Composition For Macro
Now that we've covered some of the technical challenges associated with macro photography, it's time to address the matter of composition. Yes, as if macro photography weren't tricky enough, we also need to consider the artistic side.
When shooting close-up and macro, there are a lot of things competing for your attention. You have to have everything just so. The camera back needs to be carefully positioned and aligned with your selected subject. Even then, focus can be challenging, given the shallow depth of field. In your quest for the perfect shot, everything seems stacked against you. Macro shooting demands a lot of care and focus.
As a result, thoughts of composition tend to be neglected or lost in the shuffle. Once you overcome all the technical obstacles, it can be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief, and fire away on the shutter release. Later on, it's all too easy to judge your success by how sharp an image is and little else. But when others see your work, they may appreciate the effort, but what will impress them most is your results. Put simply, are your images compelling and well-composed?
I can attest to this phenomenon from my own experience. I find I do the same thing with when shooting wildlife. I'm so happy to get a wild animal in focus that I proceed to snap away. Indeed, to make sure I get the shot, I'm subconsciously apt to position my prey in the center of the frame so as not to lose the beast. Smack dab in the middle, like a bulls-eye. Only later do I realize I once again forgot about composition. Unless I stop to think about it, I can end up in a similar situation with macro. Even though that flower isn't likely to run away like a wild animal might, it's still far too easy to have it end up in the center, almost as if I had tried to have it so.
But macro photography is still photography, despite its smaller scale and preponderance of technical hurdles. And there's still a difference between photography and good photography. Close-up photography benefits from attention to composition and esthetic concerns, not merely focus and other technical matters. The artistic side of photography is still there waiting for us. It never went anywhere; it was our attention that did. We were preoccupied with the technical side.
As luck would have it though, composition for macro isn't as hard as it might seem. Everything you have learned about creating strong, compelling images still applies, regardless of how close you may approach your subject. So while you may need to master a few new skills to deal with all the technical aspects, at least you don't need to learn much new when it comes to the artistic elements.
For starters, consider the "rule" of thirds. While not an actual rule that results in any penalty if you disobey, the guideline to place your subject at an intersection of thirds lines at least helps you prevent the bulls-eye phenomenon. And that's a good thing. Imagine the viewfinder frame divided up like a tic-tac-toe board with lines both horizontal and vertical. Placing your subject along one of these lines can help create a more compelling image. You can improve your photo even more by positioning your main point of interest where two such lines intersect. This trick works well, whether you're shooting an alpine meadow or just a single flower therein.
You can help guide your viewers into the frame with a "leading line" formed with an available stem or twig. You can create a color contrast, play with symmetry, repetition and pattern, perspective, and scale, just as you could, were you to be shooting larger-scale reality. Through the selection of shooting position and distance, focal length, aperture, and other choices, you can exercise a great deal of control over how your chosen subject gets portrayed. A photographer's responsibility extends to more than the selection of subject matter, leaving all the rest to automatic everything.
If we take this as something we can agree on, it turns out that composition for macro can be much easier than for larger quarry. Yes, it does mean it's going to take even more time and effort to shoot macro, but the time generally does turn out to be well spent. And there are certain compositional advantages uniquely present when shooting macro, so it makes sense to be aware of them.
As photographers, we have to deal with what we find on location. Often, I've wished I could find a better background for an image I had in mind. Yet when shooting something large, it might mean traveling miles to find a more pleasing vantage point. That's not always possible, especially when traveling on foot or short on time. But with macro, a shift of but a few feet or inches could do the trick. It wouldn't take very many footsteps to swing around to the opposite side of a small subject. When shooting even higher magnification, a shift of your tripod position by a couple of inches may be all it takes.
I've also found that many macro images lack an obvious horizon line. Especially when shooting at a downward angle, I'm almost sure to crop out the entire sky. Doing so affords me at least some freedom to tilt the camera to improve my composition without fear of having the result appear as though I goofed. I love pointing the camera straight down at the ground and rotating the frame to find the best composition. Of course, I also love lying flat on the ground to view my subject from its height. Good thing I have such good control over my background with macro, isn't it?
So long as I have the time to invest, I also appreciate that macro photography forces me to slow down and consider every detail. Such a deliberative approach lends itself well, too, when focusing on composition. It's nice to go out in the middle of the forest somewhere and just get into the "macro groove," so to speak. Indeed, it's often at times like this that macro photography can be most rewarding.