Black backgrounds in macro photography?

Dalantech over at the No Cropping Zone writes:

From time to time I see people argue about the backgrounds in macro images, and about how dark backgrounds don’t look natural –whatever the heck that means. Seriously what’s natural about macro photography? Do you see all the detail in a bee’s compound eye or the tiny “hairs” that cover most leaves without the aid of some sort of magnifier?

I think Dalantech is entirely correct in that arguments about the naturalness of black backdrops are unconvincing.  There are many reasons to take photographs, and capturing an animal in a particular environment is only one of them.

Having said that, though, I’ve never been overly fond of the black background, even though I use it occasionally as a compositional device.  Black is in some respects a default setting for macro.  If you use a flash pointed away from the backdrop and a fast shutter speed, the background will fade to black as a matter of course.  Consequently, there are piles of black-backdrop macros floating around.  Sort of like turtlenecks at an art museum.  Enough to border on the monotonous.

Since black can be produced by accident, lots of those black background photos are themselves accidental, snapped without any attempt at composition.  They’re just more bad bug-on-a-flower-shots.  And as I get sick of seeing them, I go off black backgrounds generally.  Guilt by association.

Of course, my opinion is deeply unfair.  Dalantech’s photos are carefully composed and really superb.  Black is part of his distinctive style, and no one would argue that he’s just another guy taking happy snaps of bugs-on-flowers.  Maybe I’m just a big fan of white.  Which never ever gets monotonous, no?

6 thoughts on “Black backgrounds in macro photography?”

  1. I think if there were more White ants floating around for people to take pictures of, Black would be more of a standard. White backgrounds highlight the shape and form of the insects. Though black does the same thing, the effect is somewhat diminished on ants that tend to be darker reds, blacks, and browns. Black does work though with lighter colored ants, which are mostly subterranean anyhow like Lasius claviger.

    White has the added benefit of being associated with so many commercials that really try to highlight the product. It looks clean.

    Black seems unnecessary most of the time. It implies the photographer was taking pictures at night. I think this works for insects you usually see at night or in dark places, though.

    It just depends on the insect.

  2. I find your opinion curious since when one goes to your website, on your frontpage all your photos are of macro insects on black backgrounds… or have you just not got around to changing out the photos yet? 🙂

  3. Seabrooke- I was hoping no one would bring that up.

    Yeah, the black background of the front page slideshow was an aesthetic decision so that the opening slides would merge with the dark design of the site.

    When I was building the site I actually had to go take an additional photo (the grasshopper) because I didn’t have enough good black macros in my collection.

  4. To quote the notorious Michael Jackson, “It Don’t Matter If You’re Black Or White”. I tend to shoot at night “on the scene” shots, so until I can figure out how to pack a white cardboard box to shoot in, I’m probably going to stick with the non-accidental black backgrounds.

    What I really want to know is what the new “white” will be once people get sick of it? Maybe I can get a jump start. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Mailbag: How to light a photo backdrop with the MP-E lens « Myrmecos Blog

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