Lighting For Day Macro

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated August 31, 2017


Lighting for day macro comes in two varieties. Butterfly on a stalk type photography some distance away usually involves ambient light, balanced with some extra flash or continuous lighting, often supplemented by bounced light from a reflector.

Closer extreme macro can also be done with ambient light although I personally find the use of a flash invaluable when doing reversed lens extreme macro shots.

Nearby Subjects - Diffused Flash

macro diffuser

Diffused flash used for daytime macro. Rather than having the flash sit on an arm fixed to the camera, I opted to lean the flash over the subject like this. By being much closer to the subject the light was not only much more diffused (bigger relative to the subject) but I am able to use a much lower ISO and faster flash duration (1/64. The latter matters because the recharge time with a lower duration is much faster than using a fuller flash.

For closer subjects and extreme macro, I used to always use a flash that is laid horizontally on the camera. The flash is connected to the camera with a Nissin SC-01 universal off camera shoe cord to allow the use of rear curtain sync, and the flash itself, usually a Metz 58, sits inside a custom flash 'cage' made using GoPro parts, nuts, bolts and bits of drainpipe.

A Hama adjustable shoe flash mount with tilt gives a bit of added rigidity and a homemade flash diffuser completes the setup. Now the thing about using flash outside to do extreme macro is that unless you balance it with daytime light your images will have a dark background which will make it look like your shot is taken at night.

Personally I don't think that's a very attractive look so I try and make sure that I don't rely on just foreground subject flash for the lighting.

Sometimes ambient light is bright enough to give a daytime look but at other times you may need to have a second flash triggered from the main flash to throw the light onto your background that you need to make it bright enough to look like a daytime shot.

Nearby Subjects - Ringflash

day macro with ringflash

Daytime extreme macro shot with a Pentax AF160FC ringflash. Ring flashes produce flat, even light, and whilst they have a bad reputation in extreme macro circles, sometimes it's the best tool for the job.

Although ring flashes get a bad rep in macro circles because they produce almost shadow less lighting, they're also extremely convenient and can produce excellent macro shots.

At the time of writing (2013) the Pentax AF160FC is my favourite light source for daytime macro.

Balancing Flash

To balance flash into a macro shot yet still make it look natural, I like to build up the flash only after having set the ambient light at the level I want it first. In simple steps, the first thing I'll do is expose and take test shots without flash, to get the background light right. This can be bright by overexposing or dark by underexposing.

Once you have the background right then and only then I'll worry about the foreground and subject. The background is usually sufficiently far away that putting flash on and adjusting its power on manual has no effect on the amount of light on the background. Another technique worth looking at would be HSS (high speed sync). When it's very bright out, you maybe forced to use a shutter speed that's briefer than your flash sync speed allows. HSS flash, a niche flash mode, is often the answer at times like this.

Nearby Subjects - Beauty Dish

Another lighting variant involves the use of a beauty dish. The principles involved in this are slightly different because this uses light that has been bounced from the flash, but it does create a nice light which, by fiddling with the size and shape of the blocking element, will look like diffused light.

An inverse semi-clear dome also gives a similar effect to a beauty dish, and recently commercial units have been put on the market that do a similar thing. For example this Graslon unit which is a rectangular beauty dish with plastic diffuser. Beauty dishes for consumer macro are nevertheless a rarity but beauty dishes merit further investigation.