Lighting For Night Macro

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

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Lighting for night macro uses the same equipment as day macro, with the addition of a small torch in order to see what you're doing.

A mini Maglite works well, because you can focus the light output which will help you in your camera focusing as well. The continuous torchlight allows you to see but to shoot you use a flash. The torch light has no impact on the lighting in the final shot because flashlight is so much faster and brighter.

night macro

Grasshopper nighttime macro taken with my night macro rig. Grasshoppers and crickets seem to love pottering about on hedges at night. Nice to photograph because they have tubes in their eyes with black at the back, so they always look as if they're looking straight at you.

Nighttime is a great time to shoot extreme macro in the field if, like me, you have a daytime job so you can't get out and do macro because you're busy at work. You don't get the flies, bees, wasps and butterflies that you'll get during the day but with a bit of a safari round the garden there's more than enough to throw the camera at if you look carefully.

Night Macro With Flash

The settings that you use on your average flash-only macro image during the day will work perfectly well for night macro as well.

Adding a torch will have no effect on your image as the flash and exposure is usually fast enough to remain your only source.

Of course, using flash means your shots will probably end up having a black background - avoidable if you have foliage in the background but only if it's near enough.

Night Macro Rig

The night macro rig that I constructed for night macro works very well indeed without needing to wear a head torch or try and carry a torch as well as the camera. This rig can be constructed from easy to order parts. I attach the rig onto an extension tube using parts of a rainpipe cut to shape with holes in it, and then to carry the torch I use a GoPro rollbar mount.GoPro parts are all modular so you can make something that twists in any direction, ideal for aiming the torch. The rig revolves around an on camera flash attached via PTTL cord supported horizontally on the rig. The flash is a good consumer flash model - these give faster recharge times and a nice range of manual exposure settings. Just like in day photography, you'll want to use some sort of diffusion, especially if your subjects are shiny and likely to create hotspots.

Why night macro?

  • Different and unusual insects at night
  • Many nighttime insects tend to move slower
  • Easier to attract insects (ie moths)
  • More comfortable than heat of day
  • Fits in with the 9-5

A mini Maglite fits comfortably into the rollbar mount and is convenient to use because it can be used with 2 rechargeable AA batteries. The Maglite solitaire also works well but I prefer the mini. The Solitaire is small and light enough to be mounted on a diffuser but I found it handier to have the light on a separate arm, hence the preference for the mini. At night I usually use the anybrand MP-E 65 as it has the greatest versatility in terms of shooting different sized insects. The weight of the rig does matter - the lighter the better, especially when composing in a steady position. A good site to take inspiration from for night macro is Kurt's site, where he shows what he's shot on nigh macro sessions. Kurt is one of the preeminent macro photographers online today, and it's no surprise to me that he's also added night macro to his arsenal and doing very well at it.

Night Macro Technique

I tend to use all manual settings for night macro as the range and flash power required doesn't vary too much, so that means there's one less variable to alter at the time of shooting. I prefer to use a viewfinder rather than live view, although there are sometimes certain positions that are so awkward that live view makes things easier.

Headlamp

Another option that keeps your hands free for photography and lets you light up the night is to buy and wear a headlamp. LED headlamps are generally not bright enough to photograph with, so you'll still need a flash lightsource, but having the lamp on your head certainly makes things considerably easier. I personally prefer my own 'torch on my gopro rig' outfit just because the light shines exactly where my lens is pointing, so keeping the two in sync is very easy, but nevertheless a headlamp is a perfectly viable option.

Attracting Insects

As is well known, bright porch lights will attract insects at nights. Moths especially react to the UV light put out by these things. Moths go round and round in circles because they are trying to fly at a constant angle to the light. If you want to increase the amount of insects that you see for your night photography then a standard MV (Mercury Vapour) Robinson moth trap is your friend as this will attract other insects besides moths. if you're in the tropics though, the preponderance of night flying moths is such that a simple light sheet is usually more than adequate. At night, you'll come across different insects that you come across during the day. There are a lot more insects about that can only walk on foot, presumably to avoid bird predation.

UV at night

Another very cool thing to try out at night is using UV lighting. UV induced fluorescence is a very long name for the visible light that's given off by certain plants and animals when you shine a UV light at them. There are principally two ways of achieving this - make yourself a UV-only flash or buy UV torches. Both are perfectly possible although the former is the trickier operation of the two.

Here in England there are some lichens that look really good under such lighting (ie they go bright orange) and a few insects as well, but in the tropics there are interesting things like millipedes and scorpions that do so, and if you're under the water then you're in for a complete treat if you try this. Good UV torches use a 365nM source, LED budget options don't work nearly as well.

Exposure times are very problematic if you use a UV torch at night, so be prepared for a lot of trial and error, and even trying out the use of a tripod. On the flip side, animals are not as active at night as they are during the day so may well stay still, and if you can master UV imagery at night you'll be able to produce almost unique photographs with a huge appeal.

Comments (1)

Article: Night Macro Lighting
Harold Gough says...
I had some success with converging beams from lasers. This is for operating with small apertures on manual lenses and at quite high magnifications (x3-4). I did this in daylight and some low light situations.

You can purchase pen-sized lasers cheaply. You then attach (tape) one to each of two converging (at the subject) flash guns. The point where the laser beams join to form one spot confirms (precalibrated)focus.

A variation was to replace one laser with a pencil white light, this illuminating the subject to help getting it framed.
28th October 2014 8:26am
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