Regardless of what you may have read or heard, a standard speed light or flash is no good for insect photography, and if you don’t have any other type of flash you are better of sticking with natural light and work around not using a burst of artificial light, for example bumping the ISO.
Based on my experience of trying to use a standard speed light to capture photos of insects there are two main problems using one are as follows:-
1. A standard speed light will not illuminate an insect close to the lens
Getting macro and close up shots of insects requires being extremely close to the subject, and more often than not you will need to position the lens so it is almost touching the subject. When the lens is very close to the insect it casts a shadow over it, which a camera mounted speed light cannot illuminate, and the position of a flash on the camera’s hot shoe is such that there is no way you can adequately light an insect that is very close to the lens. You can overcome this problem by taking the flash off the camera, but even doing this doesn’t make the speed light suitable for insect photography as it creates even more problems.
2. A standard speed light is too powerful for insect photography
Standard speed lights, even the cheap models, are too powerful for insect photography. The speed light will be so close to the insect you will have issues with flash over exposure, resulting in a washed out photo. Okay, you can turn the flash power right down, but even at its lowest power setting a standard speed light will be too powerful. The only way around this is to place the speed light a fair distance from the subject, but this then leads to other problems to overcome. For example, are your arms long enough to hold the speed light the desired distance from the insect? You may be lucky enough to have an assistant to hold the speed light for you – does your assistant know where to stand? Can you tell the assistant where to stand before the insect moves off?
If a standard speed light or flash isn’t suitable for insect photography, what are the alternatives? There are in fact two different macro lights that are perfect for insect photography, and these include:-
A ring flash is a circular light that attaches to the end of the lens via the filter thread. Since the flash is at the end of this solves the problem of the lens casting a shadow over the subject, as the light will illuminate it.
Compared to conventional speed lights ring flashes are low powered. To put this in to perspective a ring flash has a guide number of 14 meters whereas the low powered speed lights have guide numbers of 35 meters or so. Ring flashes are specifically designed for macro and close up photography and the power is set at a level where there will be no flash overexposure, even on the highest power.
A ring light produces a nice even light and will light the subject accordingly. There are two separate light tubes in a ring flash, each being independent of the other, and you can set them at different power levels and change the lighting ratio. This intentionally creates areas of light and shadow to create some depth, however the effect is subtle. Even the most extreme lighting ratio has a subtle effect.
A ring flash has a full manual setting and a TTL setting. When taking photos of insects the flash to subject distance will never remain constant and will consistently change therefore TTL mode is crucial. Whilst it is satisfying to nail a shot in manual mode if you try and set the flash manually for insect photography you will miss more shots than you get.
The ring flash I own and use for insect photography is the Yongnuo YN-14EX. This ring flash is based on the Canon MR-14EX ring flash, it works in the same way as the Canon MrR-14EX ring flash and it achieves the same effects as the Canon MR-14EX. The build quality of the Yongnuo YN-14EX ring flash isn’t as good as that of the Canon MR-14EX, but then given the Canon is several times more than the Yongnuo ring flash this is to be expected. The Yongnuo YN-14EX is an excellent light and one that is highly recommended. If you need a bit more convincing of how good this ring flash is take a look at the following video review, courtesy of Youtube.
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