For our readers in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s that time of year again — days are hotter, nights are shorter, and the air is stuffier. With the changes in weather, two different creatures are beginning to emerge from their deep winter slumbers: the insect and the macro photographer. As macro photography grows more popular, a key question arises: what is the best way to light a bug’s picture?
Several different lighting techniques exist for macro photography, with each method having its own rewards and drawbacks. The best lighting method for one situation may not work at all in another, and some common lighting techniques for macro photography aren’t as helpful as they appear.
The most simple lighting method, of course, is to use natural light exclusively, without any flashes or ring lights. On the plus side, natural lighting in macro photography tends to look nicer than artificial light, and, at the right times of day, it can be simply beautiful. However, with the small apertures and fast shutter speeds required for sharp macro photos, natural light sometimes just isn’t bright enough.
To fix this inherent problem, two main solutions exist: ring lights and flashes. Ring lights tend to be cheaper, but they are significantly less powerful. Some argue that they produce flat and unnatural lighting, too. On the other hand, flashes are more versatile (including double and singe flash options), but they are also much harsher and more expensive than ring lights.
Before I continue with the tutorial, I should point out that bugs are bugs, and spring is mating season — now you know.
In many ways, natural light is inherently better than a flash — it’s free, for starters, and you don’t have to worry about changing its position. Plus, when the sun is near the horizon or behind a cloud, the quality of natural light is better for macro photography than all but the most elaborate artificial lighting solutions.
When you work with natural light, the main issue is that you need to position yourself to take advantage of the best available angle. For example, it is possible to use the rising sun as a backlight, something that cannot be imitated with most artificial lights.
With natural lighting, an important positive is that the light source stays effectively still. To change the quality of light, you must move yourself around the object you wish to photograph. This can lead to more creative options than may be visible at first — even minor differences in your position can make an important difference in the quality of foreground or background light.
In the image below, I used a slight backlight to create a highlight outlining my subject, but I made sure to position myself so that the damselfly did not become a complete silhouette.
When you use natural light for macro photography, you will always be pushing the boundaries of your camera system. Even during the middle of the day, you may struggle to keep your images at a low ISO for life-sized macro photography. To get consistently sharp 1:1 images, your shutter speed will have to be 1/400 second or faster, and your aperture should stay at f/16 or smaller.
The best way to compensate is just to wait until your subject moves to a brighter location, although you can also position yourself to photograph the brightest angle for a particular subject. Sometimes, one side of a bug or plant will be lit more brightly than the other, which may not be obvious until you start shooting and check your meter’s readings.
Compare the two dragonfly images below. They were taken within ten minutes of each other — the biggest difference in the photos is my position relative to the sun.
For the first of these two images, the sun was blocked by a tree, meaning that the damselfly pair was in the shade. To compensate, I needed to set the exposure almost five stops (32x) brighter than in the second. Not only is the amount of light far greater in the second image, but so is the quality. In my opinion, the dramatic backlighting of the second image makes it significantly more interesting than the first.
The key to a successful macro image is to depict your subject with lighting and colors that enhance the aesthetic you have in mind. Sometimes this means that you want to use natural light in a way that stands out — as in the first image on this page — but often you will want to avoid calling attention to the light. If your goal is to depict your subject as serene and natural, you can use shade to soften the image’s shadows and create a more gentle background.
One thing that you may notice about the macro images on this page is that all four are taken at magnifications less extreme than 1:1. In other words, I didn’t magnify the subjects quite as much as my lens allows.
I chose to avoid maximum magnification for a two reasons. First, the composition — with larger subjects like damselflies and lizards, it is impossible to include the entire subject in a single 1:1 magnification image. For the images on this page, I wanted the composition to include the entire subject.
The second reason is that a lower magnification makes it easier to shoot a sharp macro image. As magnification increases, depth of field decreases and motion blur increases. At a more moderate magnification (like the above images), you can shoot at wider apertures and slower shutter speeds without getting an unsharp image. Since natural light is relatively dim (at least when compared to a high-powered flash), the benefits of a lower magnification are significant.
So, as a whole, natural light is great for macro photography when there is enough of it. However, for most high-magnification macro photographers, it just isn’t an option. Unlike with landscape or architectural photography, you will rarely be able to use a tripod for outdoor macro photography — most bugs simply move too much. Some photographers will try to use a tripod in the early morning (when bugs are more sluggish), but most will turn to artificial lighting methods instead.
Ring lights have a mixed reputation in the circles of macro photography. On one hand, photographers generally consider the lighting from ring lights to be inferior to that of a normal flash; on the flip side, ring lights are one of the most common lighting solutions for macro photography, presumably because they are the best combination of price/performance available. So, which of these reputations is deserved? Neither, actually.
The lighting from ring lights is, aside from one small caveat, extremely nice. Look at the photo below as an example:
The light in this image is even, and the shadows look relatively natural. In general, I would consider this photo to be well-lit.
The caveat that I mentioned is visible in the spider’s eyes: ring-shaped catch lights. In this photo, at least, I think that the rings make the spider’s eyes look quite interesting. However, it becomes annoying to have bright circles bouncing off any shiny bug that you photograph — take the image below as an example:
I do like this photo, and the oval-shaped reflection on the fly does not stand out much, but these catch lights can become annoying when they appear in half your macro images.
Aside from that one problem, though, ring lights tend to produce fairly well-lit images. In terms of the quality of light, I would have no issue recommending a ring light to a beginning macro photographer. However, the quality of light is not the only important aspect in a macro photo — the quantity is equally important, and this is where ring lights generally fail.
When I set my Bolt VM-110 ring light to full power, it adds about one stop more light to the image when compared with natural light. More than anything, it just fills in shadows — natural light is doing most of the work in the images on this page. For a dedicated high-magnification macro photographer, this issue is all but fatal.
Compared to a dedicated macro photography flash, the difference in light output is tremendous. With a flash, my most common exposure will be 1/250 second at f/16 and ISO 100. With a ring light, I would be closer to 1/250 second at f/8 and ISO 800. This difference adds up quickly — with subjects that require an aperture of f/22, most ring lights simply cannot produce enough light to get a reasonable ISO.
So, yes, the lighting is nice in the images on this page. However, the ISOs I used were much higher than they would have been with a dedicated flash, making the benefits nearly irrelevant.
But, if regular flashes produce much harsher-looking images, is it even possible to light your macro photos in a way that is both bright and high-quality? Yep — and that’s where flash diffusers come in.
Diffusers are easy: they make a harsh light source softer. A macro diffuser is similar to the soft boxes used by portrait photographers, though significantly smaller. Typically, at least in macro photography, a diffuser is used to soften the light from an on-camera flash.
You can buy diffusers — the Vello Mini Softbox, for example — but most people choose to make their own through a DIY method. The difficult part about creating a flash diffuser is that you have to balance three things: diffuser size, light loss, and quality of light. Improving one of these three variables tends to hurt another, which makes it tough to create the ideal flash diffuser.
After designing several prototypes, I have made a diffuser that I like quite a bit for my own macro photography. I’m not claiming to have created the best design possible, but I believe that I have found a good balance between these three elements. Here is a picture of my diffuser setup:
Using two rubber clips, I attach a piece of translucent plastic (from a milk carton) to a duct tape ring around my lens hood, and I fire the on-camera flash in its direction. The other light modifiers are supplementary — the reflector on the bottom of the lens hood fills in shadows, whereas the reflector above the flash helps bounce more light towards my subject. This kit packs flat, and it doesn’t lose as much light as most diffusers. Below is a sample image:
It’s not bad, considering that (unlike my photos from the ring light), the image above is lit exclusively by artificial light. You can probably make something similar in about fifteen minutes.
However, even with a good diffuser, your lighting is limited to a single direction. Although this isn’t terrible, you can improve the quality of your light by switching to a dual-flash system. Especially if you still use diffusers, this may be the best possible solution for macro photography lighting.
Dual Flash Systems
For high-end studio photographers, it is common to use a minimum of three lights (a main light, a fill light, and a background/accent light) for portraiture, and sometimes five or more. Such a complex setup makes it easy to sculpt how the shadows and highlights fall on a subject, leading to more effective photos. It makes sense, then, that macro photographers also would prefer to use multiple lights whenever possible — and, though few systems allow the use of more than two flashes, some products exist that allow high-quality macro photography with two flashes.
I recently reviewed a new dual-flash system, the Venus Optics KX800, and I applauded its ability to position the two flashes so freely. When diffused, the quality of light from a dual flash can be in a league of its own.
When dual flash systems are freely positionable, they allow photographers the ability to sculpt a macro image’s light in much the same way that a portrait photographer works in a studio. For the image below, I used Nikon’s R1 flash system (see Tom Redd’s review of the more elaborate R1C1) to light the fly with two flashes: one SB-200 flash attached to a ring on my lens, and one SB-200 held in my hand above and behind the fly. The resulting image does not depict the most beautiful subject in the world, but it has among the best light of any artificially-lit macro photo I have taken.
The biggest drawback to a dual-flash solution is the price — the Nikon R1 system costs $469 from B&H, for example, and the Venus Optics KX800 costs $279 and has no TTL mode. Most photographers will already have a normal flash, too, which can be diffused without much difficulty at all.
Regardless of which method you prefer — natural lighting, a ring light, or a diffused flash — every choice has its strong points. Natural lighting can be beautiful and dramatic, a ring light is good at filling in the shadows of natural light, and flashes are the brightest options available. None of these lighting solutions is perfect, but each is capable of producing high-quality macro images. And, when you are being eaten alive by mosquitoes on a muggy summer’s day, it is comforting to know that your lighting techniques can make your effort worthwhile.