Updated: Jul 25, 2018
After getting my first DSLR in 2015, it didn't take long for me to become interested in macro photography. Back then I did a lot of research into reverse lens and extension tube techniques, as I had little in the way of budget. I had lots of fun during the summers, looking for insects in particular, and working with on-camera flash. A lot of the macro images on this site were taken using this technique.
At the start, I would try to achieve mega-magnification, using a reversed 28mm prime lens (an old Zeiss lens my dad had from the 60s) and extension tubes - creating up to 3:1 magnification, but it was difficult to achieve good results due to the minute depth of field and limited light. I settled on using short extension tubes and a broken 'nifty 50' canon lens, which gave me 1:1, and could be reversed for about 2:1 magnification. I created a diffuser that mounted on the camera body by velcro to diffuse the on-camera flash. This was good fun, but I was limited to whatever aperture I set the lens to before I assembled everything - usually about f7.1 or f8. I then adjusted ISO and the flash output to expose the image.
Then I borrowed a Tamron 90mm macro lens from a friend - and while it had a technical fault that caused it to malfunction at very close focus, it let me see how much more flexible it would be.
So I sold my 24-105mm f4L lens (it was a horrible lens anyway, so I won't miss it) and bought a Sigma 105mm macro f2.8. I then set about finding a better means of lighting subjects, and bought some cheap components off the internet co construct an external flash setup.
The flash I'm using is a borrowed Canon 550EX Speedlight, but I use it solely on manual mode, and will replace it with a cheap speedlight in due course - probably a Yongnuo or similar.
I generally use my Canon 70D for macro work, because it's lighter and the movable screen can be really useful. The lack of focus points can be a bit of a pain though, when trying to compose an image, and I often revert to manual focus (which is a breeze with this lens, with the focus ring right at the front, and internal focus - so the barrel doesn't move towards the subject and scare it off like the Tamron lens did). I am using the tripod mounting plate from a video tripod, and then a Neewer 'magic arm' that can be manipulated into position and then all the moving parts tightened with one knob. It was £9.50 from amazon. The diffuser is also a Neewer one, and cost £5 - not exactly luxurious quality, but more than good enough.
The hot-shoe cable is borrowed for now, until I can get my own along with a speedlight, but any model would do, as it's just for manual flash operation.
The benefit of this setup is immediately clear. I've only tried it out once at this stage, but the ability to create a feeling of depth to images with the flash not coming from the same direction as the camera lens is hugely beneficial.
The angled flash allows a faster shutter speed and lower ISO to be maintained and a more intense light to be used without rendering the background completely black and the shadows harsh and directly behind the subject. It helps to make the subject stand out more in the frame too.
It also minimises blown out highlights from reflected flash - the image below of the Green Veined White butterfly was overexposed by almost 2 full stops, but I was able to bring it all back in camera raw as nothing was fatally blown out.
The other benefit of the Sigma 105mm macro lens over the Tamron and reverse lens techniques is the beautiful soft bokeh which renders backgrounds so much more pleasing on the eye!
This image has some textures added (some out of focus pebbles taken with a slow shutter speed and moving camera, and a photo of the back of a canvas.
Really looking forward to searching for damselflies at lunch times this week, and a holiday down south the following week where different species of butterflies will be possible.
After a few days of using this setup. I'm still getting on well. I am still awaiting a proper plate for the bottom of the camera, and find that the temporary arrangement of using the tripod plate is causing it to work loose. This was frustrating last night when photographing butterflies in windy conditions, as it made it impossible to use the camera with one hand - annoying when trying to hold a particularly tame butterfly in the the other!!
However, the ability to maintain a fast shutter speed in the windy conditions was a huge benefit.