Macro photography is a light hungry genre of photography. At the macro range, getting as much of your subject in focus as possible requires the use of relatively small apertures (f/8 and above), and therefore a good deal of light. Of course, in some situations, natural light is sufficient, and pleasing shots can be achieved using ambient light in the lighter hours of the day. However these would typically use smaller apertures, and create a “dreamy effect” with great bokeh (smooth out-of-focus background), such as with this robber fly:
In 90% of my macro experiences however, I use introduced light from an external flash. This is also due to the fact that many prime macro subjects such as reptiles and invertebrates are more active at night, when there is not much ambient light available.
Many modern DSLRs have flashes built-in, however the position of these units on top of the camera body, and their small size and power do not make them ideal for macro work. With the right diffusers/reflectors they can certainly allow for some experimentation, but using an external flash always produces the best results, due to their manoeuvrability and larger size.
In this article I will talk about my experiences with three types of flashes that I have used in macro photography.
1. Macro Ring Flash
Models used: Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring flash.
My experiences with a macro ring flash were short lived. This was the first dedicated macro flash that I used, and was not overly pleased with the results. While having a ring of light around the front of your lens, right in front of your subject is a great idea, it is very hard to diffuse (soften) this light, and any animal you photograph will have circular rings of light reflected in its eyes and any other shiny parts of its body. Here are two images I took at the Skukuza camp in Kruger of a Green Lynx Spider:
Note the obvious rings in the eyes of the spider, and the hard lighting on body. Here is another example of a pair of ants in the process of carrying a corn flake:
Besides the issue of the shape of the light, ring flashes also create unidirectional light, pushing light straight forward towards the subject. Filling in shadows from one direction can create a very flat looking image. In the images above I used a large aperture (f/5.6) and so ambient lighting contributed to the illumination of the subject, so the flatness of the image was not as obvious.
I experimented with unclipping the ring flash from the front of my Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS L lens for this shot of a moulting cricket (covered in a behind the frame article), and holding it off-centre.
By holding the flash off-centre, I was able to avoid the issue of creating a flat looking image, and had the ring far away enough from the subject that the light was diffused, and did not create very harsh lights on the subject. For these images however, I had an assistant to hold the flash ring while I composed the shot and adjusted settings. Since the ring does not have a shoe so that it can be mounted on a tripod or an L-bracket, this will always be an issue. If you are savvy enough and enjoy coming up with DIY solutions, there are surely ways of overcoming these issues, but you are better off spending your time doing this for the next two options.
Bottom line: A ring flash would be my last suggestion for macro photography. Given the price of these units, there are better options out there.
2. Speedlite Flash
Models used: Canon 430EX Speedlite
Speedlite flash guns are the most commonly used flash type in photography. They are available in a wide variety of sizes, guide numbers (power) and prices. Even the smaller Canon Speedlites (270EX) are powerful and versatile enough for macro photography.
This was the first type of flash that I used for macro photography, and I used a Rogue FlashBender over the flash unit to reflect light down onto the subject. These are some of my first macro images and were made using this simple setup:
Unlike ring flashes, speedlite flashes have shoe fittings that allow them to be mounted to a variety of brackets/tripods. Many of them can be triggered wirelessly, either by another external flash, or a compatible camera body (like the Canon 70D). This means that they can easily be used off the camera without the need for any other accessories. If these aren’t options, the Canon OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord Cable can be easily attached to allow for off-camera use.
These days, I use my Canon 430EX Speedlite most often for wide-angle macro shots, when I want soft, evenly spread light over my subject. Here are two photos taken using my Sigma 20mm f/1.8 wide angle lens and a 430EX with a custom made reflector & diffuser unit. Note that in these images, even though the frog and snakes photographed were fairly moist/shiny, the lighting is soft and even and there are no harsh catchlights on their bodies:
Keep in mind that when using a Speedlite flash, some sort of diffuser and/or reflector is essential to producing soft, even lighting for your often very shiny subjects. Therefore some experimentation is required for optimal effect.
Bottom line: A Speedlite flash would be a good first flash for macro photography, and given its versatility for other genres of photography as well, will be a valuable addition to your kit.
3. Macro Twin Flash
Models used: Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin flash, Venus Optics KX-800 Macro Twin flash
Twin flashes are the kings of flashes for macro photography. Having two flashes controlled through one central unit presents a tremendous amount of creative possibilities. Gone are the problems of flat lighting from one unidirectional forward facing ring, and gone are the problems of having a flash sitting on the top of your camera body, far from your subject. You are able to evenly light a subject from the left and the right, get as close or far from the subject as you’d like, and make adjustments easily for different sized subjects and different lenses.
The Canon flash has two flash heads that can either be clipped onto a ring that sits on the front of your lens, or can be removed and positioned elsewhere, since each flash head has a shoe. I use a dual-arm flash bracket that screws into the base of the body and has two prehensile arms that the flash heads can fit onto. Alternatively, there is the Venus Optics KX-800 Macro Twin flash which is designed with the flash heads already attached to prehensile arms, and an LED focusing lamp to help focus in dim-lit situations.
Both have their pros and cons. Canon has ETTL (Evaluative-Through The Lens) metering, whereby the camera body calculates the intensity of flash to use, based on your chosen settings and the distance of your subject from the lens, whereas the Venus Optics is manual control only. The Venus Optics flash on the other hand, is much lighter and more versatile out of the box then the Canon, which needs the extra mount to truly unleash its creative potential.
Whichever of these options I use, the results are always pleasing!
Bottom line: Though the priciest of the flash options, you truly get what you pay for. Twin flashes allow for creative, three-dimension lighting solutions. When done correctly, you hardly notice that a flash was used.
Experimentation is key with macro lighting. I played with several different flashes before deciding on those that worked for me. One of the most important aspects of using flashes for macro photography is having sufficient diffusion of light from the flash heads so that your subject does not have harsh catch lights on it. This is an interesting topic on its own and I will cover this topic in a future post. Another topic that I did not even delve into here is the use of full flash vs fill flash – different flash techniques for different situations. Also a future blog post!