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MATTHEW CICANESE

"With a fairly simple setup, you can start creating studio-style macro images anywhere you go!"

Portable Macro Studio Setup

February 27, 2019

INTRODUCTION

Macro photography offers a plethora of textures, shapes, colors, and patterns that take us into otherworldly places that are (often times) right beneath our nose. Sometimes these characteristics can cause more harm than good, creating an overly-busy scene for our eyes to try to decipher. It feels like trying to pick out a single person within the bustling crowd of New York City’s Times Square.

Creating macro images that feature a singular subject on a field of black (or white) is a wonderful way to separate out the subject from its chaotic environment, and illuminate its features without distractions. With a fairly simple setup, you can start creating studio-style macro images anywhere you go! This article will cover what it takes to build your own macro field studio kit, and how to successfully produce images with it!

PART 1: LOW KEY LIGHTING (LKL)

Low key lighting (LKL) creates a very intimate look for your subject, and is easy on the eye. With its darker overall tones and lighting, it allows your viewer to spend a longer time admiring the subject because their eyes aren’t distracted by other elements or colors. LKL is the easiest form of field studio macro to accomplish, and in my opinion, looks the most appealing in its end result.

Materials & Gear

  • DSLR or mirrorless camera & a dedicated macro lens
  • Off camera flash (Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT recommended)
  • Wireless trigger (Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter recommended)
  • A tripod or short light stand
  • White background “tub” of some sort (I use Ikea’s IDEBO cable management bag; similar units from different sources are also available)
  • Light modifier (softbox recommended)
  • Black background of some sort (one yard of crushed black velvet fabric recommended)

Scene Preparation

When creating LKL images, there are a couple of ways you can approach the scene preparation, depending on your subject. If you’re shooting a stationary subject (such as a flower or mushroom), you will want to drape the background behind your subject. If you’re shooting a movable subject (like a beetle or acorn), then you can lay your background flat on the ground and place your subject directly on top of it. Make sure that your background is free of any contamination like hairs, dirt, or fuzz — this is especially important with fabric like black velvet, in a macro shot. This will minimize the amount of post-processing you have to do to achieve a solid-black background in your final image.

Creating LKL macro images is also possible without a black background for subjects that are upright (like flowers), if you get low enough to the subject and the background is free of other subjects for some distance. In this case, you also want to make sure that there aren’t any other light sources in your background (such as sunlight leaking through a tree canopy, or a bright object that reflects light). With flash concentrated upon your subject, and little additional light hitting the areas behind your subject, a low-key image is often the result.

Camera Setup

For LKL macro photography, shoot in Manual Mode (M) to allow for the most flexibility for achieving your final image. Keeping your ISO as low as possible is also very important, as this will help minimize noise that the background could produce. A smaller aperture (such as f/8 to f/16) will enable you to get your whole subject in focus, and help eliminate any reflections on the background. Using a fast shutter speed (upwards of 1/250th sec) ensures that any handheld shooting won’t result in a blurry image. For your lighting, I recommend setting your Speedlite to Manual Mode and testing different power outputs ranging from 1/16th to 1/4 power. Remember to keep your light relatively close to your subject, to eliminate the possibility of any harsh shadows.

An off-camera Speedlite with a small diffuser, mounted to a tripod or light stand, makes for a great setup for LKL macro.

Using a container with four white sides to place your velvet stage in, allows for the light to bounce around the other sides of your subject to help fill in shadows and provide more dimensionality.

Shooting Process

After preparing your scene, background, camera settings, and Speedlite, it’s time to get the shot! If you’re shooting a growing subject (i.e. — flower or mushroom) I recommend getting eye-level with the subject (or slightly below) depending on the look you’re going for. Try angling your light from different heights and directions until you achieve the desired look. You can also rotate your whole body and camera position to get a different look easily (i.e. — twisting around to the side of the flower versus the front). LKL macro is fairly straightforward in terms of the shooting process, and by adjusting elements of the shoot can yield different outcomes with ease.

PART 2: HIGH KEY LIGHTING (HKL)

High key lighting (HKL), on the other hand, uses a very bright overall look to backgrounds and often the lighting upon the primary subject(s). It creates a clean, clinical look to macro subjects, giving them a dimensionality that appears to make the scene jump right off the frame if done correctly. HKL is wonderful for displaying a variety of macro subjects that might not translate to LKL images due to certain characteristics (like a translucent bug or dark-colored details). Although HKL requires a bit more setup compared to LKL, once you dial in the settings and practice enough, you’ll be able to achieve consistent results every time!

Materials & Gear

  • DSLR or mirrorless camera & a dedicated macro lens
  • At least two off-camera flashes (Speedlite 600EX II-RT recommended)
  • A tripod or short light stand
  • Wireless trigger (ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter recommended)
  • Light modifiers (at least 1 softbox recommended)
  • White background “tub” of some sort (I use Ikea’s IDEBO cable management bag)
  • Sheet of clear acrylic or plexiglass (to place your subject on)

Scene Preparation

Scene prep for HKL macro is a little more involved compared to LKL shooting. The main idea is to have a white background (aka “tub”) for you to bounce your background Speedlite onto, and a clear sheet of acrylic (aka “stage”) resting on top of the tub. The subject goes on your stage to eliminate any blooming or shadows that could form beneath the subject, as a result of being placed directly on the white background. Your white background should be free of any contaminants to make post-processing easier, and your subject should be free of excess materials.

An HKL macro setup is nearly the same as an LKL setup, except there is no black velvet, a secondary Speedlite is used (to blow out the background completely white), and a piece of clear acrylic to act as a stage for your subject is rested on top.

Camera Setup

Just as with LKL macro, your camera should be set to Manual mode (M) to allow for the most flexibility in-camera when creating HKL macro images. Using a slightly higher ISO (200-400) can help conserve the battery life of your flashes, as this type of shooting requires more light output to achieve the white background.

So how do you know if you have a pure white background straight out of camera, without having to check it on your computer? By enabling the “Highlight Alert” feature in your camera’s Playback menu options, your background will blink black if there are parts of your scene that are pure white (255, 255, 255). Using this to our advantage, we can dial in the background right where we need it to be.

The stage setup required to achieve HKL macro images is nearly the same (equipment-wise) as LKL, with the exception of the black velvet stage, floating plexi stage, and additional Speedlite to blow out the background.

When prepping your Speedlites for HKL macro, E-TTL mode is not recommended. Like your camera, you should ideally have full control over how your light is interacting with your stage and subject. Therefore, Manual flash mode is recommended for both your key light (now referred to as the A-light), and for your background light (now referred to as the B-light). If you’re using a Canon ST-E3-RT transmitter, make sure it’s set to Group mode (Gr)*. This will allow you to control the individual power outputs of your mult-Speedlite setup.

* Group mode operates with the following Canon EOS cameras (all introduced in 2012 or more recently):

  • EOS Rebel SL1 and above
  • EOS Rebel T4i and above
  • EOS 70D and above
  • EOS 7D Mark II
  • EOS 6D (all versions)
  • EOS 5D Mark III and above
  • EOS 5DS, 5DS R
  • EOS-1D X and above
  • EOS R (all versions)

With other EOS models, use Manual flash mode on the ST-E3-RT transmitter, with radio-transmission Canon Speedlites.

Shooting Process

Once your camera settings are dialed in and you have prepared your macro field studio for HKL, the shooting process is relatively straightforward. Your first step is to turn on your B-light and aim it directly at your background. Keeping your A-light turned off, take some test shots with your B-light at different Manual flash power levels until your resulting image blinks with highlight alerts across the entire scene. Once that’s all set, turn on your A-light and place your subject on the floating stage (acrylic/plexi). Position your A-light at your desired angle, then take some different test shots at various power levels until you achieve a balanced look. It may take some adjusting of settings between your camera, Speedlites, and subject placement to get your desired outcome.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Although studio-style macro images can be very involved depending on the photographer, I hope this guide provides you with a good starting point, and the confidence to give this type of photography a shot. Field studio macro with Speedlites can be a lot of fun, and a great way to show the beauty of macro subjects in a different way. It may seem like a lot of moving parts at first, but after a little practice, field studio macro can become second nature.

Remember that your camera and lights are in Manual mode to give you the maximum amount of control. As a result, you will need to adjust your settings on occasion to get your desired image outcome. If you want to experiment with these methods further, try shooting HKL or LKL with some colored gels for your lighting! This can create some really interesting effects, and give it a unique twist.

A note on ethics…
Remember to be courteous of all lifeforms, and respect their well-being. Don’t over-stress animals in order to get the shot you want, and don’t pick plants or other species that may be sensitive or endangered. Always show your subjects the best respect, and you will come out with the best images possible.

REFERENCE TABLE

Genre ISO Shutter Speed Aperture Speedlites
LKL Lowest (100-200) 1/200 to 1/250 sec. f/8 to f/16 Manual mode to taste
HKL Medium (200-400) 1/100 to 1/250 sec. f/8 to f/11 A-light: 1/16 to 1/4 power
B-light: 1/4 to 1/2 power

All Canon contributors are compensated and actual users of Canon products promoted.