Composition Basics in Macro Photography
Erez Marom | Photo Techniques | Published Mar 7, 2012
|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.
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.
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.
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.|
Diagonal lines and compositional weight
Another important thing to bear in mind is that having the major lines in the image parallel to the edges is often unappealing. Try to give your images diagonals, and they will benefit greatly.
When shooting invertebrates in the classic 'animal standing on a diagonal plant' pose, I avoid having the plant exit the frame at both corners. Why? The subject itself has a compositional weight, reflecting its actual physical weight. Making the plant or twig exit the frame edge closest to the subject at a lower point can enhance the physicality of the shot.
|The branch exits the frame under the corner-to-corner diagonal, to balance the katydid's presence.|
|This orange-tip butterfly adds compositional weight and 'pushes' the leaf on which it’s standing below the diagonal, thus creating a balanced image.|
The degree to which you depart from the corner-to-corner diagonal should depend on the compositional weight of the subject. Notice that even though the plant or twig is not exiting the frame at the corner, a good composition often aligns the subject's body part nearest the frame edge with the corner. See the examples below.
When deciding whether or not to include a subject's entire body, one guideline to remember is to 'cut hard or not at all'. It’s often problematic to include the whole macro subject in a frame. Apart from anything else, some insects have very long antennae, so including the whole body would mean shooting at a relatively small magnification ratio.
This often conflicts with our wish to obtain good detail in the subject’s body, so sometimes a compromise is necessary, whereby we crop just some of our subject's protruding body parts. Yet this can often be a mistake that seriously hurts the balance in the image, leaving us with neither good composition nor good detail.
My advice? If you find long body parts too obstructive, just get as close as you need without regard for cutting them off. You’ll sometimes get a very good, detailed and balanced result even if you leave a large portion of your subject out of the frame.
It’s extremely important to stress that these rules are meant to be broken. Experiment with composition, try unusual methods and feel free to ignore conventions. But, and this is a big but, always do so with conviction and be thoughtful about it. Breaking the rules is fine, even desirable when you are truly committed to the reason for doing so. This is what art is all about.
For further reading on macro photography take a look at Erez's previous articles in this series:
The what and why of wildlife macro photography
What we want in a macro shot - Detail
What we want in a macro shot - Background
What we want in a macro shot - POV and special scenes
Macro photography: Understanding magnification
Depth of Field in Macro Photography
Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer and photography instructor based in Israel.
In July 2012, Erez will lead a macro and nature photography workshop in Costa Rica, where he will explain his photography techniques and methods with which he achieves his unique results. Registration is open for this unique opportunity to learn first hand from one of the world's leading macro artists.
Please click on the link for more details. You can also contact Erez on his website or at erezmarom[at]hotmail.com with any questions you might have about the workshop.
You can see more of Erez' work at www.erezmarom.com and follow him on his Facebook page and