Most photographers don’t know this, but:
If you want to capture a gorgeous macro photo…
You must also capture a stunning macro background.
Because macro backgrounds make or break your macro photos.
That’s why, in this article, you’ll discover the secrets to creating amazing macro photography backgrounds of your own.
Let’s get started!
1. Keep Your Macro Backgrounds Simple for the Best Photos
Rule number one of backgrounds in macro photography:
Keep it simple.
By simple, I mean that the background:
- Should be uniform
- Should have no out of focus branches, stems, etc
- Should have no unpleasant splashes of color
- Should not distract from the subject
Now, the best backgrounds are almost always simple. There’s a reason why photographers love a pure black or a pure white background.
Because these backgrounds emphasize the main subject. They help the main subject stand out.
And that is basically what a good background does. It helps the main subject stand out.
Before you take a macro photo, examine the background. Are there any unwanted elements that might distract the viewer?
If so, remove them. Be ruthless. Even a small twig can ruin an otherwise perfect photo.
2. Include Good Subject to Background Separation for Beautiful Bokeh
The best macro photography backgrounds tend to be a creamy blur.
They include absolutely no detail. Just a nice wash of color.
This out-of-focus blur is called bokeh. And your goal as a macro photographer is to get this bokeh looking as smooth as possible.
Capturing beautiful bokeh involves two easy steps.
First, you must use a wide aperture. That is, you want to choose an aperture in the f/2.8 to f/5.6 range.
(If you’re not sure how to change the aperture on your camera, consult the camera manual or shoot me a message.)
A wide aperture will restrict the amount of the photo that’s sharp. And it will ensure you capture some gorgeous macro bokeh.
Second, you must maintain a good separation between the subject and the background.
In other words:
Whatever it is that you’re shooting (e.g., a flower, an insect, or a plant)?
It needs to be as far from the background as possible.
The closer your subject is to the background, the less blurry the background will appear. And remember: You want the blurriest background possible.
Which brings me to tip 3:
3. Get Down Low for the Best Background Bokeh
You already know that you must increase subject-background separation.
Now, you can do this in a couple of ways. For instance, you can look around for more distant backgrounds–and then make sure that your subject is positioned in front of them.
Or you can simply…
…get down low.
You see, when you get down on a level with your subject, your lens is parallel to the ground. Which means that the background behind your subject becomes something much farther in the distance.
I like to lie completely flat on the ground. This gives me a great low angle for finding backgrounds.
(It also helps me take sharper photos–because my elbows are stabilized!)
The List of Amazing Macro Photography Backgrounds
You know the basics for choosing a macro background.
So now it’s time to talk about some specific macro photography backgrounds that I love.
(They’ll basically guarantee you stunning shots.)
1. Shoot Against a White Sky for a Bright Macro Photo
This background makes for a simple but beautiful photo. It’s not hard to pull off–but you do need to shoot it on a cloudy day.
All you have to do is get down very, very low…
…and shoot against the cloudy, white sky.
The sky will be bright–bright enough to give you a pure white background, even if the clouds seem somewhat dark.
And (if you’re careful) you’ll be able to capture a nicely exposed subject.
Now, if you point your camera at the sky, it’ll likely underexpose the photo (make it too dark). After all, it wants to compensate for those bright white clouds!
So you have to be careful to point your camera at your subject.
(Technically speaking, you want to meter off your subject.)
Just make sure you keep your photo sufficiently bright, and you’ll be fine.
2. Shoot Against an Orange Sky for a Gorgeous Sunset Macro
Here’s a favorite background of mine:
An orange sky.
Just before sunset.
Like the white sky background, this is easy to pull off.
You simply have to wait until sunset–on a clear day.
Then, just as the sun is about to drop below the horizon, find your subject. Position yourself so that the background has the best colors possible (which is generally in the east or west).
Then get down low. As low as possible. Because you need to get that beautiful background directly behind your subject.
Now, you’ll want to make sure that the background isn’t too bright. So if you’re shooting toward the west, I recommend you point your camera 15 or so degrees to the left or right of the sun.
(Plus, looking at the sun through your camera is a bad idea, period. It can damage your vision.)
Just like the white sky situation, you want to expose for your subject. So point your camera at your subject, and set an exposure based on its tones. Do not choose an exposure based on the sky!
If your photo turns out too bright (with no detail in your subject), then you can darken your photo a bit. Just don’t go overboard!
3. Include Flowers in the Background for Added Color
Uniform white or uniform orange backgrounds are nice.
You just want a bit more color.
That’s when you should start looking for flowers!
Now, a couple of things to note.
First: If you include flowers in the background, you need to keep things balanced.
That is, you don’t want to have one splash of color in the upper right hand corner, but then a solid green everywhere else.
Instead, you need to make sure that the flowers cover the entire background–or that the flowers balance one another out.
Second: Even though you’re including flowers in the background, you must still follow the rule of simplicity.
- Only include one color of flower
- Make sure that the color isn’t distracting
- Ideally, the color should complement the main subject
That way, you’ll get a colorful background–but keep it all beautiful.
4. Include Broken Sunlight for the Best Bokeh Highlights
Let me explain:
Bokeh refers to smooth, creamy backgrounds.
But bokeh highlights are slightly different. They occur when there are pinpricks of light in the background, and you use a wide aperture.
The pinpricks of light are rendered as geometric shapes. And they look really, really beautiful.
Now, one of the best ways to find pinpricks of light in nature…
…is to work with sun–that’s been broken by trees.
That is, when the sun is low in the sky, it falls below the treeline. And the tree leaves and branches block the sunlight. But some sunlight still makes it through–in the form of a pinprick!
Which results in some stunning bokeh.
So here’s what you do:
Wait until an hour or so before sunset. The sun will be nearing the horizon.
Then find a beautiful macro subject. A flower will work great.
Get down low, so that your subject has trees in the background. And position yourself so that the sun is behind your subject.
The sun will come through the trees…
…and create some gorgeous bokeh!
You just have to try it!
5. Use a Dark Board for Dark Macro Backgrounds
So far, all of the backgrounds that I’ve suggested have been natural.
But what if you can’t find a nice natural background?
Or what if you want to shoot indoors?
That’s when I suggest you use a simple black board.
You can create one of these yourself–just buy some plywood and paint it black. If you’re in a pinch, you can use a black sheet or curtain.
First, choose your subject. Then place your subject in a well-lit area–so that it’s receiving some nice light.
Finally, position your black background behind your subject.
But here’s the key:
You want to make sure that the background is not well lit. So put your background somewhere in the shade.
That way, it’ll be far darker than your main subject. And when you go to photograph your subject..
…your background will be a beautiful, dark black.
Note: It’s important that there’s absolutely no detail in the blacks. Any detail will ruin the shot. If you have to, underexpose–and then brighten the subject in post processing.
6. Shoot a Shaded Subject With a Sunny Background
Here’s a final macro photography background trick for you:
Wait until the sun is low in the sky. Don’t set out until two hours before sunset–at the earliest.
Find a subject that’s in the shade. It can be shaded by a tree, a building, or even your own hand.
Then walk around your subject, until you’ve found a nice background–one that’s sitting in the sun.
Now, if you shoot a shaded subject on a bright background, what happens?
Normally, the shot wouldn’t work. The background would be too bright and your subject would be too dark–resulting in an unpleasant, contrast-heavy photo.
But when the sun is very low in the sky, it casts soft, golden light. Which means that the background won’t be too bright. Instead, it will be a nice golden color!
So position yourself so that the sunny background is behind your shaded subject.
And start shooting.
It’ll make for a beautiful photo!
Macro Photography Backgrounds: The Next Steps
Now that you know how to capture incredible macro photography backgrounds…
…your macro photos will never be the same again.
Just remember to keep the background simple. And get down low!
Plus, try out a few of the backgrounds I shared.
You’ll love the results!
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