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Macro Photography Lighting: Beginner Guide to Macro Photography

Do you struggle with macro photography lighting?

You’re not alone.

Finding the perfect light for macro photography can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. In this article, I’ll give you practical, specific instructions for working with natural light in macro photography. You can go a long way with just this understanding of using natural lighting for macro photography, without having to resort to artificial light for illuminating your macro subjects.

And by the time you finish, you’ll master light as a macro photographer being able to use ambient light to your advantage!

Download our FREE Macro Photography Quick Start Guide

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Let’s dive right in, starting with the two fundamental components of macro lighting:

The Two Key Features of Macro Photography Lighting

Lighting can make or break a macro photo. If you shoot in bad light, your photos will turn out mediocre (or worse). But if you can consistently find the good light, and bend it to your will–well, you’ll capture gorgeous shot after gorgeous shot.

butterfly on flower

Now, lighting always has two key features:

  1. Hardness
  2. Direction

These are the two things you must consider before you take a macro photo. And if you can choose the right hardness and the right direction, then you’ll capture some stunning photos.

Light Hardness

First things first:

What does it mean for light to have hardness?

Hardness refers to the amount of contrast generated by your light source. Very hard light generates lots of contrast; very soft light generates very little contrast.

pink flowers

If you’re struggling to understand this, think about different types of weather. When the sky is cloudy, the light feels soft and subdued.

But when you are out in bright sunlight, that’s when the world becomes covered with dark shadows and bright highlights. When you work with artificial lighting, you can use different equipment and settings to make the light harder or softer.

But what about natural light? How do you make it harder or softer?

Natural light macro photographers wait for the moments when the light fits their needs. Specifically, natural light macro photographers avoid shooting when the light is hard: sunny middays.

And natural light macro photographers shoot as often as possible when the light is soft:

On cloudy days.

Or…

When the sun is low in the sky (that is, just after sunrise and just before sunset).

Using Light Modifiers

However, if you do shoot in direct sunlight you will have both too harsh light and too much light. So you have to use a light modifier, like a diffuser disc to block the direct sunlight. You can also use other light modifiers like reflector discs to bounce light onto your subject. This adds fill light and avoids your subject to be covered in shadows.

soft bright colored flowers

Light Direction

The direction of the light will seriously affect the resulting macro photos. In part, this is because direction affects light hardness.

When the sun is high in the sky, the light is hard. But when the sun dips down, the light becomes far softer (and makes for much stronger images).

This is why macro photographers shoot on cloudy days or in the early morning or evening. The light is soft – due either to the clouds or due to the direction of the light.

But the direction of the light matters for another reason, too:

The direction of the light changes how the light impacts your subject.

By way of explanation, imagine a flower in a field. If the sun is low in the sky and facing the flower, how will the flower look?

It will be evenly illuminated. Pretty much all parts of the flower will be well lit.

But what if the sun is behind the flower? In that case, the flower will begin to look different–specifically, the flower will be very poorly lit, because the sun will illuminate it from behind.

(That’s how you end up with silhouettes–when the sun comes from behind your subject. This is a nice artistic effect, but is something that should be done carefully!)

This photo is backlit:

Backlit Daisies

And if the sun comes from off to the side of the flower, you’ll get something called sidelight. This looks very dramatic, because half of the flower will be well-lit, and half of the flower will be shrouded in darkness.

This photo is side-lit:

sidelighting on cherry flower

Hopefully, you now understand how the light source and direction of the light affect your macro photos.

Macro Photography Lighting: Putting It All Into Practice

As you know, light can either be hard or soft. Hard light is poor for macro photography, whereas soft light is perfect. You can find soft light on cloudy days, or just after sunrise and just before sunset.

You also know that light source can come from different directions in relation to your subject.

But how do you work with it in the field?

Light that comes from in front of your subject (AKA front light) will evenly illuminate the scene. This makes for strong macro images and should be your go-to type of light. You’ll easily be able to render your subject in all its glory, and you won’t have to worry about making significant exposure mistakes.

If you’re struggling to front light your subject, use this simple trick:

Point your shadow at your subject.

If your shadow heads toward your subject, it means that you’re in the right position–the sun is coming from behind you and in front of your subject.

Make sense?

Now, light that comes from behind your subject (AKA backlight) should generally be avoided, unless you’re using it for artistic effect.

Backlit flower

To find backlight, simply put your subject between you and the sun. If the sun is clearly behind your subject, then you’ll get yourself some nice backlight (though watch out for unwanted silhouettes!).

Light that comes from off to the side of your subject (AKA sidelight) can give you ultra-dramatic shots. But it can also be challenging to work with, and so I suggest you use it sparingly.

To find sidelight, simply make sure that the sun is at a right angle to you and your subject. That way, the sunlight will spill onto one side of the subject, and leave the other side dark.

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Macro Photography Lighting for Beginners: Next Steps

Now you should have a good sense of the best type of macro photography lighting and how to use it. You should be able to recognize when you should go out shooting, and when you should stay inside. Or when you should switch to using artificial lighting for macro photography.

Related Macro Photography Articles:

Adding a Macro Flash to My Setup

Even though I am a big fan of using a macro flash, without the knowledge of how to use natural light, you will venture into using artificial light, without thinking of either light direction and hardness as described above. Adding lighting equipment like led lights or ring lights can help you in a number of ways.

Continuous Led Lighting

Led lights can help you illuminate and shape the lighting of your subject of the background. You can control the light direction, hardness, and other lighting effects like light temperature. It is great for shooting subjects that are still or fairly motionless.

Using Macro flash Photography

Adding flash heads is another ballpark of lighting equipment altogether. No matter whether you opt for an external flash head or twin flashes mounted on the front of your macro lens, the lighting becomes a little trickier, but it also opens up a lot of possibilities you don’t have with natural light.

Subject movement or fast-moving subjects becomes much less of a problem. The light output you get from a flash will overrule even fast shutter speeds, and this effectively allows you to freeze subjects in flight, like flying insects, like bees.

As a drawback, you will have to deal with positioning the flash to eliminate reflections and setting the ISO to avoid getting a dark background.

Concluding words for lighting your macro photos

Even though adding continuous light or a flash unit or ring flash to your macro setup, improving how you use ambient light can also dramatically improve your macro shots.

After all, of all the lighting options, this is the cheapest option, because it is free, and still allows you to capture great macro photographs. However, for shooting macro subjects in flight artificial light is the only option. An experienced macro photographer knows when to use which kind of lighting techniques to use.

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