Lights! Camera! Action!- Using a Ring Flash

In my last blog I had just begun to shoot bees hand holding my camera in natural light. This month I’ve experimented with my ring flash, shooting bees and bugs during the harsher mid-day light, and intentionally finding the most colorful natural backdrops possible. The result is that I’ve experienced a much higher shot-failure rate, but the occasional successes are just stunning and well worth the price of shooting and discarding so many images.

When shooting in filtered (i.e., cloudy) or shaded light, I used my Tamron 90mm macro lens with a Canon 5D Mark II and a ring flash attached. When shooting in unfiltered mid-day light, I used my 70-200mm lens with a 500D close-up filter on my Canon 7D camera. Either way, my success rate for achieving sharp focus while handholding the camera in manual focus mode was abysmal – about one in 12-15 shots. And that’s just for focus. But I must say that it got better each time as I discovered the rhythm and habits of the bugs and began to anticipate their movements.

The ring flash on a macro lens often called for an exposure compensation of -1 to -2, which often left the background black. In the harsher light (without the flash) I could shoot at up to 1/8,000 second sometimes. In both cases some of the images had too many blown out spots from the reflective light on their body parts, although in some cases it could be rectified in Photoshop. Much better, though, to avoid or diffuse the harshest light in the first place. (Sometimes I clamped a bendy Plamp onto the tripod mount turned upward and attached a 12” collapsible diffuser to filter the harshest light.)

When it worked, it really worked, and the detail and frozen motion were extraordinary. Shutter speed was of the essence (at least 1/1,000 second with no flash and 1/200 second with flash), but extending the depth of field as much as possible (f/8-f/16) was a close second. The lower the ISO the better, but sometimes I ventured out into the 3200-6400 range with decent results (especially with the improved noise reduction capabilities of Lightroom 3).

I haven’t given up on the warm golden light during the magic hours created by the low sun, but shooting with flash and at mid-day add whole new dimensions to my macro photography.

5 thoughts on “Lights! Camera! Action!- Using a Ring Flash

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Jimmy White

Hey Steve, thanks for this information. I love these images!

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Steve Russell

Hey Jimmy, I’m glad you commented (thanks!) because some how, some way, your underwater photos remind me of my macro shots. Maybe because both worlds are so hidden and exotic until you reveal it with the camera. Can’t wait to see what evolves next for you.

Susan Wolfe

Thanks for sharing your frustrations and successes here. I’ve tried capturing a variety of flying things around my flower beds and met with mixed success as well. I’ll try some of your techniques.

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Steve Russell

Glad to hear I’m not the only one who’s experimenting with this, Susan. Let me know what works for you. I’ve recently found some amazing, very still, photo ops (spiders) in which I’ve been able to go back to my tripod and low ISO/longer depth of field shots again. Learning I’ve got to pull whatever technique I need out of a hat when it’s called for. Anyway, good luck…


I would like to offer a suggestion: Set your camera to high speed (flash) sync in your menu. It will allow flash synchronization at speeds above 1/200. Shoot in daylight at Aperture Priority selecting your DOF.
Remember with flash photography shutter speed has no real effect on flash exposure, only on the ambient light exposure. The axiom is Aperture controls flash exposure of the subject; Shutter speed controls background exposure.
You can get some stunning images in Manual Mode as well.
For some variations try using a ND filter gel in one half of the ring. This will create some additional shaping so images don’t appear so flat.

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