Flash the Key to it all:
If you read the page on Depth of Field or Shutter Speed you learned that
unless it is a super bright day there is not enough light to
hand hold your camera with a macro lens and get a good shot
on a consistent basis.
The way around this is to add light and since the bugs live
in the wild the only choice is to add flash. When flash is
added it can also be used in place of the shutter speed so
its duration can be used to stop
On the Home Page it said if you have lots of money it is
easy, just purchase a dedicated macro flash from your camera
manufacturer. They are great without question, if you can
afford one go for it. However, they
are expensive so not everyone can afford one and for the most part
they are very limited when it
comes to other uses. So, a real commitment needs to be made
to go this route and it's not like an old lens where there
are plenty of used ones where you can find a deal. When you do see used
macro flashes they are most
likely proprietary to an older model of camera or still very
So, what about these other ring light flashes like ones that
you see on ebay, etc?
Most of them are not real macro flashes. They are a
bunch of LED lights in a ring (Ring Light or an LED flash
that has a long duration). So, wow, great portable constant
light - wrong! What they actually are is some light to
assist you perhaps in focusing, or perhaps jump you up a stop
(read the fine print) not enough for getting the flash
duration needed to eliminate camera movement. There are a couple of
exceptions in the 1-2 hundred dollar range, however the
reviews on them say the quality of them is very poor so they don't last and are a waste.
If you have a flash already that may determine your choice as it is always good
to utilize what you have (and it can be used). But if you don't and opt to go for a dedicated macro
flash your options are limited as most manufacturer's only offer one or two and
either would make a good choice. Keep this in mind, these things are kick butt
great and worth every penny. The quality is there, they
are durable, and the technology allows for consistent excellent shots on
Because of the expense of a dedicated macro flash people have come up with alternatives. I
have seen numerous ones online and to save a buck or two I
decided to give them a try. (see the next page
Macro Flash Brackets) But first lets look at the
With flash there are really
three choices, one being a dedicated automatic
E-TTL unit, one where you can adjust the output manually and
the other a manual unit with no adjustment. With automatic it is
rather easy, set your camera on manual, your shutter speed
to 1/200 (or whatever your manual says) and your aperture to f/11 and make a test
shot You should not be off by much and if you are you adjust
your flash compensation not your camera in most cases. (depending upon
your camera and ambient light).
With manual flash (ones where
you cannot adjust the output) it will
take a little practice, I would suggest starting with a 1/200th of a second
and add a couple of small cheap softboxes and try f/11(ISO 200). This is a
starting point, what you will find is that with a little
practice you will get to the point where you will be able to
look at a shot, move up or down an f/stop (or adjust the
ISO) and be real close
to a great exposure. Keep in mind you are adding light so if
it is a bright day you will be adding less than on a cloudy
day. Keep in mind that you are also usually at or about at
the same flash to subject distance on every shot.
Also, really look at the background, a small spider
with a dark background is easy to get washed out. One thing
about bugs is that some of them reflect light different than
others. The key to all of it is practice. I cannot emphasize
this enough, if you go out and take 20-30 shots review them,
take a few more and review them and call it a day after a
week or two of doing this you will get to the point where you will see a
scene and dial in a setting and be within a half a stop.
How flashes work - Flash Duration:
You would think that if you have a flash that is adjustable
it would be brighter when the power is turned up. It does
not work that way. What happens is that the flash stays on
longer. So what you are really doing is changing the flash
duration (the time the flash stays on - when you think about
it is is just like shutter speed - on longer, more light
gets to the sensor).
Please note that when
looking at flash durations there are different
testing methods for what is considered "ON". On this
page I am making some general assumptions such as at
full power the flash will be at 1/1000th of a
second. Canon actually states the 580 EX II is
1/833rd of a second on full power and they don't
publish lesser power durations. With another testing
method it is at 1/275th of a second - (depends upon
what you consider on), All in all it doesn't really
matter as the principle is the same. If I plug in
1/833rd of a second instead of 1/1000th, I still
need to be at 1/8th power. Only instead of being at
1/8000th I may be at 1/6400th of a second.
Here is a really good
different flash durations.
On most flashes full power is around 1/1000th of a
second. Now if you think that a 1/1000th of a second will
always stop camera shake you are wrong, just plain flat out
wrong! and it is easy to prove because the magnification is
so high when taking a true macro shot. However, it is a lot
easier to stop camera movement with a 1/1000 of a second
than it is at 125th of a second.
When I thought of using
flash I figured I would not have to worry about
camera movement as the flash would be going off at
an incredible speed. You know like when they stop a
bullet in mid air going through an apple or capture
an arrow going through balloons. That is not the
case, you will be adding light to some existing
light and the flash duration has to be short enough
for the shutter curtain to open and close. Those
stop action shots of a bullet were actually done
with a very specialized flash (over 10K) in a
completely dark room.
What I have found is that at 1/4 to 1/8
power I almost always eliminate all movement. (at 1/8 I
always do at up to 1.4:1). The goal here is to take consistently good shots
which means eliminate the obstacle if at all possible.
There has to be a little disclaimer
here, this chart is below 1.4:1 magnification, with a higher
magnification you would need a shorter duration to
Shots Ruined by
Camera Movement Caused by Hand Holding
(from personal experience - yours will vary from
1/8 or Lower
Now on a Canon 580 EX II this is a
flash duration between 1/4000 and 1/8000th of a second. I am using a Canon
580 EX as an example as it is one of Canon's most powerful
If you are thinking well, if my flash will fill up an entire
room and I am only taking a photograph 8-10 inches away from
my subject it should not be much of an issue to use 1/8th
power on a flash. That is really not the case as there is a
thing called the "Bellows Factor". What this means is that
there is a loss of light when you move the lens
further from the film (sensor). What happens in a macro lens
is that once it is in the macro mode you have exceeded its
normal length (pushed the optics further away from the
sensor) and you need to compensate for it. On a Canon camera
it does not show this change when you look at your settings.
It does on a Nikon as far as I know.
This bellows factor for a Canon 100mm lens is +2 at 1:1
magnification (you will find the factor to use at what
magnification in the lens manual - something real men do not
read). So, if we dial in f/16 we
are really at f/32! This is just to get 1:1 magnification.
If a little more magnification is desired by using extension
tubes or a tele-converter it continues to increase. One
of my favorites is to use a 1.4 tele-converter to get 1.4:1
magnification. When I add a stop for that I am at f/45.
Flash output is stated by what is known as a Guide Number (GN).
With Canon it is easy as on their flashes the model
number is the Guide Number in meters. The way it is
used is that GN is divided by the distance of the flash to
subject to get the aperture to use at ISO 100. Sort of
simple really, with a GN of 80 at 10 feet you would be at
f/8. Now if the flash has a GN of 160 at 10 feet we would be
at f/16. If we shot at half power (160/2) we would be back
Lets look at the powerful Canon 580 EX and see what can be
used. It has a GN of 58 meters / 190 feet.
If we use the 100mm macro at 1:1 magnification we add 2
stops so at F/16 we are at f/32.
190 (GN in feet) / 32 (Aperture) = 5.93 feet - Great! it can
be done as we are about 1 feet foot from the subject.
But that GN is at full power which is at 1/1000th (actually
closer to 1/800th) of a second. We want to get to 1/8 power
to stop all movement. To do this we divide the 190/8 to get
the GN at 1/8th power.
23.75 / 32 = .74 feet
Convert feet to inches 12 * .74 = 8.9 inches. So at 1/8
power the flash has to be about nine inches from the
subject. This is about the length of the lens itself. So the
Increase the flash
power – this option is out as it increases the flash
Increase the ISO –
This option will work for some as it is based upon the
capabilities of your camera. However the best results
are always from the lowest ISO, so this option should be
saved until last.
Add an additional
flash - This option looks good but there is a catch to
it. In physics there is a thing called the
Inverse-Square Law that applies to light. In a nut shell
it says at twice the distance you need four times as
much light. So this means that another flash will only
give you one additional stop.
Move the flash nine
inches away from the subject with a Flash Bracket. This
is a very simple solution, to get to 1/8th power. Which
really means put your flash head at the end of your
lens. Keep this in mind. this is at 1:1 magnification.
If you recall from above the reason we needed so much
light (2 Stops) was because of the Bellows Factor
which changes as magnification changes so this is best
case, if we want more magnification we will need more
The Inverse-Square Law that
applies to light
In a nut shell
the Inverse-Square Law says at twice the distance you need four times as much
light. Just think of a flashlight at night at twice the
distance it is a 1/4 as bright.
To calculate how much
light you will have when you add an additional flash you take the Guide
Number of the Flash and square it and do the same for the
flash you are going to add (just incase they don't put out
the same power) , add up the two new numbers and calculate
the square root and you get the new Guide Number.
From above the Canon 580 has a
Guide number of 58 so 58 squared would be 3364. (doing this
in meters now)
So if we add 3364 and
3364 (for the additional 580 flash) we get 6728 we then calculate the square root
of it and we get
82 as our new guide number with one added flash.
With a guide
number of 58 at 10 meters we would have an f/stop of
5.8 (close to 5.6) with the extra
flash we are at 82
so we would be at f/8.2 (close to f/8) - one stop
If we add two flashes
it becomes 3364 * 3 = 10092 squared provides a GN of 100
and finally with three additional flashes 3364 * 4 = 13456 squared gives us a guide number of
116, which is close enough. So to double the distance
we need three additional flashes.
If you think
about it, it sounds excessive. To go from 6 inches
to 12 inches you need three more flashes of the same
power. But if you were at 20 feet and were going to
40 feet it would not sound as bad. The point is it
is a law of physics and that is how it works.
However if you think of it backwards,
at half the distance you need 1/4 of the light. (same rule) So the plan
is to move the flash closer and that is why you see all
kinds of macro flash brackets that move the flash closer to
Please note the examples above were done
with a Canon 580 EX II with the GN of 190 feet. Dedicated
macro flashes guide numbers are nowhere near this. Canon's
MT-24EX has a GN of 24 (78 feet) and the MR-14EX has a GN of
14 (46 feet).
Always be aware of the
background and what will reflect back on the sensor.
One thing about flash and it is
really cool once you understand it is that it always
works with what light is available. So, if your
camera settings don't allow for the current light to
get a good exposure only the new added light (flash)
that is reflected back is used. For instance there
is a flower with nothing behind it (well close behind it
- this is a common flower
technique) and the camera is set at a fast enough
shutter speed and small enough aperture not to get
anything exposed in the background when you fire the flash only the
light that bounces back from the flower is recorded.
This can give you a properly exposed flower with
great depth of field with a black background as
nothing else was reflected back.
So if you don't have something close behind your subject it
will have a black background. This may not necessarily be bad but
sometimes it is undesirable. Keep in mind that if you lower your shutter speed
and start to use ambient light you can get camera shake in. Also keep in mind
this is based on photographing live bugs in the wild not a studio so the
photographer has to make a decision as to what combination to use.
One of the most difficult insects I have found to photograph is a spider in a
web. They usually don't have anything close behind them, a flash will blow them
out or not be powerful enough to capture detail against the black background.
One way around this is to shoot them into the sky and use the flash as a fill
flash to capture their detail.
Some Examples of Bugs shot with Flash
- All the Photos in the Gallery were shot with Flash
spider was on a screen on a bright day with all the
light behind him. The C-Bracket manual flash setup
(shown on the next page) was used to illuminate him. This shot was made in a
fully manual mode and without flash a totally
impossible shot. The flashes were cheap $10 units
that were not adjustable and they were rated with a
duration of 1/1000th of a second. It was this flash
unit that taught me about flash duration. I could
still get camera shake in the image and I was using
a 200th of a second plus the flash. So neither
the flash nor the shutter speed was removing it.
spider was on the side of a light grey house in the
dark shade and was shot with
a fully automatic E-TTL flash mounted on a bracket with a
This spider was on the side of a car and shot with
an automatic Ring Light Flash (you can tell by the
reflection in its eyes - this is the undesirable
part of a ring flash - reflective surfaces) Size wise he had a leg span
of about 3/8's of an inch
To sum up flash, you are going to need to learn
how to use it to get good shots consistently in any lighting
situation. All of the options listed work and work
well. Without question a dedicated macro flash is the
best as it is the easiest to use, carry in the field
etc. If it is not in the budget (usually isn't), and you have a
flash already go for a folding bracket that has the
ability to lock in place, add a softbox, a ball
head or angle bracket (you can bend them) so you can adjust it downwards
and an ETTL cord.
With flash it
is really just practice, you will find quickly that
you will be able to dial in manual settings, fire
off a flash and be real close to a great exposure.
The more you practice the sooner you will be able to
get it within a half a stop just by looking. If you
have trouble seeing it in the viewfinder look at the
histogram. The reason I say you will be able to
easily dial it in is because at f/11, ISO 100 and
1/200th of a second usually no ambient light will
make it to the sensor. Therefore the flash is always
providing most of the light and it is predictable
just like in a studio. When you think about shooting
a portrait in a studio you set up the lights, pose
the person and take the shot. If you want another
portrait, you put the next person in the same spot
and photograph them, the lighting will still be
correct. Here it is the same, if you are at maximum
magnification you will be at the same distance to
your subject and if your flashes are mounted to the
camera they will also be at the same distance at the
Macro Flash Brackets