Flash Techniques in Macro Photography
One of the first questions you have to ask yourself as a photographer is, do I need to use a flash for macro photography? The answer to the question is YES you do need a flash for macro photography. There are times when it may be possible to take photographs using ambient light close-up. At higher magnifications the need to use flash becomes more increasingly evident and therefore an important part of the macro photographers set-up.
Macro Photographers looking for a system of flash photography are unlikely to find an out-of-the-box solution. A lot of the macro photography that you see on the internet is “close-up” using the flash as the primary light source. If you are considering a flash to your equipment list these are your options:-
Options for outdoor Macro Photography Set-up
Hot-shoe Mounted Flash Gun
Built-in Flash (Pop-up)
Twin Flash (Master) and Flash Gun/s (Slave/s)
Ring Flash (Master) and Flash Gun/s (Slave/s)
Built-In (Pop-up) Flash diffused
Twin Flash diffused
Ring Flash diffused
Hot-shoe Mounted Flash Gun using an off-camera hot-shoe extension cord attached to macro bracket arm and fitted with a diffuser
Ambient (natural) Light Only – No Flash
Options for Still life macro photography
Twin Flash diffused
Ring Flash diffused
Artificial light source (lighting)
Ambient (natural) Light Only – No Flash
*diffused includes all techniques, light box, light tent, reflecting light etc
Fill Flash | Fill-in Flash
Daylight photography can pose all kinds of problems for the happy-go-lucky photographer. In terms of macro photography this is usually a diurnal activity (done during daylight hours). Nocturnal macro photography is not something that I have come across (yet). It may seem strange to talk about using flash photography when there is an abundance of natural ambient light to use. The problem with the bright sunlight is that it casts shadows over parts of your subjects and this reduces the amount of detail in the photograph. To solve this photographic problem a small amount of flash is used to light the areas of shadow. This is called fill, fill-in or fill flash and is a valuable skill to learn in (macro) photography. The flash has to be fired at reduced power so that it does not alter the overall exposure of the image. In macro photography there a plenty of interesting methods of utilising fill-in flash for your photography. To do this you must adjust the flash exposure. If your flash is connected to the camera by a hot shoe you usually make the setting on the flash unit. In the absence of a light meter (I don’t bother with them either!) Spot metering can be a useful method of calculating the amount of exposure compensation if your camera has this feature (mine doesn’t!). Spot metering is considered by some photographers as essential for macro photography. (note to self - I need to buy a new camera!) So if you’re buying a new camera for macro and close up photography make sure it is capable of spot metering. What you are trying to evaluate is the difference in contrast between the dark areas (shadows) and the light areas (highlights) in the frame. I recently read a tutorial on macro photography that was approximately 150 words in length. The tutorial by an amateur photographer provided the reader with his exact settings followed by his “expert” advice “this works for me”. Now this photographer did put up some pictures which were very good and the settings he was using seemed OK as well. The problem arises when a student of photography tries to follow this photographer’s example. There are degrees of variation within equipment and environments to evaluate for each composition which renders copying setting from an photography forum a total waste of time. It is different to seek advice so that you can learn how to set up the camera yourself. Be inspired by great photographs and photographers and try to emulate what they do by all means but do not copy their camera settings and expect the same results. (sorry about that…simmering down!)
High Speed Sync (FP)
It’s going to be another one of those posts with lot of big fancy words and plenty to take on board. I’m fed up of reading about dark or back backgrounds associated with macro photography. Yes, they generally look abysmal but there are lots of ways to avoid them even with a simple set up like mine. High Speed Sync (or Synch if you prefer) is one of them. In this mode which is set using your flash unit you can tell your camera to use a faster shutter speed than the camera would normally allow.
Absolutely Curtains – Second Curtain Synchronisation
There are two distinct types of curtain synchronisation that are used in digital camera photography. First Curtain Synchronisation (also known as 1st Curtain Sync, Fast Sync and Front Curtain Sync) occurs when the shutter curtain is open (during an exposure) and the flash fires to correspond with the opening of the shutter curtain (at the beginning of the exposure). Second Curtain synchronisation occurs when the flash fires later in the exposure towards the end of the exposure. There is a little more to how this works but on a basic level this how the two curtain synchronisation modes work. Second curtain sync is a very useful camera feature (available on most DSLR cameras). Wildlife photographers interested in entomology find this specifically useful for insect photography. It is thought that some insects are very sensitive to camera flash and will make a quick exit when the flash goes off. When second curtain sync is used the flash occurs later in the exposure so that the insect is captured before the burst of flash is detected.
Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC)
To use flash exposure compensation simply select FEC (or whatever the equivalent feature is called in your camera) and us the plus (+) symbol to increase the amount flash (making the flash more powerful). Use the minus (-) symbol to decrease the amount of flash (making the flash less powerful).
Flash Exposure Lock (FEL)
Flash Exposure Lock is denoted by an asterisk symbol on some cameras. When you activate this feature it locks the flash on the part of the subject that you have chosen using the auto focus (AF) points. This works by firing a pre-flash and then calculates the amount of flash required for the exposure.
Going the Extra Mile!
Many photographers and photography critics complain about black or dark backgrounds in macro photography. You do not have to use flash for macro photography it but in certain situations it will not be possible to get an acceptable exposure. Ambient (natural) light at slow shutter speed will create an even exposure for some still life subjects. In addition still life and indoor photography can be lit using lighting for total control of the exposure. This is when a light box or light tent comes in really useful, this is great for taking still images of products for auction sites. A light box or (or light tent) is a structure that you can light with a light source (such as a lamp). The light is diffused by the material but enough penetrates the structure to light the still life subject inside. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be created for very little money from cardboard, fabric, paper etc. In essence this is the same technology used in portrait and studio photography only on a smaller scale Remember that a picture speaks a thousand words. If you can take and use your own close-up or macro photography on your website you have an advantage over your competitors (unless they are also doing the same which makes it all square). This type of photography is not strictly restricted to still life as some entomologists and scientists collect specimens and photograph them under laboratory conditions using the same or similar set-up. In many cases this is to get as much detail and therefore information from the species without any distraction from the background. The photographs produced are not generally of great artistic merit but not all photography is art (or is it?). In summary it comes down to finding a way of working that suits your style and suits your subjects. If you have the ingenuity to try something new you should embrace this opportunity. In digital photography failure is not expensive and this allows the photographer to try all kinds of wild and weird photography techniques. Many of the most successful nature photographers are the ones who are prepared to go the extra mile.
The Cost of Setting up a Flash System for Macro Photography
(Apart from all the $1.00 plastic milk bottles and polystyrene cereal bowls concepts) setting up a decent flash system for macro photography can be quite expensive. Even if you already own a good flash gun (such as the Canon EX range i.e. 580 EX) you will need a bracket (such as a Kirk, Wimberley etc) which may also require a quick release plate and a diffuser (Stofen Omnibounce) and an off camera hot-shoe cord. In fact by the time you have bought all these items you are looking at similar costs as a twin flash (for example the Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX Flash). Now, there is no denying that this type of set-up is great for wildlife and nature macro photography but as a beginner you may not want to spend this amount of money on a flash system. Perhaps you now understand why I use an adapted ring flash for my wildlife and nature photography. I actually enjoy trying to get the best out of the equipment by making diffusers, reflectors and deflectors. To me this is what photography should be about and not just a case of buying the most expensive equipment. There is no out-of-the-box flash system that will work perfectly for outdoor nature photography. The ability to adapt existing equipment to suit your subject is an important skill that has to be learned to be a successful macro photographer.
Flash Exposure Bracketing (FB)
Do you remember reading my comments about Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) in my post about exposure? I said that this feature can not be used with flash and was therefore as much use for macro photography as a pair of chocolate underpants. When your camera detects that a flash is connected to the hot-shoe on top of the camera Flash Exposure Bracketing (FB) will be enabled. It is controlled through the flash unit and works the same way as the AEB feature. It is easy to set-up on a flash that supports this feature and the shots can be taken one at a time and not in a burst (consecutive). On the few occasions that I have used this function it has worked really well. I find it useful for still life macro photography at very close range and high magnification. If you are taking pictures of stamps or similar flat objects with a ring-flash it works really well. I would imagine that a twin flash would give very similar results.
So there you have it, another intriguing post about using the flash to fill-in. I don’t know why so many macro photographers are using flash as the primary light source in their photography? When light is already available i.e. day time you only need to use a small amount of flash. This should have no or (very little) impact on the overall exposure other than to remove areas of shadow. I hope this has enlightened a few people on how they should be setting up their cameras and compositions. Please remember that achieving natural images using flash photography is a very difficult but worthwhile technique to master.