Hello readers, I’m back again! I apologize for the delay in updates lately, been busy with field trips recently. I hope that you are all doing well and having fun learning Macro Photography!
Today I would like to continue my 3rd article of the series How To Take Better Macro Shots, discussing specifically about Lighting. If you have missed out on the previous articles, you can find them in the following links: (1) Choice of Subject and (2) Composition.
Photography is defined as the drawing with light in Greek, so it is without a doubt that light plays a major role in determining how good your final photograph is. This is of course, applicable to the world of Macro Photography as well. In fact, light availability and manipulation are so important in this field that without them, proper magnified shots would not be possible.
One of the biggest problems with taking extreme close-up shots is that movements i.e. handshake, wind etc., tend to be significantly intensified, resulting in blurred shots. This can be avoided by increasing your camera’s Shutter Speed; and to do that whilst maintaining proper exposure, you will need a good deal of light, be it natural (sunlight) or artificial (flashgun, flashlight etc.).
Having a massive and powerful light source increases your chance of “freezing” the subject or moment, but it does not 100% guarantee a good shot as far as light is concerned. This is because the overall Quality of light, composed of three components, has to be appropriate for the ultimate shot! The theories behind Light Quality can be applied to Macro Photography using natural sunlight as well as artificial light.
Light Quality is determined by:
1. Light Quantity–
As aforementioned, the amount of light you provide gives you the means to “freeze” motion, thus enabling a non-blurry shot. Generally, the more the light you can get or generate, the better it is for your shot.
Natural sunlight– In general, it is only during noon-time that the sun provides enough light for you to shoot at Shutter Speeds of up to 1/2000 (conservative speed to minimize minor handshake or movements) yet maintaining fairly low ISO values to maintain image quality. This is hardly practical, which is why most Macro Photographers stick to artificial light sources.
Artificial light (flashgun)- The quantity of light generated by a dedicated flashgun is more than enough to “freeze” virtually all forms of minor movements. You might notice that some photographers use more than one flashguns; this is not because they need more light, but instead better diffusion of light (see point 2). Anyway, please take note that the built-in flash in a DSLR does not provide adequate light source for a macro shot, at least not at low ISO values.
A dedicated flashgun, as useful as it seems, is useless if the generated light cannot effectively reach the subject: A flashgun attached onto the hotshoe of a DSLR will not have enough reach- the resulting light is not channelled onto the subject, thus “dispersed” into the surrounding and wasted. This is why most Macro Photographers result in using flash brackets or DIY accessories to bring the flashguns closer to the subjects, thus minimizing light loss.
On a side note, artificial light doesn’t necessarily have to come from a flashgun, you could use normal Pendaflour light or even UV light for your shots, though the method of photographing will be different, thus not emphasized here.
2. Light Diffusion–
Proper light diffusion disperses light in different directions, producing soft light and shadows which are pleasing to the eyes. On the contrary, hard light (without diffusion) will produce imbalanced exposure on your subject (i.e. too bright and too dark at different areas), casting harsh shadows that will ruin the shot (see photo below).
Your subject will also determine whether your light diffusion is enough. Some might be highly reflective e.g. a silver coin, bug with metallic skin etc.; without excellent diffusion, you will get undesired white streaks of reflective light off the surface of your subject (see photo below).
Natural sunlight– It is usually during noon-time when the sun is high up in the sky that you get sufficient light for sharp macro shots, but unfortunately the position of the sun at this time will cast long and harsh shadows as well, which is not good for a macro shot. This is especially true when your subject is directly out in the open or partially sheltered by leaves etc.
To avoid this, you can:
- Hold a diffusion card or simply a piece of paper on top of the subject; this will soften the light. Of course, it will be extremely challenging to do this by yourself.
- Look for subjects that are sheltered or in shaded areas (yet not too dark). The shelter will itself act as a diffuser to reduce the amount of hard light.
- Wait for a passing cloud to temporary block the sun. The cloud itself will act as a massive diffuser for you, nature’s best!
Artificial light (flashgun)- The light generated from a flashgun is usually very “concentrated” and hard (due to the small surface area of the source), which is why diffusers are often used to soften the light.
There is an extensive array of diffusers out there, be it marketed or DIY ones, so it might sometimes be taxing, or even daunting to figure out which one to buy or choose (For more tips and tricks on DIY diffusers, please check out Macro Photography- 6 Things About DIY Diffusers That You Should Know). Regardless, always remember that the softness of light is directly proportional to the surface area of your diffuser i.e. the larger your effective diffuser, the softer the light. Of course, practicality needs to be considered when designing or purchasing a light diffuser: No point getting a superb diffuser that is so large that you can’t even reach your subjects.
3. Light Direction–
With proper Quantity and Diffusion of light, you should already be able to take very excellent macro shots. However, if you are looking to take your shots one step further, you can consider manipulating the direction of your light source. Since you cannot really alter the direction of sunlight, this particular aspect is more catered towards flash users.
For those who fancy artistic shots, strobe-type macro shots can be rather special, especially if you want to emphasize on the bizarre shape of a subject, or if you just wanted to include some shadow casts in your photo. In general, to do this you simply have to place your flashgun in such a way that the light comes from either the left, right or from the front.
The direction of your light depends on the shape of your light source as well. One of the coolest light sources is none other than the O-ring flash or light. This light source will not only provide ample of light onto your subject, but will cast wonderful, circle reflection in the subject’s eye(s) as well, adding more aesthetic value. Of course, there are a lot of other fancily-shaped light sources out there, and some may be more useful on certain organisms than another; so it is up to you to design or try them out, and then decide which one works best for you!
Lighting is undoubtedly one of the most important, yet toughest aspects to learn when it comes to any form of photography. However, once you understand it, you will be able to produce unexpectedly stunning images! As mentioned earlier, most are already quite capable of snapping awesome shots by applying proper Light Quantity and Diffusion, so be sure to learn them by heart ya! Light Direction, on the other hand is a little bit more abstract and will require more practice and experience to truly master. I, for one, am still struggling to produce a proper light source capable of rivalling the great O-ring flash or equivalent); guess I still have much to learn :p Still, feel free to check out My Macro Rigs over the years for inspiration or ideas~
Anyway, I guess it is time to end this one. Thank you again for reading; I hope you have learnt something useful that might help improve your macro skills further!
The subsequent article is on choosing a suitable background for your macro shots: Taking Better Macro Shots Part 4- Background.
Until the next time, take care guys!
** All photos in this website are taken and owned by me. The use of any photos here is not allowed without my permission.