Lighting has to be one of the trickiest aspects of macro photography to master. Mixing flash and natural light is a challenge in any genre, but when working on images of very small subject matter it can seem impossible to capture a balance of softness and shape.
This is because the light source (even small flash, such as a speedlight) is large, relative to the subject, meaning the light spreads across the frame. If you try to limit the spread, by removing a diffuser, you create hotspots. Meanwhile if you add a diffuser the light seems to lose all sense of direction and structure. It’s the equivalent to lighting a person with a 3x3m scrim and attempting to introduce a spotlight effect – not an easy feat!
The aim with macro lighting is to prevent unwanted light spillage onto surrounding areas and background details, while maintaining micro contrast on the subject itself by reducing diffusion. Here we look at several quick and easy steps to creating a balanced lighting setup when shooting a small flower outside – a common situation. We will use a blend of natural and artificial light to produce a tight beam of light, with a good balance of environmental details and local exposure.
1. Find a subject with space
Find a specimen which has a good amount of clearance around it. Where there are lots of densely packed flowers or a nearby wall, for example, it can be difficult to control the spillage of light.
2. Lower the camera height
For these low-level flowers I got the camera as close to parallel with them as possible. This was done minimize how much ground was visible in the frame, because it would be almost impossible not to light the ground with flash.
3. Attach a lens hood
Since we will be using flash at a low angle to the lens a hood will help reduce the chances of lens flare. If the flash is just out of frame this should be enough to prevent ghosting and other reflective effects.
4. Create a tight beam by using the flash zoom head
Set your wireless speedlight to its maximum zoom – not all flashguns have a zoom feature, but many mid-range and high end flashguns will offer this. This will produce a tighter light beam and help further reduce unwanted spreading of the light. If you have a flashgun snoot this will also come in handy.
5. Diffuse the light if needed
Diffusion may still be necessary to reduce blown highlights (hotspots) on the subject. Move the diffuser as close to the subject as possible to minimize light spread onto the background, bending it to shape the light.
6. Control the ambient light
Use aperture or shutter speed to control the background brightness. Here an f/stop of f/14 reduced the presence of the ambient light, making the flash beam more dominant.