The best ringflash is a strongly recommended purchase for any macro photographer. Indeed, we'd go so far as to say that it's essential. If you're on the lookout for interesting plants and insects to capture with your macro lens, you need a way to provide a quick bit of fill light, especially if you keep finding yourself inadvertently casting great big shadows over the things you're trying to photograph!
A ring flash has another function in macro photography, and that is providing enough light to allow you to stop down the aperture enough to get your whole subject in focus. The built-in flash on your camera won't cut it, and hotshoe flashguns often won't work too well with macro lenses, with the two getting in the way of each other.
The best macro flashguns, also known as a ringflash, attach around the front of a lens to provide illumination without getting in the way or casting shadows. This also has its applications in professional sciences and forensics; you may have seen a ringflash being used by crime-scene photographers on a show like CSI!
One thing to note that that here we've compiled ringflash units, for photography. If you're looking for a ringlight for video, then head to our guide to the best ringlights for vloggers.
There are two types of ringflash 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.
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 sync 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.
Best ringflash for macro photography
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.
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.
The compactness and light weight of the Olympus STF-8 Macro Flash makes a lot of sense when you consider the fact that it's designed to work with Micro Four Thirds systems. In a nice extra, however, it is also fully splashproof and weatherproof, making it a great choice for outdoor macro sessions roaming for insects and flowers to photograph in fresh rainfall. The relatively low guide number means you might struggle a little with larger subjects, but this twin-flash kit is still an excellent choice for macro shooting with an Olympus system.
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.
If you're working to a very limited budget and simply need a ring flash that works, we'd recommend looking at the Neewer RF550D Ring Flash. While it doesn't have anywhere near the level of functionality of other ringflashes on this list, it is incredibly cheap and gives you the basics of what you need to start shooting macro. Compatible with Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras with macro lenses attached, it can be used as a flash or continuous light, with manual and auto modes available (no, you don't get TTL for £30). The build feels plasticky and cheap, though that's mostly because it is, but the flash itself works pretty well, and provides a tidy amount of illumination where you need it.
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