When taking close up and macro photos of insects the working distance, i.e. the distance between the lens and the subject, is reduced which restricts the light and reduces it. Because of the reduction in light a flash is required to provide a burst of extra light to get the correct exposure. Many photographers like to use natural light only, and I do as well, but insect photography is one of those times when you will struggle using just natural light.
Some cameras have a built in pop up flash but these are not sufficient for insect photography. The inbuilt flash is plenty powerful enough to illuminate insects (you’re going to be very close to them when taking photos of them) but you can’t control the direction of the light or easily modify and soften the light. An external flash or speed light is, therefore, essential for insect photography.
Whilst a speed light is ideal for general flash photography it is not suitable for insect photography. Speed lights are too powerful, even when the power is dialled right down to its minimum, and you will find the colour washed out in your insect photos.
The other problem with using speed lights is that when left in the camera’s hot shoe they struggle to illuminate the shadow the lens casts over the frame, and if the insect happens to be in this shadow you’re not going to see it. You can take speed lights off camera (and use radio triggers or an off camera flash cord) to overcome this problem but this is far from ideal. Whilst you sort out the shadow problem the power issue is still there and unless you have an assistant to hold the flash a good distance from the subject there is little you can do about it. Do you have access to an assistant to do this? I know I don’t.
The best flash for insect photography is the ring flash. Note I said “ring flash” and not ring light. Whilst it is tempting to buy and use the cheaper ring light I would advise against it. Ring lights are either off or on, and approaching insects shining a ring of lights in their ace is likely to spook them and make them scarper before you get the chance to take the shot. I have tried using a cheap ring light in the past and I have to say my hit rate was terrible. If you’re shooting captive insects in the studio ring lights are fine. If you are shooting insects out in the wild you will struggle with a ring light. The ring flash is a strobe light, which means it only fires when the shutter button is pressed. This reduces the chances of spooking the insect and also increases the hit rate.
The ring flash is low powered (most have a guide number of 14) which makes exposing much easier and washing out the colours a thing of the past. You also have total control over the power of the ring flash and can have it at full power or rein it right in when up real close and personal to the subject.
The ring flash is screwed in to the filter thread at the end of the lens, which eliminates the lens creating a shadow in the frame.
THE RING FLASH I USE FOR INSECT PHOTOGRAPHY
"The excellent, and affordable Yongnuo YN14 ring flash"
The ring flash I use for my insect photography is the Yongnuo YN14, which based on the popular (and very expensive Canon MR14EX). The build quality of the Yongnuo ring flash is very good, although it isn’t up to the same standard as the Canon MR14EX. That said, I have had my Yongnuo ring flash for several years now and it still works as good today as it did the day I first opened the box.
The Yongnuo YN14 ring flash not only has manual mode but also TTL mode as well. TTL flash is essential when the flash to subject distance keeps changing and also when the subject won’t wait for you to set the flash power manually, both of which are frequent when taking photos of insects. When it comes to insect photography manual flash is a faff and is not something I would recommend.
There are two tubes in the Yongnuo ring flash that are independent of each other, and since you can set each light at a different power you can get creative and have different lighting ratios for different lighting effects.
Compared to the Canon MR14EX and the Sigma ring flash the Yongnuo ring flash is cheap, and I am stunned how Yongnuo can sell them so cheap. Is this company actually making money on the sale of these? Whatever, if you want a ring flash that is well built, full of features, does everything a ring flash is supposed to do and is also affordable the Yongnuo YN14 is something you should take a look at. I am very happy with mine and it is the best value for money.
Buy the Yongnuo YN14EX ring flash from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.