Macro and Lighting

Lighting is as important in Macro-photography as it is in any other type, and as we increase magnification, then controlling and adding your own light sources become important too.

I’ll start with the simplest form of lighting, that of natural light.  If you can use this and get good sharp shots, then it is probably the best choice of lighting to use.  With still subjects this is not too much of a problem, as even if you can’t handhold your camera and obtain a good shutter speed, then supporting the camera via a tripod or maybe beanbag.  Sometimes if your shooting outdoors, then wind may become a factor, so some sort of windshield/clamp is useful, but usually waiting for a slight lull is enough.

I find there’s two general things to look out for when shooting in natural light.

  1. Is the subject bouncing too much light back at you (glare) – if so try either shading it slightly ( though watch for bad shadows ), sometimes adjusting your composition/angle may help.
  2. Is the subject not getting enough light (shadows) – here checking your not the cause is a good idea, and if not bouncing some extra light in via a reflector ( purchased or home made) can alleviate this.  Or add some fill in flash.

Below is a bluebell shot that I took on a moderately windy day earlier in the year, despite the light being naturally diffused as the day was overcast, I was still able to shoot in natural light, with the use of a tripod (and focusing rail on this occasion to adjust for fine focus ), despite using a low ISO of 100, which meant that the shutter speed was too low to obtain a sharp shot hand held, without the use of flash.

Bluebells taken in natural light
Bluebells taken in natural light

Shooting in natural light is all well and good, until we come to small, moving subjects.  This is when to get some sharp shots of them close-up the need for flash starts to arise, as to shoot with more depth of field (ie F11 rather than F2.8), the shutter speed will be far too low to get a sharp moving bug in sharp focus at low ISOs.  You can start by using an on-camera flash, but you will usually find this unsatisfactory as the subjects closeness to the lens causes the light to be obscured by the lens.

There are two ways that I know of that you can use to light your subject via flash light.

  1. By a normal flash gun, that you make a tunnel for to guide the light over the lens.  I’ve not done this but a good example of it is shown in this tutorial post on pixalo.
  2. Using normal flash gun(s) mounted on brackets, macro ring light or dedicate macro flash gun.  I currently use a dedicate Canon Flash gun the MT-24ex flash, and on occasions a additional flash gun as well.

No matter what way you go about using flash, you’ll soon notice the need to control this light, as the light from you guns will be too harsh (see the harsh flash effects in this fly shot without a diffuser below), causing reflections to show up in your image.  To get round this, you’ll need to diffuse your flash in some way.  I started off, using the cheapest option by making the diffusers myself from an old orange juice cartoon ( the type made from those clearish plastic ) and taping it over the flash.  I still use these on my supplementary flash guns.  Experimenting with different placement and materials is a good way to go.  Recently I purchased some Sto-fen omni bounce diffusers for my twin flash, and am currently experimenting with those.

Fly shot without a diffused flash
Fly shot without a diffused flash

You can also adjust your flashes power, either by setting the flash power manually ( I started doing it this year, and it is now my preferred method of controlling the power, I’ll post another article on my recent flash power experiements shortly ), or you can use flash exposure bracketing control on your camera to adjust the flash power when relieing on forms of TTL flash metering.


I've been taking macro photography from 2004. I use both Canon film and digital cameras.

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