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Why Lighting Is the Key to Better Macro Photos

Aug 11, 2023

Published August 3, 2023

Phil Ryan

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In macro photography, everything is magnified—literally but also figuratively. Your subject’s smallest details are on display, and that means even the smallest imperfections in your image’s makeup, staging, and lighting become that much more obvious.

Precise lighting can change the look of an object entirely. You can make something deep appear shallower, for example, or accentuate a subtle texture so that it dominates the view.

When I talked to photographers Joey Terrill and Karen Campbell to learn about the basics of macro photography, the conversation inevitably veered into lighting and how to use it to your advantage as you approach challenging subjects.

With their advice, you can go from making casual, close-up snapshots to capturing perfectly composed, gorgeously staged, very small-scale worlds.

You may associate macro photography with magnified images of insects, plants, and other elements of the natural world, but Terrill is quick to point out that nearly any object can make a great macro photo.

That means macro photography is a hobby that you can pursue right in your home. A small surface such as a desktop or kitchen table, a tripod, and perhaps a focusing rail or geared tripod head can form a basic home macro studio. Simple things, such as the texture or shape of an object, can become points of interest all on their own.

“Nothing is off-limits,” Terrill says. “You order a new blow dryer, for example, and you get it out of the box. Before you start using it, look at it and say, ‘Can I photograph the coils?’ [That object] becomes interesting. It becomes a different way of seeing. And honestly, it makes life more fulfilling because you’re seeing more of it.”

Once you choose a subject, you have to stage it and light it. “The challenges of lighting something 3 millimeters wide is quite a bit different than lighting something 3 feet wide,” says Terrill.

Because every object poses a different challenge, it’s important to remember to take your time and experiment with the lights you have. Try placing them in various positions and then zeroing in on what looks best to you.

Depending on your subject and the photo you’re trying to compose, you might get by with sunlight. But some sort of additional light is often necessary to get a great image, especially if you’re working in a dimmer environment, simply because you need to use a higher f-stop when shooting at close distances to ensure that all of your subject is in focus.

“Part of the satisfaction of macro comes from the process,” notes Terrill. “It’s in the iterations of the image where you see it developing and it gets more and more refined until you’re finally there.”

Lighting can get expensive. As a professional, Terrill uses reflectors from a company called Light Bridge that can cost hundreds of dollars at larger sizes.

For fun, if you’re thrifty like me, you can try making reflectors from blank white note cards and raise or lower their reflectivity by covering them in aluminum foil or sheer fabric. As for the lights themselves, you can experiment with nearly anything you have on hand. But if you try a random flashlight, you may find that it has an uneven beam and that its light doesn’t reflect equally well off of objects of different colors.

A light that has a high color rendering index (a CRI over 90 or 95) provides better results across a variety of subjects, especially if you mix flashlights with other lights, such as LED panels or small Lume Cube units. Just as you can experiment with making your own reflectors, you can also use something as simple as gaffer tape to create a cone on the front of a flashlight to shape the beam.

“I’ve illuminated entire shots using nothing but flashlights,” says Terrill. “I can rake light across a butterfly wing or just light the center of a flower and not the entire flower. If I’m using different flashlights, I can use one to light the center of the flower and then use another one to light the entire flower and use another one to light the background.”

The same considerations apply when you’re taking photos of nature, but once you go outside you also have to contend with sunlight, wind, and the elements, all of which make capturing images more challenging.

A flash can be a big help here, too, since it allows you to shoot at much faster shutter speeds than even bright sunlight permits.

Skillful flash use can create natural-looking images that couldn’t be captured with daylight alone. “Many of my photos, I can’t even tell at times that I took some of them with flash,” Campbell says.

A flash can be a useful tool for freezing insects and other real-world subjects that are in motion. “Particularly if I want to get to pollinators or insects that are on flowers that are moving or vibrating, like bees, you have to have your flash set to be able to overpower the ambient light to freeze the motion of what’s happening,” she tells me.

Experienced photographers can set flash output manually if they know how much light is necessary, but most people are likely to use their flash’s TTL (through the lens) metering mode, which determines how much light to output based on your camera’s ISO, shutter speed, and aperture settings. If you find that it’s not working out quite right, you can override the TTL value with plus or minus adjustments, just as you would use exposure compensation to brighten or darken the image when shooting with natural light. You typically make those adjustments on the flash units or the triggers.

“I rely on TTL because I am going out and hoping to find interesting insects that I may only get a single shot at,” says Campbell. “I’m set at f/8, 160th of a second, and ISO 200.” But if she’s shooting on a bright sunny day, Campbell says she’ll turn the ISO setting down to 100 or 64 in order to avoid blurry shots.

To some photographers, that might sound counterintuitive: A lower ISO setting usually means slower shutter speeds and more, not less, blur on fast-moving subjects. But with a flash, a lower ISO setting makes the flash unit output more light. And when the only light you’re using is coming from the front of your lens, as it is with a ring light or macro flash attached to the front of the lens, the subject remains frozen and brightly illuminated while the background fades to black.

All of this may sound confusing right now, but experimentation in the field will help you understand.

Try this: Take a photo with a macro flash with your camera set to ISO 100 and then take the same photo, using the same shutter speed and TTL settings, with the ISO at 800. You’ll notice that the background becomes brighter. From there, you can balance things as you see fit.

Though you have the luxury of fiddling with precise manual focus while shooting indoors, when you’re outside your best bet is to rely on autofocus. Gusts of wind and the movements of wildlife are beyond your control, and often you have no chance at a second shot.

With single-AF, you can let the camera focus on a flower and allow the depth of field to encompass any insects on the flower you’re shooting. But it might work out better to set the camera for continuous AF and place a spot focus point on the flower; that way, the camera can adjust if you move slightly forward or back as you’re shooting.

Once you learn to make good macro photos, you may find yourself wishing that your images had even more of the scene in focus—more than is possible with a single shot. Focus stacking allows you to accomplish exactly that, by combining images taken with several different focus points into a single photo with seemingly infinite depth of field.

Terrill has used both Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus to create focus-stacked images, and he says that both tools make focus stacking as easy as dragging and dropping images and then sitting back and watching the magic happen.

“Zerene Stacker is favored by people that do a lot of insects, bugs, and things like that. It’s really excellent at differentiating things like antennae [when combining images],” Terrill says, though he admits that he uses the other software more. “Helicon has a very friendly user interface, is very fast, and has really good retouching tools that are powerful.”

For her part, Campbell says that she does most of her focus stacking manually in Photoshop. She tends to combine fewer photos than some other macro enthusiasts, largely because it’s difficult to get lots of usable stacked images of subjects like insects.

“I tend to take multiple focal points,” says Campbell. “If I’ve got an image of an insect on a flower and I’ve got a shot of the insect, I really don’t want an out-of-focus flower that it’s on. So I may also then stay in the position that I’m in, move that focus point over, and take a shot of the flower itself.” She then composites the two isolated, distinct subjects into a single image.

That kind of Photoshop work takes a lot of patience and experience, which is why lots of people use other, specialized software instead, but Photoshop’s image alignment features can help tremendously.

As with macro photography overall, focus stacking can be its own world of experimentation and can be very rewarding, while also being a hobby that can take many hours to perfect.

This article was edited by Ben Keough and Erica Ogg.

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