Lighting Options for Your Macro Photography

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When you start getting extremely close to your subject, you may run into some difficulty with lighting. This could be because your large lights can’t get into position easily, you can’t get the type of lighting you want, or you are so close that you are casting a shadow. There are solutions to these problems, and each has its own unique capabilities and look that will help you bring your macro photography up a notch.

Let’s start things off with something you probably already have in your bag, an on-camera flash. Speedlights can do amazing things when used properly, but they require modifiers and other accessories to get the most out of them, something that is especially true in macro photography. As you will learn quickly, the best way to use any light is off-camera, so pick up some radio triggers, a TTL cord, or a simple PC sync cord, and you should be on your way to casting some good light on your subject. The trick now is positioning it.

Vello FreeWave LR Wireless Flash Trigger and Receiver Kit
Vello FreeWave LR Wireless Flash Trigger and Receiver Kit

If you are lucky enough to be able to set it on a stand or table and get the light you need, that is great. But for the other situations, you may want to pick up a macro-specific flash bracket. These let you position the flash in a way that will illuminate your subject without needing to set up a light completely off-camera. In addition, you will likely want to use some diffusion in the form of a compact softbox or dome diffuser, to create a quality of light that works when the light source is so close to the subject.

Impact Luxbanx Compact Octagonal Softbox
Impact Luxbanx Compact Octagonal Softbox

In the event you can’t or don’t want to get your flash off-camera, the ring flash diffuser is a tool that might just do the job. These modifiers will take the light from a standard flash and spread it out in a ring around the lens, mimicking the look of the popular ring light. The diffused and circular source helps illuminate close-up subjects due to its ability to throw light evenly onto a subject. This is a much more affordable option, compared to the dedicated tools, and works with your existing equipment.

RoundFlash Magnetic Ringflash Adapter
RoundFlash Magnetic Ringflash Adapter

On the other hand, if you are looking to step up your macro game with some dedicated tools, there is plenty to get excited about. The most common of these, as was just mentioned, is the ring light. These lights are loved for their ability to illuminate subjects evenly and for their soft output. They also attach directly to the front of the lens, so they can get close to their subject to maximize power. Additionally, many options can turn on or off each side independently of the other, for more control over how your lighting looks.

Bolt LED Macro Ring Light
Bolt LED Macro Ring Light

An alternative to the ring light is a twin flash system. While it is like the ring light in principle (it gets the light close to the subject), it is very different in execution. Twin flashes allow for more precise positioning of your light in relation to the subject, and some would argue they create more natural-looking reflections and catchlights. Some setups even allow you to add more flash heads to further augment your lighting, making these great for users who have very specific requirements.

Nikon R1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System
Nikon R1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System

While we have covered most of the actual lighting equipment, I do still want to talk about shooting tents and tables. Tents can make shooting many small objects a great deal easier by creating a soft, all-around light with a pure white background. They also help to eliminate reflections on particularly troublesome items like jewelry. Shooting tables, on the other hand, are handy for getting a clean background and provide a good surface for placing delicate objects.

Impact Digital Light Shed
Impact Digital Light Shed

This is just a broad overview of some macro-specific lighting tools and accessories to help users get started. You can easily light some close-up shots with a ton of other tools, including studio strobes, the sun, reflectors, and more. Hopefully, you will find something that is just right.

If you shoot macro, what is your go-to lighting setup? Anything we talked about up above or something unique you want to share? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the Comments section, below and, for more macro-related content, check out the rest of Macro Photography Week on B&H Explora.

2 Comments

The "ring light" that you have in the photo is a cheaply made piece of junk that is marketed under a dozen different names.  I would have chosen a better example. 

A very nice introduction to lighting macro subjects, my favorite type of photography. Thank you, Shawn!

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