Macro Photography Lighting

Getting amazing light in macro photography can be really difficult. If you want to take photos like these, with beautiful shadows and highlights, you have to use some specialized techniques. Now, there’s really two different types of lighting in macro photography: you’ve got natural light and artificial light. We’ll start with natural light. This one’s a very good option a lot of times, just because it looks really nice; it looks natural, as you would expect. But the problem with natural light is that there’s very often not enough of it. This is especially true in macro photography, because when you’re photographing such a close subject, you might be blocking the light that reaches it. Or, beyond that, you’re also magnifying camera shake, and you’re getting a very shallow depth of field when you’re shooting macro photos — and the camera settings to compensate for that decrease the amount of light that you capture. I covered all that in my previous video on macro photography. But what you want to know about natural light is that it can look really, really nice when you take pictures with it.

If your subject is a little bit larger — something like a lizard or a dragonfly — natural light is very often the way to go. You’ll get much better-looking shadows and highlights, and you also don’t run into the same problems of blocking the light or shooting at such a high magnification that you’re running into shutter speed and aperture problems. Now, more to the point, natural light also allows a lot of creative flexibility in how you photograph your subject. You might think, “Oh, it’s just the sun, it’s stuck in one place in the sky.” But you can also move your own position relative to the sun, and dramatically change the type of light that reaches your subject. For example, when I was photographing these palm leaves, on one side it’s very front-lit with not that many shadows, and then if I just walk around to the other side of them, I get these very interesting silhouettes that make the photo look a lot more dramatic. And I did exactly this, just a couple days ago when I was photographing a lizard. Now, you can see here it’s back-lit because it’s on one side of the leaf.

But then a couple minutes later, it walked to the other side, and I followed, and I managed to take this photo where it was front-lit. Now, to me, I like the back-lit photo a little bit more, but that’s not really the point. The point is to illustrate how different the lighting can be, even though it was the same morning, only a couple minutes apart, and I used natural light both times. So, this example does a good job showing the different moods of natural light, even when you’re taking pictures at the same time of day. But what about not just quality of light — quantity? Because when you’re taking pictures with natural light, quantity of light can be just as big of a problem. If there’s not enough light — if you’re taking pictures in a shadowy area — then you’ll end up with low image quality no matter what. Especially if you’re taking pictures at ultra-high magnifications. I like how this photo looks — I like the composition here — but I would never publish it, because I had to shoot at such a high ISO. And when that’s the case, you really have two options. You can either focus on subjects that are brightly lit — the difference between a highlight and shadow can be huge — or, you have to start using artificial light. And there’s many different types of artificial light, but let’s start with a ring light. This is how ring lights look.

It’s a constant light around the front of your lens. And these are very popular, in large part just because they’re relatively inexpensive. But one of the big problems with ring lighting is that it’s not very good! You’ve got light coming at your subject from all different directions, so the lighting is pretty flat and two-dimensional. You just don’t have very many shadows. On top of that, ring lighting just isn’t very bright. It’s a constant light, so you’re not going to outshine daylight most of the time. At best, you’re gonna fill in some shadows. And this is true even if your ring light has a flash mode; it won’t output very much light. Instead, a lot of photographers prefer just a regular flash head — something like this — or a multi-flash setup. I prefer this one just because it looks crazy, but there’s many different options on the market. And, at the end of the day, you’re gonna get much better light out of these, especially if you diffuse the light.

And I’ll show you what that means in just a minute, but to start, here’s a flower that I found which I think would make a good sample subject. Now, I took a picture first with natural light to show how the lighting looks without any flashes or modifications. And the light looks pretty good here. Now let’s take a look at the single flash, which I put on the hot shoe of my camera without any modifications. And then the dual flashes, which I angled a little bit closer to the subject. And here are the three photos. I’ll just say what you’re probably thinking: The artificial light sucks! Specular highlights, weird shadows. They just look really bad. And that’s not really surprising; these are unmodified flashes. They’re gonna be pretty harsh. So, instead, what I want to do to get better lighting is diffuse the flashes. And a diffuser is essentially anything that you put in front of your flash — whether it’s a sheet of plastic, a sheet of paper, or a higher-end diffuser that you actually have to buy — so that it spreads out the light. In this case, I’m just going to use just a standard sheet of printer paper. To start, I’m going to put it in front of the single flash.

And you can see, the light here is much better. And I’m gonna do exactly the same thing with the dual flash setup. I’ve got two sheets of paper, and, taking this picture, you can see that the photo also looks much better. Now, if I put up both of the diffused photos at the same time — the single flash and the dual flash — I personally like the dual flash photo a little bit better. I think that it has more of a three-dimensional look, with some shadows that are more interesting, especially at the center of the flower. But, at the end of the day, compared to the previous two photos, these are both huge improvements. So now let’s see how the two diffused photos compare to the natural light picture. And to me, I do like the natural light a little bit better — it does look more natural — but, at the same time, the two diffused pictures are actually pretty solid. And this is important, because diffusers and flashes give you so much more flexibility than natural light.

You can take pictures at f/16, handheld, and get very sharp results. Or, you can take pictures before sunrise and after sunset, when there’s a lot of bugs out, and you can get very interesting photos with very high image quality as well. And the end result, even though I prefer using natural light, I end up using flash about half the time, just because it adds much more flexibility in the types of subjects that you can shoot. So, if diffusers are so important, which diffuser should you use? There’s a lot of different options on the market, but really, I just recommend building your own. Very easy to do. This is how mine looks. It’s kind of funky, but it works really well. I get very high quality light when I use this diffuser. And you can build very similar things whether you’ve got a single or a dual flash setup; that’s not really what’s important. What matters is that you experiment with the different options, come up with something that’s consistent, and that gives you high quality light. Now, let’s talk about one last big factor with artificial lighting setups, and that is the inverse square rule.

Sounds kind of technical and complicated, but it’s very easy. Basically it means that when your subject moves farther away from your flash, it doesn’t get as much light. It specifically gets one-fourth the amount of light every time that the distance from your light source doubles. That makes sense — except, with macro photography, your flash and your subject are going to be very close to each other, and the background is pretty far away. So, the background won’t be receiving much light at all by comparison, and you can end up with photos that look like this. Now, you can see here, it looks like I took this picture in a studio, when really I took this photo on a bright, sunny day, with just a regular plant behind my subject. And this is something that you’ll see all the time when you’re shooting macro photos with artificial light. The only real ways to work around it are, you could find a background that’s closer to your subject so that it receives more light, or you could just shoot in natural light rather than artificial light in the first place. Personally, though, I kind of like this look, and I actually aim for it from time to time. I think that the dark background really contrasts with a lot of subjects and works pretty well. So, it really depends; you can work around it, or you can allow it and embrace it. But whatever you pick, you’ve got to at least be aware of it. And that does it for this blog! If you have any questions at all about macro photography, feel free to leave them in the comment section below.

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