Reflection and Diffusion for Improved Macro Photography

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When I am not photographing portraits, I enjoy turning my lens to the natural world. I have always loved macro photography, but taking close-up photographs in natural light can be challenging. Usually the available light is not the best quality. For this reason I always bring some portable lighting tools with me that allow for modifying natural light while not making the photo look artificially lit. I primarily use a Photoflex 32" 9-in-1 MultiDisc Reflector and my 42" 5-in-1 MultiDisc Kit. I also use these for weddings and location portraits.

The purpose of this lesson is to show how to modify natural light when shooting macro photos outdoors. In this case I am photographing flowers.

Part 1: Diffusing strong direct sunlight

Starting with the white flower as my subject I’m faced with a high contrast scene. To address this I diffused the direct sunlight using the translucent diffusion disc from my 42” 5-in-1 MultiDisc. For this shot I am using my 70-200mm Canon lens with a Vello 31mm extension tube. I like the longer focal length, since it helps to throw the background out of focus. This helps to separate the main subject from the background. Since many longer zoom lenses do not focus very close-up, I use an inexpensive extension tube to transform my zoom lens into a macro-zoom lens. Although not required, I like to use a tripod when possible for ease of composition and stability.

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In the examples below, the subject is in direct sunlight and the contrast is too extreme. By placing the translucent white diffusion disc between the sun and the flower, I am able to create a softer, more directional light on the flower.

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Part 2: Diffusing strong direct sunlight and adding warm fill light

For this close-up of a rose, I wanted to diffuse the direct sunlight to decrease the contrast and add some warm light to the rose. My camera position in this set-up is behind the subject and facing into the diffused sunlight. For this close-up of the rose I switched to my 100mm macro lens.

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In this case I am using the same translucent diffusion disc of my 42” MultiDisc to diffuse the sunlight but I am also adding the SunLite surface of my 32” MultiDisc as a warming reflector. This reflects the diffused sunlight back into the rose for a warm glow. In the examples below you can see that the shot with the SunLite reflector added has a warm glow with a late-afternoon feel.

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Without changing the set-up I wanted to do another version of the rose. I changed my camera position so that the white translucent diffusion disc that was diffusing the sunlight would also be my background.

In the examples below you can see that in the shot on the left the rose appears flat and without much color as it is backlit only. In the shot on the right I bounced the diffused sunlight back into the rose with the SunLite surface of my 32” MultiDisc. The addition of the warm reflected light makes the rose pop and look more three-dimensional.

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Part 3: Adding directional warm light in open shade

Another great option for shooting outdoor close-ups is to use open shade. The light is much softer, but often non-directional with soft light everywhere. For the next shot, my goal is to use the soft natural light, but add some direction and warmth.

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In the examples below, you can see that the image on the left lacks the pop that I was looking for. For the shot on the right I added the SunLite surface of my 42” MultiDisc on the right side. The effect is warm and directional light which is more pleasing and dynamic.

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Part 4: Adding directional warm light in open shade version 2

Using the same open shade I wanted to create a close-up that had a warm background and warm surrounding light. Using both my MultiDiscs with the SunLite fabric, I was able to create a set-up that does both.

In the example on the left, you can see that the light is soft, but with no warmth. It is a nice flower close-up, but I wanted to make the photo pop a little more. In the shot on the right, I added the SunLite surface of my 42” MultiDisc for the background. The resulting effect is a nice warm tone. The warm light in the background and surrounding the roses gives me the feeling of warm afternoon light.

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Part 5: Controlling depth-of-field

In macro flower photography, the background plays an important role in making the main flower subject stand out. The goal is to create a background that is soft and doesn’t distract from the subject. Controlling the depth-of-field is critical in achieving the desired background.

The lens aperture (f-stop) determines how much of your image will be in focus. The widest f-stop has the shallowest depth-of-field. The smaller the f-stop, the more depth-of-field you will get.

Please see the following examples of how the background changes as you change the f-stop. For the first photo I started with f2.8. Each photo is one f-stop smaller. I personally prefer the softer, less depth-of-field approach, where the background is more out of focus.

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By using my Photoflex MultiDiscs, I was able to shoot my flower close-ups in less than ideal light and still get amazing results. The fact that these reflectors are portable and versatile make them an ideal lighting tool for shooting outdoor close-ups.

Light Leader Steve Kurtz runs a full service portrait and wedding photography studio, Kurtz Photographics, located in Santa Cruz, California. Steve's photography has been featured in many publications including Martha Stewart Weddings, The New York Times and TV Guide.

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