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Photography Tip: How to Take Beautiful Macro Photographs in Low Light

September 04, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Ebony Jewelwing - Male

I am a huge fan of macro photography (photographing critters up close).  But, while macro photography is easy in broad daylight, it's a challenge in low light. Sure, you can set up a tripod and photograph a motionless moth on a tree because, on still subjects, a long exposure doesn't matter. However, in the vast majority of cases, macro subjects like insects and spiders are incredibly active. You only have seconds to capture them in the right posture.

So what's the best way to do this? Well, you have two options: crank up your ISO or use a flash.  Cranking up your ISO will allow you to take the shot at higher shutter speeds; however, you will have a problem with digital noise, and more likely than not, all the details on your subject's body will not be highlighted. Both of these problems are grave, since detail is the main focus of macro photography. This makes the first option undesirable.

So we move to the second option: a flash. Ideally, a serious macro photographer will have a ring flash, which is designed for macro shots, but unless you want to pay an extra $300 or so, you'll probably want to pass on that.  

This leaves you with your camera's little built-in pop-up flash. For larger subjects, the pop-up isn't always desirable, but for the smaller subjects, it's perfect. In fact, with small subjects, the flash is so powerful that you're, practically, carrying around your own studio.

Yet, this is where the flash's problem lies: the powerfully bright light at close range will overexpose and/or wash out the photo.  The photo below is a good example. 

Common Eastern Fireflies (Photinus pyralis) Mating I photographed this mating pair of common eastern fireflies at dusk, when there's NO light outside. So, understandably, I needed to use a flash. However, because of the flash, the fireflies (and the background) are horribly overexposed, and they've lost a great deal of color.

So how do you fix this problem? Simple. Using a good photo editing program (Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, and even, Gimp are good choices), you decrease your photo's brightness and increase its saturation. For situations such as these, I recommend shooting in RAW, so you have more freedom playing around with brightness and saturation. If you do decide to shoot in JPEG and edit the photo, save a copy of the original. Why? Because editing JPEGs--even just rotating them--decreases the photo's size and, in turn, loses data.

Anyways, back to the photo.  Here is the result of decreasing the brightness and increasing the saturation:

Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) Much better. Decreasing the brightness restored the detail that has been overexposed. Increasing the saturation restored the colors that had been washed out.

Is this strategy useful on subjects other than insects? Absolutely. Below is a photograph of a juvenile eastern ratsnake.  

Eastern Ratsnake Juvenile Once again, the flash has overexposed and washed out the subject and background. However, due to the low light beneath the forest canopy, the flash was necessary to capture the little snake's features as well as freeze its tongue in action. So we upload the RAW files to our computer, load them in our photo editor of choice, and decrease the brightness + increase the saturation and...

Eastern Ratsnake - Juvenile

...voila! A beautiful photograph of a juvenile eastern ratsnake on the move.

Decreasing brightness and increasing saturation need not be limited to flash, though. You can fix, practically, any overexposed photo in this manner, provided the subject is in focus. In broad daylight, cloud movements and contrasting colors can easily overexpose a photo. The below photograph of a delta flower scarab was shot outside in broad daylight.  The subject's in focus, but the photograph is overexposed.

IMG_9156
The scarab itself isn't too horribly overexposed, but because the flowers are white, they are "blown out" and are nearly indistinguishable. Surely, this photo cannot be recovered. But, indeed, it can:

Scarab Species

Once again, adjusting the brightness and saturation accordingly has saved the day! Looking at the flowers, your eyes no longer hurt, and you can, actually, tell that they are flowers!

I hope you've learned something today. Now, go out there and shoot some awesome macros! 


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