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 and follow him on his Facebook page and deviantArt gallery.