Macro Flash Tips & Techniques

Get complete creative control over your close-up photography with these versatile flash and mounting systems

macro flash tips and techniques

A small bee fly gathering pollen in a field of California poppies was captured with the Canon MP-E 65mm Macro lens and Canon MT-24EX twin flash system. The insects don’t stay in a flower very long, but a high-magnification lens and versatile macro lighting make it possible to get the image in a flash, so to speak. Placing the two flashes very close to the lens concentrated the light on the interior of the flower.

If you’re seeking to heat up the WOW factor in your images, macro photography may become your favorite pursuit. Viewers are captivated by larger-than-life images of very small things, especially when the photographs reveal fascinating details in commonplace subjects. I think of macro flash as one of the last frontiers of nature photography that involves equipment and techniques generally available to anyone with the curiosity and the will to undertake it.

macro flash tips and techniques This Julia butterfly was photographed using a Canon EF 180mm macro lens and Canon MT-24EX flash bracket system. A third wireless Canon flash was held by an assistant to light the butterfly from the side. The combination of telephoto macro lens and two flashes on a bracket allowed me to move freely and to keep some distance between the camera and the very shy subject.

Macro photography requires a set of tools that can be as basic as a standard lens with a simple accessory, such as an extension tube, or as specialized as a dedicated macro lens. All of the lens manufacturers offer macro lenses that can achieve a magnification factor of at least 1:1 (life-size). By far, the biggest challenge to macro photography in the field is getting enough light on the subject. You want to get close to get the highest magnification possible, but the higher the magnification, the more light is lost. Extension tubes and telephoto macro lenses can maximize working distance and solve the problem in many situations; still, for maximum detail, depth, clarity and color, you have to turn the lights on.

In the early years of SLR photography, photographers attempting macro images in natural settings were limited by the need to maximize both light and magnification. Since the light falls off as magnification is increased, those early photographers were engaged in a delicate balance that, in effect, limited the closeness and the depth of field they could achieve in their images. As electronic flash units became more sophisticated, nature photographers began to use them to gain enough light to increase magnification and enable smaller apertures, with resulting added depth of field; that is, more light makes it possible to get more of the subject in focus.

But it’s not just about more light. It’s also about the direction of the light. My earliest recollection of a flash bracket for macro photography was a single flash positioned just above the lens. It was promoted by John Shaw and Larry West in their workshops and books and marked the beginning of my fascination with flash brackets and macro photography, and also my search for a better light system. I found the results of a single flash to be too contrasty, with heavy shadows behind the subject suggesting that the photograph was taken at night rather than, as was usually the case, in a sunlit field of flowers.

A Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 180mm ƒ/3.5L Macro lens and Canon MT-24EX macro twin lights. A Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 180mm ƒ/3.5L Macro lens and Canon MT-24EX macro twin lights. This system is supported by the Really Right Stuff FR87-QR Flash Ring and the RRS B150-B Package, as well as FA-QREX2 telescoping flash extenders to support the flash heads. The system gives you a lot of light-placement flexibility and a stable platform.

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.

macro flash tips and techniques macro flash tips and techniques macro flash tips and techniques
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.

Canon's Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX flash system - macro flash tips and techniques Two articulated arms of the Wimberley F-2 Macro Bracket - macro flash tips and techniques simple flash bracket from Lucas Strobe Systems - macro flash tips and techniques
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 ( 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 ( uses two articulated arms to position flashes. The ends of each arm have a hot-shoe receptacle to hold the flash (not included).

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Canon’s most versatile macro flash system is the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX. It’s comprised of two flash heads attached via coiled cords to a control unit mounted on the camera’s flash shoe. The cords allow independent positioning of each of the flash heads on a bracket attached to the front of the lens. Some Canon macro lenses actually have the adapter for the flashes built into the front of the lens for easy attachment.

I use this system extensively for field and studio work. If you’re looking for a more compact system, Canon’s MR-14EX is similar to a ring flash, but the lighting ratio on each side of the circle can be controlled individually to give a less flat look to the light. For more advanced applications, you can control additional Canon flashes wirelessly from both the MR-14EX and the MT-24EX.

A handheld Canon EOS 5D Mark II, an EF 100mm macro lens and two small flashes on a bracket (MT-24EX) comprise a system that allows me the flexibility to keep the lens parallel to this rainbow boa’s skin for efficient use of depth of field, even as the snake moves. The two flashes, set at different ratios, generate a natural-appearing light that brings out the details of the scales.

The Nikon Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System attaches to the front of the lens via an adapter, and control over the Nikon flashes is totally wireless. The flashes can be controlled via the built-in pop-up flash on some Nikon camera bodies or by an optional Nikon SU-800 Speedlight Commander, which sits on the hot-shoe of the camera. The Commander allows more versatility in controlling the individual SB-R200 flash heads that are the wireless component of the system. In addition to the two flashes held near the lens, you can position as many of these small flash heads as you wish around the subject without any cords getting in the way.

The Olympus Twin Flash System FS-STF22 features two flash heads attached to a bracket that mounts on the lens or lens hood. The Macro Flash Controller FS-FC1 sits on the camera’s hot-shoe and is connected to the flash heads by coiled cords. Sony offers the Macro Twin Flash Kit HVL-MT24AM, with a controller, a circular bracket and two arms that hold the flash heads in various configurations.

Macro Flash Mounting Systems
When I was getting started in macro photography, I wanted a macro lighting system that gave me more control over the intensity and direction of the light, so I designed and manufactured the Lepp Macro Bracket, an on-camera system that held two flashes on short arms that could be easily articulated and positioned. It was, in a sense, a miniature portrait lighting system attached to the camera, and thousands of photographers used it.

Apply the concepts of portrait lighting, with a primary flash and a fill-flash, to direct light from different directions at different intensity to give natural dimension and shadow to your subject.

In nature photography, the primary light is the sun, and the fill light is the equivalent of the open sky, which softens contrast. Apply this understanding to your artificial lighting to achieve a more natural effect.

Position your primary light off to the side of the subject and your fill near the lens. The difference in intensity between the primary light and the fill can be a ratio of 1:2 up to 1:4, with 1:2 generating a soft effect and 1:4 giving more contrast and contour to the subject.

A third wireless flash, slaved to fire with the two on-camera flashes, can be positioned to light the background or as a backlight to add transparency to the subject.

Check your captures on the LCD on the back of the camera to see your results and adjust your settings in real time.

If I was asked for my perfect macro flash bracket today, I’d want one that’s made of lightweight materials, holds at least two flashes securely and allows plenty of versatility in the positioning of the flashes. I’ve found a few bracket systems that come very close to my perfect bracket. You can use the Canon, Nikon, Metz and some other flashes on various kinds of custom bracket systems, as long as the heads are compatible with a hot-shoe mount.

Two that I’ve used with success for particular macro applications are the Wimberley F-2 Macro Bracket and Really Right Stuff B87-QR Flash Bracket, FR-87 Circular Flash Ring and FA-QR1 Strobe Cord Adapter (

The Novoflex Uniset ( consists of a system of sliding rods, jointed rods and non-jointed rods that attach to a rigid camera plate. You can mount flash units in any desired position.

The Wimberley F-2 Macro Bracket attaches to a quick-release base on the camera; it holds arms with articulated segments that allow precise and versatile positioning of the flashes. It’s a modular design so one, two or more arms can be attached. I use this accessory on a copy stand because it takes the flashes farther off the camera and gives them a wider range of positions.

The Really Right Stuff bracket system attaches to a semi- or full-circle ring that mounts around (but not on) the lens. The flash extensions can be placed anywhere around the ring. Both the RRS system and the Wimberley brackets can hold either small macro flashes or the far more powerful full-sized hot-shoe flashes.

You can see more of George Lepp‘s macro photography and sign up for his macro workshops at his website,


Want to learn more about macro photography? See our feature article, Macro Vision: When, Where And How To Shoot Macro Photography.