In this article, you’re going to discover the secrets to macro photography lighting.
You’ll come away with the ability to get photos like this:
Because mastering macro photography lighting isn’t hard. It just takes a little bit of knowledge–which I’m going to share with you in this article.
Are you ready to start taking gorgeous macro photos?
Let’s jump right in, starting with:
Cloudy Light: A Flower Macro Photographer’s Dream
For most forms of photography, cloudy light is, well, boring.
But for macro photographers, cloudy light can be really, really incredible.
When the sun is covered by clouds, the harsh sunlight gets diffused.
And diffused light becomes soft and even. This will light your subjects very evenly–and guarantees an easy exposure.
One great thing about cloudy light is that you can shoot for long periods of time without worrying about the sun’s angle and direction. You don’t have to wait until the evening to do your photography.
But here’s another great thing about cloudy light:
It does a wonderful job of bringing out colors.
That’s why flower macro photographers love cloudy light–it makes the flower colors rich, deep, and beautiful.
I should caution you, however:
While you can shoot for long periods of time under cloudy light, you should pack up as you reach the late hours of the day. Cloudy light in the evening is just too dark to shoot with. You’ll just come away with shots that are blurry or grainy.
When it’s cloudy, try to find a colorful subject.
Cloudy Lighting Trick: Use Cloudy Light to Create a White Background
If you shoot on a cloudy day, you can create a high-key (i.e., ultra-white) background very easily.
Get down next to your subject, so that you’re shooting slightly upward.
(Flowers work great for this.)
Make sure that the background is covered completely by clouds.
And take your shot–being careful to make sure the photo is nice and bright. Go ahead and dial in some exposure compensation to lighten things up a bit, if you like.
And voila! You’ll have a high-key macro photo!
Sunny Light: Strong, Powerful, and Must Be Kept In Check!
Sunny light is a lot more difficult to work with than cloudy light.
Sunny light changes over the course of the day. In the early morning, sunny light is soft and golden. In the middle of the day, sunny light is hard and contrast-heavy. And at the end of the day, the light reverts back to the golden light of the morning.
When it comes to macro photography, your number one rule for sunny light is this:
Don’t shoot during the middle of the day.
If you do, your photos will look contrast-heavy and muddy–which is exactly what you don’t want.
Instead, only shoot during the golden hours:
The two hours after sunrise, and the two hours before sunset.
What makes the golden hours so great?
First, during the golden hours the sun is low in the sky. And low light makes for more direct lighting. In other words, your main subject will be hit directly from the side, rather than from overhead. This looks much less contrasty, and much more pleasing!
Second, the golden hours are golden. The low sun produces a wonderful golden glow–which will absolutely enhance your macro photos.
However, there’s something more you should know about golden-hour light:
It’ll give you different effects, depending on its direction.
Related Post: Best Macro Lenses for Nikon in 2019
Frontlight: Your Go-To Golden-Hour Light
Frontlight occurs when light hits the front of your subject. The light comes from behind you, the photographer.
To find frontlight, you can simply point your shadow at your main subject. That way, you’ll ensure that you have powerful, direct frontlighting.
But when should you use frontlight?
I recommend using frontlight as your go-to golden-hour lighting.
You see, frontlight is a very even type of lighting. It hits your subject from the front, and illuminates its details.
If you want to portray the subject as you see it, frontlight makes sense. Plus, the golden glow of golden-hour looks great in frontlit photos.
Frontlighting is also good for exposures. It’s fairly low contrast, so you won’t have to worry much about losing details in the shadows and highlights.
Frontlight is the right choice in most situations. So stick with frontlight, unless you’re going for a dramatic effect.
And speaking of dramatic effects:
Backlight: For Macro Photography Drama
Backlight comes from behind your macro photography subject. To find backlight, position your subject between you and the sun–and then point your camera into the light.
Now, backlighting is a bit trickier to work with than frontlight. There are a few things you need to consider if you want stunning backlit photos.
First, you must avoid including the sun in the frame. The sun is far too bright for any camera to render. So keep the sun just outside the photo, or block the sun with your subject.
Second, you need to carefully expose for your backlit photo. In fact, there are two general types of backlit exposures:
- Normal subjects
You capture a silhouette by exposing for the sky behind your subject. The subject itself becomes completely black, while the background looks nice and colorful.
On the other hand, you can capture a normal-looking subject by exposing for the subject itself, and ignoring the sky. In general, this results in a detail-less background but a rich, gorgeous subject.
Both of these exposures end up looking dramatic, because that’s what backlight does: It adds bright light and contrast to an otherwise drab scene.
Related Post: Best Macro Lenses for Canon
Broken Backlighting Technique: Use Trees to Create a Stunning Background
If you backlight your subject, you’ll usually come away with something gorgeous and dramatic.
But you won’t have the best possible background.
If you want a truly stunning background, you should try the broken backlighting technique.
Here’s how it works:
Find an area of the sky that’s blocked by tree leaves (or flowers, or cattails, or bushes, etc.).
Then get down low, and position yourself so that the sun is coming through that blocked area.
Then choose a subject so that the blocked area is in the background.
If you do this correctly, you’ll end up with a background full of broken light–light that’s blocked by various branches, leaves, bushes, and more.
And this will look absolutely amazing as a background.
Shade: The Light for Creative Sun-Shade Effects
Here’s one more important type of light for you:
Now, I don’t recommend using shaded light during midday. The colors will look unpleasant and washed out.
But shaded light during the golden hours can look incredible. So don’t hold back when it comes to using shaded golden-hour light.
Which brings me to one of my favorite macro photography tricks:
The Sun-Shade Technique for Creamy Backgrounds
The sun-shade technique is extremely simple.
First, find a subject that’s in the shade.
Then, position yourself so that the background is covered by golden sunlight.
If you use a wide aperture, you’ll get a wonderfully creamy, golden backdrop!
Macro Photography Lighting: Conclusion
Hopefully, you can now confidently use lighting for amazing macro photography.
You know how to use cloudy light.
You know how to use golden-hour light.
And you know how you can use a few simple techniques…
…to capture amazing macro photos!
Related Post: Best Macro Cameras
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.