Macro Photography Composition Tips
Even in macro photography, the basics of a pleasing composition remain the same. It is still important to balance the compositional weight of your frame, for example, and you have to exclude extraneous details from your image just as you always do. However, being macro photography, there are some aspects of composition which stand out more than they otherwise would.
Pay Attention to the Out-of-Focus Background
One of the main tips for composition in macro photography is to be aware of the background. Since the background will be far out of focus, it is important to make it look as good as possible and complement your subject. From a low angle, for example, you could get an out-of-focus blue sky in your photo. From a different perspective, your background could turn the color of autumn leaves. Green grass works well with many subjects, too. You can even set up your own background by asking a friend to stand behind your subject while wearing a bright shirt. Be creative!
The photo below grabs attention because the color contrast of the bright orange dragonfly is strong against the green background. Look for contrast like this, and you will have a much better chance of getting stand-out shots.
Also, something interesting can happen with the background in macro photography as you focus closer to your subject. If you use a flash to illuminate a scene at 1:1 or 1:2 magnification, you may find that the background of the image turns dark, if not completely black.
This happens because of a property of light. As your distance from a light source doubles, the amount of light you receive cuts in four. When your flash (or diffuser) is extremely close to your subject, which is true in macro photography almost by definition, the distant background receives comparatively no light at all. A flash is much brighter than daylight, and even the sun at noon may not be strong enough to brighten the background to any noticeable degree. The result is a very studio-style look, even outdoors, like in the photo below (taken on a sunny day in my yard, but with a flash as the only signficant source of light):
On top of all that, it is important to know how certain colors can work to balance each other out, in terms of composition. Reds and oranges stand out and draw the eye’s attention, whereas cooler colors (green, blue, and purple) naturally fade into the background.
Use Angles to Your Advantage
Another tip to remember for macro photography is that the angle of the camera can throw things in and out of focus. According to basic geometry, any three points in space can be connected by one plane, no matter where those points are. The value of this law in photography is that at least three elements of a photo, even if they are different distances from the camera at first, can always be brought into the same plane of focus.
For example, if the three objects are the head of a crab and its two front claws, it should be clear why this suggestion is so important. All you need to do is move around the camera until those objects are within the same plane of focus, and you can capture a photo like the one below, where everything important is sharp:
The Importance of Colors in Macro Photography
Lastly, with macro photography, colors are extremely pronounced. Shooting in your camera’s RAW format is always important regardless of your subject, but it is especially crucial to make the most of macro photography’s color detail.
One reason for such vivid colors is that there is very little atmosphere between the lens and the subject when you are shooting close-ups. So, if a lot of haze or fog is in the air, you will get more vivid macro photos than anything else
Also, as you focus closer and closer to your subject, you will start to see tiny color details that normally are not visible. For example, did you know that the compound eye on certain fly species is a rainbow of color? We can’t see any of that with the naked eye, but a macro lens at 1:1 magnification definitely does. Colors are one reason why macro photography is so interesting.
How to Approach Your Close-Up Subject
Bugs are skittish. Dragonflies, for example, tend to scatter when anything enters their field of view, and smaller bugs just fly whenever they feel like it. Approaching a restless bug is as much luck as it is science. Still, there are some techniques that you can put into practice to improve your chances. These tips will vary depending upon the specific type of bug you photograph.
For dragonflies and damselflies, it is best to move slowly and approach while rocking gently side-to-side. Dragonflies instinctively fly when anything moves directly towards them or directly away from them, sometimes even if that movement is slow. However, sideways motion does not affect the dragonfly much at all. Try taking a small and slow step forward, rocking (slowly) side-to-side for several seconds, then taking another step forward. If you wait ten or fifteen seconds between steps, the dragonfly may forget that you exist. Using this technique has allowed me to get great macro photos incredibly close to a dragonfly.
Bees, on the other hand, do not get scared easily. They are always very focused on their task, and they will only leave a flower after they’ve gotten enough pollen. Don’t make wild movements, of course, but you don’t need to be obsessively slow and quiet. The hardest part about photographing bees is they rarely sit still. To get a good bee photo, it is easiest to pre-focus on one point on a flower, then wait for a nearby bee to crawl over that area. It may still take some time, depending upon the willingness of your subject.
Flies are a bit more skittish, but still easy enough to photograph. The best part about flies is that they typically do not react to slow movement in any way. They are easy to approach without scaring away. Just be sure to avoid sudden movements, and change your camera settings slowly. The only annoying thing about photographing flies is that they don’t like to stand in any one place for long. So, approach flies quickly, but be slow and deliberate about it. Easy enough?
With non-flying bugs, you clearly do not need to worry as much about scaring them away. Ladybugs, grasshoppers, and some ants, for example, can fly, but they typically do not. At the very least, they aren’t really scared by photographers (with grasshoppers being the most skittish of the bunch). The issue is that these bugs tend to walk very quickly, making it tough to focus on them.
Butterflies are very sensitive if you move in close, but they are easy to stand back and photograph due to their size. If you find a butterfly staying in one place for long enough, you generally have a good opportunity to capture a nice close-up picture.
Spiders are a photographer’s best friend. Most of them hardly move at all, and they are large enough to get in focus relatively easily. Spider webs can look great in photos – say, with raindrops backlit by the sun – but some webs are just distracting. Try photographing jumping spiders, since they rarely move, and they look “cuter” up close than most spiders. Not to mention, they are almost completely harmless (they rarely bite, and it’s not even as bad as a mosquito bite if they do).
For tiny bugs, your best hope is to avoid getting your shadow over them. This is a good tip for approaching most of these creatures, but tiny insects in particular tend to ignore you if you don’t stand between them and the sun. However, the smallest bugs are also the only ones which seem affected by the flash from a camera. Some will jump every time that you fire your flash, and they’re usually faster than your camera shutter delay, so you end up with an empty frame! That’s just another example of how fascinating some of these little creatures are.
A Quick Plea for Ethical Macro Photography
We at Photography Life would like to issue a strong suggestion not to harm your macro subjects. In a surprisingly large number of macro photos today, photographers literally put their subjects into a freezer overnight, then stage photos in an all-too-perfect studio environment (complete with mushrooms, “rain” from water bottles, and perfect pools of water) to get otherworldly images.
The resulting macro photos are annoyingly cliché, dull, and harmful to the reputation of macro photographers as a whole – and to the critters you photograph. Not to mention that such photographers very frequently get called out publicly and end up with a string of negative articles associated with their business. If you are intrigued by the wonderful field of macro photography, and the incredible habits of small bugs and critters, we urge you not to be one of these people.
Summary and Final Macro Photography Tips
Hopefully, this tutorial has set you on the right path to begin taking beautiful macro photos. The technical aspects of macro photography are certainly important, but, as with most genres of photography, the practical considerations of composition and finding subjects are far more relevant to creating great photos – and, with macro photography, the best subjects are perhaps no farther than your backyard. If you can brave some dirt and mosquitoes, you’ll be able to find hidden treasures almost anywhere.
Finally, here are some macro photography tips and ideas to help you get started:
- Look for subjects beyond just bugs and plants. You can take fascinating macro photos in a studio of anything from pencils to droplets of water. I have seen some exceptional macro photographs of silverware against a stark background.
- Stake out ponds and streams. Bugs need to stay hydrated, too, and many of them love being around waterways. If I can’t think of where to go to take good macro pictures, I always head to a nearby source of water.
- Keep the seasons in mind. In winter, there may not be as many bugs to photograph, but you could have an entire world of ice and snowflake photography to capture instead, depending upon where you live.
- Start taking macro pictures early in the day. At sunrise, you will find bugs waiting with droplets of water for the sun to rise. That is how I captured some of my best macro photos.
- Wear long sleeves. As much as I like bugs, I don’t like it when they bite. If you are taking pictures of small creatures, there is a good chance that mosquitos and other biting insects will be nearby. Wear long sleeves, closed shoes, and a head net in bad conditions. Also, consider gloves, even when it is hot, if you are in mosquito territory. I generally recommend that you avoid bug spray, in part because you may scare away the very creatures you are trying to photograph!
- Put effort into lighting. Not all flash photography is equally good. It takes some trial and error to get a good lighting setup that looks natural, and going with your first attempt may result in photos that look fake and unnatural. The image below was lit entirely by my flash, but the light is still very pleasant.
- Have fun with your macro photography! This is one of the most enjoyable genres of photography you can do, but it is easy to get frustrated at first. Again, even under the best possible conditions, my keeper rate for handheld 1:1 macro photos is less than 50%, and I have been doing this for a while. Even two or three sharp images is a huge success, and you will improve very significantly with practice.