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Hand-Held Flash Macro Photography
by Rob Servranckx | January 1, 2010

Since starting photography in fall 2004, the months of May through to August have always been my most productive. There are plenty of nature subjects to choose from: birds, amphibians, flowers, insects, landscapes, and more. On weekends, I’d often head out before dawn to a marsh near my house in Ile Bizard, a suburb of Montreal, to photograph birds, frogs, turtles, otters or other marsh residents. When I didn’t feel like getting up before dawn, I’d set up for macro photography a little later in the morning, going to any meadow, field or ditch.

This year May, June and July were cool, very wet and windy. Montreal had record amounts of rain in July (4.6 inches), with rainfall recorded on 26 days out of the 31 days.

I could forget about going to the Ile Bizard marsh for bird photography in these conditions, as the marsh would be very quiet. With changing weather patterns, bird photography has been getting more inconsistent at the marsh. But there are always insects around to photograph, and these critters are what I turn to in order satisfy my need for nature photography. This summer, with either too much wind, rain, too much cloud, or too much sun, even insects were hard subjects to photograph. And windy or very sunny conditions make traditional macro photography extremely difficult.

Mating Japanese Beetles / Canon EOS 5D Mark II Sigma / 150mm f/2.8 macro lens with Canon 500D dioptre / Canon 550EX flash with Micro-Apollo diffuser f/16, 1/100s, ISO 400 / Hand-held

Photography is my hobby, my passion, my stress release. Not being able to do photography during my free time is extremely disappointing and frustrating, particularly since my day job keeps me very busy. I need photography to soothe my soul. So I needed to find a solution to my problem, and needed to find a way to do photography, specifically macro photography, in windy or extremely sunny conditions.

I’ve always had a “purist” approach to macro photography: tripod-mounted camera, focus by hand, small aperture, cable release, hand-held diffuser to soften the harsh light, etc. I’ve had very good results with these techniques. But this year’s generally windy summer has made the traditional process very difficult and frustrating. Trying to position a tripod without scaring off an insect quickly became an exercise in futility.

I had been seeing some rather spectacular hand-held macro images on internet forums and wondered—How do these people achieve this? I mean, precise focus and a lot of depth of field are so critical for macro photography, and you need to use a tripod. Hand-held macro photography? No way! Impossible! Can’t be done! Or so I thought.

Ruby Meadowhawk Dragonfly / Canon EOS 5D Mark II / Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens with Canon 500D dioptre / Canon 550EX flash with Micro-Apollo diffuser / f/16, 1/100s, ISO 400 / Hand-held

It turns out that it is quite possible and relatively easy to do hand-held macro photography, and with the right equipment and proper technique, the results can be outstanding. The idea is to let flash provide the main exposure of your subject, while avoiding the strong “spotlight” look that creates harsh shadows. In fact, you don’t want the flash to be noticeable at all. It is also key that the flash duration is very short, necessary in order to be able to get pin-sharp shots while hand-holding your macro gear.

Here are the basic concepts to follow:

  • Place the flash as close as possible to the subject. This keeps the duration of the flash very short.
  • Angle the flash appropriately such that your subject is properly lit.
  • Diffuse the light from the flash as much as possible.
  • Set your camera in manual exposure mode, and let the camera expose the subject via the flash.
  • Set the shutter speed at flash synch speed (read your camera manual) or a bit slower. This lets the flash properly expose the subject.
  • Set your aperture at f/16 (or so) for sufficient depth of field.
  • Set your ISO in combination with the shutter speed such that your background does not “turn to black.”
  • Preset the focus distance on the lens so that you get the desired subject magnification, and physically move the lens back and forth until you achieve perfect focus on your subject.

With the above, since the flash is placed very close to the subject and the flash duration is extremely short, it is possible to hand-hold the camera for macro shots.

Let’s take look at the equipment and technique involved. Here’s my setup:

  • A large 5″ x 8″ diffuser is attached to the flash, which increases the surface area of the light emitted from the flash. As my macro subjects are small, the diffuser ends up acting like a huge softbox, completely eliminating harsh shadows. I am using the Westcott Micro-Apollo diffuser, but other brands and models are available.
  • A Wimberley macro flash bracket, which allows placement of the flash at the very front of my lens, and in any angle I want. The flash bracket is attached to a quick release plate that is either on the lens’ tripod collar, or on the camera’s tripod plate. I have an “L-plate” on my camera, and I prefer attaching the macro bracket on the side of the camera.
  • An off-camera flash cord to connect the flash to the camera’s hot shoe.
  • A macro lens or any other setup that lets you achieve the appropriate magnification your subject.

I’ve been having most success when I use the Canon 500D diopter with my Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens. The 500D is a high quality dual-element diopter, and it allows closer focusing to the subject. With the diopter on my macro lens, my focusing range is between about 4 inches and 22 inches from the front of the lens. Since the 500D does not absorb any light, my viewfinder is bright, making focusing much easier than if I used extension tubes or a 1.4x extender, both of which darken the viewfinder. With this setup, I have a very bright viewfinder, and I yet I can still get a magnification as large as 2x life size, meaning that a subject as small as about 3/4″ inch would completely fill the frame.

Now, I don’t want to go into the intricate details of flash and ambient exposure theory, and other nitty-gritty details. But I do want to give you a general idea how to get good macro shots using a flash. Let’s take a quick look at:

  • Camera settings
  • Setting up the composition
  • Flash & camera exposure
  • Flash positioning
  • Focusing

Ruby Meadowhawk Dragonfly / Canon EOS 5D Mark II Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens with Canon 500D dioptre / Canon 550EX flash with Micro-Apollo diffuser / f/16, 1/200s ISO 200 / Hand-held

Camera Settings

I almost always shoot macro images at f/16 – this is a good compromise between sufficient depth of field and avoiding lens diffraction. I’ll sometimes use f/11 or f/22, but 90% of my macro images are shot at f/16.

My shutter speed is kept between 1/200s (my camera’s flash synch speed) and 1/100s. I determine the shutter speed, along with the ISO setting (between 100 and 400) depending on whether there is a background that will be lit by the flash or not. I’ll cover this in more detail later.

Setting up the composition

Since I’m exposing my subject using the flash, I either need to have a background very close to my subject (i.e. have my subject on a leaf, or plants in the near background), or I want to set up my ISO/shutter/aperture exposure such that my camera will record enough light from my non-flashed background. If I am not careful about this, the background can turn pitch black, and this is not pleasing to my eyes.

Flash and Camera Exposure

When set in Manual exposure mode, if the Flash Exposure Compensation is set at 0 and the shutter speed is at or slower than the flash synch speed, the camera will trigger the flash such that the main subject exposure is achieved entirely by the light coming from the flash. This works regardless of the selected aperture and ISO, assuming that my main subject is within range of the flash. There is still “ambient” exposure happening (determined by the shutter/aperture/ISO combination) for areas of the scene that are not lit by the flash. So you need to make sure that you’re not overexposing the background or subject (i.e. don’t go to ISO 6400, f/2.8 at 1 second in full sunlight). Similarly, it’s better for the ambient exposure to be sufficient such that your background is not too underexposed, assuming that the background is not lit by the flash.

The closer the ambient exposure is to correct exposure, the less obvious and more pleasing the flash exposure will look.

The above is true for all flash photography – try it on indoor portraits! If you can get your ambient exposure close to a reading of -1 on your camera meter, you’ll likely be pleased with the results of your flash-as-main-light exposure. Oh, and yes, using a diffuser for portrait flash photography will produce better results than using a “naked” flash.

In the above picture, I set my camera exposure to properly expose the sky as a mid-tone (think “sunny f/16″ exposure). The spider was completely in the shadows and also backlit, but the flash perfectly exposed it. Neat, huh?

Flash Positioning

Depending how close my subject is to my lens, my flash may either be pointed downwards (at a 45 degree angle) or pointed straight ahead. I may place the flash very close to the lens, or raise it a few inches above it. It may be on the side of the lens or directly over it. There is no magic position here – it entirely depends on the shape, size and distance of my subject. By playing around with the positioning of the flash, I can get flatter or more textured details. This is where trial-and-error is important.

Focusing

Because I am hand-holding a relatively heavy and bulky setup, it is not possible to focus using the lens focusing ring. Rather, I pre-set the focusing ring based on how much magnification I want. For a small subject such as a spider, I’d set it to the closest focusing distance. For a large butterfly, I’ll setup the focus ring such that I’m about 2 feet away.

Once the focus is set, I will physically move the lens back and forth until my subject is in perfect focus in the viewfinder. This is the tricky part, obviously, as a few millimeters can significantly affect the focus. If possible, I’ll rest my elbow on my thigh or tightly set it into my mid-section, in order to stabilize the whole setup.

It is also important to align the plane of your camera’s sensor with your subject, such that your subject is evenly in focus. If you’re off by a few degrees, parts of your subject may be slightly (or very) out of focus.

As soon as I see perfect focus being achieved, I’ll press the shutter button.

Cabbage White Butterfly / Canon EOS 5D Mark II / Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens with Canon 500D dioptre / Canon 550EX flash with Micro-Apollo diffuser / f/16, 1/200s, ISO 400 / Hand-held

I’m absolutely thrilled with my macro setup. I’m able to get images I would never be able to get with a tripod. I can go hunting for insects in full sunlight (when they’re more active) as my exposure is mostly set by the beautifully diffused light from my flash, rather than by the harsh sunlight. I can set up and get a shot within 5-10 seconds, as opposed to 1-2 minutes if I had to set up my tripod. It’s made all the difference this past summer – rather than an abysmal crop of images, I’ve gotten dozens of publishable images in August alone. I’ve managed images of subjects as flighty as the cabbage white butterfly, and gotten close enough to tiny Meadowhawk dragonflies to see the minute details in their eyes.

The above image is a 100% crop showing off the scales on the wings of a cabbage white butterfly. And remember, this is hand-held! The amount of detail I get from my 21 megapixel 5D Mark II with this macro setup is frightening!

Side note:

Although I hand hold my macro flash setup, I always bring my tripod along. It’s much easier to carry my camera on my tripod over my shoulder than hand-carrying a 6+ lbs camera and lens!

Other Options

If you’re really into macro (macro photography in the 1x to 5x range), there are two other pieces of Canon macro equipment worth considering – the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 lens, and the MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Ringlite Flash. This setup, with proper flash diffusers, will create incredible images at high magnification (see the “No Cropping Zone” link below). But for me right now, this gear is too highly specialized and too expensive. What I really like about my current equipment is that I can use it for many different applications, and that it does not require a large investment in new equipment.

Additional Information

For interesting information on flash and macro photography, please see:

About the Author

Rob Servranckx lives in Ile Bizard, a quiet suburb of Montreal, with his wife Johanne and their aging Labrador Retriever Gryphon. Rob works as a Manager for Cactus Commerce, an Ottawa-area IT company specializing in providing e-commerce solutions.

Along with his good friend and business partner Gustav W. Verderber, Rob is the “other half” of the Sojourns In Nature photo team. Despite being a very late bloomer, picking up his first camera in fall 2004, Rob has thrown himself completely into his passion of nature photography, and has had images published in a number of magazines, including National Wildlife, Nature’s Best, Photo Life and others.

In his “spare” time, Rob co-instructs a few nature photography workshops, including the Green Mountain Nature Photography Workshop in northern Vermont every June.

For more information, please visit the Sojourns In Nature website and their blog.

2 thoughts on “Hand-Held Flash Macro Photography

    • Of course! :) When the flash is in ETTL mode and the camera is in manual mode, you’re essentially telling the flash to “properly expose” the scene.

      The easiest is to try it and experiment. Try it on static subjects outdoors – it’s surprisingly easy to master!

      Good luck,

      Rob

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