Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III with FL-700WR Flash
Macro,  Photo Gear

Should you Shoot with On or Off Camera Flash for Macro Photography?

The availability of light is a typical problem when shooting macro photography.  Typically with macro photography,  you are shooting at close distances to the subject and at smaller apertures to increase the depth of field which leaves you shooting at slow shutter speeds to get enough light on the subject.

There are two primary options to solve this problem. Shooting with a tripod or adding additional light to the scene.  There are specialty flashes for macro such as ring light, but you can start using flash for your macro photography with your existing speedlight.

Photographing macro photography subjects with a flash gives you more freedom in composition and allows you to work faster than if you were using a tripod.  You will also have a lighter photography kit without a tripod which is helpful for long macro photography hikes.

There are two common ways to use flash for handheld macro photography – On Camera or Off Camera.  Whether you choose on camera or off camera flash, you will also want to use a diffuser to more evenly spread the light and minimize spectral highlights on reflective subjects.

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Advantages of Using On Camera and Off Camera Flash

Caterpillar Taken with On Camera Flash
Caterpillar Taken with On Camera Flash

On Camera Flash

With On Camera Flash, you have a more portable, lightweight macro photography kit.  You will also have one hand free to arrange your subject, move branches and leaves, etc.

You will also have more stability shooting with both hands which can lead to a higher keeper ratio and allow you to use features like in camera Focus Stacking.

The downside of On Camera Flash is that you lack the flexibility of positioning the light at different angles and distances.  It also may be more difficult to light really close compositions.

Olympus FC-WR Wireless Flash Commander
Olympus FC-WR Wireless Flash Commander

Off Camera Flash

Off Camera Flash gives you the ultimate flexibility to position your flash for the best lighting of your subject no matter how close the composition.

The downside is a loss of stability requiring you to shoot at higher shutter speeds.  Features such as in Camera Focus Stacking will be more difficult unless you are really steady shooting one handed.

With Off Camera Flash, both of your hands will also be holding gear.  I like to wear a vest or jacket with big pockets where I can store the flash and diffuser if I need to free up a hand.

You will also need either another flash on the hot shoe as a trigger for infrared communication or a wireless controller for wireless radiowave communications to an Off Camera flash.

Foxglove Beardtongue Wildflower Taken with Off Camera Flash
Foxglove Beardtongue Wildflower Taken with Off Camera Flash

Should You Use On Camera or Off Camera Flash?

So, should you choose On Camera of Off Camera flash?  We’ll, I use both.  Sometimes, I want to be nimble (like on a long hike) I’ll use on camera flash.  If I know I’m photographing a subject where I’ll want the flexibility in positioning the light, I’ll go with Off Camera flash.

The good news is that you can use the same flash for either On Camera or Off Camera flash.  You will just need to add a controller or trigger for shooting with Off Camera flash. 

If you are buying a flash for macro photography make sure you research the availability of remote controllers for your flash as not all flashes work with radiowave controllers and you will be limited to using infrared communications which are line of sight.

9 x 7" Softbox attached to the Meike MK320
9″ x 7″ Softbox

Using Diffusers with Flash

I like to use a 9” x 7” softbox for both On Camera and Off Camera flash.  For a really lightweight, portable macro photography kit, also try using an over the lens barrel type diffuser.  These fold up into a really small package that can be carried in your pocket.

For a more in depth look at flash diffuser options, read my blog that compares different diffuser options for macro photography.

Written by Martin Belan

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