Photo Technique: A Better Backdrop

My early bug photos, the ones I don’t show anyone anymore, are poorly-exposed affairs that now sit hidden in my files. If I had to put my finger on the single biggest problem with these embarrassing first attempts, I’d say that I lacked an eye for composition. I was so intent on getting the bug in focus somewhere in the LCD that I paid no attention to what else ended up sharing the frame. Turns out, all sorts of extraneous crud. Bits of grass. Dust. My finger. Many of these images are so crowded that it just isn’t clear what I ought to be looking at.

Understanding why busy compositions look uglier than life takes a bit of neurology. Our optic nerves impart an incessant stream of information to our brains. An undiscerning brain would quickly be overstimulated, but the brain keeps on top by knowing what to ignore. The effective brain, in fact, spends an impressive amount of time filtering away uninteresting detail. A consequence is that we humans see as much with our brains as with our eyes (if you doubt this observation, consider optical illusions).

Unfortunately for photography, the brain doesn’t process flat, two-dimensional images the same way it processes live 3-D signal. Extraneous clutter swept so effortlessly under the rug in life is not easily ignored in photographs. Intended subjects are lost in peripheral details. Objects in the background assume distracting importance. The result is that photographs often don’t look much like the images we remember seeing. They look busier, messier, less orderly.

It is this difference between life and still imagery that makes photographic composition so important. A photographer has to lead the viewer’s eyes past all manner of distractions to the intended subject. The more clutter there is, the more challenging composition becomes.

An obvious solution is to simplify the photograph, stripping out non-essential elements. Keeping backdrops clean gives the brain less to process, allowing it to naturally settle on the desired subject. Once I figured out this little secret, making pleasing compositions became second nature.

Below, I share ten tricks for keeping the clutter out of photographs.

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1. Go Simple. An Opuntia pad placed 6 inches behind this young Tenodera mantis is far enough from the focal plane to blur. The pad shows enough color and texture variation to be interesting but not overwhelming.

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2. Go Black. The macro-photographer’s standby. Here, I direct the flash to an Australian green tree ant but not the backdrop. A high shutter speed ensures that ambient light doesn’t register.

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3. Go White. Placing these Temnothorax on a plain sheet of paper removes all elements except the trophallaxis food-sharing behavior I want to highlight.

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4. Go Blurry. A larger aperture decreases the depth of field, blurring everything but what I most want to emphasize. In this case, an adorable Encarsia wasp less than a millimeter long.

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5. Go Blurry Fast. Panning the camera parallel with a running Melophorus in combination with a slow shutter speed brings a pair of improvements. The distracting sand grains disappear in a blur while we highlight the speed of one of the world’s quickest ants.

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6. Contrast the Colors. Purple Scaphinotus, yellow leaf. Who could ask for anything more?

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7. Contrast the Textures. Smooth shiny beetle, intricately rugose bark.

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8. Spotlight. A small flashlight held over this silverfish turns it into a superstar.

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9. Frame. This Tetramorium photo almost comes with its own picture frame.

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10. Point It Out. Unsure where to direct your attention? Follow the converging lines of the background flower petals to a Pteromalid wasp.

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16 thoughts on “Photo Technique: A Better Backdrop”

  1. Thanks for those tricks. However, sometimes I have the impression that it is the ant which choose the background, not me. Even if I try hard to go in one direction, the ant does not have the same idea.

    Anyway, I will try some of those and see what the result is.

  2. Benoit-

    You have more freedom than your think. Even when chasing an uncooperative ant, you have some amount of control over the angle at which you shoot. If you come in at a low angle relative to the ground, the backdrop can sometimes be far enough behind the ant to blur out of focus. For example, these Leptomyrmex were foraging on the difficult substrate of a highly variable leaf-litter, but I was able to get this shot off:

    http://www.myrmecos.net/ants/Leptomyrmex6.html

    You also have control over your aperture, so with really complex backgrounds you can always drop down to f/9 or so.

  3. Nice tips and photos, thanks. I’d like to improve the quality and composition of my arthropod photos, but I use sad little piece of equipment of a type that may grossly offend.

    Please, everyone look away… I have a Pentax Optio S4 digital; 4 megapixel, 3 x Optical zoom, 5.8 mm – 17.4 mm. It’s my work’s. I keep it with me at all times, and of every 10 arthropod photos maybe 1 turns out decent enough to use. Any simple rules – similar to above – for improved quality and composition with this little piece of…equipment?

    Thanks for any pointers!

  4. I tried during this week end to use some of your techniques. I will try to retouch them and update the website at the beginning of the next week.
    The main problem for the week end was more to find something else that a Prenolepis imparis foraging. However, I think I had a couple pics with a good quality (and a good background).
    Thanks again for all these posts.

  5. Thanks for the tips and nice shots! I will try some of these out the next time it gets warm enough that I decide to go out searching.

  6. Pingback: Experimenting with insect shots « Photographing the Earth, one millimeter at a time…

  7. Very interesting; I share same liking for macro photography but have never taken such precisely perfect photos, maybe because I lack the equipment. What do you suggest?

    I have a true macro lens I use with my D70, plus several cheap macro lenses I can attach to the lens thread. I also use a canon G10 with 1 cm macro. Are these insects dead? It seems almost impossible for me to imagine them moving and you taking these sharp photos.

    Thanks!!! enjoyed the photos a lot.

  8. Jonathan Nixon

    How high of a shutter speed would I need to use to produce the black backdrop? Do I need to adjust any other settings as well?

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