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Using flash for macro photography

by Güray Dere

After opening the doors of the macro world with my Tamron 90mm lens, I didn’t think of a flash for a long time in daily use. I insisted on the need to capture the natural light and make long exposure if necessary. I kept avoiding the flash. I even made fun of flash users.

I didn’t think I needed anything else for a year and a half while I was taking my macro shots. I’ve never used a lens other than Tamron 90mm. When the light was low, I used ISO 1600 and extended the exposure time a little. Because of the vibration, I was making the shots in low magnification so that the image would not get blurred.

Handheld macro photos without using flash. Due to the high ISO, grainy shadows cover the details.

It is pleasant that man should try to do something with whatever he has, but this sense of satisfaction leaves him frustrated when he sees that someone is doing better with the same equipment.

I saw macro shots surfing the internet. How did they get these gleaming photos? Same machine, same lens… But when I looked better I noticed a little helper: A flash!

Which flash?

As I read more, I started to think that the flash was an indispensable need in the macro. The first thing I had to do was to have a flash. The ring type flashes used for the macro were quite expensive. After a short research, I decided to get a Chinese Yongnuo YN-560 II flash with a reasonable price. This Canon Speedlite 560 imitation looks like something that works well. I decided to use it with a wireless connection to stay free. And added the transceiver parts having PT-16 standard.

PT16 wireless flash trigger
PT16 wireless flash trigger

The wireless trigger above is made up of two parts.  The left one is attached to the camera, and right one is  attached to the bottom of the flash. Communication is wireless.

Before the flash, I was trying to do all my macro shots in the bright daylight. But I was having  heat strokes during the hot hours, and the bugs were having a chase because they had their most active time. When I took a picture, the bright sunlight caused unwanted colored reflections on the insects, and even the smallest vibration in the shot caused shiny trails. Because my hand was shaking differently each time, the sun reflections on the insect formed a series of strange shapes in each photograph. As the sun goes down, I couldn’t even think of taking pictures while the dragonflies are calmly resting on the leaves.

Built-in flash and homemade diffuser

I had to wait about a month until my flash order arrives from China. I was wondering what I could do with the built-in flash. I just had to drop the light in front of my lens. I made a roll of cardboard and covered the inner surface with aluminum foil. I opened a hole so that the internal flash could enter the inside of my cylinder-shaped invention. I put the built-in flash through this hole and stretched the roll over the lens. I put a napkin on the front and fix it on my lens with a package tire. The light would be reflected through the tube and it would hit the napkin. The napkin illuminated by the flash like a lamp would serve as a diffuser to illuminate the beetle just in front of the lens.

It was evening hours when I made the first design of this funny and rough looking device, so it was getting dark. I went to the garden for test shots . Although the results were not perfect, I found that it was very exciting to be able to shoot handheld without vibration despite the dim light.  I did a lot of experiments with these homemade diffusers until my YN-560 II flash came. It was difficult to adjust the power of the flash. Sometimes I send the light inside the lens and get foggy pictures, sometimes I caused reflections on the object. But usually I could eliminate dark shadows and get bright and beautiful colors.

Macro shots with homemade diffuser and built-in flash

The design was getting better but there was one more problem to be overcome. In the evening I could not see the beetle from the viewfinder!

Led Flashlight

When I couldn’t see, I couldn’t focus on the object. I needed an auxiliary light source to help focusing. Again, I found some lighting accessories to attach to the front of the lens. These are actually products made as flashes, but their light are insufficient and change natural colors. I ordered one to use it as a lantern at the lowest power setting.

JJC brand led ring flashlight
The JJC led flashlight comes with a number of adapters that can be used with lenses having different filter diameters.

Flash, wireless connection adapter, led ring flashlight, all arrived. With the flash, there was an explosion in the number of macro photos on my hard drive. I would describe it as my second step on macro. (The first step was having a 1:1 macro lens.)

Since I have a manual flash, I learned how to adjust power settings in a short time and how to prevent the bad effects of the delays caused by wireless communication. And I have to keep full a number of batteries: 4 AA’s, 2 AAA’s and a 23A(12V)!

Diffuser and Flash trigger

Wired flash trigger
Wired flash trigger

In the photo above you see a small diffuser in front of the flash. You always need to distribute the flash light in this way. Otherwise, very hard reflections occur, we can’t get color and detail. These diffusers are produced in different sizes. The big ones work well with large objects. I used a smaller one. So I was able to get into the bushes more easily.

After a while I started to have a lot of difficulties with the wireless trigger. Because of the presence of separate batteries on both the body and the flash side, the weakening or the loss of these batteries gave me unpleasant experiences. The flash sometimes delayed, or didn’t work at all and as a result dark photos began to bother me. That’s why I bought a new wired trigger.

I am very comfortable with this cable shown in the picture above. Thanks to its flexible structure and the ability to transmit the signal all the time, I was happier with the shots. I continue to use the wireless trigger in a variety of studio shots, especially in the portraits. But if you’re going to use a flash for macro photograhy, get a wired trigger.

User experience

Whether it’s in the sun or in the dark shade, day and night I started using the flash in every macro picture. It was possible to work with a low ISO and get bright colors. A light flashing so fast solved the vibration problem.

I tried shooting a few times during the night. My led light gave me the function I wanted, I could see my way, I could focus. But with 4 AA batteries, it added a considerable weight to the front of the lens. This is even more annoying for long lenses. It’s a big load on the body side of the lens. If we add the external flash, total weight makes it difficult for handheld shooting. Also because it makes the front of the lens very wide, I can not enter between the leaves, branches. As a result, I couldn’t use it much, but I didn’t regret it.

I came across a surprise when I was looking for photos with and without flash. Recently I came across a very different and impressive mantis and took a lot of photos. Then I realized it wasn’t the first time. I noticed that two years ago I photographed the same species in a different place. But I didn’t even look back at the photo because there was a ruined composition where light and shadow overlapped because I didn’t have a flash. While I was there, I didn’t even think of going closer and making detail shots. I didn’t even realize I missed a rare opportunity. The flash is important.

Now I prefer natural light again. You can find many articles on the site about natural light. I don’t use flash often. But one of my first recommendations to anyone who will do macro shots will be the flash.

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