Once you dive into the world of macro photography, it soon becomes apparent that quality lighting is needed. If you already own a bunch of flashes and light modifiers, unfortunately, these won’t cover the bases of adequately lighting the smallest of critters. Very small, concentrated areas of light are needed in this realm, which means that this usually comes down to a few specific lighting options.
The two main options are side lighting on both sides of the lens in a twin-flash setup or a ring flash around the lens. These all come under the banner of macro flash units which are usually hot-shoe mounted and have LED versions available.
As with all lighting, there are expensive and budget options. Like regular flashguns, the more expensive units provide the most functionality and are usually built to last.
If shooting the smallest of subject matter is your main preference, then the highest quality units are advisable. However, if you’re just dabbling in this area or only shoot macro subjects in a casual manner, then some of the more cost-effective solutions can be justifiable.
1. Nikon R1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System
When the Nikon R1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System was first released, it cost an exorbitant amount of money. Now, prices are at the point where it’s justifiable to recommend this bundle as it has everything you need for professional macro photography.
This solution is for Nikon users only, but comes with two SB-R200 speed lights which can be synced up to three remote groups and four channels. The units have full i-TTL capabilities, with the additional items including various lens adapters, color filters, flexible control arm, bounce flash, individual carry cases, and a large, high-quality case for everything to fit within.
The built-in target light and autofocus illuminator are excellent for correct positioning and accurate autofocus. Each flash head can be tilted to different angles and most importantly, these units are built to last.
If you don’t mind the asking price and are on the Nikon platform, this high-quality solution has everything you need for the macro world.
2. Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II
The Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II is probably the first port of call for Canon users, but you will have to pay for the privilege. The twin-tube design can be switched on or off independently. This unit also includes an LED focusing lamp and two types of modeling lights for easy previewing.
Full E-TTL is supported by this unit, with 12 custom functions and wireless support. It’s powered by four AA batteries. This unit feels solid as a rock and comes with all the functionality you would expect from a high-quality strobe.
This light comes with full auto and manual workings, as well as a very clear rear display. Yes, it is a pricey option, but it’s also one of the most consistent performers on the Canon platform.
3. Nissin MF18 Macro Ring Flash
Ultra-budget flash solutions may seem cost-effective on the surface, but you’ll soon start to miss more advanced features like full auto TTL. The Nissin MF18 Macro ring flash has i-TTL capabilities, plus a Fine Macro mode, output control from 1/128 to 1/1204 in 1/6 EV steps, and a solid build quality.
Built for use with Nikon cameras, the unit comes with a bunch of lens adapters from 49mm to 82mm. Wireless TTL and multi-function remote control are available, as well as a built-in LED modeling lamp, firmware upgrades, and the ability to control slave groups.
This setup provides the same level of functionality as you would expect from a high-quality flash, with the light quality being excellent throughout the power range. This system may not be as fully versatile as the Nikon solution above, but it definitely comes in as a close second.
4. Sigma EM-140 DG
The Sigma EM-140 DG is a high-quality macro ring flash solution, with full TTL capabilities. Each flash tube can be switched on and off for illuminating each side of the subject. Other features include wireless flash control, high-speed sync, and a range of adapters from 55mm to 62mm. Optional adapter rings are also available from 52mm to 77mm.
On-board controls can govern full auto TTL operation and manual flash output. While the control interface is basic, it’s not as intuitive as other units. Light output is consistent and the unit works as expected, but there are cheaper solutions on the market which work just as well.
5. Godox ML-150 Macro Ring Flash (Budget Winner)
The Godox ML-150 Studio Flash Trigger is a cost-effective solution that shows you don’t have to spend big bucks on your lighting setup. This small macro ring flash is happy to fit most hot shoe-enabled DSLR cameras with a macro lens. It consists of a controller and the ring flash itself which mounts on the front of a lens.
A bunch of adapter rings come with the unit with filter threads from 49-67mm and the intensity controlled in steps from a 16th to full power. The unit runs on four AA batteries and officially is good for roughly 300 to 1000 flashes, depending on the power output of each exposure.
This solution is extremely easy to fit and use and while its operation is basic in nature, the color temperature of 5600K provides very neutral looking images. As a basic solution for the first steps into macro photography, the Godox ML-150 is a good first steppingstone.
A Closer Look at the Best Flashes for Macro Photography
As with regular flash units, there are cheap options on the market that do the same thing, but in reality, they lack the more advanced features. You may have to pay more for things like full TTL, incremental power output, and remote slaving, but these features are so worth it in the long run.
The more expensive units are generally built to a higher standard, which means they can take the knocks and bumps of everyday use. While these macro photography flash solutions may be more specialist in application, they will make a world of difference when shooting the tiniest of subjects.
As with all camera lighting solutions, the quality and type of light can make the difference between an amateur and a professional shot. While all the examples above produce quality light, the cheaper solutions provide the most basic functionality. The more expensive units are ideal for those who shoot small subjects on a regular basis.