* * * *
We photographers often concentrate our attention so closely on our primary subject that we’re oblivious to the subject’s surroundings, forgetting that everything in our frame potentially competes for attention with our subject. Eye-pulling distractions frequently skulk about the frame’s edges, but for most photographers a more insidious problems is the stuff lurking in the background.
Regardless of the problem, careful attention to the entire frame can turn these potential problems into advantages. For example, sometimes merely tightening the composition will eliminate offending elements. For objects not so easily eliminated, we can position the camera and orient the image so potential distractions actually frame the subject and hold the eye in place. Or we can create virtual lines that connect secondary and tertiary elements in a way that guides the eye to our subject.
But what about a busy background that creates visual noise throughout the frame? In large scenes repositioning can usually rearrange the foreground/background relationship enough to eliminate the problem. But in macro scenes the foreground and background are usually so closely tied that repositioning has little effect, or completely changes the view of the macro subject.
My favorite solution in these images is to soften my background, sometimes only enough to reduce the background’s visual weight, other times blurring it beyond the point of recognition. Take a look at all of my macro and close-focus images—virtually all use a narrow depth of field with very careful attention to what’s behind my subject, no matter how blurred.
Photographing recently in the Sierra foothills, I was drawn to a trio of poppies in varying stages of evolution, from tight bud to partially open mature bloom (poppies open for sun and calm air, and close for shade/overcast and wind). I particularly wanted to capture the sensual curves of the unfurling poppy, but weeds and rocks in the background were both harsh and disorganized. Depth of field sufficient to allow sharpness along the poppy’s stamen from tip to base would have also sharpened the background enough that it would surely compete with the poppy. Instead, I chose to minimize my depth of field and emphasize only the outer fringe of the main poppy’s delicate petals.
The depth of an image’s range of sharpness varies with the closeness of the focus point and the size of the aperture: the closer the focus point (achieved by moving physically closer and/or by zooming tighter) and the larger the aperture, the thinner the plane of sharpness. In this case I minimized the distance of my focus point by moving close with my 100mm macro; to get even closer, I added a 36mm extension tube. Focusing this close at my lens’s widest aperture, f2.8, gave me a razor thin plane of sharpness with virtually no margin for error.
In images with a thin range of focus, the point of focus (that will hold all of the image’s visual weight) is the difference between success and failure. Here even the slightest twist of the lens’s focus ring brought radically different planes of the poppy into sharp focus (I can’t even imagine attempting something like this without a tripod). To ensure essential precision, after framing my composition I switched into live-view mode and magnified the inner petal’s outer edge, then waited for the pauses in the breeze before clicking.
To hedge my bets, I bracketed for depth of field, clicking several more frames at apertures progressively smaller, in one stop increments. As I suspected, the sleight increase in the region of poppy-sharpness wasn’t enough to justify the detail added to the background and what you see here is my original f2.8 frame. I love the way the individual weeds and rocks so clear to my eye blur into a homogenized canvas of soft color and texture, a perfect background that elevates my poppies to prominence—a potential fatal flaw turned into an essential feature. (BTW, despite the slight breeze I probably could have gotten by with ISO 400 and 1/200 here, but my 5DIII is so good at ISO 800, rather than constantly having to remember to adjust the ISO as my aperture and the light changed, I just went ahead and did most of this shoot at 800—sometimes simple is better than perfect.)