As I am sure you are aware a standard/conventional speed light is not the best choice for throwing a bit of extra light on subjects for macro photography. Speed lights are too powerful, and because of where they are located on the camera in relation to the lens the subject is often put in dark shadows that are impossible to lift. Speed lights are no good for macro photography and the best solution is a macro ring light.
There are typically two different types of macro ring light, and these are a ring light and a ring flash. The ring light is a continuous light, i.e. one that is either on or off, and the ring flash works in exactly the same way as a speed light or strobe, i.e. the light is fired when the shutter button is pressed.
Ring lights don’t have the same features as a ring flash, and the technology in a ring light isn’t as advanced as that in a ring flash, which is to be expected. Technology is expensive, and as the ring light doesn’t have much, with it being a simple, it is a cheap and cheerful lighting solution.
Ring flashes work in the same way as conventional speed lights and are more advanced. The top end ring flashes are jam packed full of technology which means they have a full manual mode (giving you total control over the flash exposure) and advanced features like ETTL mode (through the lens), flash exposure compensation (adjustable in 1/3 stop increments) and modelling lights among other things. There are also budget ring flashes available, and these typically have full manual mode but none of the advanced features. The all singing all dancing ring flashes are obviously more expensive than the basic ring flashes, however there is an affordable ring flash with all the features you’d ever want (I refer to the Yongnuo YN-14EX – click here for an honest an unbiased review).
It is obvious the ring flash is more versatile than the ring light, and therefore useful for all situations you are ever going to encounter but is it the best buy? The answer to this will vary from person to person and the ring flash will be essential for some photographers where as others can get away with a basic ring light.
If you only want to photograph still life subjects in a studio environment and require a weak lighting solution, the ring light is the best choice. Sure, you can use a ring flash for this type of photography but then what’s the point in shelling out good money on features you will never use? It makes no sense.
If you want the ability to vary the output of the light the only solution is the ring flash. This is obvious, but you need to consider whether the all singing all dancing ring flash is best or whether the budget ring flash is best?
If you can get away with manual flash only, and are comfortable and confident setting the flash power yourself a budget ring flash is what you need. Manual only ring flashes are ideal when the flash to subject distance is constant and doesn’t change. If the flash to subject distance frequently changes and/or changes quickly you are going to struggle with a manual ring flash and will need a ring flash with ETTL technology.
One situation where ring flash is an essential is when photographing insects. Setting a ring flash manually when photographing insects is a real chore, and you will get the flash exposure wrong more times than you will right. ETTL is a great help since the flash power will change as the insect moves around.
So, back to the original question “Ring flash or ring light for macro photography?” The answer to this depends on what you are photographing however for the most versatile macro lighting solution I would recommend the all singing all dancing macro ring flash, and the best thing is you don’t have to spend a fortune on one either – just look at the Yongnuo YN-14EX.
Even if you can get away with a cheap and cheerful macro ring light unit at the moment it is worth remembering that things change and who knows, in the future you may want to have a go at insect photography, which will require a dedicated ring flash with ETTL technology. With this in mind you may be better off spending a little more and getting a macro lighting solution that will help you grow and develop your macro photography skills in the first instance.
Other macro photography related articles you may find interesting
Macro photography is one of my passions, and below is a selection of links to other macro photography articles you may find useful or interesting. Please feel free to take a look and see what you think.
“Using a super zoom lens for macro photography” is an article that proves you don’t necessarily need a specialist macro lens to capture stunning macro and close up photos.
“Shooting insects” is an article focusing on tips, tricks and techniques to get awesome macro shots of insects and mini-beasts.
“Best macro lenses for Canon cameras” is an article, as I am sure you have already guessed, listing the best macro lenses currently available for Canon cameras. If you are looking to buy a macro lens for your Canon camera you need to hold fire until you have read this.
“Macro photography on the cheap” is an article that proves you don’t need to spend a fortune to capture stunning macro photos.
“The best flash for macro photography” is an article that, as I am sure you have worked out, focuses on macro lighting solutions.
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.