Macro photography lighting tutorial

For our northern hemisphere readers, it’s that time of year again – the days are hotter, the nights shorter and the air more stuffy. As the weather changed, two different creatures began to emerge from their deep winter slumber: insects and macro photographers. As macro photography becomes more popular, a key question arises: What is macro photography lighting? This article goes into a lot of detail.

1. Introduce

There are several different lighting techniques for macro photography, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. In one case, the best lighting methods may not work at all in another, and some common lighting techniques for macro photography are not as useful as they seem.

Chrysanthemums in macro photography

Of course, the easiest way to get lighting is to use all-natural light and not flash or circular lights. On the plus side, natural light in macro photography tends to look better than artificial light, and at the right time of day, it can be beautiful. However, natural light is sometimes not bright enough because sharp macro photos require small apertures and fast shutter speeds.

To solve this inherent problem, there are two main solutions: circular lights and flashlights. Ring lights tend to be cheaper, but they are much less powerful. Some people think they also produce flat and unnatural lighting. On the other hand, flash lamps are more versatile (including dual flash and single flash options), but they are also more dazzling and expensive than ring lamps.

2. Natural lighting

In many ways, natural light is inherently better than flash — it’s free, and for starters, you don’t have to worry about changing its placement. In addition, when the sun is near the horizon or behind clouds, the quality of natural light is better for macro photography than the most sophisticated artificial lighting solutions.

The main problem when working in natural light is that you need to position yourself to take advantage of the best available angles. For example, the rising sun could be used as a backlight, which most artificial light cannot imitate.

An important benefit of natural lighting is that the light source can remain stationary effectively. To change the light quality, you must move around the object you want to photograph. This can lead to more creative choices than initially visible — even small differences in your location can have a significant impact on the quality of the foreground or background light.

When you use natural light for macro photography, you will always be pushing the boundaries of your camera system. Even in the middle of the day, you may have a hard time keeping the image at low ISO for life-size macro photography. To get a consistently sharp 1:1 image, your shutter speed must be 1/400 of a second or faster, and the aperture should be f/16 or less.

The best solution is to wait for the subject to move to a brighter position, although you can also position yourself to take the brightest angle for a particular subject. Sometimes, one side of a bug or plant will be brighter than the other, which may not be obvious until you start photographing and checking meter readings.

Plants in macro photography

The key to successful macro images is to depict your subject with lighting and color to enhance your aesthetic. Sometimes this means you want to use natural light in a prominent way, but often you want to avoid drawing attention to the light. If your goal is to portray your subject as calm and natural, use shadows to soften the image’s shadows and create a softer background.

Natural light is great for macro photography when it’s abundant. However, for most high magnification macro photographers, this is not an option. Unlike landscape or architectural photography, you’ll rarely be able to use a tripod for outdoor macro photography — most bugs just move too much. Some photographers try tripods early in the morning (when bugs are slow), but most switch to artificial lighting.

3. Ring light

Ring lights are well known in macro photography. On the one hand, the ring light is generally considered by photographers to be less effective than a normal flash. On the other hand, ring lights are one of the most common lighting solutions for macro photography, presumably because they are the best combination of value for money.

Ring light tends to produce well-lit images. In terms of light quality, I can definitely recommend the ring light to a beginner macro photographer. However, the quality of the light is not the only important aspect of a macro photo — quantity is just as important, and this is where ring light often fails.

When I set the ring light to full power, it added about one step of light to the image compared to natural light. Most importantly, it just fills in the shadows — natural light does most of the work in the images on this page. For professional macro photographers, this problem is almost fatal.

The difference in light output compared to a dedicated macro photography flash is huge. When using a flash, my most common exposures are F/16 and 1/250s at ISO 100. With a ring light, I would approach 1/250s at F/8 and ISO 800. This difference can add up quickly — for subjects that require an F/22 aperture, most ring lights simply don’t produce enough light to achieve a reasonable ISO.

But is it possible to light up macro photos in a way that is both bright and of high quality, if a conventional flash produces more harsh images? Yes. – That’s where the flash diffuser comes in.

Insects in macro photography

4. Diffuser

Diffusers are simple: they soften harsh light sources. The macro diffuser is similar to the soft light box used by portrait photographers but much smaller. In general, at least in macro photography, diffusers are used to soften the light coming from the camera flash.

You can buy diffusers, but most people choose to make their own diffusers through DIY methods. The difficulty in creating a flash is that you have to balance three things: diffuser size, light loss, and light quality. Improving one of these three variables tends to hurt the other, making it difficult to create the ideal flash diffuser.

However, even with a good diffuser, your lighting is limited to a single direction. While this isn’t terrible, you can improve the light quality by switching to a dual flush system. Especially if you still use a diffuser, this may be the best solution for macro photography lighting.

5. Dual flash system

For high-end studio photographers, it is common to use at least three lights for portrait shots, sometimes five or more. Such a complex setup makes it easy to shape how shadows and highlights fall on subjects, resulting in more efficient photos. So it makes sense that macro photographers would also want to use as many lights as possible. Although few systems allow more than two flashes, some products allow for high-quality macro photography using two flashes.

When dual flash systems are freely orientated, they enable the photographer to sculpt the light of a macro image in much the same way as portrait photographers work in the studio. The resulting image doesn’t depict the most beautiful subject in the world, but it has some of the best lights I’ve ever taken in an artificially lit macro photograph.

No matter which method you prefer — a natural light, ring light, or diffuse flash — each option has its advantages. Natural light can be beautiful and dramatic, ring lights excel at filling in the shadows of natural light, and flashlights are the brightest option available. None of these lighting solutions are perfect, but each produces high-quality macro images.

Honeybees in macro photography


What flash is best for macro photography?

Use a ring flash for even macro lighting. A ring flash is perfect for macro lighting. It works differently than studio lighting or a Speedlite because it fits around your lens. This allows the light to spread out evenly around your subject area.

Do I need a ring light for macro photography?

The best ring flash is a strongly recommended purchase for any macro photographer. Indeed, we’d go so far as to say that it’s essential. A ring flash has another function in macro photography, and that is providing enough light to allow you to stop down the aperture enough to get your whole subject in focus.

What is a macro light?

Macro Lighting unveils the miniature world, which can be beautiful, fantastic, and unbelievable at times. Capturing images of tiny subjects and enlarging them to sizes that let us marvel at every detail is the perfect way to stretch your photographic muscles.

What is a macro ring flash?

Shopping for ring camera lights and ring flashes. Macro lights and ring lights are circular lights mounted on cameras to provide even lighting. Unlike other flashes and on-camera lights, these reduce harsh shadows by bathing subjects in a diffused glow. You can also use them to provide soft lighting for video cameras.

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