but important compositional rules.

2 upvotes
Chaitanya S
By Chaitanya S (Mar 8, 2012)

thanks a lot again.

2 upvotes
nhald
By nhald (Mar 8, 2012)

wow! I've been doing it all wrong. thanks for this!

2 upvotes
ejw07
By ejw07 (Mar 8, 2012)

Erez..much appreciated and TY for the lesson and insight ..on Macro..

2 upvotes
thielges
By thielges (Mar 8, 2012)

Thanks again for sharing your experience Erez! You've combined an article with concise and useful info along with images that both illustrate and entertain.

4 upvotes
Rickard Hansson
By Rickard Hansson (Mar 8, 2012)

That last image of the fly is crazy sharp. I wish nikon had an MP-E 65 lens as well. :-)

3 upvotes
photoguy622
By photoguy622 (Mar 8, 2012)

Great article. Thanks!

2 upvotes
nemesix
By nemesix (Mar 8, 2012)

Great images and advice, very helpful for this new macrophotographer!

2 upvotes
chris_j_l
By chris_j_l (Mar 7, 2012)

I'm glad DPR is branching out into more soft skills and technique articles. Thanks for this - it certainly gives more than a little inspiration.

9 upvotes
Total comments: 73