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I want to get started into general macro photography. I have been really stuck on which kind of flash to get because they all seem to come with their own share of pros and cons, and everyone recommends something different.

I've compiled of everything that I could find below.

Ring Light

Handheld Pocket Flash (e.g., AD200)

  • Great for studio photography and still macros like mushrooms and plants because you can manually position the angle of the lighting
  • Inconvenient to use while taking photos without a tripod, especially if you're chasing around butterflies and insects that hop around and need to constantly focus and prepare

Dual Flash System (e.g., Nikon R1)

  • Seemingly produces industrial and unnatural lighting that might not have shadows at all
  • Diffusion wouldn't be large enough for beautiful lighting because it'd be too close to the flash

Speedlight with Diffuser & Roof (example)

  • Larger light source, more beautiful lighting due to the large diffusion
  • Might cast an unwanted large shadow over insects
  • Might bump into trees and other objects, especially if going above 1:1 magnification

At the moment, I have been thinking of just following this guy's advice and getting a normal speedlight (the Godox V1) with a diffuser due to the convenience and beautiful lighting, but I was wondering if anyone had any different experiences / results with these flashes. I ultimately just want the softest / most natural lighting possible, so that you can barely see the equipment in an insect's eyes. I also want to take pictures of still life like mushrooms.

Thanks in advance for any help!

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    \$\begingroup\$ MUST you use a flash ? I used to do quite a bit and got very nice results with ambient light. Are you shooting at very small apertures, hence needing more light? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 13:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ I use a couple of largish video panels, which are mains or battery - but I don't shoot macro outdoors much. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 13:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DigitalLightcraft I am trying to shoot around 1/200, F/11, and 100 ISO at the minimum, but the camera is usually pitch black with these settings unless it's aimed at the sky. I've read that these are the recommended settings for macro. Otherwise, you risk introducing blur (by lowering the shutter speed) or ISO noise, or you lose focus. \$\endgroup\$
    – kira
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 14:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Macro has evolved quite a lot with lenses that support stabilization. If you shoot handheld your problem isn't even motion blur, but the de-focusing caused by a longitudinal move between the camera setting the focus and the trigger. There is a fifth solution, the lens with built-in light, sufficient for macro photography at close range (one of my faves ❤❤❤...). \$\endgroup\$
    – xenoid
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 21:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why are you shooting at f/11? Best to shoot wide open, unless you need the entire subject in focus? Also, you could look at using a focus rail on your tripod. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 20:31

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I follow a chap on Instagram called weemadbeasties, who uses the following to great effect:

  • Godox TT350o
  • Cygnustech diffuser v2
  • Raynox 250

The Godox seems to be the weapon of choice for a lot of nature macro photography.

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This question could be a bit opinion based and also a bit short-lived if we refer to specific products.

So I will try to answer in a broader fashion.

Use whatever you have, whatever you need, whatever you want, whatever you can.

I don't think "general macro photography" exist. It is like thinking there is general portrait photography. A portrait can be on the street, in candid photos, in a studio, on location, with natural light, with big softboxes, with continuous lights, with candle lights, ring lights...

For macro photography the same cases. You can bring your subject to your studio and use a really big softbox on a boom or go outside and use natural light.

The reason that there are different options is that there is no 1 best solution, but different solutions for different scenarios.


I suppose one way to answer this is to classify the characteristics of different options. You already did that.

Let me focus on mobility.

1. Light in front of the lens.

  • Ring lights
  • Dual lateral flashes
  • Built-in lights

Pros:

  • Ready to shoot solution.
  • Less bulky, easier to approach hard-to-reach subjects.

Cons:

  • Flat light
  • Noticable fall-off with distances.

2. Handheld Off-camera flash, remote trigger

  • Handheld flash, with or without a diffuser

Pros:

  • Versatility in position and angle, different types of diffusers. A more natural aesthetic to the shot.

Cons:

  • Sometimes bulky
  • Harder to handle, 1 hand for the flash, 1 hand for the camera.
  • More inconsistent exposition, due to the inconsistency in the distance of the light to the subject.

3. An external flash with a rig

  • Flash mounted on a rig. With or without a softbox, etc.

Pros

  • A more natural aesthetic to the shot.
  • You can use your two hands to handle your camera.

Cons

  • Probably the bulkier option.
  • Limited light position options.
  • Harder to choose between landscape or portrait orientation.

4. Adapters for a mounted flash

  • Ring flash softbox
  • Conical softboxes

Pros

  • A more natural aesthetic to the shot.
  • You can use your two hands to handle your camera.

Cons

  • Some options can be bulky
  • Limited freedom to choose between landscape or portrait orientation.
  • Limited light angles.

Personally, If you are capable of handling your camera with one hand probably an offhand flash with a small diffuser, is the best option, but additionally, you can call a small light stand and put your light there.

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Have you considered a ring light, but with a few modifications?

You could add a relatively wide, ring-shaped diffuser (of any diameter you prefer) in front of your ring light so that it did not create such obvious ring-shaped highlights. This diffuser could be flat, like something cut out of white plastic. (Those thin, white, flexible cutting boards might work.) Or it could be bowl or cone shaped, to provide more illumination from more directions. (These might require modifying the mounting position of the ring light so that the diffuser is flush with the front of your lens.)

You could also add filters either directly to the ring light, or the diffuser. These filters could be nothing more than a shaded black pattern printed onto transparency film that you can get at the office supply store. Just cut them out and tape them in place. That would allow you to have graduations in your lighting so that the images appear more natural. Heck, you could even add silhouettes of branches and leaves to the pattern you print on the filter, to create highlights that look as if the insect is in its natural habitat.

These would give you complete, 360-degree control of the lighting, in a small-ish setup, and allow for lots of creative freedom.

(Of course, you could also edit specular highlights in post.)

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You might try something like this on your speedlight.

enter image description here

I find that simple ring lights are too contrasty, due to the relatively small light source.

By making a larger light source, a ring diffuser for your speedlight will even out the scene contrast with the low-contrast light.

I have no connection to this particular seller, although I got something similar on eBay and am fairly happy with it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Downvote? REALLY? Have you tried it? It works QUITE WELL for macro, and is much less expensive than alternatives mentioned! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 22:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ That doesn't look very practical for shooting insects and mushrooms. \$\endgroup\$
    – MrUpsidown
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 22:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ With a few clips, you can collapse the centre column that's around the lens, and have a "beauty dish for bugs." It works quite well for "insects and mushrooms" that have some area surrounding them. But you're right; it won't work so well for subjects that are in a tight spot. In any event, it was only ~$13 — cheap trick to try to see if it works for you! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 20:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am good with a small softbox as I don't need a large area to be lit. I'd be afraid to scare mushrooms away with such a thing :) \$\endgroup\$
    – MrUpsidown
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 20:30
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You have already mentioned great options in your questions, but I would like to add one more - try taking macro photos without a flash. If you are happy with the results, you've just saved yourself some money :). If not, then you've bought yourself some time to think further about all options and to decide which one is the best for your needs and for your budget.

One more tip. If you have enough megapixels in your camera, maybe you don't need to get really really close to your subject (1:1 magnification). Maybe you can "cheat", get a bit farther away, and then crop your photo to simulate the "macro" effect. This approach will also give you larger depth of field, so you can get away with larger apertures, thus giving you more light and less need for a flash.

Here are some examples that I've made with my Nikon D5600 and Nikon 105mm lens. Some of them are not "real" macro photos, but you'll get a feeling of how much you can crop. And sometimes it's more interesting photo if it shows a little bit of context (where the insect is, what it is doing...).

Usually I'm shooting at f/8 - f/11, 1/60 - 1/100s, ISO 100 - 1600:

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