Unlike other genres of photography, macro photography allows you the most control. I find that backgrounds are just as critical to the success of a macro image as the subject itself. My first tip on getting closer was for circumstances where you couldn’t control the background. My second tip is to show you that in most cases, you can control the background and it is relatively easy! The butterfly image above was taken in Butterfly World in Coconut Creek Florida. There are thousands of live butterflies in the aviary with a great variety but many times the backgrounds are less than appealing. What to do in that situation? I will walk though the aviary looking for a location with a nice background and ignore almost everything else going on! Once I find a bloom that is isolated from the background I will patiently wait for a butterfly to land on it and fire away. Using this technique in the field will always make for stronger compositions, as cluttered background will often distract from the beauty of the main subject.
The image above is a good example of what you typically find out in the field and how you can, with a little thought, control the final result. The top image is exactly how I found the flower in a local park. The light was harsh so the first thing I did was use a diffuser to even out the light and you can see the result in the image below.
I was now satisfied with the lighting, but still didn’t like the background blemishes that were on the leaves. I could not pick or disturb them so I just looked around and found a small piece of bark lying around and placed it behind this nickel-sized bloom. The result below is the final result.
Fact is, when I am working in the field I always spend more time cleaning up the subject and area then I do actually taking the picture! A small, soft makeup brush is good for cleaning off unwanted bits of debris off of flowers or mushrooms and it doesn’t harm them. I also find that some previsualization is the best tool. The image below is of a plant referred to as a snow bloom and it grows in the high elevations of Yosemite National Park in the spring. I have never seen it in the snow but had always envisioned it that way. One year, before heading out to photograph the bloom, I grabbed the ice bucket out of my hotel room. Since it was almost 80 degrees outside, I knew we wouldn’t find a bloom with snow around it….. but I had an idea. Once we found a bloom, I cleaned up the subject and the area around it. I got back into the car and drove up to a higher elevation where the snowplows had made some large snow piles along the road from the past winter. I scooped up some snow in the ice bucket and drove back to the location of the bloom. I quickly sprinkled it around the bloom and what you see below is the final result.
That was quite a bit of work for an image but for me, it was well worth the effort and I was quite pleased with the natural looking result. When I got home, I wanted to find a way to make it easier and consistent every time. As fate would have it, I attended a conference here in NJ where the speaker; Darrell Gulin, would plant the idea that would revolutionize my thinking and approach to macro photography and simplify it for everyone. The image below is one of the first I took after I attended his presentation and will lead to the 2nd part of the background blog.