Extreme Macro Lighting

Light and diffusion makes or breaks an extreme macro image. People spend large sums being sold fancy new lenses but it's usually controlling the light that can yield the greatest improvements in the quality of their macro photography.

Extreme Macro Lighting

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


To make a great extreme macro photo, above all you need to get the lighting right. Omitting photography using a microscope, there are three types of lighting that extreme macro photography uses: flash, continuous and natural.

Flash Lighting

If properly used, flash gives superb results for extreme macro

The common criticism of flash lighting that it doesn't look natural only comes about by looking at bad flash photography. If properly used, flash gives superb results for extreme macro, mainly because the duration of the light is so short that sharpness ceases to be an issue. Furthermore it is convenient - a portable, rechargeable light source, so it can be used both in the extreme macro studio photography and field macro.

Learning to control and use the flash nicely rather than harshly involves a trial, error and experimentation

But, using flash is not without its challenges. Just using flash for the first time - be it a dedicated macro ringflash or a more generic large flash - involves quite the learning curve, as it is a world of strange unfamiliar flash settings such as manual mode, TTL and rear curtain sync. Learning to control and use the flash nicely rather than harshly involves a trial, error and experimentation. On top of that there are technical challenges that will throw you a curveball periodically, and on top of that, there are ways that work and yield results, and ways that don't.

Studio Macro: Continuous or Flash?

continuous lighting demands extreme stability in your setup

Some extreme macro photographers swear by continuous lighting whereas others fly the strobist flash flag. I am one of the latter as my experience of using continuous lighting has always resulted in soft images. Fundamentally, continuous lighting demands extreme stability in your setup to the extent that cars passing by your house on the road should not vibrate your specimen by even a single pixel. Many people, myself included, lack such a vibration-free location and for those people flash should be your lighting of choice.

but if your stability is good enough, continuous lighting offers you extreme macro advantages that flash has difficulty matching

However, if your stability is good enough, continuous lighting in the minature studio does offer you extreme macro advantages that flash has difficulty matching. In particular, continuous lighting gives you a more targeted way to light your macro specimen, able to be angled and reach down into all the nooks and crannies of the hairs, which is very useful if your working distance is very short. At the budget end, Jansjo lights (by Ikea) give very nice continuous lighting, and at the top end, the use of fibre optic illumination from the microscope world comes into its own.

Natural Lighting

In the field, natural lighting is sometimes more than enough

In the field, natural lighting is usually more than enough to come out with great extreme macro shots, especially by combining it with standard studio photography techniques such as reflectors, flags/gobos and beauty dishes. Where a boost is needed, both flash lighting and continuous lighting can be employed; LED light panels are a popular option. But this is for a boost, and sole reliance on cheap continuous lighting 'ringlights' as a main or only light tends to disappoint more often than not due to the insufficient light output which leads to long, unsharp exposure times.

The Importance Of Lighting

It is impossible to overstress just how important lighting is to the extreme macro photograph. Although there are no universal rules for what constitutes the best light, there is a world of difference between a bright, well lit specimen that pops, and an underexposed, dark, muddy 'something'. People underestimate its performance and wrongly spend hundreds of pounds buying a lens that's a little bit 'better', but 99% of the macro photographs that I judge lose points because of the lighting, not because of the lens. Understanding diffusion is key to extreme macro, as it is the method by which we tend to transport natural looking and even light to a subject.

Studio Techniques

world of studio portraiture has a lot of knowledge for the extreme macro world

The world of studio portraiture has a lot of knowledge for the extreme macro world and their techniques are worth studying. Lighting is lighting, regardless of whether the specimen is six foot tall or a sixth of an inch, the ideas are the same. Many studio techniques used in portraiture and pertain to extreme macro and this world gives us a lot of tools to get our lighting right, including barn doors, beauty dishes, flags, reflectors, snoots, grids & gels. Direction of lighting is vital with extreme macro photography, and very different results are obtained by using back lighting (rim lighting), front lighting & side lighting.


Flash lighting that doesn't look natural is invariably due to the use of a small flash unit without diffusion, giving those horrible nasty specular highlights. The way to avoid this is the use of diffusers, which are cheap and easy to make yourself. All sorts of materials found around the home can be used, many of which are tested here, as are the various shapes we use and topics for further consideration. Diffusion is a vital yet easily misunderstood concept.


One of the biggest differences between great macro and mediocre macro is paying attention to the background of an image

One of the biggest differences between great macro and mediocre macro is paying attention to the background of an image. We've all seen macro shots that have a fussy, clashing background; they don't work very well and this applies both to field and studio photography. There are no exact rules for backgrounds as different things appeal to different people, but certain ideas work better than others for a nice, smooth, non-distracting background. For more advanced users, making gradients is also examined.

Macro UV Lighting

Extreme macro isn't just confined to visible light and there are some specialised UV techniques and lightsources that can help you see UV and fluorescence as well.

Comments (8)

Article: Lighting
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Harold Gough says...
If you are using flash with very small effective apertures there can be a surprise problem with framing and focusing with mirrorless cameras, especially in the field. As the image in the viewfinder gets darker and darker the image starts to jump around and it becomes blurred. Framing and focus become a matter of guessing what looks lest bad and pressing the shutter. The flash will freeze the image as usual but not necessarily sharp or framed as you intended.

The remedy is simple. Turn of the image stability in the body and/or lens.

Sometimes illuminating the subject with a small torch or, if practicable, moving it from shade into sun, will stop the movement of the sensor "hunting".
11th October 2018 4:54pm
Kuba says...
Can you recommend some led panels (1 for left, one for right and maybe one extra from above) and they cost max 50$? or should I get macro led ring? If I decide to go with macro led ring will it be enough for good light or I need more light: led panels or speedlight?
1st February 2017 7:31pm
Johan J. Ingles-le Nobel says...
Hello Kuba - I'm sorry to have to report back to you that I can't, despite having bought three I've never yet found an LED lighting panel that was bright enough for my needs. The only use I've had for them is as fill light outside, but beyond that they just haven't worked for me. Maybe I've bought the wrong ones. But it does surprise me as I'm perfectly aware that LED technology is advancing at very accelerated rates currently. You'd think that surely there must be something good and affordable out there. If anyone knows different, feel free to drop me a note via the site!
1st February 2017 8:08pm
Keith Horkins says...
I am a newcomer to extreme macro photography but I am already beginning to love it..but I do find that continuous lighting is giving me "soft images". I use a table top set up which consist of a light box with a light attached on either side and one above. Any suggestions on this would be extremely greatful.
7th October 2016 4:43am
Johan says...
Hello Keith, I had the same problem for a very long time when I was using continuous lighting, so I switched to flash which fixed it for me. Have a try at using flash; the duration of the flash varies with output power you're using, but it's much shorter than your shutter speed or using continuous, so it'll freeze stuff for you. Do try it, works for me, and all the best - Johan
7th October 2016 11:58am
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