Unique challenges with lighting compared to other photography styles, and very important
Lighting is very important and challenging with macro photography. Most of the time, your camera, body, and lens will be blocking out the sunlight since you have to be so close to your subject. You can maneuver your subject around to get the right lighting, or you can use a flash to light your subject. I personally prefer a lens mounted flash with a diffuser for the easiest and most versatile lighting solution.
Macro lenses also require additional light compared to other lenses, and the shallow depth of field might require you to use higher f-stop numbers which further reduces the light that makes it to your camera sensor.
Ring flashes are great for macro photography since they connect to the front of your lens which means your camera and lens will not be blocking any flash light. I’ve used ring flashes from the cheap $40 end to the expensive $989 price tag, and if you want the best results with the least amount of hastle $989 is not a bad price for a flash. The performance from the $40 cheap ring flashes is very bad and I'd highly suggest saving a little more and at least spending ~$171 on a Yongnuo 24EX flash or $99 on the Yongnuo YN-14EX-C ring flash.
If you have a speedlite flash, I highly recommend the Neweer round collapsible soft box; the only drawback is that it is big and awkward to use, but the lighting is gorgeous, the bee pictured was captured using it on a speedlite with a 100mm macro lens
Collapsible Ring Flash
Canon MR-14EX II
If you want the most control and optimal lighting for macro photography, a twin flash is the way to go. They give you two adjustable light sources in front of your lens. In my opinion these are a must have to make your life easy by achieving great lighting with ease. I have the $989 Canon MT-26EX flash and it is worth every dollar.
If you don’t want to worry about lighting or failing equipment, get the Canon MT-26EX or the Canon MT-24EX
Here is a quick side by side comparison that shows the performance difference between two different diffusers. They also show the importance of a diffuser, without one, the shadows would be very hard, and the reflection in the eyes would be over exposed and there would be loss of detail in the eyes.
The same concept as using a beauty dish to light a person’s face during a portrait shoot can be applied at a much smaller level to macro photography. Look closely at the eyes, the image on the left was shot with a simple plastic diffuser.
These are very simple, easy to attach, and easy to use. They are not perfect though and as you can see in the picture, the light source is still visible in the eyes causing a small loss of detail in the eyes. This is still very visually appealing, and the rest of the lighting on the subject is soft.
Stock Canon Diffuser
You can also get creative and create your own diffuser to get even better results, and if you have a 3D printer, you can make really cool and sturdy diffusers! Here is a 3D printed diffuser on my camera; it is bulky, but the results are outstanding!
I’ve seen people create similar diffusers using cardboard, milk jugs, styrofoam plates, etc. With a 3D printer, you can recreate similar diffusers so they can last much longer. For the flash I am using, someone had designed a 3D printing modelto use, check it out if you are interested! I find 3D printing very fascinating, so don’t feel that you need one to make a diffuser! If you’d like to try out this 3D printed diffuser, hit me up on twitter!
The more you can diffuse the light, the softer the light will be, and the more detail you will be able to see in your photos. The design of the 3D printed diffuser is basically two little soft boxes, one on each side of your camera which causes very little direct light to hit your subject. Take a look at this image taken with the 3D printed diffuser:
I am happy with how well the 3D printed diffuser works, notice in the eyes that you can’t really tell where the light is coming from. The wasp is fully lit, and the light is very soft.