Techniques

Avoiding Black Backgrounds for Macro Photography

by Greg Basco | October 2, 2014

Macro photography backgrounds © Greg BascoUsing black backgrounds is a divisive issue in nature photography; people tend either to love them or hate them. I’m more selective. I quite like black backgrounds for nocturnal animals as they give a totally natural look. I’ve had people tell me, for instance, that they prefer red-eyed tree frog photos with natural light and green forest backgrounds because they look more “natural.” Since red-eyed tree frogs, like most nocturnal frogs, are curled up asleep under a leaf during the day, this statement makes little sense to me.

Frog on flower © Greg Basco

Take, for instance, this picture of a nocturnal blue-sided tree frog or the picture below of a paca, a large tropical nocturnal rodent. In both cases, the pleasing yet directional lighting, though obviously achieved by using flash, evokes moonlight and makes clear to the viewer that these are photos of nocturnal creatures.

Paca © Greg Basco

But black backgrounds aren’t just for night shots anymore! Black backgrounds can impart a graphic feel to any photo by allowing the subject elements to stand out. And indeed, one can get a black background even during the day with natural light. In the howler monkey photo below, for example, I exposed for the rim-lit parts of the monkey as late afternoon sunlight filtered through the rainforest canopy. Since the light is hitting the subject and the background is in shade, one obtains a black (or nearly black) background.

Howler monkey © Greg Basco

For this photo of a gladiator tree frog on a bromeliad-laden branch, I used soft natural daylight but lined myself up with a very dark forested riverbank. The resulting dark background enhances the graphic composition of the picture.

Gladiator tree frog © Greg Basco

One can generate the same sort of look using flash during the day. The key is to get your flash off-axis. To my eye, this photo of an Encyclia ceratistes orchid looks quite natural, like sunlight coming through the canopy, but it’s actually an all-flash exposure taken outside during the day.

Orchid © Greg Basco

It is my strong opinion that there is nothing inherently unnatural or wrong with black backgrounds for nature photography. Personal taste is by definition subjective, but I’m guessing that many people who don’t like black backgrounds for nature photography have seen shot after shot of heavily flashed mammals, frogs, or birds at night. It’s likely not so much the black background that is a turn-off but that kind of “deer in the headlights” look that is associated with this type of picture. That is, it’s the direct, on-camera flash work more than the black background that leaves such images lacking. If all of the light is coming from straight on, we would not expect to see a black background. With more creative flash lighting or even with certain types of ambient light, however, a black background can look natural and can help to produce striking nature images. To paraphrase Sir Mixalot, I like black backgrounds, and I cannot lie!

Nonetheless, there are many times when a black background is not the answer. In macro photography, avoiding black backgrounds can be particularly challenging. Because we often will want to use high f-numbers (e.g., f/16 or beyond) to have sufficient depth of field we are forced into slow shutter speeds. If your subject doesn’t move, say a mushroom or a still bug, this is not a big problem. You use a tripod and natural light and you’re ready to go. But what if you want to shoot a small subject that moves, and have to do so on a windy day in the shade? You’ll have to use flash as the main or only light source, and the inverse square law dictates that the light from your flash usually will fall off long before reaching the background. Obtaining a sharp image with a non-black background suddenly becomes a challenge! Below I explain how I solved this problem on a photo shoot earlier this year.

Shooting Acacia Ants in Santa Rosa National Park

In March, I was working in Costa Rica’s Santa Rosa National Park for my upcoming coffee table book of Costa Rica nature photographs. My publisher wanted some shots of the acacia ant, perhaps the most famous example of co-evolution in the tropics. Acacia ants (Psuedomyrmex sp.) and acacia trees (Acacia/Vacheyllia sp.) depend on each other for survival in the tropical dry forests of Costa Rica (and other areas of Central America and southern Mexico). The ants inhabit hollow thorns of the acacia tree and feed on lipid and amino acid-rich Beltian bodies on the trees’ leaflet tips and sugary extra-floral nectary glands at the base of the leaf petioles. In exchange for food and shelter, the ants protect the acacia tree from herbivores (e.g., deer, caterpillars), vines, and even from wildfires by clearing brush around the base of the tree. Famed tropical ecologist Daniel Janzen showed in his doctoral dissertation that without each other, the ants and trees die, making the association a textbook case of co-evolutionary mutualism.

Because the conditions throughout the week were windy, dry, and sunny, I had extra challenges beyond taking pictures without getting stung by the ants, which swarm en masse when something touches the tree they inhabit. I decided I did not want a black background but rather something greenish/brownish or perhaps even blue sky to hint at the sunny tropical dry forest habitat. I also decided I would need f/16 to get reasonable depth of field.

Both of these choices meant very slow shutter speeds, a tough sell with moving ants and a breeze that was blowing consistently at a minimum of about 20 kph. Plus my acacia tree was in the shade. Even if I had located a tree in the sun, I would have faced two problems. First, I would have been dealing with harsh tropical sunlight, which generally is not pleasing for photography. Second, even in that light, I was looking at an exposure of around 1/125th second at f/16 and ISO 400. A shutter speed of 1/125th was not going to cut it for a moving subject at high magnification on a windy day. Below is a picture of what these forests look like and the type of conditions in which I was working in terms of different luminance values throughout the scene.

Forest © Greg Basco

I quickly determined that I needed to use flash. If I used just one flash, as I did, and as indicated in the scene drawing done by my son Chris Basco, the light from my flash would have fallen off long before it reached the background shrubs and trees. So, what were my options for avoiding a black background? Well, there were five, and I chose the last one.

Set-up diagram illustration © Greg Basco

First, I could have gone for a full flash exposure and then simply slaved a second flash to light up the background. This seemed like the best solution but was problematic for two reasons. First, the background was quite far away, and at high magnification with a 150 mm macro lens, I’m only seeing a tiny patch of background. Second, I was moving around to different areas of the acacia tree, meaning the background spot I need to light up would be changing. Keeping a background flash aligned exactly where I wanted it as I changed framing and moved around would have been a nightmare.

Second, I could have held a large leaf behind the acacia tree, say something like a Heliconia or a banana leaf. This actually is not a bad option, and I use it at times. In this case, however, this solution posed four problems. First, my son Chris was holding the flash so that he could position it where I needed it shot to shot. He couldn’t hold the leaf at the same time. Second, though I could have dug out light stands and clamps to hold the leaf, the wind would have made this problematic as the leaf would still be blowing and folding in the wind. Third, keeping the leaf exactly in position as I moved the camera around would have been an additional headache. And fourth, there aren’t many big lush tropical leaves in the dry forest—finding one would have been a challenge!

The third possibility was again to use a full flash exposure but with a print background. Indeed, I have some little 8×10″ matte print backgrounds for macro that I’ll use on occasion. These are prints of out-of-focus vegetation, a mini-version of what I and most people who do multiple-flash hummingbird photography use. As you might guess, however, this solution posed many of the same problems as the second option above.

Fourth, I could have tried to position my flash so that it lit up some of the other leaves of the acacia tree to give a hint of color in the background. This can work quite well in many macro situations but here it was problematic for three different reasons. First, since I was shooting f/16, closer background elements such as the leaves of the same tree that subject is on would be in focus enough to be distracting. Second, with the wind, those leaves would have been moving around a lot anyway, making for an inconsistent background. And third, the ant acacia trees have very slender stems and thin compound leaves composed of tiny leaflets. The architecture of the tree simply didn’t offer the elements for a pleasing background at f/16.

Fifth, I could choose to work with my subject in the shade and properly expose a sunlit part of the background. This is the option I chose. To do so, I set my camera in manual mode. Since the intensity of the sun on the background was pretty consistent, my exposure for it stayed the same. Had I used aperture priority, my background exposures would have been inconsistent depending on the other elements in the frame. I chose f/16, 1/160th, and ISO 400 to render the background a dark yellowish-green. Here’s what my picture looked like with no flash:

Hint of color in background; we can barely see the ants and stem © Greg Basco

Not bad, eh? The subject is just a bit underexposed 🙂 but the background looks OK. There’s a hint of color there. Actually of course, a woefully underexposed picture is exactly what I wanted. Now I could let the flash take care of the light on the subject. Since the flash is doing nearly all of the work on the subject, ghosting from subject movement during the longer ambient exposure (1/160th) will be minimal to non-existent. That is even though my shutter would be open for 1/160th of a second, the vast majority of the light on the ant and plant would come from the flash and only last as long as the duration of the flash. (I did try to shoot between strong gusts but even then there was movement, making ambient ghosting a big concern.) And by using manual flash mode, I could set my flash such that I knew the effective shutter speed for the light hitting my subject.

I used a Phottix radio transmitter in the camera’s hot shoe and an off-camera flash fitted with a Phottix radio receiver. The flash had a softbox attached to it to give diffused light. I set the flash in manual mode at 1/8th power, meaning the flash duration would be somewhere between 1/5000th and 1/7500th of a second.

That’s a fast shutter speed, fast enough to freeze an ant, even with a stiff breeze. Note that I used a clamp to secure the branch but I had to clamp it low down and with great care not to disturb the ants. So, the clamp helped but it certainly didn’t eliminate movement from the wind. Here’s the ant from the image above but taken just a second later and now with the flash added to the exposure. The look for the flash is very natural to my eye, and the softbox has given a nice large catchlight (similar to a mixed sunny/overcast sky catchlight) in the eye of the ant.

Two ants on stem © Greg Basco

Macro ant on green stem © Greg Basco

I used the exact same technique with a wider framing to include more of the plant below. You can see that with the wider framing, the background becomes less uniform but I still very much like it.

Wider frame shot with ants on stem © Greg Basco

And for a different look, I exposed properly for a patch of blue sky peeking through the trees for another shot of one of the Psuedomyrmex ants sipping sugary water from an extra-floral nectary gland.

Ants on stem with blue sky © Greg Basco

Final Thoughts

In the end, the basic technique here is quite simple. I’m balancing ambient light and flash in much the same manner as one would when shooting birds out in the forest. The twist is that the flash is effectively the main light on the subject, which means that getting the flash off-camera and diffusing it were the keys to pleasing lighting. But, there were a number of extra challenges in this situation in terms of the mix of flash and ambient light. I don’t pretend that these are prizewinning photos, but I consider them successful on their own and especially considering that I had the deck stacked against me in terms of the conditions nature was offering.

Knowing one’s camera and having multiple possible solutions to potential problems are what allow a photographer to get the shot no matter the conditions. Hopefully this little article will give you some ideas for the next time you’re out in the field. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I’ll respond as soon as I can. I hope you’ll join me in Costa Rica some time for one of my macro photography workshops through NatureScapes.

About the Author

Greg Basco lives and works in Costa Rica where he photographs the rainforest. His photos have been awarded in both the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition and the Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice Competition (most recently winning the Art in Nature category in the latter). He is co-author of the popular e-book The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography and recently finished a coffee table book titled National Parks of Costa Rica.

He is co-founder of a new conservation photography organization called The Tropical Conservation Photography Group which will work to provide photographic support for local and national conservation and sustainable development efforts in Costa Rica. When he is not out photographing, he leads photo workshops in Latin America, including a number of popular Costa Rica tours through NatureScapes.

You can see more of Greg's work on his website at www.deepgreenphotography.com.

6 thoughts on “Avoiding Black Backgrounds for Macro Photography

  1. A note — a friend just informed me that the orchid in the picture above is not in the genus Epidendrum but is instead Encyclia ceratistes. Thanks to Daniel McLaren of the Lankester Botanical Garden for the correction!

    Cheers,
    Greg

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