Close-up: Macro Flash Brackets
As mentioned last week, for outdoor macro work you are better off with natural light whenever possible. If you're trying to photograph butterflies or other moving subjects though, you may need to add flash to get fast enough shutter speeds. With relatively short working distances though, you can actually end up casting a shadow on your subject with the front of your lens if your flash is mounted on camera. This is where macro flash brackets come in.
Flash brackets from Stoboframe and other companies are popular with portrait photographers so they can get their flash far enough off the lens axis to avoid red eye in the people they are photographing. While such brackets can be used for macro, they are not ideal, principally because they hold the flash too far away. While a little bit is good to avoid hitting your lens barrel when you aim for your subject, a lot is not necessarily better. These type of brackets also generally are not compatible with the Arca-Swiss system, something that is at least nice to have although not a requirement since flash is often used hand held.
Before any flash brackets designed specifically for macro were available in the marketplace it used to be common to make your own bracket. John Shaw in particular popularized this idea with his book Closeups in Nature published in 1987. This book is still often described as the bible of macro photography and many still follow its lead and build their own. John's bracket was a fairly simply affair made from bending and drilling pieces of aluminum strapping. If you are handy in the workshop, this may be a good option, but for most of us, commercially available brackets are a better bet.
George Lepp also designed his own flash bracket, but his was a bit fancier than John's. Featuring two arms to allow one to have both a key and fill light, the design has since been bought by Saunders and no longer bears the Lepp name. I have a similar bracket from Novoflex. Unlike the original Lepp bracket, the Novoflex allows you to optimize your flash positions both within the plane of bracket itself as well as raising them above it. I know of serious macro field shooters who use this and get great results but I find it too ungainly to be practical.
As they have by making lots of other handy tools from blocks of machined aircraft aluminum, Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises have done nature photographers a great service by designing and building a line of flash brackets. Brackets from both companies are similar and consist basically of a "C" shaped arc that attaches to special holes in compatible lens plates and go around the lens so you can mount your flash on top. Note that too use one your lens plate not only needs to be Arca-Swiss compatible, it must be compatible with the flash bracket system you are using. RRS flash brackets do not fit on Kirk plates and vice versa. For a number of years I used the flash arms from Really Right Stuff. They make an extender post that mates to them to make it into a flash bracket for wildlife, raising the flash high enough to reduce eye shine in most animals (kind of like the wildlife shooter's equivalent of the red eye portrait problem). The only problem was that you needed a larger RRS bracket to go around the larger wildlife telephoto since the brackets themselves were not adjustable.
Both companies continue to innovate and Really Right Stuff recently introduced new brackets that work with lenses that don't have tripod collars. Instead, they have an extension that allows them to mate with the body quick release plate. The flash mounting point then slides along the curve of the bracket to allow you to use the system when shooting both horizontally and vertically while keeping the flash above the lens. I have not personally used these new brackets, so for details, please visit their website.
Instead, I switched to the wonderful new Wimberley Shape Shifter bracket system. Consisting of just a few basic pieces that can be combined in a number of various ways depending on your needs, it is both truly functional and flexible. Rather than just copying Really Right Stuff's and Kirk's designs, the Wimberley is a complete rethinking of the whole concept of the flash bracket. In its various forms, it attaches easily to either a lens (tripod collar) plate or a camera body plate. It can be adjusted to fit around lenses of most any diameter and can be easily aimed where needed. Best of all, it is compact and easily portable. While not cheap, the system is quite nice. By combining its various pieces you can build most any configuration imaginable for macro, wildlife or even portraiture.
No matter which option you choose, you will need the appropriate cable to allow you to take your flash off camera. For Nikon users, that's the SC-17 or the newer SC-28 or SC-29. Add the SC-18 or SC-19 (or the newer SC-26 or SC-27) to connect a second flash.