Create Stunning High-Key White Backgrounds in Macro Photography

One technique for taking amazing photos:

Use a high-key, white background in your macro photography.

White backgrounds help your subjects stand out. And they give a ‘fine art’ look to your macro photos.

But what’s the best way to create amazing white backdrops?

In this article, I’ll share with you everything I know about capturing amazing high-key, white background macro photography. You’ll come away with the ability to find amazing white backgrounds–almost everywhere you go!

Using High-Key White Backgrounds in Macro Photography

Here’s a macro photography tip:

You should create the simplest photos possible.

Because simple is beautiful.

And one of the best ways to make your macro photos more simple?

Use a white background.

(Sometimes, this is referred to as high-key photography.)

Fortunately, it’s very easy to produce white backgrounds. You can find them in nearly every outdoor shooting situation.

But one thing to note:

The best white backgrounds in macro photography are pure white backgrounds. 

You don’t want a gray background.

You don’t want a blue background.

You want a white background.

In fact, the brighter the background, the better.

(A little secret: You can always push up the whites during post-processing for a purer background.)

How to Produce High-Key White Backgrounds in Macro Photography

Fortunately, producing high-key backgrounds in macro photography is generally easy.

All you need…

…is a good sky.

What counts as a good sky?

You have two options.

You can take your macros on a cloudy day (and shoot toward the clouds):

Or you can take your macros when the sun is fairly low in the sky (and shoot toward the sun):

To discover the details of each approach, read on.

Shoot Toward Clouds

Shooting toward clouds is my preferred method of creating a white background.

The fact is, while clouds may not always appear white to the human eye, they’re actually much brighter than any subject on the ground.

So you simply have to find a subject…

…then get down low enough that there are clouds in the background.

That said, there are a few things you should know about this method of shooting:

First, you should try to keep tabs on the position of the sun–even though it’s blocked by clouds. 

The clouds nearest to the sun will be the brightest in the sky. So they’ll produce the purest background.

If you can position your subject in front of this bright area, you’ll have the best chance at a beautiful shot.

While even gray clouds can give you a white background, brighter is better.

Second, to capture a high-key background, you need to ensure that the clouds cover the entire background.

You don’t want any trees or tree branches left in the backdrop.

(Having a white background that’s not pure white is one of the quickest ways to ruin your photos.)

That’s why I recommend you get down low–and circle around your subject, in order to find the best possible background.

Now, the best angles generally put you on a level with your subject. Getting down below your subject creates a distorted shot (which you should generally try to avoid).

So look for an angle that puts you closest to “eye-level” with your subject, while also including a pure white sky.

Third, make sure not to underexpose your macro photo.

As I said above, you want the brightest, purest white background possible.

Which means that you absolutely should not underexpose your photo (that is, make it too dark).

Instead, you should err on the side of overexposure (that is, making your photo too bright).

You don’t want to lose detail in your main subject. But if your main subject is a bit brighter than average, that’s totally okay. In fact, it will make the photo look a bit more striking overall:

To keep your photo nice and bright, you can put your camera in Aperture Priority mode and use a bit of exposure compensation (e.g., +1).

Or you can use Manual mode and slightly increase the shutter speed.

Shoot Toward the Sun

While I prefer to create white backgrounds using clouds, you can do it with sun.

It’s a bit more difficult, because a sunny sky doesn’t look white. Instead, you have to work with the bright parts of the sky to produce a white background.

First, wait until the sun is low in the sky.

You essentially have a two-hour window before sunset (or after sunrise). If the sun is too high, the colors will look unpleasant and washed out.

But with the sun low in the sky, you’ll be able to capture some powerful macro photography.

If you want more dramatic images, shoot directly toward the sun.

Position your subject between you and the sun–and make sure that the sun is at least partially covered by the bulk of your subject.

If you let the sun leak past your subject, you can create some interesting effects, like this:

And this:

Like on cloudy days, you can use a bit of exposure compensation to brighten up your image.

If you want more subtle images, shoot toward a bright part of the sky.

Shooting toward the sun will give you a dramatic macro photo. But if you want a slightly more subtle image, you can shoot slightly away from the sun–toward a bright part of the sky.

Again, you’ll want to overexpose slightly.

And you’ll capture a stunning, high-key macro photo.

Use High-Key Backgrounds With Contrasting Subjects

Another thing to note for beautiful macro photos:

When you’re choosing a subject to use with a high-key white background…

…pick something with color for maximum contrast. That way, your main subject will stand out.

Bright colors on a white background are stunning.

That’s why I try to stick with colorful flowers for high-key macro photography.

And if the flower petals are slightly translucent, you can capture some gorgeous effects:

If you can do this, it’ll blow the viewer away.

Use High Key Backgrounds to Create Stunning Black and White Macro Photos

High-key photos are all about contrast.

You use a pure white background.

And you contrast it with a nice subject.

One way to create contrast is to use a colorful subject (as discussed above):

But another way to create contrast?

Put a dark subject on a white background.

You can potentially create a silhouette, by putting your subject against the brightest parts of the sky. Then underexpose:

You might even consider converting some of these photos to black and white. Black and white photos thrive on contrast. Notice how this technique (darker subjects on a white background) resulted in these compelling photos:

In black and white macros, the darker subject really pops off the high-key background:

High-Key Backgrounds and Intentional Camera Movement

Intentional camera movement (ICM) is a technique in nature photography. It allows you to capture artistic, creative macro photos.

Photos like this:

To create ICM macros, you simply drop your shutter speed to something in the 1/2s to 1/20s range.

Then you move your camera as you take the photo.

(You should experiment with different camera movements. Try panning up and down, in circles, or right to left.)

And the best background for this type of photography?

High-key, pure white backgrounds!

So find a brightly-colored subject, and start doing some intentional camera movement macro photos, like this:

And this:

And this:

Notice how the white background really shows off the abstract shapes of the ICM macro subjects:

And one final example:

High-Key Macro Photography: Next Steps

Now you should have a sense of the power of high-key macro backgrounds.

They’ll give your photos a pure white background–one that helps your subject stand out.

And you can do this in nearly every situation. As long as you have some clouds or a low sun, you’ll be able to capture stunning photos.

The next step?

Get out and capture some amazing macros of your own!

Also…

If you want to keep improving your macro photography skills, then you should sign up for my newsletter! I’ll send you lots of tips, tricks, and secrets, all designed to get you capturing gorgeous photos (as fast as possible!)

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