Lighting for Macro Photography

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Macro photography is great for exploring new worlds that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. You can turn ordinary, boring subjects into fascinating ones. A closeup photograph’s composition is 80% determined by the lighting, therefore it is the single most important element a macro photographer should have complete control over. With good lighting your macro photographs will pop out of the frame and will be sharp, vibrant, and visually stunning. If you get the lighting wrong however, your macro photograph will just look dull and boring.

Image 1

In this article I hope to show you some of the ways you can illuminate your macro subjects in order to capture fantastic photographs. Macro photography can be achieved using three forms of light; continuous, flash, and natural. All of these have separate advantages over one another, but it is completely down to personal preference as to which one you should use.

Continuous Lighting

Continuous macro lighting is great for controlling a number of lighting characteristics. Furthermore, with continuous light you can see how the light is affecting the subject at all times. I believe continuous light is the best option for beginning macro photography. It allows you to build your understanding of how lighting effects macro photography considerably, which will result in you becoming a better macro photographer. Continuous lighting also offers a much more convenient way to direct light on to specific areas of a subject. This gives you full control of the lighting environment, which can result in some stunning photographs.

Continuous lighting also adds another weapon to a macro photographer with a video capable camera. Macro videography is incredible and with continuous lighting, you don’t even need to change anything to switch between capturing photos and videos.

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The images above were both captured using continuous lighting techniques. The first image subject is a wasp and the second is moss.

Flash (strobe)

Flash photography is great if used properly. Its main advantage is the ability to freeze subjects due to the short duration of the light. This makes it excellent for out in the field as a fill light and for capturing moving insects.

Flash is more complex to learn to use properly, with strange flash settings such as manual mode, TTL and rear curtain sync. However, once learned well the results are amazing. Using flash is very much a trial and error process and it takes a lot of time to get right.

Natural Light

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Natural sunlight usually provides more than enough light for macro photography. You can combine it with reflectors and other photography accessories to gain an element of control. Natural light can also be used alongside either continuous or flash light accessories.

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The two images above were captured using natural light.

Adding additional elements of lighting control:

Controlling your lighting environment is essential to producing that perfect macro photograph. Here are a couple of methods that you can use to help achieve complete control.

Diffusion

Lighting that doesn’t look natural is not a good look for a macro photograph, if it is unintended. The way to avoid this is to use diffusers, which spread out the light across a bigger surface area. This results in a softer light that looks natural and makes your macro photographs aesthetically more pleasing. Diffusers can be made out of materials found in the home; tissue paper is great for example.

Image 5

This image was taken with no diffuser, notice how the light is quite harsh and reflects off the subject.

Image 6

This is the same subject, but captured using a diffuser. Notice how the light looks much more natural and makes the image look more appealing.

Colour

Adding coloured lighting to macro photos can make them unique, and stand out in the crowd. You can do this by applying gels or colour filters to your lighting equipment.

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This image of shaving foam has been captured using coloured continuous lighting.

Image 8

This image of a flower has been captured using coloured continuous lighting.

Lighting Position

Understanding how the direction of light alters the appearance of your subject is significant. This is much easier to do with continuous light, although it can be done with flash as well. A macro subject will look completely different with a light behind it for example.

Image 9

This image of liquid soap has been captured using a light positioned from behind the subject.

I hope this article has given you a great insight to how lighting affects macro subjects and how you can control it. If you have any questions or additional tips, please leave a comment below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Samuel Granger is the Creator and Product Designer for Adaptalux. He is a passionate photographer, constantly exploring new methods to improve his photography work. Through Adaptalux he is hoping to inspire photographers to engage and get creative with macro photography and videography. You can support Adaptalux by visiting the Kickstarter campaign (ending May 2, 2015 7pm BST) or his website.

  • When shooting with a macro lens at very short focal distances, and stopping down the aperture to get a decent depth-of-field, ambient light is often insufficient. I use a flash and a home-made flash reflector for macro photography, and am pretty happy with the results. See http://martybugs.net/blog/blog.cgi/gear/lights/Cheap-Flash-Reflector-For-Macro-Photography.html for details on making your own flash reflector.

  • pjc

    I was about to tell off the author of this article for using the Adaptalux photos without credit – then I saw the author was the Adaptalux guy himself! Good job and good luck with the Kickstarter campaign!

  • Sam Edwin Granger

    Thanks pjc, I am glad you like the article and thanks for your wishes regarding the Kickstarter campaign :).

    Martin, great shots with your flash and home made reflector!

  • At dPS we are very serious about copyright and image usage. We would not allow usage of images that were either not the author’s or Creative Commons licensed.

  • Joel Martiniano

    thanks for article like this…. very helpful !!!

  • somebody remind me to dig that ring-flash out .. this is the perfect time of year for playing with the 105mm!!!

  • Sam Edwin Granger

    No problem Joel, I am glad it can be of help! 🙂

  • Sam Edwin Granger

    “dig your ring flash out!” 🙂 Would love to see what macro images you can get with a ring flash Lois 🙂

  • Sam … will do!!

  • Trevor Barre

    Great post and photos, thanks for the heads-up.

    Trevor Barre

    http://www.liveeachadventure.com/

  • Sam Edwin Granger

    Thanks Trevor! Glad you found the article helpful.

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