I have to admit that when I first started out in photography I was a bit of a cheap skate (although at the time I labelled myself cautious and wanted to spend as little as possible to get the best value for money) and, despite what I had read in photography magazines and journals, on photography forums etc., thought I would be able to capture stunning macro shots using a standard speed light.
Using the speed light on the camera I found I put my subject in dark shadow (because it was shielded by the lens) and it was impossible to illuminate. Using the speed light off camera was okay for shooting stationery subjects but when it came to living subjects I found the insect had scuttled away or flown off before I could get everything in place. The other issue I found using a speed light was it was just too powerful, even set at its lowest setting, and the photos were way over exposed. After several hours and numerous attempts (I told you I was one to penny pinch at the time) I had to admit defeat and buy a dedicated macro ring light.
Whilst researching macro ring lights I soon came to the conclusion the continuous ring lights were not suitable for insect photography, and as much as it pained me (the continuous ring lights are very cheap) I dismissed them and went straight to the dedicated macro ring flash unit.
At that time the top end macro flash lights, the ones with advanced features of ETTL, HSS and flash exposure compensation were stupidly expensive and I was reluctant to shell out for one, and managed to convince myself that a manual only macro ring light was the best solution. After all, every flash photographer uses full manual, and using ETTL is cheating, right?
When the macro ring flash arrived I was eager to get out there and start taking stunning macro shots that were good enough for magazine print. I had it in my mind that this ring flash was going to make all the difference and instantly improve my photos. To say I was a little naïve is a total understatement.
I know how flash photography works, I know to expose for the background and then set the flash power to correctly expose for the subject and I know to intentionally underexpose the background to make the subject ‘pop’. I use my speed light in manual mode quite a bit so I knew what I needed to do. Despite this, my first attempts with the ring flash were terrible. The majority of images weren’t correctly exposed and the problems included both over exposure and under exposure. Out of the hundreds of images I took I could count the number I was happy with, and that were correctly exposed on one hand. To say I was disappointed was an understatement.
The problem with setting the flash power manually when taking photos of insects is that you have to make a guess, set the power and then take the shot before the critter gets a chance to scurry away or fly off. With insect photography you only get one chance, and if you mess it up that’s tough. With insect photography you don’t get the chance to take test shots to set the flash power.
The other issue with insect photography is the subject to flash distance is constantly changing which means you have to keep adjusting the flash power. Even when the aperture and shutter speed are left untouched the flash power requires tweaking as you move closer to, or further away from the insect. The more you move the more times the flash power needs tweaking, and since I was constantly trying to move around the insects to capture the best shots possible I needed to adjust the flash power, i.e. “guess” to try and get a correct exposure.
I had loads of issues with the manual ring flash and after wasting several hours I decided enough was enough and ordered one of the all singing all dancing macro ring flash units. Looking back I should have bought one of these macro flashes in the first instance, but then hindsight is a wonderful thing isn’t it. Buying cheap, as I found out, means buying twice and is not only false economy but also a total waste of money.
My advice to anyone buying a macro ring flash is to buy one with all the advanced features, and stay away from the manual only macro ring flashes. Even if you only take photos of subjects that don’t move I would still recommend getting a macro flash with ETTL technology. Whilst you may not have any interest in taking macro photos of insects at present who knows what the future holds? You never know, you may decide one day to have a go at insect photography and if you have a macro flash that is already up to the task you are going to be more successful.
Whilst the premium branded macro ring flashes with advanced features are expensive there is another small player in the market producing a macro ring flash jam packed full of technology that is not only a fraction of the price of the established macro flashes but also very good quality. Yongnuo, is a Chinese manufacturer (don’t let this put you off this company) who makes top quality flash equipment at great prices.
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.
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