Setting Up Artificial Lighting for Macro Photography

Macro photography is close up photography where artificial lighting is sometimes needed unless you're shooting outdoors. The technical definition is that the subject's actual size is reproduced on the photographic medium at an approximate one to one ratio. In order to achieve this extreme close up, we use macro lenses and position the camera extremely close to the subject. Because of the nature of macro lenses, the depth of field in macro photography is very narrow, where even a millimeter can be the distance between sharpness and blur. 

Depth of Field

Because of the narrow depth of field, it's generally more appealing to shoot with a small aperture (higher f/stop). That means we probably will not have enough natural light for a great exposure. We can compensate by either slowing the shutter speed or by adding lights.

Slowing the shutter speed is not recommended because if you're shooting something that's alive, then the slightest movement can cause a blur. Even your finger hitting the shutter can ruin the image. So, you need to compensate with lighting.


Because our work area is so small, we want to stay away from large lights. They'll blow out the object if they're place close, and if we move them far away, they will create unwanted shadows and harsh light. In essence, our camera will be casting a shadow over the subject. An ideal light to use is your camera's flash. The biggest problem in using it is that it can sometimes blow out the image. You can compensate for that by adding diffusion in front of the lenses to take down the intensity. If you find yourself needing diffusion on the fly, then any kind of plastic, whether it be a bag from the grocery store or an empty frosted container, will do.

If you're lucky to have a flash that can be detached, then a great strategy is to place the light on one side of the camera at an angle. On the other side of your camera, have an assistant hold up a bounce card. Now you have a shot with a key light and fill.

You only want to put the light on the side when you have something that will create some fill. Ideally, you want to avoid harsh shadows and the fill light will soften them. If you don't have anything to create fill with, then put the light right above the lens. Any shadows that are created will be hidden behind the subject.

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