Review: Nikon R1 Macro Flash Kit

Photographers have to balance several variables at once in order to get that perfect print. Of the challenges we face, however, lighting seems to be the one that vexes photographers most often. As a landscape photographer, I usually have the luxury of letting the sun serve as my light source, which in some ways simplifies the process. I cannot adjust the output, location, or shadows - I must learn to deal with these variables creatively.

Macro photography cannot depend solely on the light from the sun. In order to take extremely close up prints of insects and flowers (the most common form of macro photography, but the idea applies to any subject) we need to be able to freeze the scene. Moving subjects like insects rarely hold still long enough to be captured in focus with a long exposure and the slightest movement from a breathing photographer can be enough to make stationary subjects out of focus when shooting under extreme magnification. In order to freeze the scene, we have to shoot at shutter speeds that are virtually impossible to obtain without artificial light. The problem is only further compounded if you use extension tubes or teleconverters, both of which are common in macro photography.

Enter the flash system. By bringing our own light to the party, we can boost shutter speeds up to 1/250th of a second, which is usually enough to freeze even the fastest of flying insects. (The shutter speed is usually limited around 1/250th of a second for the flash to sync with the camera)

When it comes to flashes for macro photography, we have several choices. The most common two are 1) to use a traditional speed light and soft box/diffuser to point the light at our subject or 2) to use a specialty ring light that mounts at the edge of the lens to illuminate the subject. Let's explore these closer....

A speed light is great because it serves multiple purposes besides just macro illumination - it can be used in portrait or other photography disciplines. Unfortunately, speed lights are good at many things but great at few. Using a speed light for macro photography can be done, but it's certainly a challenge to get the light into the right spot. Furthermore, your lighting can only come from one direction, which could result in harsh shadows on your subject.

Ring lights have appeal because they can be very inexpensive and evenly light a subject. Unlike a speed light, ring lights (or ring flash units) have little use beyond macro photography. You also are limited to only having illumination from the front of the subject - where a speed light would permit some versatility to move your light into the right spot, a ring flash is fixed to the front of the lens at all times.

This is where we get to the Nikon R1 flash kit. Nikon's R1 flash kit comes in two options, the R1 kit alone, or the R1C1 kit that includes an infrared commander. If you are using one of the newer Nikon cameras that is compatible with the Creative Lighting System (CLS), then the R1 kit is all you need (the pop up flash on newer Nikon SLRs will serve as your commander). 

The R1 flash kit comes with two small flashes that are approximately the size of a deck of cards and a myriad of accessories. The flashes can be mounted onto a ring on the front of the camera's lens and then positioned in any configuration you can imagine OR you can hand hold them into position. This is extremely useful - you can leave one flash mounted on the lens in front of your subject and place a second flash behind the subject to illuminate a different area of the scene. I use this technique routinely in flower photography!

The flashes are commanded using either the C1 commander module, or your Nikon camera's pop up flash. With my Nikon D800, I use the pop up flash and the kit includes a small deflector that mounts in front of the flash to help eliminate hot spots. Prior to the flash firing, the commander emits a series of infrared pulses to the R1 flash units. This is extremely effective and means the flash doesn't need to have a direct line of sight to the camera - my husband can hold one of the flash units behind his back and it will still fire on queue. The flash units also have a variety of channels that can operate on - but if you are using this kit without other flashes, that feature won't matter much to you.

Included with the R1 kit is a large carrying case to shove into your closet, a large flat diffuser, a set of colored gels, two diffusers for the flashes, the mounting ring and adapters for common thread sizes of lenses, the pop up flash diffuser, some flash stands, and some other assorted knick-knacks. Of all these items, I typically just carry the flashes, the diffusers for the flash heads, the gel packs, the pop up flash diffuser and the ring with accompanying thread adapter for the lens I am using that day. Although that sounds like a lot, it does pack up rather compactly.

I have two gripes with the R1 flash kit, both of which are easily fixed with pre-planning. The first is that the variable thread adapters for mounting the ring to the lens means you can end up carrying the wrong sized adapter if you aren't careful. Nothing is worse than driving to a garden and setting up for that shot to realize you have a 62mm ring and you needed the 72mm threaded ring (yes, I've done it and it sucks). The easy solution is to pack smart and double check, or just carry all of the threaded rings for the lenses you use. My second gripe is that the R1 flash units use a non-standard battery that is often only sold at specialty stores such as Radio Shack. As a result, if your battery dies in the field, you better have a back up because you can't take the batteries out of your flashlight. Furthermore, there isn't a gauge to help tell you when the battery is going to die, so you have to be prepared with extras or play a dangerous game of Russian roulette. Again, pre-planning can save you from this problem.

Bottom line: If you are serious about macro photography, then you'll end up buying a lighting system at some point. If so, you might as well buy the best one, which I believe to be the Nikon R1 kit (although it's certainly not the cheapest). I have been a very satisfied user of this flash system and routinely use it in ways that other flash systems could not function. I would recommend an aspiring macro photographer first purchase a nice lens (105mm being my personal preference) and then buy lighting only after you are comfortable using the lens. An appreciation for shooting macro without flash will make the experience with a flash all the more enjoyable later! 

For all of the technical specs about the Nikon R1 flash kit, and to locate a dealer near you, check out Nikon's website.

I also recommend this video on YouTube for a good break down of the effects of this flash kit. In this video, they show how the R1 kit changed and improved the images. Unfortunately, I don't have any prints of with and without the flash to demonstrate why I like this kit so much, but their video is a great supplement for understanding the value of flashes and this particular setup.