Macro and Close-Up Photography Using Flash

There are several ways to successfully use flash for macro and close-up photography.  While dedicated solutions like Canon’s MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash and Nikon’s R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System are great for many close-up and macro photography applications, that’s about all they’re intended for, and they’re expensive. Having a proclivity for gear that is multi-functional, I prefer using my Speedlites for this type of work, over single-purpose, specialized flash units.

Macro and Close-Up Photography - Close-up of flower illuminated from left with hand-held flash, modified with mini-softbox.

Close-up of flower illuminated from left with hand-held flash, modified with mini-softbox.  Shot in daylight, outdoors in a shaded area.

Using pop-up flash or a Speedlite/Speedlight mounted to the camera are both surprisingly effective for macro and close-up photography given the lens-to-subject distances you’ll often work with. But when working with extension tubes, reversing the lens, diopters and other techniques, the subject might be as close as an inch (or less) from the front of the lens blocking most, if not all of the light from the flash. If that is happening, a small reflector, or otherwise bouncing your flash, can save the day (see pages 27 – 28 in Introduction to Close-Up and Macro Photography).

Off-Camera Flash Techniques for Macro and Close-Up Photography

If possible, use your flash from an off-camera position to control the direction and quality of the light. Mounting the flash to a light stand, and your camera to a tripod, can make getting a series of shots a lot easier. It’s true that with a heavy lens, like the Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, I’m only good for a few quick shots before my arms and hands get tired. But hand-held shooting offers me the freedom to recompose the shot and adjust the position of the light faster than I could otherwise.

If you’re controlling your flash manually (without the use of E-TTL II or iTTL, etc.) a simple PC cord will do the trick. A dedicated TTL sync cable is the way to go if you want automatic flash control.  Radio and other triggering options can also work.

Macro and Close-Up Photography - (Left) PC cord for manual flash operation. (Right) Manufacturer-compatible TTL flash sync cord for TTL flash operation.

(Left) PC cord for manual flash operation. (Right) Manufacturer-compatible TTL flash sync cord for TTL flash operation.

Mini-Softbox isn’t so “mini” for Macro and Close-Up Photography

A “mini-softbox” like the Fotodiox 6″x8″ pictured here, becomes a gigantic soft and even light source with smaller subjects. Imagine having a softbox the size of your entire ceiling or wall to work with for portraiture – that’s what a mini-softbox can give you in the closeup and macro world! I purchased this little modifier for about $15.

Macro and Close-Up Photography - Fotodiox 6"x8" Softbox for Flash on a Canon 580EX Speedlite.

Fotodiox 6″x8″ Softbox for Flash on a Canon 580EX Speedlite.

 

Macro and Close-Up Photography - Shooting in the shadows with a Canon 180mm macro lens, 580 EX II Speedlite, with a Fotodiox mini-softbox.

Shooting in the shadows with a Canon 180mm macro lens, 580 EX II Speedlite, with a Fotodiox mini-softbox.

 

Macro and Close-Up Photography - flowers

(Left) Flash within 4″ of subject. Background is dark. (Right) Flash about 24″ from subject. Background is more visible. 180mm macro lens @ f/32. ISO 100, 1/250 sec.

 

Macro and Close-Up Photography - With camera settings at ISO 100, f/32, 1/250 sec, ambient light is all but unrecorded. TTL flash makes sure the subject receives the proper light. This is a good technique for isolating the subject against a bright and busy background.

With camera settings at ISO 100, f/32, 1/250 sec, ambient light is all but unrecorded. TTL flash makes sure the subject receives the proper light. This is a good technique for isolating the subject against a bright and busy background.

This is one of my favorite ways to control the direction and quality of the flash for my close-up work. A mini-softbox can effectively increase the size of your light source.  This helps when you’re working with objects that are a little larger.  Also notice in the images above,  you can easily control the visibility of the background based on the flash-to-subject distance.  See the video below for more on how the relative size and distance of your light source affects the quality of the light.

Another useful tool for effectively turning your flash into a larger light source is a simple craft foam bounce card. This gives you a sort of hybrid solution; direct, as well as bounced/diffused flash.

Macro and Close-Up Photography - Flashbounce-card

Bounce card made of crafting foam (cut to dimensions shown).

I definitely prefer natural daylight when I’m shooting outdoor close-up and macro photography. But flash is often necessary for this type of work because the lens can obscure the ambient light. Bringing in off-camera flash not only solves this problem, but it also gives you opportunities for creative lighting effects.

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