A ringflash is an invaluable accessory for the macro photographer – even a sunny day. As you carefully frame flowers and butterflies with your macro lens, it’s all too easy for you and your camera to cast a shadow across the very thing you want to shoot. What’s more, the flash gives you more scope to use the narrow apertures that will ensure you can get enough depth of field to keep the whole subject sharp.
Unfortunately, the pop-up flash on your camera or a hotshoe flashgun is often little help. When you’re up this close with ordinary flash, the macro lens casts a shadow across the picture.
The solution is to use a specialist macro flashgun known as a ringflash, where the flash tubes are attached to the front of the lens. Not only does this mean there are no problems with shadows created by the camera, the unit also creates even lighting to maximize detail and color in the subject.
The ringflash isn’t just for keen nature watchers – it’s a must-have for many medical and scientific photographers. You’ll see them in the hands of the forensic stars of TV’s CSI, or in the orthodontist surgery.
There are two types available. The genuine ringflash uses a circular flash tube to provide even lighting around the subject. Its advantage is that it creates donut-shaped catchlights in your subjects’ eyes if you use it for portraits.
The alternative is a twin-flash design, which uses two small flash tubes on opposite sides of the lens. These usually have large, semi-circular diffusers to mimic the all-round lighting of a genuine ringflash. The advantage is that you can vary each tube’s output independently. This enables you to create a side-lit effect, which can look better than the flat lighting of a genuine ringflash.
Guide number The guide number (GN) measures the maximum output of the flash. It gives the range in metres if using an aperture of f/1 at ISO100. Divide it by your actual aperture to give the real range. Ringflashes are used at close distance, so the GN will be small – around 15.
TTL metering This is the automatic flash metering system used by some DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, which uses a preflash system to ensure the subject gets the right amount of light.
Manual flash This enables you to fix the output of the flash. Settings are expressed as a fraction of the full power – 1/2, 1/8, 1/64 etc. The more options the better.
Connection rings Most ringflashes include attachment rings to connect to the front of different-sized lenses, but ensure the model you choose is large enough for your lens (and be warned some adaptor rings cost extra).
Choosing the best ringflash for macro
The guide number (GN) measures the maximum output of the flash. It gives the range in metres if using an aperture of f/1 at ISO100. Divide it by your actual aperture to give the real range. Ringflashes are used at close distance, so the GN will be small – around 15.
This is the automatic flash metering system used by some DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, which uses a preflash system to ensure the subject gets the right amount of light.
This enables you to fix the output of the flash. Settings are expressed as a fraction of the full power – 1/2, 1/8, 1/64 etc. The more options the better.
Most ringflashes include attachment rings to connect to the front of different-sized lenses, but ensure the model you choose is large enough for your lens (and be warned some adaptor rings cost extra).
High-speed sync (HSS)
High-speed synch enables you to use shutter speeds faster than the usual 1/200 or 1/250 sec maximum possible with flash. Useful for fast-moving insects, or when using the widest apertures to blur backgrounds.
Nissin’s contender stands out with its clever head design that can expand by 14mm to accommodate lens diameters up to 82mm without vignetting – though the six mounting plates included top out at 77mm.
Other features include a Fine Macro mode, in which the left and right flash tubes can be individually adjusted from 1/128 to 1/1024 power in super-precise 1/6 EV steps (compared to 1/3 EV from full power to 1/64 power). A guide number of 16 provides plenty of poke for portraits or macro photography.
Changing modes is easy with the color LCD on the control unit, and the simple interface also makes light work of configuring the wireless TTL master and slave options. Advance features also include high speed sync and rear curtain sync.
Performance doesn’t disappoint, with the MF18 offering lovely soft light and fast recycle times. Color temperature is a whisker warmer than with the other flashes on test, and the control unit is quite bulky, but if you can live with these minor drawbacks, it’s excellent value for money.
Rather than using two semicircular flash tubes that encircle a lens, Sigma’s offering contains two fairly small straight tubes on opposite sides of the circular flash head. In theory this doesn’t make for the softest results, but in practice its light is only marginally harsher than the Nissin’s, while TTL exposure metering and color rendering are pretty accurate.
The flash is controlled by a bulky commander unit that resembles a flashgun. Build quality is good, but the plastic hotshoe mount is disappointing. The fiddly, dated controls and unintuitive display also take some getting used to.
There’s no shortage of features, though. You get a modeling/AF-assist lamp, wireless TTL flash control and high-speed-sync capability, plus independent output adjustment for each flash tube from the max guide number of 14 down to 1/64 power.
The flash comes bundled with 55mm and 62mm lens adaptors, with additional sizes up to 77mm available separately.
The intuitive controls on the Sunpak Auto 16R makes shooting close-ups super-simple. The single circular flash tube gives that distinctive ring-light look, unlike other flashes that use two or more separate tubes – meaning this can be use for head-and-shoulder portraits with distinctive donut-shaped catchlights..
The high 16m/ISO100 guide number makes this flash good for macro and portraits, but this also means slow recycling times, which makes shooting wildlife close-ups difficult.
It comes with three adapters – for 58mm, 62mm and 72mm lens filter rings – however other sizes are available.
Where Nikon’s close-up macro light is rather unwieldy, Canon users get this compact ring flash. Despite its size, the unit packs E-TTL II metering, LED focussing lamps, and twin flash tubes with independent power adjustment that can offset their output by up to six stops. A guide number of 14 and a 5.5-second full-power recycle time are acceptable for close-range work.
Build quality is second to none, while a large, clear display makes for effortless usability. We can’t fault the MR-14EX II’s performance, either: its light softness is superb, backed up by flawless color rendition and accurate TTL metering.
The only fly in the ointment is lens compatibility: it’s made for Canon macro lenses with 58mm threads, or larger L editions with optional adaptors.
By ditching a commander unit, the one-piece Mecablitz MS-1 is much smaller and easier to carry in your bag than its rivals. It is just 35mm thick and 213g when loaded with a pair of AAA batteries. There’s enough juice to fuel a max power of GN15, though, and the diminutive design manages to incorporate adjustable light reflectors, a simple but effective LCD control panel, and variable power distribution between each bulb.
However, without a hotshoe-mounted commander, the MS-1 relies on your camera’s pop-up flash to transmit TTL metering signals, which some cameras aren’t capable of.
Fortunately the flash can also be triggered by a sync cable or a basic pop-up flash, but only with manual power adjustment. And if triggering with your pop-up flash, you’ll need to cover it with the included IR filter to keep its light off your subject.
Metz bundles the MS-1 with a sync cable, diffuser panel, and lens adaptors in 52mm, 55mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm and 72mm sizes.
Rather than using a one-piece ring flash, this kit comes with a pair of SB-R200 flashguns that clip onto a mount, which in turn attaches to your lens via included adaptors in sizes from 52mm to 77mm.
The modular design lets you precisely position each flash to fire at the perfect angle, and there’s the option to add extra flash units. The creative customization continues with some included colored gels, and clip-on diffusers, which improve light softness when shooting extreme close-ups.
But with so many separate elements, set-up can be slow. Other annoyances include the relatively pricey and uncommon CR123 batteries that power each flash, and we found the light quality to be a tad harsh without the diffusers fitted, though color rendering is excellent.
You’ll also need to be sure your Nikon’s pop-up flash has a commander mode to trigger the SB-R200s. If not, there’s always Nikon’s expensive R1C1 version of the kit, with adds in Nikon's SU-800 commander unit.
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