The ring flash was another early product for lighting macro photography. It's quick and easy, and still available in a number of variations. The ring flash clips to the front of the lens and encircles the lens opening, casting a uniform circle of light on the subject. Because the light comes from all directions and is very close to the subject, it has a flattening effect, a fairly unnatural perspective. Another bothersome aspect of ring flashes is the circular highlights that show up on reflective surfaces, especially in the eyes of critters, but some people like the effect.
LEFT: One Nikon SB-R200 flash positioned above the lens simulates the results obtained with early macro flash systems. The single flash generates enough light for ƒ/16, but the image is too contrasty, and detail is lacking in the shadows. The black background suggests that this tree boa was caught in the dark of night. The photograph was taken with a Nikon D7000 camera with a Nikkor 105mm macro lens and the R1C1 Close-Up Speedlight System with only one flash activated. CENTER: The same setup, but with two flashes activated at a 2:1 ratio (one flash having twice the power of the other), reveals more information in the shadows, better defines the shape of the subject and opens up the background a bit. RIGHT: Adding a third wireless SB-R200 flash to light the background creates a soft daylight look to the image, giving additional dimension to the subject and placing it in its natural environment.
Currently, the major camera manufacturers are offering some incredibly sophisticated macro flash systems and there are several mounting options for these flash units. The combination of TTL flash systems and mounting setups that allow you unlimited options for positioning the flash heads gives you more creative control over macro photography than ever. Here's a look at some of the top macro flash systems and macro flash mounting systems available.
Macro Flash Systems
My ultimate wish list for a macro flash system would have a few key elements. I'd want plenty of power to make up for the loss of light that goes with working at higher magnifications. I'd want the flashes to be of the TTL variety for nearly foolproof exposure. And, ideally, I'd want a system with wireless capability so that additional flashes can be triggered to light the background or backlight the subject. There are a number of systems available from the major manufacturers that satisfy most, if not all, of my wishes.
In this setup, Canon's Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX flash system is attached to a Canon EOS 7D camera with a Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens, which is equipped with a flange that receives the bracket. The full system includes Canon's controller, which powers the flashes and controls the lighting ratios of the two attached flashes and any other wireless slaves.
Two articulated arms of the Wimberley F-2 Macro Bracket (www.tripodhead.com) attach independently to a quick-release plate and hold flashes for macro/close-up photography. The robust nature of this bracket allows even large hot-shoe flashes to be positioned.
This simple flash bracket from Lucas Strobe Systems (www.lucasstrobesystems.com) uses two articulated arms to position flashes. The ends of each arm have a hot-shoe receptacle to hold the flash (not included).