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 light.
And by the time you finish, you’ll be a macro photography lighting master!
Let’s dive right in, starting with the two fundamental components of any lighting situation:
The Two Key Features of Macro Photography Lighting
Lighting can make or break a macro photo. If you shoot with 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.
Now, lighting always has two key features:
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.
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.
For instance, this tulip photo has very soft light:
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 the sky is sunny around midday?
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.
When the sun is low in the sky (that is, just after sunrise and just before sunset).
I took this photo just before sunset:
Notice how wonderfully golden and soft the light is!
Which brings me to the second important characteristic of 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).
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.
This photo is front-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:
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:
Hopefully, you now understand how the direction of the light affects 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 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 frontlight) 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.
Now, light that comes from behind your subject (AKA back light) should generally be avoided, unless you’re using it for artistic effect.
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.
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.
Because here’s the thing:
If the light is bad, I suggest you stay inside. Shooting during bad light can be very discouraging–and most (if not all) of your pictures will be flat and unpleasant.
But if the light is good, I recommend you get outside. Shoot as much as possible. Take lots of photos.
And have fun!
Want to learn more about macro photography?
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer in the midwestern United States. To see more of Jaymes’s work, take a look at his website or his nature photography blog. To learn more about creative macro photography, check out his guide to abstract macro photos which is also available on his website.