Affordable and portable fill lighting for macro photography

Mar 21, 2019
Edmonton, AB, Canada
I've been learning how to use supplemental lighting to improve my plant macro photography. I wanted a solution that was affordable, compact, and lightweight. I already have the tiny Olympus FL-LM3 Mini Flash, so that's one option. However, this is not effective when focus stacking/bracketing is used; the recharge time is too slow to capture the brackets without the subject moving. The second option was a continous LED light to provide fill light, and I recently purchased the Aputure AL-M9 Amaran LED Mini Light for that purpose. It's a tiny rechargeable light that fits easily in a pocket, although as I discovered it will eventually burn your leg if you forget to turn it off before pocketing!

A rainy Father's Day morning walk at Wagner Natural Area was the perfect time to work on technique. I usually shoot one of two ways. Either moving constantly, hand-held shooting often crouching or kneeling (sometimes lying in the mud as I did a couple of times yesterday!), or set up on a tripod for low-angle shots and bracketing. I typically use a Wimberley Plamp II on the tripod to stabilize the subject or hold a small diffuser/reflector. I regularly use a diffuser or reflector for my plant photography: a diffuser softens harsh light, a reflector can correct shading problems, and an opaque reflector can shade backgrounds to give subject separation. My budget-priced, collapsible 16"/40 cm diffuser/reflector is my most useful photographic accessory; it collapses into a pouch that I clip to the strap of my sling bag, thus providing quick access without needing to open the bag.

Here are some examples of the use of fill lighting that I captured yesterday.

Saline shooting star: 12 shot focus bracket (focus differential: 3) from the tripod. I hand-held the LED light left (~45 deg to the lens) of the subject and slightly below the lens. Shutter release was from my phone (OI.Share). As a side note, I always use focus stacking, rather than bracketing, on my E-M1 II. The bracketing mode only focuses backward from the initial focal point, which is a PITA when using AF; it's almost impossible to AF on the leading edge of a flower. The stacking mode captures 2 shots in front of the initial focal point and the remainder behind. I rarely use the in-camera stacked JPG, rather I stack the RAWs in PS later.
Saline shooting star P6210416-Edit.jpg
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Northern yellow lady's-slipper orchid: 12 shot focus bracket (focus differential: 3) from the tripod. Again the I hand-held the LED light left of the subject, but above the lens. I think the LED was a little to close, hence the slightly overexposed lip.
Northern yellow lady's-slipper P6210689-Edit.jpg
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Round-leaved orchid: 12 shot focus bracket (focus differential: 3) from the tripod. This time I hand-held the LED light just underneath the lens to illuminate up into the flowers. The stacking result was a bit hit and miss in this one.
Round-leaved orchid P6210547-Edit.jpg
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I've always been intimidated by flash photography. Learning photography with natural lighting is hard enough, let alone adding one or more lighting sources that require optimization.

Bog violet: It was raining steadily at this stage so I wasn't phaffing around accessories. This is a hand-held single shot with the FL-LM3 in the hotshoe (auto fill-in) directly illuminating the subject. The resulting lighting is quite harsh.
Bog violet P6210523.jpg
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Round-leaved orchid: another hand-held single shot using the FL-LM3 in the hotshoe (auto fill-in with +0.3 EV), but in this example, the FL-LM3 was angled left towards a white reflector held in my left hand that redirected a more diffuse fill light. I find the lighting quite pleasing in this shot.
Round-leaved orchid P6210514.jpg
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I was accompanied on my walk by my own personal swarm of mosquitoes, which in addition to extracting my blood tax, also frequently photobombed shots. The shot below is an in-camera focus stack in which the mosquito in the lower-left move repeatedly between exposures.
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Edit: updated images with metadata.
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Mu-43 All-Pro
Apr 22, 2018
The Olympus Fl LM3 is a little beauty for this kind of thing. It really shines in manual mode. Dial it all the way down to 1/64 and it works well. Recycling quickly... I use one of those old school reflectors too. Super for toning down ugly backgrounds. Recently I made a little snoot for it, out of a toilet roll. Haha.


Mu-43 Veteran
Feb 15, 2019
Melbourne, Australia
I've never been able to master any form of artificial lighting (on or off camera) with regards to flowers. I've used on camera fill flash for roses which were back-lit at one stage. I always find the subject colours over saturated and the image has too much contrast for my liking.
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