If you have any friend who loves to take macro photos, I bet he or she would have a macro set that uses a speedlight/flashgun. And your friend would probably tell you to invest in a good set of flashes too.
Now, the question today is: Are DSLR built-in flashes or dedicated flashguns really that important in taking up-close shots?
A flash source (be it from the DSLR’s built-in flash, or from a dedicated flashgun) is pretty much essential to get good and sharp shots in Macro Photography. This is because natural light sources are usually insufficient to produce such quality photographs.
If you can recall from an earlier article (How To Shoot Macro For Beginners), handshakes are enhanced when you are shooting at a high magnification. As a result, the Shutter Speed (SS) needs to be increased to avoid this, and also movements caused by the wind. Of course, in order to ensure proper exposure of your photo, you will need to increase ISO at the same time as well. When external light sources are insufficient (which they usually are apart from noon time when the sun is high up), increasing ISO values just wouldn’t cut it because the higher the ISO sensitivity, the more noises (poor image quality) you are going to get in your resulting photo.
Photos taken at high ISO values (say more than ISO1600 in today’s DSLR) will suffer from noises, leading to loss of details and clarity. This is not good when it comes to Macro Photography (though not that significant in other genres of photography) since we often crop photos (Learn more about post-processing and cropping HERE). The deterioration in image quality is especially evident in extreme up-close shots where you want viewers to be able to look at the sophisticated details of your subject.
This is where a flash source would be of great benefit:
- The moment’s flash of light provides enough light to take a shot even at low ISO values, retaining image details and quality.
- This short flash of light also “freezes” the moment (said to be a shutter speed equivalent of 1/2000 or faster) so that you no longer need to worry about handshakes and minor movements.
These two reasons alone are enough to entice macro photographers to use flashes, regardless of their macro gears utilized. As aforementioned, it is almost impossible to take an flash- equivalent level of macro photos using natural light, even with a tripod.
Alright! Now that you understand just how handy having a flash source is, perhaps it is time for you to try and learn a little bit about using one. Flash photography can be one of the toughest things to learn in normal photography- said to be 3x harder than learning how to shoot a DSLR manually, since you are now in control of two exposures instead of one. Nevertheless, the good news is that flash photography is not hard at all in Macro Photography, since its usage is pretty limited, as you will soon understand:
How to use a DSLR built-in flash for macro
Most beginners do not have an external flashgun since it is pricey and hard to use. That’s perfectly fine, since macro shots CAN be taken using the flash unit within the DSLR itself- one of the reasons why Macro Photography is cheap to learn 😀
To take macro photos using the built-in flash, just pop-up the flash, and switch your shooting mode to Manual (M). Please adjust your DSLR settings to:
- Aperture- fixed at F16
- Shutter Speed- fixed at 1/200-1/250 (value varies from model to model. This will be the maximum shutter speed you can shoot at with the flash ON)
- ISO- ~1000: high enough for proper exposure (varies depending on ambient lighting)
- Flash power- fixed at maximum (please refer your DSLR manual on how to do this, should be pretty straightforward)
Now you are ready to take your macro shot with flash. Please ensure that your lens is not too close to your subject since it might block off the light coming from the flash unit. Now snap a photo. If the photo is underexposed, all you need to adjust is your ISO value, bump it up until you get a nicely exposed shot, and that’s all there is to it, simple! However, do take note that the built-in flash is usually not very powerful, so you might have to increase ISO sensitivity by quite a bit.
How to use an external flashgun for macro
A dedicated speedlight is better than built-in DSLR flash in terms of flash power (brighter and farther) as well as flash recycling time (fast and continuous flashes). They are also more versatile since most can be fired off-flash- when not attached to the camera. This allows more creative ways of lighting up your subject, though it is not that significant in Macro Photography :p
It is advisable to shoot off-flash with your flashgun (either triggered via wire or wirelessly), since you will be able to direct the flash closer towards your subjects. You can position your flashgun by using your other hand, just make sure that it is pointing at the right direction. [Please read your flashgun manual on off-flash operations. If you are still having some problems, please feel free to drop a question here.]
The camera settings required are similar to the ones above, but this time, set the flash power to 1/10 or 1/13. Again, if your photo turns out under- or overexposed, adjust the ISO accordingly until you get a good photo. You can also try to move your flash closer or farther away from your subject to control the final exposure of your photo.
Well now, those are the fundamentals to using a flash for Macro Photography. Of course, being the most basic will also mean that the light quality from the flash will be pretty harsh, leading to strong shadow casts beneath your subjects. This can be avoided, or minimized by using flash diffusers, be it marketed or DIY ones. To be frank, lighting is one of the most important aspects to Macro Photography. Regardless of how expensive your macro gears are, if you do not have a proper way of diffusing your lights, your photos will not be as good as those with proper diffusion. For more details, please read: (i) Taking Better Macro Shots Part 3- Lighting and (ii) Macro Photography- 6 Things About DIY Diffusion That You Should Know.
Those shooting using built-in DSLR might also notice that the flash coverage is pretty weak since the flash doesn’t travel that far, indicating a need of a channelling tube to direct the light all the way until the front end of the lens- this is called light channelling, which can again be performed using DIY systems.
Needless to say, there are countless ways of channelling and diffusing your flash lights, and it can be really fun to design and test them out one-by-one! You are always welcomed to learn more about flash diffusion by checking out the Macro Gears that I have used over the years~
I hope this article has made it clear to you why flash is so important in Macro Photography. I also hope that you would be able to use flash units from now on and take much better macro shots! Please feel free to share some of your results here if you desire~
Until the next article, see you!
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