Macro Flash

I’ve seen many gorgeous images of macro subjects taken with available light
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I’ve seen many gorgeous images of macro subjects taken with available light. But as with many other subjects, a lot of factors must fall into place to create a successful natural-light photo. The beautiful light has to be where the subject is located, the subject’s appearance has to coincide with the time of the gorgeous light and the setting must be perfect for its direction. Rather than leave these factors to fate, wouldn’t it be nice to have a fallback plan at your disposal to create beautiful macro images even if it’s heavily overcast? The solution is a rather easy one. Use flash. It can be used as a fill light, main light or in tandem with multiple flashes to produce dramatic and pleasing results.

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The advantages of flash are many. First off, they provide a large burst of light, so small apertures can be used. You gain a lot of depth of field over shooting with the lens wide open. This is important when you work with macro subjects, as critical focus is measured in millimeters. Even the slightest error in focusing results in an out-of-focus subject or a subject that may have a sharp wing instead of a sharp eye. Secondly, a flash helps offset movement of the tiny critter or flower if the wind is blowing. In that the duration of the flash is fast, the slow-moving insect will look as if it’s standing still. The same goes for the flower that’s moved by the wind. An additional benefit is it frees you up from using a tripod. This is advantageous as you can move more efficiently, and the tripod is just another item that may scare away your subject.

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Two Flashes: In the close up of the dahlia, I used a setup with two flashes. Each was mounted to a bracket that mounted to the tripod socket of my camera. I positioned the “main” light on the right side of the bracket and the “fill” light on the left. The fill light was dialed down to one half stop less than that of the main light. Had I not used two flashes, distracting shadows from the overlapping petals of the dahlia would have appeared. The fill light softened the shadows and resulted in a more pleasing effect.

Flash As Fill: In the image of the arched flower stalk, I used flash to fill in the shadow side, which softened the contrast. It’s been said that a good nature shot can’t be made in the middle of the day because the light is too harsh. While this rings true for grand scenics and large animals, it isn’t gospel for macro subjects. The reason has to do with the size of the subject relative to the size of the light. When a small subject is lit with a powerful flash, the photographer takes control of the light. In relation to the scenic or in the case of a large animal, the amount of light that’s emitted from the flash isn’t strong enough to light the subject. The flower photo was made late morning with the sun behind and to its right. I set the amount of fill light to minus one-third stop. This created a pleasing balance between the ambient light and the light from the flash.

Add a Background And Light It: In the photo of the praying mantis, I used two lights. The main light was to the left of the subject and placed inside a 12-inch softbox. The soft light wrapped around the mantis and flower to give the effect of light on a bright overcast day. The habitat was very busy, so I used a cardboard background on which I painted light and dark green blobs. It creates a nice out-of-focus background for macro subjects. I lit the background with a second small flash dialed down one and a third stops. Had I not dialed down the intensity of the light on the background, it would have commanded too much attention.

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9 Comments

    Excellent article, per usual, George and just when I was thinking of entering the macro realm. In fact I just bought my first true-macro lens. A couple of questions, however, if I may.

    You mention the Canon flash systems (I’m a Canon user) and you mention RRS systems, among others, but these are the only two that interest me. Is one inherently better than the other? Or why would I chose one over the other?

    You, also, wrote that your ideal macro flash system would have plenty of power, be TTL and be wireless. With this criteria in mind, would a few full-size flashes be a problem? Most of what I see are light-weight flashes. I ask this because I already own the big boy flashes and mostly because you talk of not enough light on the subject as being the biggest challenge to macro photography. So perhaps a RRS flash system with a couple of 600EX-RT units would be nearly ideal?

    Thank you so much for this clear and detailed article! Understanding these macro flash basics has made it possible to use light weight gear and move about very easy for macro shots using flash (and no tripod). I’m shooting Nex 5n with the small, on-camera flash with a homemade flash extender/diffuser. The design of the diffuser was inspird by your article. I’ve also just added a Godon/Neewer slave flash with switch to ignore the Nex preflash. This little supplemental flash is helping me get that more natural background from your article. Again, thanks so much!

    Really great article, George. I always wanted to try one of these twin flash for macro photography as it seems to be more versatile than any other macro flash options. Finally I started a DIY project to mimick the twin flash effect and it worked out well. You can see some details on my blog.

    http://www.fiberstrobe.blogspot.de/2012/07/twin-flash-adapter-step-by-step.html

    It’s not supercheap but still costs only the fraction of a dedicated macro flash. I made it for sony nex, but the same concept can be applied to any camera.
    I hope some of you find it useful

    Really great article, George. I always wanted to try one of these twin flashes for macro photography as it seems to be more versatile than any other macro flash options. Finally I started a DIY project using optical fibers and flexible hoses to mimic the twin flash effect and it worked out well. You can see some details on my blog.

    http://www.fiberstrobe.blogspot.de/2012/07/twin-flash-adapter-step-by-step.html

    It’s not supercheap but still costs only the fraction of a dedicated macro flash. I made it for sony nex, but the same concept can be applied to any camera.
    I hope some of you find it useful.
    Cheers

    Marcell

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