How to Create Clean Backgrounds for Your Macro Photography
Macro,  Nature,  Photo Processing,  Software

How to Create Clean, Non Distracting Backgrounds for your Macro Photographs

A clean, non distracting background is one of the most important compositional elements for macro photography.  In fact, next to sharp subject, it is probably the most important.

A distracting background can have stray objects such as unwanted leaves and stems, or bright colors that take away from the subject.  A clean, simple background highlights the subject so it attracts the viewers eye.

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So how do you create macro photographs with clean, non distracting backgrounds?  In this blog, I’ll discuss several methods to get clean backgrounds of your macro or close up images.

Flower with a Clean, Non Distracting Background
Flower with a Clean, Non Distracting Background

Composition

  • Pay attention to the background when composing your macro image.  Move to the left, right, up, or down to remove distracting items like branches and stems from your composition.
  • Photograph subjects that have background that are further away from the subject.  These will be more blurred due to the distance from your subject.
  • Try shooting up toward a blue sky or with a body of water for your background.
Robber Fly with the Leaves Darkened in Post Processing
Robber Fly with the Leaves Darkened in Post Processing

Remove or Darken Distracting Objects in your Background in Post Processing

It’s not always possible to compose a macro image with no distracting objects in the background.  I mainly use Adobe Photoshop to remove or darken unwanted objects in my backgrounds.  Here are some of the tools in Adobe Photoshop CC that I use to edit the backgrounds of my macro images.

Note: I always work on a copy of the background layer – Command + J (Mac) / Control + J (Windows).  This way I can easily start over by deleting the copy of the layer.  I also combine the layers (Layer Menu – Flatten Image or Merge Visible) and create a new copy of the background layer if I reach a point where I’m happy with the edits.

Content Aware Fill (Shift + F5)

Content Aware Fill is usually a good place to start.  Simply draw a selection around the area that you want to correct and press Shift + F5.  It’s usually better to work with smaller areas.  If you don’t like the result of Content Aware Fill, you can Press Command + Z (Mac) / Control + Z (Windows) to undo.

There is also another version of Content Aware Fill in the Edit Menu where you can select the area that you want Content Aware Fill to use as the source area.

Clone Stamp (S)

The Clone Stamp will allow you to paint over an area using another area of the image as the source.  Use the Option key (Mac) / Alt key (Windows) to indicate the source area.  The Clone Stamp Tool is great for cleaning up areas close to the subject and for troublesome areas that Content Aware Fill or the Healing Brush tool have difficulty correcting.

Healing Brush Tool (J)

The Healing Brush Tool will also allow you to paint over an area using another area of the image as the source.  But instead of a straight clone operation like the Clone Stamp tool, the healing brush will try to blend the two areas. 

This works great for spot corrections.  You may not get the outcome you are looking for when cloning a really dark area with a bright source (or vice versa).  You may need to use the clone stamp on the area first then use the Healing Brush.

Burn Tool (O)

I use the Burn Tool to darken areas of the background so they are not as distracting.  I usually work slowly with the burn tool using an Exposure of 3 – 5%.  You will also need to darken the highlights, midtones, and shadows independently.

Select Color Range
Select Color Range

Select Color Range

Select Color Range allows you to easily select certain colors in the image.  The Select Color Range tool is located under the Select Menu.  Select Sampled Colors in the dropdown, make sure the left eye dropper is selected and click on the color you want to select.  Use the Fuzzyness and Range slider to dial in your selection.

Select and Mask Output Settings
Select and Mask Output Settings

You can then use Select Menu – Select and Mask to save it as a layer mask.  Make sure the output is set to Layer Mask or New Layer with Layer Mask.  Once you have the Layer Mask, you can darken the color with the Brightness/Contrast Adjustment Layer or Adobe Camera Raw.

Bug in a Daisy - Background Replaced
Bug in a Daisy – Background Replaced

Create a Separate Clean Background and Replace the Background in Post Processing

Step 1 is creating your own backgrounds.  You don’t need to buy them.  You can take these backgrounds while you are out in the field doing macro photography.

Photographing Your Own Macro Backgrounds

Below are the steps and camera settings that I use to create my own macro photography backgrounds:

  • Aperture Priority
  • Wide Aperture (f/2.8, f/3.2)
  • Manual Focus.  Focus your lens so the background is completely out of focus.
  • Lower the Exposure Compensation (- .7 to -1).  This will give you a darker less distracting background.
  • Take photographs of different backgrounds while out in the field.  Try different levels of brightness (I prefer darker backgrounds), colors, patterns, etc.
  • In the computer, I reduce the noise, usually lower the exposure, and store my macro backgrounds in a separate folder.

Replacing the Background

Replacing the background in your macro images can be time consuming but it can also produce really good results.  Images with a lot of fine details (like small hairs) can be a lot of work and may not be worth it for you.   Below are steps and tools that I use to replace the backgrounds.

  • Open you background as a separate image in Photoshop.
  • Copy the Background.  Select Menu – Select All (Command A (Mac)/ Control A (Windows), Edit Menu – Copy (Command C (Mac)/ Control C (Windows),
  • Paste the Background. In the image with the subject, select Edit Menu – Paste (Command V (Mac)/ Control V (Windows).  This will paste the background in a separate layer.
  • Select Menu – Select Subject.  Sometimes Select Subject works really well and sometimes not too well.  You will need to hide your background layer so you can see the subject. 
  • Use the Quick Selection tool with the Add to Selection and Subject from Selection to fine tune your selection.
  • Use Select – Select and Mask to save your selection as a mask.  Make sure you have the Background Layer Visible and Selected and set the Output Dropdown to Layer Mask.
  • You will need to invert the layer mask so the background is highlighted instead of the subject.  Select the mask and use Command I (Mac) / Control I (Windows) to invert the layer mask.
  • Your new background should now show through the subject layer.  You can fine tune your background using the Brush Tool on the layer with the foreground color set to white.
Print Your Own Macro Backgrounds
Print Your Own Macro Backgrounds

Create and Print Your Own Background Cards

Use the same steps as above to create your own Macro Backgrounds.  You can print these backgrounds out to use in the field by placing the backgrounds behind your subject.  I don’t use this technique often, but it can be useful especially in places like botanical gardens where the plants are often placed close together which makes it difficult to get a distant background in your composition.

I created my backgrounds using ShutterFly.  I ordered 5×7 prints on card stock.  These were fairly inexpensive at $3.99 each.  Make sure your printed backgrounds have a matte finish to help with removing glare from the backgrounds.

When using background cards with your images, you need to be observant of the shadows.  With front lit subjects, shadows can show up on your background.  You may need to position yourself in front of the subject to avoid shadows.   These work great for backlit subject where you can block the sun with the printed background.  It can also be tricky to avoid shadows when using flash for macro photography.

I prefer darker colors for my backgrounds.  Black poster board is also an option that can be used instead of taking and printing your own backgrounds.

Hover Fly - Black Background using a Flash
Hover Fly – Black Background using a Flash

Create a Black Background Using Flash

You can also create a darker or black background using flash for macro photography.  The trick is to light the scene enough for the subject but leaving the background dark.  This may take a little trial and error but here are the basic steps.

  • First, I always use a diffuser when using flash for macro photography
  • For flash in macro, I use Manual Mode.
  • Set your ISO low (100 – 200) depending on the native ISO for your camera
  • Set your shutter speed to the Maximum Flash Sync Speed for your camera.  This is usually around 1/200 or 1/250 of a second.
  • Adjust your aperture for the depth of field of your subject.  I usually shoot around f/8 – f/11.
  • You may need to adjust the aperture and flash power depending on the lighting and composition of the scene.

Written by Martin Belan

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