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Macro Photography Lighting – Tips & Techniques

by Samuel Granger | April 27, 2015

Macro photography lighting tips and techniquesMacro photography is a fascinating way to explore new worlds by seeing things from a different perspective. Objects that would otherwise by undesirable to photograph can suddenly become alluring and inspiring. However, taking good macro photographs is no easy task, and it is one of the most challenging photography areas to learn. In this article, you’ll learn some lighting techniques and tips that will allow you to capture an amazing macro photograph.

A macro photograph’s composition is 80% determined by the lighting, making lighting the single most important aspect to learn and understand. With good lighting, your macro photograph will look sharp, vibrant and aesthetically pleasing. Compare this to bad lighting, which will result in a dull photograph, lacking detail and color.

Well-illuminated macro photograph

A well-illuminated macro photograph. Notice how the subject pops out and shows great detail.

Badly illuminated macro photograph

A badly illuminated macro photograph, notice how the pencil looks dull and lacks details.

The three forms of lighting for macro photography…

Macro photography can be achieved using three forms of light, continuous, flash or natural. All of these have separate advantages and disadvantages. I also recommend shooting in manual mode when learning macro photography to better understand how your lighting setup affects camera settings such as aperture, ISO and shutter speed.

Continuous Lighting

Continuous lighting is a great method for controlling multiple lighting characteristics easily. With continuous lighting, you can see how the lighting is affecting the subject at all times, without even having to take a photo. This allows for quick and seamless lighting changes to be made, without having to take a photo every time you change something. Continuous lighting allows you to understand how lighting affects a subject through visual learning. Continuous lighting products usually offer a much more convenient way to control the light direction onto specific areas of a subject too. Continuous lighting also offers another weapon to a macro photographer with a video capable camera. Macro videography is incredible and with continuous lighting, you don’t even need to change anything to switch between capturing photos and videos.

Side profile of a fly with continuous light sources © Samuel Granger

An image of a fly side profile shot using continuous light sources.

Hoverfly front profile © Samuel Granger

An image of a hoverfly front profile captured using continuous light sources.

Flash (Strobe)

Flash photography is great if properly used. Its main advantage is the ability to freeze subjects due to the short exposure time of the light. This makes it perfect for out in the field and for capturing subjects that are camera shy, such as insects. However, flash is much more difficult to learn to use, with strange settings such as manual mode, TTL and rear curtain sync. Flash also limits the amount of control you get due to the big surface area of the light compared with a macro subject. Using flash is very much a trial and error process, and it takes time to get right. Once you get it right, it allows for stunning images that are unrivaled in their sharpness.

Natural Light

Natural sunlight is a fantastic way to start macro photography. It usually provides more than enough light to begin with, but at the sacrifice of depth of field. You can combine natural light with reflectors and other photography accessories to gain an element of control. It can also be used with flash as a fill light, or continuous light to add more dimensions of control.

Damselfly in direct sunlight © Samuel Granger

An image of a damselfy shot using direct sunlight.

Caterpillar in direct sunlight © Samuel Granger

An image of a caterpillar shot using direct sunlight.

Controlling your lighting environment

Controlling your lighting environment is essential. Here are some techniques you can try.

Diffusion

Lighting that does not look natural is not a great look for a macro photograph, if it is unintended. Flashes and bright LEDs can cause hot spots on a subject, which can ruin the aesthetics of a macro photograph. Diffusion is your friend when it comes to making a bright light look natural. Diffusion works by spreading the light source across a bigger area. Think of diffusion like this: The sun is your light source and the earth is your subject, the atmosphere diffuses the light so it is even and well-distributed across the planet. Diffusers are especially important if you are using flash due to the intense brightness of the light source. Diffusion can easily be achieved with non-expensive materials found in the home. Tissue paper for example is a fantastic way to diffuse light, or even better a polystyrene cup placed over your flash source.

Macro of leaf and water drop with no diffusion © Samuel Granger

A macro shot with no diffusion, notice how the light reflects harshly off the surface of the leaf and the water. This makes it look unnatural and not very appealing.

Macro of leaf and water drop with a diffuser © Samuel Granger

The same shot but with a diffuser. Notice how the light looks much more natural.

Color

Adding colored lighting to a macro photograph can make it unique and stand out. This can be achieved by using colored light sources, or by applying gels or colored filters over your lighting equipment.

Macro shaving foam with color lights © Samuel Granger

An image of some shaving foam using color lights to achieve a unique effect.

Physalis alkekengi shell with blue light source © Samuel Granger

An image of a physalis alkekengi shell, shot using a blue colored lighting source to create an abstract effect.

Lighting Position

Understanding how the direction of light can alter the appearance of a macro photograph is significant. You can give a photo a completely different emotion by simply changing the angle of the light. Controlling lighting direction is much easier to achieve using continuous lighting sources, however it can also be done with a flash.

Leaf with light source from behind © Samuel Granger

An image of a leaf with the lighting source positioned behind to reveal the intricate structure inside the leaf.

Bokeh

This is a more advanced technique for macro photographers. Due to the shallow depth of field in macro photography, it is fairly easy to create interesting out of focus scenery within your photo. Any out-of-focus content in a photo that looks good, is referred to as bokeh and you can use this to your advantage. Bokeh is great for creating interesting backgrounds to an image or for creating abstract photos. The smaller F-number (shallower depth of field) you use for your macro photography, the more bokeh will be present in a photo. Lighting can be positioned to reflect off interesting objects in the background, or simply illuminate background scenery so it looks great when it is out of focus.

Macro coin with red light source and bokeh © Samuel Granger

A red light source has been bounced of this macro shot of a coin to produce bokeh in the background.

I hope this article has given you insight to how lighting affects macro subjects and how you can control it. If you have any questions then leave a comment and I will answer them as soon as I can.

Adaptalux - Illuminate. Adapt. Create. Kickstarter staff pick!

About the Author

Samuel Granger is the creator and product designer for Adaptalux, a new lighting product for macro photography. It can be used by beginners as well as professionals and adapts to every subject and user due to its innovative modular design. For more information and to contribute to a campaign to raise funds for its manufacture, see the Kickstarter page or website.

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