Flashes in Macro Photography. Part 1: One or Multiple Flashes? Choosing a Bracket

Nikon R1C1 kit with flashes mounted on the lens

Table of Contents

Introduction

 Why do macro photographers need flashes? Macro photography is a large branch of wildlife photography, and the use of artificial lighting, specifically flashes, is not mandatory. Some photographers take photos exclusively with natural light, and sometimes you can even encounter the opinion that artificial light harms the artistic quality of the shot. However, I believe that the competent and appropriate use of flashes does not diminish the artistic value of the shot and sometimes is a necessary condition for obtaining it.

The most obvious reason for using artificial light is insufficient natural light. For example, when shooting under the forest canopy without flashes, you will either have to drastically increase the camera’s sensitivity, resulting in a noisy image, or use a tripod, which is not always convenient in dense vegetation or when photographing actively moving creatures. There is also a whole branch of macro photography where it is impossible to work without flashes: night shooting. Night shooting is especially effective in tropical climates, where a huge number of invertebrates, mollusks, and other small animals can be seen after sunset.

Another area for flash use is shooting in harsh daylight conditions. In this case, flashes can fill in the shadows, preventing them from becoming black spots.

It is important to note that using flashes not only solves problems of insufficient or too harsh natural light. Artificial light can highlight the texture of small animals’ coverings, illuminating tiny, barely visible details of their structure.

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, using flashes provides another extremely useful effect – “freezing” moving objects. When shooting with long exposures or non-stationary subjects, the use of a flash results in sharper images than would be achieved without it. This effect becomes more pronounced as the light of flash/flashes constitutes a larger portion of the overall illumination. Accordingly, it is maximal when shooting at night, with the flash being the sole light source, and minimal in bright daylight.

Thus, flashes, when used correctly, can give a photographer the flexibility to take technically sound shots regardless of the quantity and quality of natural light, as well as improve the final quality of the photographs.

One or multiple flashes?

In macro photography, you can use either one flash or multi-flash systems (two or more flashes). Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. Let’s discuss this in more detail.

Macro photography with a single flash

Advantages:

  • Cost: One flash is obviously cheaper than several, which can be a deciding factor for a beginner photographer who is not yet sure about spending significant sums on the hobby.
  • Convenience, compactness and low weight: A camera with a single flash (even equipped with a large diffuser) is much more convenient and lighter than a multi-flash system.

 

Disadvantages:

  • Lack of versatility: This is perhaps the only disadvantage of a single-flash system. It is fundamentally significant on one hand but not obvious to a beginner macro photographer on the other.
Hormocerus reticulatus (Brentidae) from Laos
A small beetle illuminated by a single flash with a diffuser

Let’s consider this problem in more detail. The above photo shows an example of using one flash for macro photography: the flash is mounted in the camera’s hot shoe, equipped with a large diffuser, and I photographed a small beetle. As you can see, this setup works well for shooting small objects (up to 3-4 cm in length), where the distance between the object and the diffuser surface is small, and the light falls at a steep angle from above, providing angled light with soft shadows. But what happens if you try to shoot a larger object, such as this large tropical longhorn Batocera beetle, using the same method?

Batocera rufomaculata () from Laos
Example of frontal, flat lighting when photographing a large insect

Let’s analyze the resulting shot. On one hand, the photo is not technically bad: it is evenly lit, with no harsh highlights or deep shadows. The photo shows the insect’s appearance well and can be used for species identification. However, the shot feels boring. Why is that? Since the beetle is large, the shooting distance was quite large. As a result, the light began to fall on the beetle from directly above at a straight angle, producing a flat, front-lighting effect that practically “glued” the beetle to the bark, completely eliminating the image’s depth.

Concluding the discussion on macro photography with a single flash, it is important to make a key clarification: everything mentioned above pertains to the most common way of using a single flash, where it is mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. However, the single flash can be moved off to the side of the camera body and controlled either via a sync cable or one of the wireless methods. In this case, when photographing large insects, it is possible to avoid the negative effect of “flat” lighting, but this approach sacrifices the main advantages of this setup, namely its compactness and low weight.

Macro Photography with Multiple Flashes

To avoid such situations, multi-flash systems can be used by adding additional side emitters to the flash mounted on the hot shoe. The main advantages of using multiple flashes in macro photography are:

  • The ability to create angled lighting and emphasize the texture of the subject, regardless of its size.
  • The ability to create complex lighting setups, such as backlighting.
Dorylaea sp. (Blattidae) from Borneo
Angled lighting achieved using 3 flashes

Look at this photo of a cockroach taken on Borneo. Like the previous longhorn beetle, this is a fairly large insect with a flattened body, making it even more challenging to create a sense of depth in the image. To achieve this and highlight the cockroach’s relief, I used three flashes. The main flash (Nikon Speedlight SB-900) mounted in the camera’s hot shoe provided general scene lighting, with its light falling on the insect almost directly from above. Two additional flashes (Nikon Speedlight SB-R200), positioned on the bracket arms towards the insect, illuminated the cockroach from the sides. Their light was almost parallel to the surface of the tree cut and fell on the insect at a slight angle. By adjusting the power of the side flashes and changing their position relative to the subject, you can achieve various lighting effects.

Unfortunately, multi-flash systems have significant drawbacks, which is why they are not widely used by many photographers:

  • High Cost: Multi-flash systems are positioned by manufacturers as specialized products, making them quite expensive. For example, purchasing the two-flash Nikon R1C1 system costs more than the top-of-the-line Speedlight SB-5000 flash from the same manufacturer ($750 and $600, respectively, as of May 2024). The only relatively budget-friendly option I know of is the Macro Twin Flash KX-800 from China. This two-flash system costs only $300 and seems nice, but I have seen numerous complaints online about its low quality and unreliability.
  • Bulkiness: Multi-flash systems are generally heavier and bulkier than single-flash systems.
  • High Entry Barrier for Effective Use: Using multi-flash systems requires the photographer to have a deep understanding of working with artificial light in macro photography.

Macro Flash Systems from Various Manufacturers

Currently, the market offers several flash systems designed for macro photography. For example, Canon has the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX and its more modern version, the Macro Twin Lite MT-26EX-RT. Olympus offers the STF-8 Macro Twin Flash, which has been extensively reviewed by renowned macro photographer Nicky Bay from Singapore. These systems are wired, meaning the flashes are connected to the control unit via cables. In addition to wired lighting systems, there are wireless ones, such as the Nikon R1C1, Meike MK-MT24 and brand new Godox Macro Flash MF12. In wireless systems, flash synchronization is done either via infrared or radio signals. Regardless of the synchronization method, manufacturers of these macro flash systems typically mount them on the front end of the camera lens using special rings. This mounting method results in a compact and very convenient setup for fieldwork.

Nikon R1C1 kit with flashes mounted on the lens

Unfortunately, mounting flashes on the lens has a critical disadvantage for serious macro photography: the inability to use large diffusers. To achieve soft lighting, the diffusers need to be large, with their surfaces located a significant distance from the flash emitter. This creates a large light spot. However, if the flashes themselves are mounted on the front end of the lens, such diffusers would either block the lens’s field of view or, if using a lens with a small focal length and correspondingly small working distance (50-60 mm), the diffusers would directly hit the subject.

What Are Flash Brackets?

To position the flashes away from the camera body, special mounts called brackets are used. Brackets can have a wide variety of designs and shapes. In macro photography, where the use of two flashes is somewhat mainstream, dual-arm brackets, which allow for the simultaneous use of at least two flashes (additional flashes can be attached to those already mounted on the bracket or placed in the camera’s hot shoe), are the most common.

Dual-arm brackets are extremely useful tools for macro photographers. The ability to position the flashes to the sides of the camera or lens allows you to light the subject from the desired direction: from above, from the side, or even from below, achieving the desired effect. Additionally, positioning the flashes at some distance from the camera allows the use of large diffusers, providing the highest quality, soft light.

Such renown photographers as Niky Bay and Emanuele Biggi use dual-arm brackets.

Types of Flash Brackets Available on the Market

Currently, the market offers a wide variety of brackets for mounting two flashes on a camera. However, all this diversity can be roughly divided into two groups.

  1. Brackets with Fixed or Limited Mobility (in One Plane) Flash Mounts: In the simplest case, such a bracket is a plate that is screwed into the camera’s tripod socket with a central screw, with the flashes fixedly positioned on the sides of the camera body. This type of bracket is widely available on the market in many modifications. There are also more advanced systems of this type, such as the Macro Bracket Support SKU 330B, where the flashes can move horizontally, and there is even a mechanism for tilting the camera to a vertical position.
  2. Brackets with Two Flexible, “Cable-Like” Arms: The arms of such brackets can have various designs, but they all allow the flashes to be moved in any plane. It should also be noted that the concepts of arms moving in one plane and “cable-like” arms can be combined in one system. I am not aware of commercial versions of such brackets, but a homemade design of this type is used by the macro photographer Ilya Lutsker from Israel.

 

Let’s take a look at two of the most successful models of flexible-arm brackets that I have actively used in macro photography.

Combination of plate-like and “cable-like” elements in the bracket

Fotopro DMM-903/DMM-903s Bracket

The DMM-903 and DMM-903s brackets are identical in design, and unless otherwise specified, the following discussion applies equally to both. This bracket is a simple and highly effective design consisting of a T-shaped base and two articulated arms.

Fotopro DMM-903 bracket

Advantages:

  • Ease of use: The bracket arms allow for flexible adjustment of the position of each flash, achieving the desired lighting for a specific scene.
  • Adjustable joint stiffness: Under the rubber pads of the joints are bolt heads that can be loosened or tightened with a hex key to adjust the necessary force for bending the arm at a specific joint.
  • Large T-shaped base: This allows the camera to be placed on the ground without fear of dirtying its body or lens.
  • Forward-mounted arm bases: Positioned closer to the front edge of the lens, allowing more efficient use of the arms given their comparatively short length.
  • Compact and lightweight: Weighs only 420 grams.

 

Disadvantages:

  • Tendency to loosen from the camera: The bracket’s base has a small contact area with the camera body, causing it to gradually loosen during movement, requiring periodic retightening.
  • Poor plastic quality of arm joints: The plastic is initially quite brittle and seems to deteriorate over time, making the arms prone to breaking even with careful use. Note that the DMM-903s version uses higher-quality material compared to the DMM-903.
  • Soft metal bolts: The metal of the bolts adjusting joint stiffness is very soft, causing the heads to strip easily and making bolt removal a significant problem.
  • Weak arms: Can only support lightweight flashes.
  • Short arm length (21 cm): This limitation will be discussed further.

 

Differences between Fotopro DMM-903 and DMM-903s: Essentially, these are identical models, with the only difference being the higher-quality plastic used in the DMM-903s. The Fotopro DMM-903 is no longer in production, but the DMM-903s is available for around $119 in various online stores.

Despite these drawbacks, this bracket is a highly successful design, beloved by many macro photographers worldwide. It is lightweight, convenient, and offers good value for money, making it suitable for most macro photography enthusiasts. However, over time, I transitioned to using the Novoflex UNIMARM bracket and later a custom bracket. Why did this happen? The short arm length of this bracket isn’t an issue for small subjects, as the distance between the front lens element and the subject is small, and the flashes on the arms provide angled lighting. However, for larger subjects (like large beetles, dragonflies, or grasshoppers), the distance between the subject and the lens increases, causing the flashes to illuminate from the front, resulting in flat lighting. Thus, a bracket with longer arms is needed to “reach” larger subjects and create angled lighting.

Novoflex UNIMARM Bracket

After extensive use of the Fotopro DMM-903 bracket, I acquired the Novoflex UNIMARM bracket. The main design difference of this bracket from the previously described model is that its arms are solid, not composed of separate elements. The arms are made of thick, tightly coiled steel wire with a special groove to hold the coils together, and are covered in heat-shrink tubing.

Novoflex UNIMARM bracket

Advantages:

  • Longer arms: Allows the flashes to be positioned far forward, illuminating subjects from the sides.
  • Sturdy arms: Can support even heavy professional flashes without bending.
  • Reliable construction: The Novoflex UNIMARM bracket exudes solid German quality, with a very sturdy build and no play or looseness. However, it’s worth noting that after several months of use, my friend’s bracket was broken in its plastic base.
  • Modular design: The arms included can be replaced with shorter ones if necessary.
  • Convenient ball heads: The ends of the arms have very handy ball heads.

 

Cons:

  • Very Heavy (1300 g): The entire setup (camera, macro lens, three flashes, and the Novoflex UNIMARM) weighs over three kilograms, making it cumbersome for extended use. When the bracket arms are fully extended towards the subject, the weight distribution shifts forward, causing wrist strain and discomfort.
  • Limited Arm Mobility: Despite the arms being relatively long (about 48 cm with heads), their high stiffness allows good bending only in the middle part. They cannot bend near the base, reducing the effective “working length” to no more than 37 cm.
  • Excessive Bending Force: Due to the high stiffness of the material, bending the arms requires significant effort. My experience showed that it is very difficult to do this with one hand in mid-air. To change the position of the bracket arms, you have to stop and bend each with both hands. If the camera is used with a battery grip (discussed below), the effort partially transfers to the grip attachment and can damage it. My colleague and macro photographer Ivan Naumenko experienced battery grip contact displacement after a few weeks of intensive use, causing his camera to shut off at certain angles.
  • Inconvenient Camera Grip: The bracket’s base is very wide and extends significantly from the camera body. The right side of the base hinders comfortable camera holding by pushing up against the hand. This issue is only resolved by installing a battery grip, which, however, requires additional financial investment, increases the weight of an already heavy system, and interferes with low-angle shooting.
  • Blocked Battery Compartment Access: The large base size obstructs the battery compartment, requiring loosening the retaining screw and rotating the base to access the battery compartment cover. This is challenging in the field and requires carrying a hex wrench. Like the previous problem, this can only be resolved by installing a battery grip that opens to the side instead of downwards.
  • System Instability: The bottom of the base has two large plastic discs that make the camera unstable, causing it to tip forward or backward when placed on the ground, which is very inconvenient in the field as the camera can fall into dirt.
  • High Price and Purchase Difficulty: As of May 2024, this bracket is not available in major online stores, nor is it listed on the official Novoflex website. It is possible that this bracket has been discontinued.

 

Thus, while the Novoflex UNIMARM provides very high-quality lighting, it has a considerable list of drawbacks and, in our opinion, is quite a specialized product, not well-suited for most macro photography enthusiasts.

Conclusions

  1. Flashes are an effective tool in the hands of a macro photographer, enhancing the quality of shots taken during the day and enabling photography in low-light conditions.
  2. In macro photography, both single-flash and multi-flash systems can be used. The advantages of the first approach are compactness and affordability, while the latter offers higher final image quality.
  3. There are several macro flash systems available on the market. All of them involve mounting flash units at the front end of the lens, which complicates the use of large diffusers.
  4. To position flashes away from the camera body, special devices called brackets are used. In macro photography, brackets with two flexible arms, to which the flashes are attached, are the most convenient.
Mikhail M. Omelko

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My name is Mikhail Omelko, I am the developer and author of this site, living in Vladivostok (Russia). I have been doing wildlife photography, mainly macro photography, for over 20 years.

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