Macro master Bryce McQuillan shares his method for creating detailed macro shots against a pure white, shadowless background
Subjects photographed on a pure white background can often have quite an artistic appeal and can also be incredibly useful in terms of showing a subject clearly. This technique is most often used for product and science photography, websites, magazines, and brochures, etc. When the subject is on a seamless, shadowless white background, it is almost as if the subject is floating — all of the details are easily visible.
As mentioned above, there are many ways you can attempt to achieve white background images. One of the commonly suggested methods is to use some kind of fabric tent set-up, though sadly I do not find these worked as well as I had hoped.
The simplest way I have found to achieve pure white, shadowless backgrounds (or close to it) in camera is to have two pieces of perspex: one opaque white sheet of perspex, and one clear sheet of perspex (both around 2mm thick). You can buy perspex like this from most hardware stores, or if you talk nicely to a glass shop they might have some off-cut pieces that they can sell you for $5-$10. Some people use glass, but glass is not something I can easily pop in my backpack and take into the forest. Also, glass often has a green tint, which creates an extra step in post-processing.
If you place your subject straight onto the opaque white perspex, you will get a shadow underneath as shown in the first seed pod image. The second seed pod photo is taken the same way, but this time with the subject sitting on a clear perspex sheet about 5-10cm above the white perspex sheet. In this case, the subject does not have a shadow underneath it so it would be a lot easier to clean up in photoshop than the image with a drop shadow.
The set-up image here shows an example of a simple white background photography set-up using two speedlights and two pieces of perspex. Above we have the clear perspex where our subject is placed. About 5-10cm below this, we have the opaque white perspex. The opaque white perspex becomes our background when the speedlight flash is fired through it.
Depending on what you’re photographing, you may wish to increase the distance between the bottom flash and the bottom perspex. Just ensure that the device you use to separate the two perspex sheets are either white, black, or clear (see the white plastic cups and clear vials in the set-up photo).
In many cases when I am in the field, I will often use a small collapsible fabric box (about 20x20cm) to help reduce glow around the subject. The bottom flash goes into the box with both of the perspex sheets on top. This is most important for subjects with very fine hair or white/translucent subjects.
Things to note
The closer your flashes are to the set-up, the brighter the white background will be. This can become problematic for translucent subjects, as you will start to get a bright glow underneath your subject. The subject should always look brighter on top than underneath.
Settings for the flash power will depend on your set-up and subject. It is best to have your bottom flash in manual mode. The settings of the top flash are not as important because the bottom flash will be creating your background. The top flash is used to expose the subject.
If you turn on “highlight alert” in the camera (that’s what it is called on Canon cameras, it may be something different for other brands) this will indicate when the background is fully blown out as white (255) — it should show red, or black blinking where the image is blown out (see example with the coins). It is often best to not fully blow out the background in camera, but instead shoot half a stop under and increase the whites until you are satisfied in your preferred photo-editing software.
Once you have a set-up that you are happy with, then it is highly recommended that you get yourself a colour checker card. When photographing subjects on white, if your white balance and colour are not as close as possible to the real-life colour of the subject, you will notice the inaccuracy or colour tinges.
I recommend looking at the facebook group “Meet your Neighbours” (facebook.com/meetyourneighbours) if you are interested in photographing your local biodiversity on white. This international group of people photograph species that they find in and around their local towns, and include everything from animals to insects, plants, lichen, and fungi, etc.
I have created quite a few set-ups for different types of subjects. I have a permanent home set-up with strobes on a focus-stacking system that is tethered to the computer and I also have a few different field set-ups that I can take with me when I am out photographing. This is very important and useful for subjects that are not suitable to bring back home.
At the moment, at least 99.8 percent of subjects that I am photographing on white background are invertebrates, because I am currently working with a friend on a couple of books. These books will be identification guides, so some of the insects that I am photographing are from museum collections and the like. A lot of the insects that I have to photograph have very fine hairs and it is super important to make sure not to blow out the key features of the subject. See the image of an ant-like flower beetle (subfamily Anthicidae) that has very fine hairs, for example.
Bryce McQuillan is a wildlife photographer and macro expert in Rotorua. To see more of his work and keep up to date with his forthcoming publications, visit brycephotography.co.nz.