Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Importance of Backgrounds

In recent weeks I've received a couple of emails from individuals interested in macro photography asking essentially the same question. How do I achieve clean backgrounds in many of my macro images? For the benefit of others who may be just starting out in macro photography I thought I would therefore briefly spell out here my approach to achieving attractive backgrounds.

Although there are a variety of styles of macro photography, a common approach is to try to isolate the subject from its background. To do this it is necessary to achieve a 'clean' background, free of clutter. This is achieved in one, or more, of the followings ways:

1. By ensuring that there is a good distance between the subject and the background

2. By using a large aperture (low f number) which gives a shallow depth of field

3. By using a greater level of magnification. Once you are working close to or beyond 1x magnification, the background will always tend to be free of detail.

Sometimes the surrounding landscape and foliage will make (1) practically impossible. Also, relatively large subjects such as dragonflies or larger butterflies will not require a significant degree of magnification. This means that on many occasions (2) is the only option. The challenge is then to ensure that the whole insect, or at least the important parts of the insect (e.g. eyes), are in focus. This generally requires the lens to be parallel to the insect which is obviously easier when viewing from the side relatively 'flat' insects such as dragonflies/damselflies or butterflies with their wings closed. If the lens is carefully positioned it is possible to achieve an image of a damselfly or closed-winged butterfly that is pin sharp throughout at an aperture of f4 or f6.3.

So, if you've mastered the ability to achieve clean backgrounds the next important consideration is the colour of the background. Sometimes you will have little choice over this but on other occasions simply changing the direction from which you are photographing can dramatically change the colour of the background. Also, you can seek to photograph subjects in certain locations, knowing that the colour of the surrounding foliage will complement the image.

The image below is a good way to illustrate the above points. Since I wanted a relatively clean background but with some subtle colour variation I chose an aperture of f7.1. This didn't provide a great deal of depth of field, especially for a relatively small insect such as this Blue-Tailed Damselfly, and so I had to very carefully position the lens to ensure that both the eyes and the tip of the abdomen were in focus. I then had a choice of whether to photograph the subject against a lake and some reeds or to switch sides and photograph against a field of buttercups. I chose the latter and the result is the striking yellow background.


Having spelled out my approach to clean backgrounds, I will end on a couple of notes of caution. Firstly, it can sometimes be the case that a background is too uniform and clean. Sometimes some subtle tonal variation, such as in the above image, is therefore desirable. Secondly, don't fall into the trap of thinking that all macro images require clean backgrounds. On occasions, it can be desirable to achieve lots of detail in the background in order to show the subject in its natural environment (see here for a post on 'wideangle macro').

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013

The awards dinner for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 was held last night and Greg du Toit was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image entitled 'Essence of Elephants' (below). The winning and commended images can be found here.

The winning image has grown on me (though if I'm honest I find the lighting a little odd) and I can see why it was chosen. Overall there are a number of quite impressive images, a number of OK images and a number that I don't really 'get'. But that's fine. Greg du Toit is a worthy winner, not least given his impressive back catalogue.

Over the years I have been a big fan of WPOTY and I have followed the competition closely since I was a teenager in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to have an image of my own Highly Commended in the 2010 competition. Of course I don't always agree with the judges' choices - why would I, it is obviously subjective -  but it has always contained a number of inspirational images.

However, last year I wrote a blogpost about the 2012 competition (here) in which I outlined my concern that the competition was becoming increasingly dominated by 'flagship' species. The vast majority of the winning images in last year's competition were polar bears, penguins, big cats and primates, with the occasional shark/whale thrown in for good measure. Last year, of the 70+ winning and commended images in the adult categories there was only one insect, a marked reduction compared to previous years.

Sadly, this year the competition has gone one step further. Not only is it again dominated by flagship species but this time there isn't a single insect. Literally, not one. Some may say that the competition has always been dominated by large mammals, and it has, but it has always included a selection of macro images of insects. For example, the 2010 competition was won by Bence Mate's image of Leafcutter Ants, and there were highly commended images of a Black Ant (my own), an Oil Beetle, migrating Monarch butterflies and possibly others.

Not only is it a little bizarre that the most numerous creatures on the planet don't feature at all in the world's premier wildlife photography competition 2 years running, but it also means that the competition is completely omitting a whole genre of wildlife photography. Macro photography has its own skills, techniques and equipment and it cannot be right for it to not be represented at all. Furthermore, insect behaviour surely has more scope for interesting and original images than, say, the behaviour of big cats or Polar Bears which, let's be honest, we've seen many times before.

To my mind there can only be 2 explanations for this recent neglect of insect images.

(1). There were not many insect images submitted and/or those that were submitted simply were not very good. This is difficult to believe given the vast number of macro photographers in the world and the vast number of high quality macro images regularly appearing in magazines, books, websites, forums etc. However, prior to 2011 the most suitable categories for insects was 'Behaviour: Other Animals'. That has now been changed to 'Behaviour: Cold Blooded Animals'. It's no longer obvious that this category refers to insects so it's quite possible that this is deterring photographers from submitting insect images as it appears that there is no obvious category for them.

(2). The judging panel are consciously or subconsciously rejecting insect images based on the subject matter alone. Why would they do this? Well, perhaps because they don't think the viewing public will want to come to see insect images, or perhaps because the judges themselves have no particular knowledge or experience of macro photography and hence have no appreciation of the skills required.

I suspect it's due to both (1) and (2) and to some extent these 2 explanations are obviously linked. The more it appears that insect images are being left out of the competition, the less likely photographers are to submit insect images.

Aside from the omission of insects, the dominance of flagship species troubles me. The vast majority of these species live in parts of the world where (most) photographers don't tend to live (Central Africa, Arctic, Antarctic, Amazon, etc). This obviously means that the competition is perpetuating the belief that to take wildlife images you have to travel to somewhere exotic. Aside from issues of carbon footprints, this also means that, frankly, the competition isn't representative of the world's wildlife photography. Why? Well it is surely true that the vast majority of wildlife images taken by wildlife photographers are not taken in such places. Think of the UK and think of the typical subjects chosen by UK photographers - Barn Owls, Kingfishers, small birds, seabirds, deer, Badgers, Foxes, butterflies, dragonflies etc etc. Think how many millions of images are taken each year of these subjects. And then think how many British photographers take images in exotic locations. Surely the former must dwarf the latter. Presumably that is true in most other countries too. So why is WPOTY so dominated by images of 'exotic' species?

As a final point, it can't be just me that feels that many of the images in recent years feel a bit 'samey' (not surprising really, given my comments above). But there may be a reason why some feel samey. That's because they really are very similar! I'm reluctant to single out individual images, but I do so only to make this point. These are all very nice images and I am in no way criticising them, but they do demonstrate the point I'm making quite well. Take the following 3 images from the 2010, 2012 and 2013 competitions.

WPOTY 2010 by Marcelo Krause

WPOTY 2012 by Luciano Candisani

WPOTY 2013 by Jordi Chias Pujol

They are a little similar are they not? And yet not a single insect image this year was deemed to have met this standard (a major component of which is originality).

Finally, does any of the above really matter? Well it does to me. I love the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and it rightly represents the pinnacle of the profession. I also love wildlife photography. But I also think wildlife photography should be representative of the vast array of species with whom we share this small planet. We should be showcasing all types of plants and creatures and celebrating the biodiversity that we have left. Perhaps more fundamentally, isn't there a risk that it could all get a bit boring if we keep seeing images of the same species?


I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one raising these issues. See the following 2 blogs:

Doug Mackenzie Dodds

Richard Jones

Also, those who use Facebook may be interested to see some debate around this blogpost by many well known photographers. See here.

further edit:

The European Wildlife Photographer of the Year (EWPOTY) awards were announced on 25th October 2013 and the winning and commended images can be found here. The sheer variety of subjects and the level of creativity in the EWPOTY is notable. It's also worth pointing out that of the 10 winning and commended images in the 'Other Animals' category of EWPOTY (equivalent to the 'Cold Blooded Animals' category in WPOTY), no fewer than 8 images feature insects or other invertebrates. The contrast with WPOTY is therefore clear to see. I have to say that the vast majority of the images in EWPOTY are very impressive and, in my opinion, they are generally far more inspirational than those from WPOTY.

Monday 7 October 2013

I am now on Twitter

There was a time when I was very sceptical of Facebook and Twitter and far from convinced of their usefulness. But I took the Facebook plunge a couple of years ago and I must admit I am now something of a convert. So I thought it was now about time that I gave Twitter a go too. If anyone is interested, I can be found via @cole2matt

Saturday 5 October 2013

Ross Hoddinott's Macro and Close Up Photography Book

Anyone who is keen to learn more about macro and close-up photography would be well advised to purchase a copy of Ross Hoddinott's latest book entitled Digital Macro and Close-up Photography. The book covers all aspects of macro photography, from the kit required, to techniques and post processing. It also provides specific advice on a number of macro subjects including insects, amphibians and plants. The book also has a lengthy chapter on lighting to which I was very pleased to contribute text and images on topics such as the use of fill flash, choice of flash guns (e..g. twin flash, ring flash), flash diffusion and a specific section on creating an outdoor studio (i.e. the Meet Your Neighbours style of image).

In addition to a few of my own images, the book is packed full of Ross' superb images. These serve as an excellent source of inspiration for both beginner and advanced macro photographers and set the standard to which we should all aspire.

The book is available from Amazon by following this link and is currently available at the bargain price of £11.55 with free delivery (normal price £16.99).

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Blogger is Now 'Auto-Enhancing' Images

Just a short post for fellow Blogger users to point out a recent change that some may have missed. When you upload images to a blog post Blogger will now automatically enhance the image by adding saturation and contrast (and quite possibly other changes too).

I'm not certain when this change took place but it can quite dramatically affect the look of some images. It seems to me as though images featuring blue skies change quite noticeably, perhaps because there is a boost to the saturation of blues. The effect on other images is less noticeable. The bottom line though is that most photographers do not want their images 'auto-enhanced' in this manner and I was quite dismayed when I first noticed it was happening.

The good news is that you can turn off this feature. Basically, all images uploaded to Blogger now sit in a Picassa web album. If you log into your GooglePlus account, then select Settings and scroll down to 'Photos' you can uncheck the 'automatically enhance new photos' box. Needless to say I have now done this.