Reader Question: How Do I Setup Flash for Macro Photography?

Hey folks! I got a question earlier today from Chuck, who asked me about the flash bracket system I have been using in some of my YouTube videos and to take my macro photographs. So let's talk about flash!

I use flash for all macro photography. It's the only way I can avoid using a tripod for every shot, which is good, because I really hate using tripods with macro photography. Tripods are a pain anywhere and are even worse when I'm trying to photograph something that might be moving (like a bug). Because I use the flash, I can get a fast enough shutter speed to hand hold the camera while still getting an aperture that works (I often shoot macro subjects at f/22-f/45).

The problem with using a flash is that it does almost no good mounted in the hot shoe on top of the camera. I can't point it at the subject and it can cast a shadow over the top of the lens onto my subject. The only way to solve the problem is to take the flash off the camera, but that introduces new problems. 

If I don't use a TTL cable, I would have to use a wireless trigger (expensive) or manually set the flash between every shot (I'm too lazy and forgetful for that!). So if I want the flash off the camera, but still attached via a cable...... that means I've gotta mount it to the camera somehow.

The solution I use is not an aftermarket accessory you can purchase and be done with.... I built it by going to my camera shop and fiddling with parts until I found something I liked. However, because it's all built from random parts, it's fairly inexpensive.

The base: The starting point is at the camera. I always have a Really Right Stuff L bracket mounted onto my camera body; it's compatible with my tripod, monopod, flash accessories, etc. It also is a nice solid piece of metal to help protect the camera when I accidentally ding it into something...... The L brackets are specific to your camera model and you may need a different version if you use an external battery pack, so shop carefully.

The arm: The arm assembly is three different parts. The first is a clamp that attaches to the L bracket and has a screw-tight knob to hold the rest of the arm on ("Mini Screw Knob Clamp" on the shopping list). I can position it anywhere I'd like on the L bracket. The second part is a modular arm kit with a knob ("Rotolight Magic Arm"). I can orient the arm in a bazillion ways and once satisfied with the orientation, I clamp down the knob until it's rock solid. It can hold the weight of the flash without problem, but it's not strong enough that I could carry the camera by that arm without it sagging. Finally, I have a plastic piece that mounted to the top of the arm that accepts the flash cable or the flash hot shoe ("Frio Universal Cold Shoe"). Because none of this was designed to go together, I had to use Loctite on the clamp and hot shoe clip to make sure it all stayed together nice and solid. 

Flash: I use a Nikon SB-700 flash and have a 3rd party TTL cable for the flash. Buy a short TTL cable so that you don't have to drag a few extra feet of cabling around with you! I usually put a white diffuser on the front of the flash to soften the light slightly when doing macro photography.

Shopping List:

PS- sorry for the quality of the photos. When I take pictures of the camera I usually end up using the iPhone, which certainly doesn't compare to the D800!

Have a question you'd like me to answer in the blog? Feel free to contact me and I'll see what I can do!

 The arm assembly with TTL flash cable attached. From right to left are the mini clamp, flexible magic arm, hot shoe connector and TTL cable.

The arm assembly with TTL flash cable attached. From right to left are the mini clamp, flexible magic arm, hot shoe connector and TTL cable.

 Another view of the clamp and flexible arm

Another view of the clamp and flexible arm

 The hot shoe connector thingy. I have no idea what this is actually called, but the thing cost only a few bucks.

The hot shoe connector thingy. I have no idea what this is actually called, but the thing cost only a few bucks.

 The Really Right Stuff L bracket on the side of the camera. Because I use the extra battery pack, I had to order the correct bracket.

The Really Right Stuff L bracket on the side of the camera. Because I use the extra battery pack, I had to order the correct bracket.

 The TTL cable attached in the camera's hot shoe

The TTL cable attached in the camera's hot shoe

 The flash is attached to the TTL cable, which then slides into the blue hot shoe connector. This only works if your TTL cable has an attachment to be mounted into a hot shoe on the bottom of it....... Most do.

The flash is attached to the TTL cable, which then slides into the blue hot shoe connector. This only works if your TTL cable has an attachment to be mounted into a hot shoe on the bottom of it....... Most do.

 The entire contraption assembled and ready to shoot. This setup also has the LCD on the flash facing me, which makes it easy to make adjustments on the flash between photos.

The entire contraption assembled and ready to shoot. This setup also has the LCD on the flash facing me, which makes it easy to make adjustments on the flash between photos.