Macro Flash Photography

Water Lilly

I almost always use some sort of flash or external light source for my macro photography.  Most photographers are uncomfortable using a flash so I want to give you a few tips to help demystify its use. Even a pop up flash can work in a pinch to give your subject a little drama.  A majority of the time, I use the flash powered down, so knowing where to do that on the flash head itself or in your menu controls for your pop up flash will help a great deal. What are some of the pitfalls?

Pop up flash blocked by lens

The image above illustrates what can happen when using the pop up flash on a short (105mm) macro lens.  The lens itself can cause the flash to not reach the intended subject…even with the lens hood removed. If you were using the 150mm or 180mm you would be further back to get the same image and the light from the popup may be able to reach the subject.  OK…so you only have the 105mm lens. What do you do? The simple solution is to bounce that light into your subject.  A reflector, aluminum foil, or even white foam core should do the trick as illustrated in the image below.  While not ideal, it can work very well in a pinch.

Bounced Pop up flash

So let’s look at the larger flash heads out there.  If the flash is mounted on the hotshoe, you will have the same problems when using the shorter focal length macro lenses.  You can use the same solution as you do for the pop up flash but the best thing to do is get it off to the side.  The will minimize the harsh shadows from the direct light and if you combine that with another reflector or flash you will greatly minimize any shadows cast on the background or the subject itself.  The illustration below is a good example of taking the flash off the hotshoe and where you should place the reflector to get it to bounce the light of the flash back onto your subject.

Speelight off hotshoe and reflector

In the image below, we used 2 flash units at a 45 degree angle to fully illuminate the jellyfish.  Below that is an illustration to show you approximately where the units were held and where the shadows fell.


Two speedlights

In the image above, I had someone helping hold the 2 flash units while I pressed the lens up against the glass.  The units are slave capable, so the one on the left fired in sequence with the one off the hotshoe but attached with a cord.  This would be nearly impossible by yourself unless you build some sort of holding unit but it would be bulky and cumbersome.  Fortunately, the manufacturers have realized this and built a convenient package in the form of the Twin lights or the ring lights.  When I bought my Canon MT 24 EX twin lights (Nikon shooters you have your own version) it brought immediate changes to my macro work.  At the time, ring lights gave out a very flat light, so that is why I splurged on the twin light. Now, ring lights such as the Sigma EM-140 have changed the game.  They are easy to control just like a normal Speedlight and now you can independently control the output on either the left or right side giving excellent results in a unit that is less than ½ the cost of the twin light units.  I still believe the twin lights provide the best versatility as illustrated in the image below, but ring lights have become a viable option especially when combined with other external light sources such as the Gistec LED video light.

Twin lights or ringlight

The image below shows the versatility of the twin lights.  I can position each light individually and change their direction to focus in close or shoot out into the distance…as I did in the image at the very top.  This setup allows me to go into places hand holding everything with easy and maximum flexibility…especially in places where tripods aren’t allowed!  The ring light isn’t quite as effective but it comes pretty close and if cost is an issue, then these are a great choice to get you started out in the world of macro photography.


You can find more in depth information in my Macro e-book, which will show you how to effectively combine natural light and effectively use other light sources.





Susan Candelario - Hey Roman,

Love the sharpness, details, colors and lighting of all the images, along with the informative blog post.


Theodore S. Lesinski - Hi Roman
I attended your presentation in Buffalo several months ago and enjoyed your info on Macro Photography and your CD’s. I am now planning to get into the subject and want your advice on which Macro lens to buy. I remember that you recommended at longer focal length with vibration reduction, but I am not sure. I have a full frame Nikon D700. Which Macro lens would you recommend? I have read that different models have plusses and minuses, but I don’t know which would be best for me. I will be new to this area of photography and don’t know which lens would be best. I know that I should use a tripod, but am too lazy to carry one with me
Theo Lesinski

admin - Hi Theo, my first question to you would be: do you intend to photograph insects? If yes…..then the Sigma 150mm is the answer….of no…..then the 105 is the choice. Both have stabilization. I prefer the added reach of the 150mm and it firs both the ring light from them and my Canon twin flashes (Nikon has an excellent version as well}. The 150 is the lens I use as I can hand hold it comfortable and with my flash….makes a lethal hand held combo. Hope this helps,

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