How to Photograph Up Close – VII: Alternative Lighting Techniques 1

Hello all,

As I thought about this post I realized that there is a lot of information to talk about on alternative lighting.  My goal in these posts is to have you all learn something new on macro photography,  have projects for you to practice on during the week, read material to help with these projects, and if you have questions ask me via comments or email.  I don’t want to overload you with homework because I remember those days…. LOL!

So I decided to have 2 posts on alternative lighting (maybe 3) 🙂

Let’s talk about exposure for a bit.  When we photograph we want to be careful not to underexpose or overexpose the picture, read up on it again, it’s important.  Sometimes the subject can give us exposure problems and the only way we will be able to fix this problem is to use alternative lighting, reflectors, or working in HDR (I will have a post on HDR later).

When I’m outside photographing macro I realize that I need to wait for the wind to stop and pay attention to the sun/light hitting my subject.  Sometimes I ask my husband to stand over the area so I can remove the harsh shadows.  I have a very nice husband!!  But he’s not always available so I use reflectors to help me diffuse the area (see below).  B & H has a variety of reflectors/diffusers that you can choose from:

You can use a reflector to help shadow problems.

You can use a reflector to help shadow problems.

I also use reflectors to help eliminate shadow problems.  I use tinfoil most of the time when I shoot 1:1 macro, but when I’m focusing on close-ups, I work with the above reflectors.

Your flash is also a wonderful tool to add drama to your subject or to control the zone levels.  To learn your flash and any alternative lighting, I would  like you to photograph indoors first, then step outside and have some fun too.  Shooting indoors will help you understand your flash unit better, try a time when the light indoors is soft, maybe in the morning or in the evening.  Read your manual and play with the various adjustments. I realize that most of you do not have a macro flash.  If you get into the macro mode, you should definitely purchase one. Post III has an example of a macro flash.  One thing for sure…if you have a built in light on your camara…well, it won’t work for macro, sorry.  There is a variety of ways you can use your flash but you will need to take it off the camera,  click here to view some ideas and on here for more.   I used the system below with a flash diffuser to soften the light, check out Amazon for some excellent prices on diffusers.

This is an awesome kit if you use Canon products, check it out at B & H.

flash kit

flash kit

Check out this link to read up on various diffusers.  Sometimes you will want a more dramatic look to your photo so take off the diffuser and go for it!

In this post I used a diffuser like the example below:

Used this diffuser off the camera for macro photographing.

Used this diffuser off the camera for macro photographing.

I figured I would explain what I did for this macro mode of photographs. First, I went out to my back yard to grab some flowers. I decided to use natural light and my flash to show you what happens when you photograph in macro. My sliding glass door is on the left of the subject. As you can see from below:

Prominent natural light to the left of subject.

Prominent natural light to the left of subject.

Below are the geraniums from my garden that I used for this post.  You can use any subject to practice on except shiny objects.  We will work on reflective services in a later post.  I decided not to clean these up, except for sharpening, so you can see the difference between natural and flash lighting.
I start my macro mode by deciding what I like about the flower. Keep things simple, too much in the foreground and background can be distracting, especially in macro photography.

without flash

without flash

I have my camera on my tripod and I’m photographing with my cable release.  I sprayed this flower with water for fun.  Even with water drops the flower has a flat look to it (see above), which is fine if that’s what you’re going for but I want the photo to pop,  so I set up my flash on 1/1 ratio.  Yes, I’ll have a post just on ratio’s too but for now let’s just play with the basics.  (You can click on here to read a discussion on ratios from, which is a wonderful networking site for photographers.)  I did several shots on the flower with my flash.  An easy way to achieve a good exposure is to check your setting you used in natural light and then set it to underexpose using your shutter speed by 2 stops, when flash is on 1/1 ratio, the flash will compensate for the underexposure.  If you feel the photo is over or under exposed by looking at your LCD screen, then change your shutter speed until you’re happy.  “The power of digital photography”  Instant views!!

This flower was shot with the flash and diffuser:

with flash

Both photos below where photographed with a flash. Can you see the difference?  When you photograph macro and you need long shutter speeds to achieve a good exposure… you will see that the long shutter speed will need more direct lighting to create a more dramatic look. It also goes the other way, if you have prominent shadows on your subject you will need to increase your lighting intensity.

flash at a shorter shutter speed  f8 @ 1/6s

flash at a shorter shutter speed f8 @ 1/6s

Notice that the above photo is at a faster shutter speed than the photograph below.  When you play with this technique this week you may be frustrated if you want most of the photo (or flower) in focus (longer depth-of-field), no worries…I’ll show you next week some photos of the same flower using different lighting techniques.

flash with long exposure  f22 @ 3s

flash with long exposure f22 @ 3s

I always like to give you reading material on macro photography. Read, “Closeup shooting” by Cyrill Harnischmacher’s book in your local library or purchase it for your own macro library.  I will be discussing in our next post some of the techniques in this book.

Today, I discussed the various ways to reflect and diffuse light.  When using your flash, you MUST take it off the camera and play with it by photographing around various locations on your subject.  Play with this technique indoors first to learn how your flash works.  Read your manual because next week we will talk about ratio’s a bit more.  We also discussed the difference on the way your flash will work on short shutter speeds compared to long speeds while photographing macro.

Next week we will talk about more lighting techniques using a flash light, umbrellas and tents.   I would also like to try and talk to you about hot lights (tungsten) and A/C strobe lights.

I’d like to leave you with a fun shot from the day:





5 Comments on “How to Photograph Up Close – VII: Alternative Lighting Techniques 1”

  1. […] using Natural Light / V: Digital Darkroom Basics / VI:  Creative Techniques using Natural Light / VII: Alternative Lighting Techniques 1 / VIII: Alternative Lighting Techniques 2 / IX:  Alternative Lighting Techniques […]

  2. […] Natural Light / V: Digital Darkroom Basics / VI:  Creative Techniques using Natural Light / VII: Alternative Lighting Techniques 1 / VIII: Alternative Lighting Techniques 2 / IV: Alternative Lighting Techniques 3 /  X:  Printing […]

  3. Janice, Thank you for such an inspiring post. While I don’t do macro photography, I’m planning on exploring it down the road. Your post gave some great insight on working with flash and off camera. I normally use available light (for wildlife) but now must learn off camera flash for fill. Thank you, again for a great post and beautiful shots. Patricia

  4. Hello all,

    I wanted to leave you a comment… Some people have told me that the white lettering on black background is hard to read. I have asked wordpress if there is a way to change the color of my font, but I have not heard from them? You can register for my blog via email (look on first page upper right side). This will be much easier for the eyes 🙂

    Thank you,

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