When you start getting extremely close to your subject, you may run into some difficulty with lighting. This could be because your large lights can't get into position easily, you can't get the type of lighting you want, or you are so close that you are casting a shadow. There are solutions to these problems, and each has its own unique capabilities and look that will help you bring your macro photography up a notch.
Let's start things off with something you probably already have in your bag, an on-camera flash. Speedlights can do amazing things when used properly, but they require modifiers and other accessories to get the most out of them, something that is especially true in macro photography. As you will learn quickly, the best way to use any light is off-camera, so pick up some radio triggers, a TTL cord, or a simple PC sync cord, and you should be on your way to casting some good light on your subject. The trick now is positioning it.
If you are lucky enough to be able to set it on a stand or table and get the light you need, that is great. But for the other situations, you may want to pick up a macro-specific flash bracket. This will let you position the flash in a way that will illuminate your subject without needing to set up a light completely off-camera.
In addition, you will likely want to use some type of diffusion like a compact softbox to create a quality of light that works when the light source is so close to the subject. Other modifiers, like reflectors, can be handheld to control harsh light. You might consider a small collapsible reflector that can be folded down easily, like this Reflector Disc from Impact.
If you are looking to step up your macro game with some dedicated tools, there is a great deal to get excited about. The most common macro-specific accessory is the ring light, loved for its ability to illuminate subjects evenly and for its soft output. Ring lights also attach directly to the front of the lens, so they can get close to their subject to maximize power. Many ring lights can turn each side on or off, independently of the other, for more control over your lighting.
Alternatively, you might consider grabbing a ring flash diffuser. This kind of modifier will take the light from a standard flash and spread it out in a ring around the lens, mimicking the look of the popular ring light. The diffused and circular source helps illuminate close-up subjects due to its ability to throw light evenly onto a subject. This is a much more affordable option if you're looking for something close to a ring light that will work with your existing equipment.
There are other kinds of macro-specific lights besides ring lights. A twin flash system, for example, is able to get close to the subject like a ring light, but with more precise positioning. Some macro photographers believe twin flashes create more natural-looking reflections and catchlights. Some setups even allow you to add flash heads to further augment your lighting, making these great for users who have very specific requirements. Others feature wacky designs that provide enormous flexibility while shooting, like this Venus Optics KX-800 Flexible Macro Twin Flash.
While we have covered most of the actual lighting equipment, there are other kinds of tools designed to make macro photography a little easier. Shooting tents and tables can help control the environment to get the perfect macro shot. Tents create a soft, all-around light with a pure white background and help to eliminate reflections. Tables can be used to get a clean background and provide a good surface for placing delicate objects.
If you are looking for more control in the field, an accessory like a Ground Plamp can be used to adjust elements within your scene delicately. This ground spike and articulating arm combination can be used for anything from steadying wind-blown plants to holding small lighting units like reflectors and diffusers.
There is truly something out there for every kind of macro photographer. While there are many snazzy ring lights and twin flashes to choose from, you can just as easily adopt lighting tools in your current kit for macro shooting. Hopefully, this guide has given you some inspiration for lighting options you would like to incorporate into your workflow.
If you shoot macro, what are your favorite lighting products? Do you have any lighting tips for new macro photographers? Let us know in the Comments section, below.