Side Lighting

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


Side lighting has a place in the extreme macro photographer's toolbox as a way to bring out a little extra pop and contrast in your final image.

Why Side Lighting Works

side lighting

20:1 extreme macro of a Papilio ulysses, a beautifully iridescent blue swallowtail butterfly. The key to giving butterfly scale shots some dimensionality and personality is to use continuous illumination and extreme side lighting to accent one of the edges, like I did here. Side lighting works well out in the field too, especially to set your shots out from the straight on flash shooting crowd.

Lighting a subject from the side usually leaves the opposite side dark.This creation of a dramatic dark and light side persuaders the brain and makes it see it as more of a 3d structure. Our brain is conditioned into seeing shape through the use of light and shadow and doing this in extreme macro work helps with that.

Side lighting has a very prominent place in the extreme macro studio work that I do. I tend to surround my specimens with flashes placed at that 2,6 and 10 'o' clock positions, and by balancing these I'll have the benefit of side lighting but without the darks that will result from just employing a single side light.

I've also found side lighting to produce very interesting effects when used off-camera on field macro. The key is to have the flash quite far away and not to have it so overpowering that the highlight edge burns out, you really just want to kiss the subject with a little ridge of light.

Practical Side Lighting

Disappointing circular flash bracket bought through eBay for side lighting; made of thin steel they're not nearly sturdy enough for practical use.

A flash arm with a remote flash is the most practical method to add some side lighting to your macro work in the field.

It is also possible to purchase flash arms such as a Lepp bracket that will carry multiple flash heads but you do always have to watch the compactness of your unit as you don't want them getting in your way.

Circular eBay arms aren't really any good for this because they're not all that strong.

A budget choice to add an element of side lighting to your work is the use of a simple reflector.