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.

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