Macro Photography and Epilepsy

I figured it would be good to ask here, since there’s a lot of people who are very skilled with macro photography and I’ve seen a few posts about technique floating around. If this is an inappropriate topic for the scope of this forum, let me know.

I’ve been getting more and more into learning good technique for macro imaging, and the general advice I see repeated – particularly as you get into the ultra-macro range of 2x-5x, which is what I ultimately want to shoot when I can afford a lens – is to always use flash w/ diffuser. However, I’ve hit a bit of a snag there, as I have photosensitive epilepsy, and the, well, flash of a flash could potentially trigger a seizure or migraine – which is especially problematic in the field for obvious reasons.

Are there alternatives to flash photography? Do LED rings or similar lighting solutions work as well for good-quality macro images? Anyone with similar experiences?

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I’m not as knowledgeable with Macro Photography as my husband, but I don’t use flash for some of the macros that I do with my iPhone and moment lens. I rely on natural light a lot. Mornings are usually best.

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Small LED light panels and video lights are one possibility. So are LED ring lights. I prefer natural light macros since flash can be harsh, even with diffusion. Instead, use a camera that can go up to ISO 1600 or 3200 without too much noise. Almost any recent APS-C camera can do this, as can full-frame cameras. This will let you shoot at a high shutter speed and small aperture. A camera with in-body image stabilization is a smart idea too as it effectively gives you a few more stops to play with while avoiding motion blur. Many of Sony’s cameras meet these criteria, as do Fuji’s most-recent models. Best wishes!

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One caution: some mirrorless cameras with electronic viewfinders are field-sequential, meaning that they draw the R, G, and B of each frame in sequence. You’ll see this as flicker and tearing when things move. Not sure if this would trigger your epilepsy or not. Read reviews and specs before buying!

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I do macro with my phone and never need flash. Natural light is fine for most outdoors daytime pictures. If you need light for whatever reason, you can make a light diffuser that’s not a flash by simply covering a light source with a piece of wax paper, printer paper, thin white cloth, plastic bag etc. There’s no reason it has to be a “flash” that goes on and then off, it can be a steady light source if that works better for you.

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Thank you so much for all the advice!! I really appreciate it, I’ll look into all of these. Also, thank you for the tip on mirrorless camera viewfinders. I like DSLRs just because I prefer the feel of mirrored cameras, but I’ll keep that in mind if I ever decide to switch.

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Good to know. Getting a constant light source should be easy, I just wanted to check because every resource usually says flash specifically – wasn’t sure if the flashing action was necessary for the photo!

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If you’re trying to achieve something close to what professionals get, yes, you will need light that flash gives you, not always, but most of the times, if you can get some ring light that will work the same but just be static then it could work for you, absolutely, but it’ll be tricky to not get too much light too, so what you need is this light and practice.

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Flash will give you crisper photos since it freezes the subject and camera motion, but a strong video light will work at a bit higher ISO and/or wider aperture. You won’t get the same results as flash macros, at least not as easily, but you should be able to get some pretty good shots. There are some LED ring lights that could be good. I have been using flash for macros for so long, I wouldn’t want to use it, but it seems like a good alternative for you. I have a friend who uses one.

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I suspect it depends where you will be taking the photos, outside in the field or back at your studio/lab/office. For outdoor macros I do not use a flash but I do use a diffuser to help with the bright sun here in Arizona. For low light conditions I use slow shutter speeds (1/20 sec etc) and open up the aperture for proper exposure and always use a tripod. Occasionally I will need to stabilize the subject with small clamps and string.
My camera has a built in function for focus stacking images so I use it all the time. I “blend” the images in Helicon Focus 7 which I highly recommend. For shooting in the studio I use artificial lights, typically LEDs with controllable brightness and color-temp. Good luck with all of this, it can become very enticing.

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This may be redundant with prior responses, but I just want to add: Feel free to be creative! Your epilepsy poses a constraint on the standard approach – but don’t feel compelled to ‘compete’ in the standard arena. Sometimes the ways we adapt to constraints are what pushes the entire field forward.

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I absolutely don´t agree about the “you surely will need a flash in macro photography” opinion.
I started off with macro photography and learned in an online platform where flash was actually very much frowned upon, so I did not use flash for the first few years at all. This might be a german thing… international taste is different in some aspects… I only started using the flash option very rarely when I moved to Ecuador and realized without flash it can be impossible to get shots in the rainforest… However, I still rarely use flash.
You can have a look at some of my macros there (usually the picture data is also imported and will tell you that most is done without flash): https://www.flickr.com/photos/162002315@N03/albums

I know, I have a more modest style in my photography, which might not be poppy enough for everyones taste. But even the bright and shiny is easily possible without flash. If even needed, diffusors can do the trick easily. Have a look in this gallery, where still almost noone used flash: https://www.makro-forum.de/viewforum.php?f=4

(you can see the details about lighting if you go in the thread and click on “Aufnahmedaten anzeigen” which will open a data mask… if at “Beleuchtung” there is nothing written about falsh/Blitz, it´s usually taken in natural light

In the end it depends a lot on what kind of results you actually imagine, but you for sure do not need a flash per se.

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I’ve found that using a high powered light instead of a flash works well, and it can make it easier to focus as well. You have a constant, steady light, so it should not trigger any adverse response.

I use often at night when focusing in the dark is nearly impossible. Using a very bright light, like one of the Fenix or similar lights, gives me the light I need for the focus and provides sufficient illumination for a good photo too.

I have a little one that I hold under the lens when shooting hand-held, but of you’re using a more formal set-up you can have them mounted, and if you’re shooting indoors you have even more mounting options.

The only issue is that using the lights at their highest setting they get hot fast and it reduced the battery time quite a bit.

Generally I don’t use anything other than natural light for my macro photos though.

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There’re minuses of using one technique only, as in any field we’re talking about, from naturalist point of view: people can’t really spend time preparing stacks for each photo (and you need a totally static animal for that, I open a cat from your second link, 34 shots stacked! it’s ok for day of artisctic photos, and sounds horrible for actual trip) and you need them more than ever when shooting without flash as you use lesser shutter speed and more opened apperture, which means more blur, lesser dof, so you need to be more handy, flash also allows you see tiny parts making id process easier.
Talking from purely photography side, one of my close-to-heart photographers have a website with pretty good info about gear used: https://www.nickybay.com/

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I have an LED ring flash and it can be set to continuous light rather than flash. I got it for macro videos mostly but it might be something that could work for you. I also usually carry an LED flashlight and a clamp to hold it to help in tricky light situations and have gotten some good results with that. By now I have two of these to provide light from two angles if needed. Other than that, if I want really close detail without having to worry about lighting, I actually try to shoot in bright sunlight. Works great for things like insects on flowers.

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Something to consider of everyone’s advice here is the different definitions of what “macro” is. For some “macro” might be considered 1:2 magnification and I think by most definitions it’s at least 1:1 magnification. What you’re proposing is 2:1 up to 5:1, right? Like, crazy close right?

For the ultra-macro (2x-5x) range that you are wanting to achieve, I can’t imagine that you would be happy with the results without a flash. You might try LED panels, but at those magnifications getting enough light will be really difficult. I shoot with a lens that can go 2:1, but I almost never go more than 1:1 with most critters because it’s so difficult to get enough light to be able to focus (and I shoot handheld). Shooting at 2x-5x would surely also require a tripod and a flash.

I really love what schizoform said about creative limitations. That’s wonderful advice. You might ask yourself why you want to shoot at those magnifications. It’s really cool to see a close up of a fly’s ommatidia, but getting a good close up ‘portrait’ of a critter in its natural setting, being active - you can’t beat it. Check out ‘jmad’ (Jose Madrigal) on Instagram. His in-flight macro shots are mind blowing. Many of his shots are in natural light and I don’t think he uses a flash too often. They aren’t anywhere close to 2x-5x magnification, but they’re just plain awesome.

Something else you might consider is software than can help sharpen images. Some macro shooters use software from Topaz to get their images really sharp.

Hope this is helpful.

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Sure, it´s always good if you have a broad set-up. But that was not really the question here… the question was, whether a flash is needed for macro-photography. I don´t think so. But as I and tadamcochran pointed out, it also depends a lot on what you envision your results to be.

Yes, you can balance the DOF situation with stacks if you want (I did not use this technique so far, but as you mentioned, some in that forum I linked to do and show amazingly detailed results)… you do not need a flash for that either. You can also embrace the boundaries and use DOF as a strenght to make your photos more interesting. Again, comes down to taste…
That does not mean that there is not also a point of flash-photography, but again - that was not the question.

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As gvbox is talking about ultra-macro photography (2:1 to 5:1 magnification), I have to disagree with all the posters above who say that using natural light is fine. There’s no way you can get a sharp image with natural light at 2:1 or smaller unless you’re using a tripod and a fixed subject. For those who aren’t familiar with ultra-macro photography, 1:1 (usually considered the highest magnification in regular macro photography) is what you would use to take a photo of a fly. 2:1 is what you would use to take a photo of a fly’s face. 5:1 is equivalent to a microscope. I would recommend trying a high-power video light. The ones used for underwater video work are often extra bright, but also extra expensive. Your next challenge will be figuring out how to properly aim and diffuse a video light (since they aren’t designed for macro photography). @annkatrinrose mentioned an LED ring flash with a continuous mode, which sounds perfect, although strangely they didn’t provide any information about it (brand, model, price, etc.). I wonder how bright its continuous mode is.

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Again, as others said, for real close macro you will need additional light anyway, no matter if it’s flash or constant light setup. You don’t need flash for stacks, but they either require more time or buying more gear to make it easier, which is expensive, so for fast photos using flash will give you better results than if you weren’t using it (you will you stacks anyway if you’re trying to achieve perfection, flash or not), again, talking about real macro (and OP wanting to get to extra levels of it) and not just insect photos which many refer to.

To come at this from another angle… Can you change anything about how you shoot to avoid seeing the flash? I use a Canon SX70 bridge camera for macro both with and without flash. Because I can need my reading glasses to see the LCD display, I often use the viewfinder when shooting. With one eye closed, I can’t see the flash. And then I wonder if the flash fired. So I half to keep both eyes open and ignore most of the non-viewfinder eye except checking for the flash. If you shoot with the LCD, maybe a shield would work? Part of me feels like I’m making poor firearm handling recommendations. Use caution.

When shooting plants (they don’t move like insects), natural light and a stable camera work well. I have a mini-tripod or can improvise with a log, rock or boot. Still, sometimes the light is just too faint or harsh. I have a small LED panel to add or fill in as needed (Lume Cube Mini). It’ll light a small subject. Bigger might be nice but I probably wouldn’t lug it.

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