Being a Control Freak with Macro Photography

One benefit of macro photography is the ability to sculpt the light. Unlike landscape photography, you aren’t necessarily stuck with the light nature has dealt you. Understanding how to sculpt the light with reflectors and diffusion allows for a bit more creativity and flexibility in the field. The correct tools can help you create beautiful images even when the sun is higher in the sky and the light is harsh.

This image was taken at 12:01- high noon. Both diffusion and reflection were employed.

Diffused Light

What do diffusers do?

Diffusers remove harsh light and shadows by reducing and spreading the light that passing through them. This creates a much softer, more even light where shadows and highlights both become more muted and colors become cooler.

When I am out in the field, I carry a 12″ diffusion disk with me as well as a 32″ disk. I use the smaller one for small subjects, but I use the larger one when I want to diffuse the light on the subject as well as a too bright background.

Sure, I could use post processing ‘burning’ or a vignette, but I prefer to be more deliberate and do as much as I can in the field and in-camera.

The images below were taken in RAW format and barely edited; I wanted you to see the actual in-camera results without any adjustments.

  • Batik Iris

    This image shows the Batik Iris lit from the side. The area where the sun hits the petals is very bright, but the part of the flower facing the camera is in significant shadow.

  • Batik Iris

    In this image, the highlights and shadows have been softened by the use of a diffusion disk. The color has also been cooled. When you use a diffusion disk or a scrim, you will often want to increase your exposure a little.

Reflected Light

Reflecting is useful to balance the exposure on your subject from side-to-side such as with a side lit subject, to add a little light to the deeper recess of the subject, or to highlight a specific area.

You can also use reflection to make the entire subject brighter than its background. When you set the correct exposure for your subject with the additional reflected light, the background is darkened and less prominent. Because of this, the brighter subject becomes more prominent.

Where diffusing softens the scene and cools the colors, reflected light makes colors ‘pop’. It also wraps the subject in light in a way that adds depth and dimension. My reflector disk is silver/gold which also warms the colors onto which I reflect light. (I will often take a photo with a white color chip if there is no white in the scene, in case I decide I do not care for the effect of the warmer reflected light and decide to cool the colors in post.)

For macro florals, the 12” reflector is more than adequate. Its small size provides more control as to where the light is reflected (keeping it off of any background elements) and allows me to easily feather the light across my subject. A very small adjustment of its position can make a huge difference in how much light is reflected and to where. Feathering the light from a side can still add light, but do so in a way that does not eliminate shadows and the contours they provide.

Batik Iris

For this image I placed a reflector opposite of the sun in order to light the the iris more evenly side-to-side. The reflected light balanced the light significantly, equalizing both the shadows and the highlights as well as pushing light into the recesses of the flower.

One thing I really like about reflected light on a subject is how it allows you to adjust your exposure for the very bright subject. This darkens the background and makes it less significant. Take a look at the photo below…

  • For this image of a Sweet Musette iris, I wanted to increase the exposure on the flower, but without making the fence more visible.

  • I chose to feather in some reflected light. The exposure of the fence behind the flower increased a bit but the flower stands out far more, creating significant impact through both light and vibrant color.

Using Both Reflector & Diffuser

Using diffusion and reflection in tandem is a powerful way to sculpt light to your advantage and create images with significant impact no matter if the sun is high in the sky or lower. With in-tandem use of diffusion and reflection the position of the sun is of far less importance than when you have no light sculpting tools at your disposal. Take a look at the following image which shows the results of both diffusion and reflection.

Diffuser + Reflector

In this image above diffusion and reflection were used simultaneously to sculpt the light. There are soft shadows on the right side of the flower and a gentle feathering of reflected light on the left side. I love how the light modifications create a more impactful image and how the colors ‘pop’.

Below you will see a diffused light image and an image with unmodified sunlight.

  • Image 1: Diffuser ONLY

    Image 1: Diffuser ONLY
    For this image I simply diffused the light. The sun was dropping and to the left. The sun’s light was still directional- I softened the light and used it to my advantage. The entire image has a very subdued feel when compared to the images above and below.

  • Image 2: Direct Sunlight

    Image 2: Direct Sunlight
    Here is what the image looks like with un-modified light. The camera settings are intentionally the same as the previous two which allows you to see the significant difference simultaneous diffusion and reflection can make.

The next time you are out in the field, experiment with light sculpting by taking along a reflector and a diffusion disk. You might be amazed with the results as you practice bending the light to suit your vision.

About Author Pamela Reynoso

Pamela Reynoso is a San Francisco Bay Area based fine art macro and landscape photographer. The diverse landscapes and beauty of her native Northern California feed her soul as does exploring and discovering its many hidden gems- from vast landscapes with big open sky to minute details such as the beauty found in the unfolding of a flowers petals. These are the moments for which she is always on the lookout, the moments that give one pause, the moments that remind one to be grateful for this beautiful planet. Pamela is currently working through the thousands of images from her year-long project of photographing local vineyards through the seasons which she plans to turn into a book. Typically a fast walker, Pamela’s family has banned her from bringing her camera on family hikes, especially if there is a macro lens attached which is certain to slow her walk to a mere crawl.