Use Your On-Camera Speedlight for Macro Photography

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There are many articles on the Web about specialized lighting for macro photography. As awesome as some of these ring lights and macro flashes are, they become just one more thing to cram into an already-crowded camera bag for a trip into the field. Luckily, using a regular on-camera speedlight (or even a built-in flash) can help you light and capture your macro subjects.

Advantages of Light

The sun doesn’t shine on every macro subject in the field, and sometimes shadows happen. To level the playing field in macro photography, bringing your own light to the game might mean the difference between capturing a great image and only capturing it in your mind’s eye.

Flowers are rarely completely still.
Flowers are rarely completely still.

Shutter Speed

There are two basic shutter speed challenges for macro photography, especially in the field: camera movement and subject movement.

Any movement of the camera while the shutter is open will translate onto the image and result in blur or a less-than-sharp image. While a tripod or alternative support is the best tool for eliminating camera movement, we don’t always have the luxury of having our tripod in the field with us when we come across an awesome macro photo opportunity. Not only that, but many macro images happen in hard-to-reach places that are unwelcoming to tripods.

Even the tiniest puff of air from a butterfly’s wing can move the petals of a flower (one macro photographic example of the Butterfly Effect). Even with a rock-steady camera, the movement of your macro subject when the shutter is open will cause motion blur or lack of sharpness in your image.

Bringing the power of a flash (speedlight) to the macro image will help you make gains in shutter speed (usually up to the camera’s maximum flash sync speed), and that extra light/shorter shutter speed can be the difference between a blurry and a sharp image.

Super-shallow depth of field is part of the macro experience.
Super-shallow depth of field is part of the macro experience.

Aperture

Related to shutter speed, macro images, through optical physics, are depth of field challenged. Shooting handheld in the field, our options for increasing depth of field are limited. We can attempt do to handheld focus stacking or, more easily, we can stop down the aperture on our macro lens to increase depth of field.

Closing down our aperture reduces the amount of light coming into the sensor or film and, to compensate for that, we have to either leave the shutter open longer or increase our ISO. We just discussed the possible disadvantages of slow shutter speeds with macro photography and here, while discussing aperture, we see another advantage of supplemental artificial light from a flash.

Low ISOs usually result in cleaner images.
Low ISOs usually result in cleaner images.

ISO

As was just alluded to, to shorten your shutter speed or allow shooting with a smaller aperture, increased ISO might be in the future for your camera settings. With today’s amazing high-ISO-performing cameras, photographers can operate and create clean images at ISO numbers that few would have attempted in the past. However, digital noise does happen—even on the best cameras—so it is generally best to keep the ISO as low as possible when shooting.

Due to physics, we are already handicapped by a lack of light when doing macro photography. More light on the scene, courtesy of your speedlight, can help manage your ISO settings, as well.

Not all flowers are sunlit, but this one was.
Not all flowers are sunlit, but this one was.

Employing the Speedlight for Macro Duty

There are scenarios in which you can simply slap your speedlight onto the camera’s hot shoe and fire away at your macro subjects. However, we need to be prepared for the times where that doesn’t give us the results that we want.

The diminutive FUJIFILM EF-X8 speedlight on the FUJIFILM X-T3 gives enough flash to change the look of the macro image.

On-Camera Limitations

Depending on your camera, macro lens focal length and physical size, speedlight design, and subject-to-lens distance, it is entirely possible that the speedlight’s flash, when mounted on the hot shoe, is going to be blocked by your lens, and an unfortunate shadow will be cast into your frame. Also, not every macro subject is going to be happy with harsh front lighting. To eliminate this shadowing or change the flash angle while still getting the benefits of the artificial light, you’ll want to fire the speedlight off-camera (or perhaps bounce the light from a surface.)

More power and higher elevation: The Godox V1 on the FUJIFILM X-T3 flashes for a dramatic effect.

Off-Camera Options

The flash bracket is the best way to keep your speedlight close but avoid the drawbacks of mounting it on the hot shoe. Another option is to handhold the speedlight, but a drawback to that is that, unless your camera is supported, you will lose stability with your one-handed camera grip while you use your other hand to hold the flash.

Also important is that your camera and flash will need to communicate when the speedlight is not on the hot shoe. Some flashes can work remotely without any accessories, but some need dedicated wireless or wired flash triggers.

Moving the speedlight around the subject can make subtle or dramatic differences in shadowing, contrast, texture, and color.

Modifiers

Not only are some macro subjects opposed to harsh front lighting, but they also prefer diffused light. There are hundreds of light modifiers on the market for controlling the output of the speedlights, but, again, carrying some of these into the field can be a burden.

If you didn’t bring your gear-filled fifth wheel trailer to your macro shoot with you, you can diffuse light from a speedlight with a T-shirt (or other fabric) or even use something as simple as a piece of paper. Dedicated collapsible reflectors (they usually do diffusion, too) can help with bouncing light, but that same piece of paper we just mentioned may be used as a bounce, as well.

Fortunately, many of the flash modifiers we just linked to are designed for maximum portability so that they do not take up too much room in your camera bag.

A T-shirt diffuser reduces the harsh shadow of the pistil on the flower and allows the camera to capture a bit more of the background.

Experiment and Have Fun

If you usually have a speedlight in your kit, you should not hesitate to employ it for use with your macro subjects.

If you are thinking about dedicated macro lighting, but want a product with a bit more flexibility, know that the on-camera speedlight is not a one-trick tool—the same light that you might use for awesome people portraits can be used for bug and floral portraits, too.

Adding a speedlight to a macro shot can not only help improve your image quality, but it can make for a unique look to your macro images. When shooting with a speedlight (especially with it off camera), be sure to experiment with angles and elevations while adjusting exposure and flash power.

Macro photography is fun. Adding flash can make it even more fun!

Do you do macro photos with a speedlight and have some tips and tricks to share? Or are you thinking of adding artificial light to your macro subjects? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

4 Comments

A real option for OM-D and PEN users is Olympus's "Macro Arm Light" which locks on the hot shoe, connects through the accessory port and takes up little space and adds just a couple of ounces to the camera bag.  Inexplicably, this remarkable device is no longer available according to:

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/755142-REG/Olympus_260547_Macro_A...

It works well and it doesn't surprise me that used units are in short supply.

Hey John,

Thanks for sharing this tip. Bummer that the item appears to be discontinued! Hopefully it will make a comeback someday.

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

I use a Westcott FJ 200 with a grid and diffuser off camera mounted on a carbon fiber tripod, triggered by a FJ X2m on camera. By using high speed sync I'm able to get a black background, freeze any movement of flower or camera, and have the flexibility to hand hold and move around the subject to frame as needed.

Hey Frank,

Good stuff there! Do you take the FJ 200 into the field with you or is this for work close to home?

Thanks for sharing your experience and tips and thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

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