Having the subject lit up right is one of the critical tasks in macro photography. Since you are capturing only a small area, the light which will reach the sensor is very limited. Using a flash is often the only option in getting enough light, especially when you want to snap a picture of a living and thus moving subject or working with high magnification.
There’s a lot of great macro equipment available, which help you in getting a perfect macro shot. But a macro lens + flash setup can become bulky and heavy, which makes taking pictures a lot less comfortable. For amazing photos, you don’t need expensive macro lenses or multi-field external macro flashes! By using a flash diffuser you can make the best use of your existing flash, including the on-camera flash for minimum weight and costs. You will have less to carry, thus taking your gear more often with you. You can make more pictures which results in having more great photos!
In this article you will learn how to build your own flash diffuser from things you otherwise would have dumped. The diffuser works for every flash, but by using the on-camera flash you can reduce the required gear to a minimum! I evaluated a lot of options of taking macros and most of my favorite shots were made with a similar setup like the one described here. See below a few variants, two come with additional focus-helping LED-light and another one even features a telescopic extension light-tunnel for variable range. Get creative!
Step one should be to prepare your preferred lens and check the camera to subject distance. You need to make sure the diffuser later illuminates the right spot and thus it needs to be long enough.
The idea is to light up a large area with diffused light instead of the harsh flash, this creates a well-adjusted illumination of the subject without too bright highlights. The larger the area you can light up, the more of the background will be visible in the image.
Step two is gathering all the materials you need: A carton as often used for milk in europe is perfect for this, since it is reflective inside, lightweight and easy to manipulate. To attach the diffuser to the camera it is easiest to utilize the hot shoe flash adapter. I’ve 3D printed a small object to do so, but you could also use a 2mm aluminum sheet of the right size. I’ve tried this as well.
Here is the 3D printed adapter if you want to print it yourself:
You can build a diffuser just with the carton and the hot shoe adapter, as shown above in one of the examples. Nevertheless, to reduce highlights even more and get an overall more balanced illumination we need a large white area. You can use the white wrapping foam material often used for electronics as shown in the picture above. You could also use an unwrapped white plastic cup, both will work perfect. The plastic cup will last longer when the diffuser is often used and therefore folded.
Step three is preparing the carton to guide the light to a large area. See the pictures below on how you could do this. The final design should make sure to have the right size for your specific camera/lens/subject distance. A larger white area will result in more illumination of the background but also means the light from the flash must be enough to light everything up. If your flash is not strong enough for a large area, try a smaller one.
When done correctly, the carton can still pop up and create a tunnel for the light or folded together for easy transportation in your pocket or camera bag.
Step four is attaching the hot shoe adapter. Make sure your camera flash triggers with the chosen adapter, some cameras have a contact switch to not use the on-camera flash when an external flash is attached. In this case you need to avoid activating the switch or attach the diffuser in a different way. Also the on-camera flash needs to fully move out for the most cameras to trigger. Make sure the diffuser is not in the way for either the flash or your fingers when using the camera.
The result could look like the picture below, but of course it should fit your individual needs. Experiment with different sizes or designs, the components are not expensive!
Step five: Test the setup and have fun, your flash diffuser is ready!
Many of my favorite macro photos were taken with a setup similar to the one shown here. Check out my OpenSea collection for details:
Step six is going outside and shoot! Then share and feel free to show me your results. If you need additional inspiration check out the trainings below. These are affiliate links (When visitors to the affiliate’s site click on the advertisements and go to the advertiser’s site, the affiliate may receive a commission if that click leads to a sale).
This is the comprehensive photography masterclass:
This is a course for trick photography, definitely a lot of fun!
Don’t want to spend much time tinkering and use your phone instead?
Any questions? Ask me in the comments or at Twitter!