What flash system do we use and 10 reasons why we recommend it

Articles | Macro photography tips

By Alejandro Arteaga and Frank Pichardo. May 2020.

One of the most frequently asked questions we receive is: what flash setup do you use/recommend for wildlife macro photography? Below, we give you our personal opinion (which quite frankly, is strongly biased towards photographing amphibians and reptiles, but can work on the vast majority of macro subjects), but encourage you to explore as many options as possible and to ask other photographers for their preference as well.

Biologist using a flash to illuminate a lizard

Amazon Dwarf-Iguana (Enyalioides laticeps) photographed using an off-camera flash with a diffuser.

Put simply, if you are not on a budget, we recommend that you get one or ideally two flash units that can be triggered by a radio signal along with the unit’s corresponding radio transmitter. Finally, add a LumiQuest LTp StripBox or Softbox to the mix.

Below, we list some popular flash+transmitter combination options for Canon, Nikon, and Sony cameras:

Camera systemFlash systemFlash unitTransmitter
CanonCanon600EX II-RTST-E3-RT
CanonYongnuoYN600EX-RT IIYN-E3-RT II
NikonYongnuoYN968N IIYN560-TX

Why do we recommend this specific combination? Why not a ring flash, twin flash, the camera’s built-in flash, or an optically triggered wireless flash?

Here are 10 reasons why:

1. This system is versatile. Radio-triggered off-camera flash units can be placed wherever you want because radio waves can travel through obstructions. You can create a variety of lighting effects that may be impossible using a ring flash, twin flash, the camera’s built-in flash, or an optically triggered wireless flash. The flash plus diffuser system we recommend can be setup in less than 30 seconds, which is critical if you do not want to miss any short-lived photographic opportunities. We generally dislike umbrellas and diffusers supported by metal rods or wires because they are cumbersome and take too much time to set-up.

Biologist using a flash to illuminate a frog

Tarsier Monkey-Frog (Phyllomedusa tarsius) photographed using one diffused off-camera flash from the front plus another un-diffused one from behind.

2. You have less things to worry about. Using a radio-triggered flash means there are no cumbersome cables that, in the case of rainforest macro photography, may accidentally bump into vegetation and disturb the animal you are photographing.

3. The size of light source is ideal. We love laptop-sized diffusers (such as the LumiQuest LTp StripBox or Softbox) because they effectively increase ~40 times the size of the light source. This is large enough in relation to most amphibians and reptiles as to provide a soft wraparound light that is indistinguishable from a larger, more cumbersome diffuser.

In this first example, this Painted Mock-Viper (Psammodynastes pictus) was illuminated using a single diffused off-camera flash coming from the side and slightly from the top of the frame. Photo by Frank Pichardo.

In this second example, the flash was poiting at the snake from above.

4. Creating a rim-light is easy. With a radio-triggered flash, it is easy to create a “rim light” by placing the flash behind the subject. A “rim light” outlines the edges of a subject and makes it stand out against the background. This eye-catching effect cannot be done unless the flash is off-camera, and is very hard to achieve unless the unit is triggered by a radio signal.

Outline of a La Salle's Shadow-Snake (Synophis lasallei) created with the "rim light" technique using the setup in the next picture. Notice how the outline of the snake is revealed by light coming from above as well as below the subject. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

Here is the setup used to photograph the snake in the previous picture. The flash on top and behind the branch where the snake was perched (photographed the night before) acted as the main light source. The diffuser below served as a reflector to bounce some of the light back into the subject from below. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

5. You can “own” the light. With an off-camera flash plus and easy-to-attach diffuser you can control the “mood” of any scene by directing light exactly where you want it instead of being at the mercy of whatever ambient light condition your subject happens to be in.

In this example, this Ecuadorian Salamander (Bolitoglossa equatoriana) was illuminated using a single diffused off-camera flash. Photos by Alejandro Arteaga.

In this second example, the salamander was photographed using only the available ambient light.

In this third example, the salamander was illuminated using only a flashlight.

6. You can use multiple flashes. Choosing a flash system that allows you to light a scene using more than one unit will expand your options and will let you be more creative overall. You can light a single subject from different angles or independently light more than one subject using several units.

Picture of two milkfrogs perched on vegetation

Each of these two Big-eared Milkfrogs (Trachycephalus macrotis) was illuminated independently by an off-camera flash. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

7. You can diversify your style. Using an off-camera flash gives you the opportunity to create a portfolio made up of a variety of styles, even if the subjects you photograph are every similar to one another. Fore example, many lizards in the tropics may look quite similar, but they can look dramatically different when lit using different styles.

In this first example, this Amazon Dwarf-Iguana (Enyalioides laticeps) was illuminated using a single diffused off-camera flash coming from below and slightly in front of its face. Photos by Frank Pichardo.

In this second example, the flash was poiting at the lizard from above and slightly to the left of its face.

In this third example, the flash was pointing at the lizard from the left side of the frame.

8. It is fun. Being in the field photographing macro subjects is all about learning and having fun. Going wireless eliminates flash-positioning limitations so you can focus on field-testing and learning as you practice, have fun, and improve your photographic skills.

9. Merging flash with ambient light is easy. Sometimes, the natural light available around a subject makes it look nice but not awesome. A “touch of flash” or, in other words, flash that is subtle and seamlessly blends with the ambient light, can be the deciding factor to make an image that you consider “perfect.” Usually, what you want is to mimic the ambient light by matching its direction, strength, and color. Achieving this is hard using a ring flash, twin flash, or the camera’s built-in flash, but is easy using a radio-triggered flash to which you can attach a diffuser. All you have to do is expose the scene using the available ambient light, and then just fill-in the shadows of the subject using flash.

This photograph of an Amazon Dwarf-Iguana (Enyalioides laticeps) was created using the setup in the following picture. The scene was lit mostly by natural light; only a “touch of flash” was added to help separate the subject from its background. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

The flash on top and slightly behind the lizard acted just as an accessory light to make it stand out better in a scene that was already well-lit.

10. The catchlight looks great. Although this is a personal opinion, we think the catchlight (that little twinkle of light in an animal’s eye) produced by a rectangular softbox looks much more natural than that produced by a ring flash or a twin flash. Using these other flash systems produce unnatural looking refections in an animal’s eyes: a “doughnut” in the case of the ring flash, or “two white bars” in the case of the twin flash.

Check out the shape of the catchlight and how it changes depending on the flash position in this Yellow-throated Stream-Lizard (Gelanesaurus flavogularis). Photos by Frank Pichardo.

Check out the shape of the catchlight and how it changes depending on the flash position in this Yellow-throated Stream-Lizard (Gelanesaurus flavogularis). Photos by Frank Pichardo.

Feel free to choose whichever lighting system you find most convenient. It certainly does not have to be the same we use. Just make sure that you choose one that does not not impose limitations on your creativity, it does not take the fun out of the process, and most importantly, minimizes disturbance to your subject.

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