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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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


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


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