What we want in a macro shot – Background

In my previous article, I talked about the importance of detail in macro photography. Here I will concentrate on another, more aesthetically-oriented aspect of macro photography - the background.

Arguably as important as the subject itself, the background can have a huge impact on a macro shot. Photographers working in all genres use the background to emphasize the subject and to connect it to its environment. There are many variables that contribute to an effective background. Among these are the amount of blur applied to it, the brightness and saturation of its elements, as well as the colors and shapes that comprise it.

With any given subject, changing the background can yield a completely different look and feel to a photograph, as the examples below illustrate.

Wasp with vegetation background Wasp with earth background

As can be seen in the first image, I shot this beautiful wasp from about eye level. The color of the background is due to the green vegetation behind the wasp. For the second shot, I stayed in the very same place, only extending the tripod's legs by a few centimeters to get slightly higher. The result is a similar composition, yet with a very different, earth-toned background. Achieving such a dramatic change in background with such a small adjustment to camera position is a consequence of shooting from a close distance. Note also that the relationship between background distance and subject distance is extremely large. I like to say that in macro, everything revolves around the subject, and so a tiny change in camera position compels a large angular change in the direction of shooting, and the closer you get - the larger the change. And as we've just seen, the change in direction has a great effect on the background and thus on the mood of the image. 

In practical terms this means that shooting a subject with a background of our choice requires careful consideration, and (often) no small amount of effort. The payoff is as you start understand and apply these subtle adjustments, you open up seemingly infinite possibilities for creating beautiful backgrounds that not only complement the subject, but serve to link it to its environment.

This image of an ordinary-looking Levantine Leopard (Apharitis acamas) benefits a great deal from its vibrant, yellow background, through which the animal is connected to the springtime environment.

While close shooting distances inherently mean relatively blurry backgrounds, there is a farily wide spectrum available that is largely a matter of taste. Some photographers like a very smooth and even-toned background, while others love "busy" backgrounds, with recognizable details, shapes and colors.

When a subject fills the frame, a
simple background can convey mood
and ambience while keeping attention
on the subject.
A very small subject such as this
orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis
cardamines) calls for a busy
background to create interest.

I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. When a subject is rather large and dominant in the frame, I usually find a smoother background to be more appropriate; one that doesn't detract from the subject. Yet I do try to give my backgrounds gradients – either of brightness or of color. Conversely, when the subject is quite small, I aim to create a much busier scene behind the subject. A medium-sized subject (like the frog shown below) works great with a moderately -  or to be more precise - selectively busy background.

Note that he busiest parts of the background occupy the emptiest area of the image, creating a sense of compositional balance; always a consideration when composing in the field.

I want to stress that the above guidelines are just that - guidelines. They are by no means hard and fast rules, and shouldn't be treated as such. Each photographic situation suggests its own way of working best. I often break the 'rules' and strive for creativity above all else, as should you.

The background can even become part of the subject, like this use of the sun
as the 'sorcerer's orb'.

The color of the background, as one would imagine, plays a significant in emphasizing the subject. You can use a background color which is complementary (ie opposite in hue) to that of the subject, or at least very different. Doing so brings out the subject by emphasizing its own colors. However, a background with colors very similar to that of the subject can also be effective, giving an organic feeling of assimilation. This works especially well with camouflaged animals. I should mention that I use natural backgrounds exclusively, as oposed to studio backdrops or any other artificial materials. Nature offers fantastic colors all on its own.

A complementary background color can make the subject "pop". A background of a similar color to the subject's has its own beauty, and an organic feel to it.

A related issue is the brightness level of the background. A background having similar brightness to that of the subject will of course create less contrast in comparison to a background which is brighter or darker. However, I try to refrain from creating a background which is too bright or too dark, as that can throw the image out of balance.

A relatively dark background brings the subject out and gives this image a "studio" quality (although it's absolutely natural). Such backgrounds work extremely well with very vibrant and colorful subjects, like this red eyed tree frog shot in Panama.
A completely dark background, sometimes caused by flash photography, is far less appealing in my opinion, and looks too artificial.
A very bright background can work well as long as it doesn't divert
attention from the subject.

By carefully considering the colors, brightness, shapes and textures in front of which we shoot, and combining those with the ability to adjust depth of field and the angle of view, we can achieve almost any background we desire.

Placing a yellow flower behind the subject has allowed me to highlight this beautiful robber fly. Another trick I use is to shoot in front of a background of similar color to the subject's eyes.

Erez Marom is a nature photographer based in Israel and a regular contributor to Composition magazine. You can see more of his work at www.erezmarom.com and follow him on his Facebook page and deviantArt gallery.

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.


Total comments: 68
By MacroAddict (6 months ago)

I'm loving this series on Macro! Your pictures inspire me to get out there. Unfortunately I don't have a maco lens for my new camera. I look forward to more from you. Thank you for writing this series. It is very helpful so far.

By Avland (Mar 1, 2012)

Hi all,

Im still new to this all and every bit of tips helps alot...thanks

1 upvote
By pinakisankar (Nov 29, 2011)

kindly list some lenses and camera body by which i can do macro.
i handle canon 5D1..

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Nov 29, 2011)

I'll talk about equipment extensively in the future. Please stay tuned.

Mary Beamond
By Mary Beamond (Nov 29, 2011)

Love your articles. Learning a great deal and attempting new things - thank you.

Philippe Coulon
By Philippe Coulon (Oct 25, 2011)

Excellent series of articles. Thanks for the inspiration!

Mostly Lurking
By Mostly Lurking (Oct 19, 2011)

The author might do well to look up the definitions of 'Macro Photography' and 'Close-up Photography. Some of the so-called 'macros' he's included in his article are decidedly close-ups, and perhaps more of them are as well. Macros require that the size of the subject image be equal to or larger than it is in real life; i.e. a size ratio between 1::1 and 10::1. Close-up photography is where the subject is between 10 times larger than the captured image to the same size; i.e. 10::1 and 1::1. in Micro-photography, the captured image is more than 10 times large than the subject. Everything else is simply 'plain' or normal photography. With that in mind, it's really a stretch for lens manufacturers to term their macro lenses as such; they're really just close-up lenses (1::1).

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Oct 23, 2011)

The author is well aware of the technical definitions, and thinks you are being petty and presumptuous.

Comment edited 12 seconds after posting
Philippe Coulon
By Philippe Coulon (Oct 25, 2011)

I suggest showing some respect for an expert who gives us some terrific advice for free (and who surely knows the definitions as well as anyone and puts them into a befitting perspective). Besides, using the term "close-up" would not improve this article. What is your point?

By pdcm (Feb 16, 2012)

And you sir should look up the credentials of the author before posting this kind of criticism. If you had done so you would have seen that that Erez Marom knows his subject inside out.

This is good advice for everyone. I just nearly made a similar mistake when criticising a review of a book on Amazon recently. The poster had criticised the photographs in the book; which were quite good. I assummed the poster was a beginner and wrote a criticism accordingly. However, before posting I checked. The poster's work was really good and was actually better than the pictures he was criticising. I still wrote a (modified ) comment criitcsing his post which I still felt was too harsh though.

If you had reworded your ciriticism and just pointed out that there is a difference without reference to the author's expertise then I suggest your comments would have been received more kindly. It's always best to engage brain before mouth :)

1 upvote
Paul _B 1959
By Paul _B 1959 (Oct 16, 2011)

Hi Erez,

Nice shots, extremely helpful article. Thanks for the tips.

1 upvote
By bobaloo (Oct 12, 2011)

Great shots , love the info ... thanks for speaking in a language that I can unberstand ...

1 upvote
By maxthestork (Oct 5, 2011)

Hi Erez,

Thanks for a great article. I liked the practical advice on composition and the fantastic pictures that did a great job at illustrating your points.

Looking forward to your future articles.


1 upvote
By ChaosPhotgrapher (Sep 27, 2011)

thanks for the tip really looking forward in macro photography..

1 upvote
By OdonataPix (Sep 25, 2011)

Nice articles.
The last one made me think more about the background in the field. It was very helpful. Thank you.

But one question:
How exactly did the dragonfly on this page end up standing on a tiny spine? It seems very unlikely to me :)

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 26, 2011)

that's not a tiny spine, it's a flower - you're only seeing its tip.

By mlackey (Sep 24, 2011)

Wow! Great images and info. I only browse this site once per week or so, but you can bet I'll be checking back more frequently for this series of articles.

Erez, thanks so much for sharing the wealth.

Mike Lackey
Madison, AL

1 upvote
By digizen2000 (Sep 20, 2011)

I'm just starting to explore macro photography seriously, so this series has perfect timing and I look forward to your future articles as well. Thanks Erez!

1 upvote
By Nass (Sep 19, 2011)

Background and lighting are the tricky things that separate the A1 macro shot from the ordinary A grade shots. It is so easy to be excited by what the equipment CAN take you that you forget to make the shots beautiful as well. The last 2 tricks are particularly good - wish there were more around. Must go and look at your portfolio :). Quick question if I may, the flash reflection in the bottom frog is tiny and they vary in the others. What flash, diffuser and setting do you typically use - my hunch would be the strength is very carefully balanced to let in background colours?

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 19, 2011)

Hi Nass,
I rarely use flash anymore. If you look at my best shots, most were made using only natural light. When you learn how to use natural light you can get whatever effect and balance you wish. I'll talk in length about lighting in future articles, pleasee stay tuned for that.
Oh, the frog shot was made with LED lights, believe it or not :)

By beeguy956 (Sep 20, 2011)

Very hard to get a 1/200s, f/16 shot of a bug with natural light, unfortunately (especially in a dark forest).

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 20, 2011)

Then why not go for a longer exposure and a larger aperture value?

By beeguy956 (Sep 23, 2011)

Because some things move around too much for a tripod, and even 1/200 sometimes gives blur handheld.

By pacc (Sep 19, 2011)

For macro the background is often a blurry color,
but the article misses how the focal length decides how much and how busy the background is.
Maybe a sideeffect of being stuck with a dslr which cannot do low angles and a single macro lens for too long.

www.juzaphoto.com is a good site, despite excelling in normal macro shots he has also highlighted the use of 300 or 600 mm glass for even more extreme subject isolation and did not hesitate to post a shot from his phone when it showed the environment from a low angle better than his macro shots.
A wide angle with close focus would also do.

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 19, 2011)

Hey pacc,
I'm sorry but I have no idea how you've reached your conclusions. I've mentioned the need to control the angle of view to create our desired background. As article length is tightly limited I'll expand this subject when talking about macro lenses.
I've posted an answer to another person stating that 3 different lenses were used to shoot the images in this article alone. How can it be that I was "stuck" with one lens? Moreover, my idea is that even when using a single lens, one can achieve a tremendous variety of background characteristics, and it's this variety which was the focus of the article.
I really can't understand your claim that a DLSR can't do low angles- that's just plain wrong. And what's the use of discussing 600mm lensesright now when 1) almost nobody has them and 2) I haven't talked about equipment yet?
Please keep reading the series, I think it's possible for you to benefit from it.
Good luck!

Heath McDonald
By Heath McDonald (Sep 19, 2011)

Great article Erez, one of the most underrated yet most important areas on macro photography very well explained and demonstrated with superb images. Well done!

1 upvote
By andygegg (Sep 18, 2011)

Really intersting article - I love macro photography but I'm generally hopeless at it so these articles are a great help and inspiration. Even more astonishingly - a DP article that's not been flamed!

By CoolHandLu (Sep 18, 2011)

THe timing of these articles on macro couldn't be better for me - I JUST picked up the latest Sigma 150 2.8 (it has OS, but that's pretty useless for macro - but a nice add on for portraits) and I'm thinking of getting a focusing rail. I'll wait till I read Erez' upcoming article on equipment before making a decision.

Great job Erez!

1 upvote
Ralph McKenzie
By Ralph McKenzie (Sep 18, 2011)

Like you I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Partly because of the camera I'm using but also because I like the subject relating to its background. The trick for me is to try and create the feeling of depth within the image, kind of how it might look if you were an insect sitting on the next flower.
And you are right. Getting the look right takes time and patience as well as a heap of shots some days.

By alanvee (Sep 18, 2011)

One big question: How do you get the bugs to stand still long enough to even get a decent focus - let alone an awesome pose? Do you set up a focus on one spot and then just wait for something to land there?

inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Sep 18, 2011)

iam no macro expert, but i guess trrying to get them as early as possible, daytime wise
they are slow when just woke up and getting warm by the first sunrays

also if youre trying to get landing insects i found out its better to wait till they fly away instead. so wait till they are done with drinking or whatever, every insect has a speacial behaviour before flying away. if you learn what it looks like, you can easily capture them just when they loose ground and start to hover, which looks like they where just landing like that http://www.flickr.com/photos/40992064@N07/3776047136

sorry for the background, its more a snapshot than a planned macro shot :)

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 19, 2011)

I'll talk about persuading bugs to model in the future. In short I can say that in certain times they are less prone to run away - like early in the morning, when it's cold or when they are feeding. I'll elaborate in a future article, please stay tuned for that :)

Michael Ma
By Michael Ma (Sep 17, 2011)

Can someone offer some guidance at a good starting point for f-stops? Is f 16-f 22 a good starting point or compromising too much detail? I feel f 11 is even too shallow for macro work, but maybe I should get more perpendicular to everything i need to get in focus.

Chaitanya S
By Chaitanya S (Sep 18, 2011)

I usually prefer using upto f-16 as the max f-number, also if you think the DOF is too shallow you can always create a stack of multiple images to get a usable DOF.

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 19, 2011)

f/16 is way too cloased and will badly hurt image quality. I don't go under f/13 these days, and try to avoid even that.

By beeguy956 (Sep 20, 2011)

f/16 is a slight degradation but a considerable DOF increase, especially for shooting small insects. For a handheld single shot you're pretty much stuck in f/13-16.

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 21, 2011)

I disagree. When I shot hand-held it's usually between f/7.1 and f/10.

david casius
By david casius (Sep 17, 2011)

Finally a DPR article that I learned something from! Great shots and tips. Thanks.

1 upvote
By Infared (Sep 17, 2011)

Incredible photos AND great suggestions and awareness. I orders a Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS the day before this article appeared so the timing us perfect to add to my excitement.
Great job!

1 upvote
By eijihappou (Sep 17, 2011)

Awesome photos, and a great article!

By Faisalee (Sep 17, 2011)

Great article... Macro is my favorite subject and this has been very inspiring :)

By nick66davis (Sep 17, 2011)

I find these articles interesting and the quality of the images is high. But, out in the wild it is often difficult to make all the considerations that the writer is describing. Such is the likelihood of the subject flying or running away that sometimes you are just lucky to get any shot at all...factor in the wind moving the subject and thefact that you can move the subject relative to the light source and I'd say that macro photography in the wild must be one of the hardest areas to become truly proficient in. Looking forward to the next installment.

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 17, 2011)

Hey Nick, thank you for your reply.
Macro is indeed a very tough area to master. But mastery in this area also means that you learn to consider animal behavior and activitiy times in order to make shooting them easier. For example, I often use the fact that when it's cold, insects are much less active and so easier to shoot. I will write about this in future articles, and detail my techniques for everyone to see and use.

1 upvote
By Ednaz (Sep 17, 2011)

I find macro shooting to be one of the subjects with the most things to pay attention to. Shooting early in the morning is often very important, before the breezes and winds get going. The damp and water drops are richest just after the sun gets over the horizon, or within a few minutes of the end of a rain. "Working a subject" requires moving in partial-inch increments, and you can't really see your result as well as full size world shooting. I find that the answer to the question "how much DOF?" is way harder to find than in the larger world, and I tend to shoot several DOF options. I have some images where both razor thin and broadest possible worked equally well. I think macro shooting is a great focus for someone who loves precision, and loves to tinker.

Greg Short
By Greg Short (Sep 17, 2011)

I love your work, it provides inspiration to us all..........

By crisarg (Sep 17, 2011)

Wonderful article!

I enjoyed reading it and looking and the photos a lot!

Sometimes we don't have the possibility to try another angle or composition for background due to difficult ground or subject's position. What would you do in those situations?

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 17, 2011)

Thank you!
In those situations I'll often try to gently move the subject. It's possible to do this without harming it and doing it greatly extends your options. I'll talk about it in the future.

By HBoss26 (Sep 17, 2011)

Am learning a lot from this Article from Part 1 and Part 2, can't wait for the part 3.. great article.

By woollybear (Sep 17, 2011)

i like the 'sorcerer's orb' very well. there is no ambiguity of the intent- one more of art than of literal representation. this is not as clear in the shot of Levantine Leopard. first impression of that was that the butterfly was likely the intended subject and the yellow blob to the right is competing for attention. but as an art piece, the abstract, soft edged yellow blob contrasted with the not only hard edged but dramatically angular butterfly holds together much better. but springtime? white and pink and sometimes yellow flowers and pale yellow-green foliage and soft light = spring. the blown dandelion blossom puts the lie to 'spring'.
now, the shot with the fresh pink flower, pale yellow-green background, soft lighting and the three very imperial-looking insects just screams spring.

with small objects, light glare can be a significant issue. i suggest trying a polarizing filter. the loss of f stops is a pain but i think you'd like the increase in detail and color saturation.

1 upvote
By rsn48 (Sep 17, 2011)

Very well done and even though I have done some macro, I have learned from the article.

1 upvote
Usama Akram Saeedy
By Usama Akram Saeedy (Sep 17, 2011)

Very nice Article With Nice Photographic Examples

1 upvote
G Davidson
By G Davidson (Sep 17, 2011)

Excellent article, showing how such beautiful macros are composed. I'm interested to know how long a lens was used, is this possible with a 100mm or so lens? The time and patience put into these almost ethereal photos really pays off.

By lioneyes90 (Sep 17, 2011)

Image metadata reveals that he used at least 180mm and 65mm (probably Canon mp-e 65mm so he can reach magnifications higher than 1:1) lenses on an aps-c camera.

You sure can use a 100mm macro lens (1:1 magnification is a lot magnification after all. If that's not enough you can always put on an extension tube). However, the closer you get to your subject (shorter focal length), the higher possibility that the subject will get disturbed.

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 17, 2011)

All shots in the article were made with a 180mm lens, except the aphids (100mm) and butterfly portrait (65mm). I'll talk about the benefits of longer lenses in the equipment articles. I'll also talk about exotic equipment and how to shoot without a macro lens.

By igaleian (Sep 17, 2011)

Erez i bought a Raynox 250 should i have got the 150

Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 17, 2011)

The 250 is great, have no worry.

G Davidson
By G Davidson (Sep 18, 2011)

Erez, thank you for your reply! The reason I ask is that using my lens (the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro), it is very hard to keep enough working distance to compose well and keep distractions from the frame, not to mention achieving that beautifully isolating, defocused area that seems to be so important for successful nature photography. Using long lenses, I can see the field of background colour shift as you describe in just a few millimeters and I'd like to do this more with my macros. I often use mine with a 1.4x teleconverter for this reason, but I may well go for a 150 mm or so lens for my next round of bug-hunting. I find that a lot of the shots that really impress me are made with such lenses, along with the amazing Canon 65mm model, which unfortunately has no Nikon equivalent. It may be exotic equipment but the results are sublime.

Thank you again for your inspiring shots and for your helpful advice, reminding gearheads like me to pay more attention to technique!

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (Sep 19, 2011)

Technique is undoubtedly much more important than equipment. I love equipment like everyone but without knowledge and technique, it will get you nowhere.

By bugbait (Sep 17, 2011)

This is a particularly useful article. The com-positional theory would also be helpful in other forms. Such as nature sculptures. This reminds me of Bernini. He surrounded his masterpieces with complimentary but not over-powering elements.

On a humbler scale I am designing a pendant today and will reflect on your article while doing so.

The butterfly with similar colored background; is to my eyes brilliant. That is a marvelous use of DOF and a beautiful lively photograph.

Thank you my friend. i look forward to enjoying the series.

1 upvote
NZ Scott
By NZ Scott (Sep 17, 2011)

A good read, thank you.

I especially like the spider-sun photo.

1 upvote
By dtra (Sep 16, 2011)

Really beautiful pictures and great advice, I never really thought about the background in such detail before.

1 upvote
By Lukino (Sep 16, 2011)

those pictures are so pleasant my eyes feel relaxed

1 upvote
By JimWarp (Sep 16, 2011)

Awesome pictures!

1 upvote
By increments (Sep 16, 2011)

Very informative on what to consider to make macros special. Lots of good tips.

1 upvote
By peterbrian (Sep 16, 2011)

Erez, your patience and skill are amazing.

By posey (Sep 16, 2011)

Imaging amazes!

1 upvote
By BoristheBlade (Sep 16, 2011)

Thanks, Great and simple tricks.

1 upvote
By carlosdelbianco (Sep 16, 2011)

Amazing images!

Total comments: 68