When an exciting photo presents itself we tend to only see what we want to see.  This is especially true when looking intently at a closeup detail, be it flower, leaf, or fruit – often we don’t see the distractions in the background that can ruin a composition.

I  loved this dark pink flowering crabapple at Luther Burbank’s Gold Ridge Farm and took the first picture I saw.  Ugh.

Unnamed crabapple tree hybrid (Malus sp) with bright pink flowers at Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Farm

The branches in the background only contribute confusing lines, the flowers are a blob, there is a lot of wasted space.  I want the background to work as part of the composition, not distract from it, so I kept working the scene, looking for a way for the flowers to be isolated.

Unnamed crabapple tree hybrid (Malus sp) with bright pink flowers at Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Farm

Since only one area will be in sharp focus in close-up photography I can use the blurry areas to advantage as negative space, as the background of the distant garden behind the crabapple.

In my flower photography workshops I ask students to show the outline of the flower, to have it stand out from the background.  Think about botanic illustrations where shapes are silhouetted and clean.  Sometimes an abstract mass of pure color is wonderful too, but for publishing, I want to see what the flower really looks like. This often requires carefully looking at the shapes that are not in focus.

Watch out for overlapping, blurry shapes of the same color – it will be hard to define the sharply focus edges. In the photo of Rudbeckia ‘Tiger Eye’ the yellows blur together, hiding the shape of the flower.

Rudbeckia hirta 'TigerEye' yellow flowering perennial

Often the slightest repositioning of the camera angle will clean up the edges.

By positioning the camera a bit lower you can allow a bit more of the top of the  flower to isolate itself against the background, removing  most of the blurry yellows and let the flower stand out.

Rudbeckia hirta 'TigerEye' yellow flowering perennial

I like positioning my camera at the same level as the flower rather than standing over it and looking down.  There are certainly times when looking straight down into a flower creates dynamic abstract macro patterns, but more often I am trying to illustrate how a plant grows.  Getting down to the same level as the flower creates a realistic view.

Clarkia williamsonii - Foothill Clarkia flowering annual wildflower, California native plant

For identification purposes, the second view of Clarkia williamsonii makes it easier to see how the sepals and buds are attached to the flower.  It becomes an illustration.

I confess it is getting increasingly hard to actually get down to these ground level points of view, but students seem to be more limber, and it always seems to be worth the effort.

This wonderful ‘Cupcake White’ cosmos would hardly show its form if the camera looked right into it.  Note how the flowers are carefully composed so that there is dark background to define the edges without overlapping whites.

Cosmos bipinnatus - 'Cupcake White' - annual flower display at Thompson & Morgan, Speedling Nursery San Juan Bautista

Next let’s do look straight down onto flowers, here Gerbera ‘Festival Spider’, to take advantage of the repetitive shapes.  The best way to see the repetitions to be sure there is space around each flower.  Here, once I had the tripod set up, I nudged the flowers around a wee bit, just to get the spacing right so the dark background could flow around the frame.

Gerbera jamesonii F1 'Festival Spider', Transvaal daisy from Sakata Seeds

Always be alert for ready made backgrounds. As you walk around gardens, you will often find opportunities where a neutral background presents itself.  It could be the wall of a house, a fence, an evergreen shrub – or even a boulder.

Ursinia cakilefolia, parachute daisy, flowering in South African section of University of California Berkeley Botanical Garden

So far I have talked about watching out for backgrounds, but in macro photography you can also help yourself by creating soft backgrounds with a shallow depth of field setting in your lens.  Good depth of field, sharpness front to back, is an asset for landscape photographs, but for close-ups, great depth is not only impossible, it can be a distraction.

Columbine flowers, Aquilegia x caerulia 'Origami' - Red and White, annual flower; depth of field, how-to

This beautiful ‘Origami’ columbine is made much more clear by blurring the background – using a larger aperture setting on the lens. The background is not competing for attention, it is just a quiet shape.

Give yourself a self assignment of macro photography and watch for backgrounds.  Let the flowers be the prima donnas, let them stand out, isolate them from competition. They are spaces to be controlled, don’t let them be distractions.