Are you interested in doing some creative macro photography? Oftentimes, we macro photographers find ourselves photographing the same subjects over and over, searching for new compositions that seem like they’ll never appear.
In this article, I’ll discuss a macro photography technique that will get you out of that creative rut: using fairy lights. I’ll explain where to purchase them, how to set them up, and how to use them. Ultimately, you’ll learn how to enhance your macro photography with a cheap accessory. You’ll even have lots of fun in the process!
What are fairy lights?
Fairy lights are tiny LED lights. They come in a number of different colors and can be picked up for cheap ($10 or thereabouts) on Amazon.com. I prefer to use warm white colored fairy lights, but feel free to experiment. Different colors will give your photographs different tones.
What makes fairy lights interesting?
There is one reason why I love fairy lights, and it is this:
Bokeh, bokeh, bokeh!
When placed properly in a photograph, fairy lights can create wonderful out of focus highlights that add a magical feel to your images.
This can be used in any genre of photography. For instance, it is fairly popular in some portrait photography circles. But I most enjoy using fairy lights in creative macro photography, which is what I’ll be focusing on in this article.
How to use fairy lights?
Work in the twilight hour
Fairy lights are not very bright relative to ambient light. Therefore, it’s necessary to shoot late in the day.
If your subject is shaded, or if the day is cloudy, you can start shooting a few minutes before the sun has gone down. As the level of ambient light decreases, the overall look offered by the fairy lights will change.
The fairy lights will become more noticeable, and will really pop off the background (which can be good or bad, depending on the look you desire).
I generally shoot until I can no longer handhold my camera. This is usually in the area of 30 minutes after sunset. However, If you like to use a tripod, feel free to stay out later.
Shoot wide open and feel free to underexpose
What should you use for camera and lens settings?
The lens aperture is the easiest setting to choose, widen it as much as possible. Not only does this let in the most light (to compensate for the lack of ambient lighting), but it also blurs the fairy lights in a more pleasing way.
Therefore, when working with fairy lights, I generally stick to my lens’s widest aperture, usually f/2.8.
As for shutter speed, I meter off the main subject (for me, this is usually a flower), and then deliberately underexpose the image. Why? I like that blue twilight aesthetic and I want it to be clear that the image was taken after sundown. This also really causes the fairy lights to stand out.
Regarding lenses, I usually shoot with a macro lens. However, you might also work with another fast lens, such as a 50mm f/1.8. These have the added benefit of being smaller and are therefore easier to handhold.
In macro photography, being able to focus manually is often essential. This is even truer when it comes to fairy light photography. When working in such dark conditions, your autofocus will hunt and hunt until the light is completely gone and you’re forced to pack up.
Instead, switch your lens to manual focus. You can also switch on Live View, which can be very helpful in such difficult conditions.
Place the fairy lights directly behind or in front of the subject
There are two general approaches that I recommend for fairy light photography.
#1 – Put the lights a few inches behind the subject
This distance can decrease if you’re working at high magnifications or a very wide aperture. But it should increase if you are farther from your subject or working with a narrow aperture. If I’m photographing flowers, I often just drape the lights over other flowers or branches behind the main subject.
The key is to ensure that the lights themselves are out of focus. You don’t want viewers to look at your images and actually see the fairy lights as fairy lights. They should appear as beautiful background highlights. This means that you should work with a bit of distance between the subject and the fairy lights in the background.
#2 – Put the lights in front of the subject
The second approach is harder to pull off but is well worth the difficulty. This involves placing the fairy lights in front of the subject, close enough to the lens that they remain out of focus.
I generally hold the lights in front of the lens with my left hand while manual focusing the lens with the other. This ensures that the fairy lights remain nothing more than out of focus highlights.
Final Techniques to Consider
Now you know the basics of fairy light macro photography. But how do you create compelling images?
I find that there’s a particularly useful guideline for fairy light photography which is to incorporate the fairy lights into the composition.
That is, don’t just let the fairy lights spray randomly throughout the background. Yes, this will result in an interesting image, but it will probably seem chaotic as well. In any type of photography, you want every bit of your photograph to be deliberate. Fairy light macro photography is no exception.
Instead, compose so that the fairy lights complement the main subject. Place them so that they appear above the subject (in the background). Make them appear beside the subject. Put them so that they seem to ring the main subject.
If you are using the second technique that I mentioned above, in which you put the fairy lights in front of the lens, make sure that they don’t block out important parts of the subject.
You don’t want to obscure your main subject with lights. It needs to be recognizable in order to offer a point for the viewer to focus on.
Fairy lights can add creative flair to your macro photography. They can also help you get out of a creative rut.
If all goes well, you might find yourself inspired to experiment with different colored fairy lights, or even take them with you when engaging in other genres of photography like portrait or pet photography.
By following the guidelines set out above, you’ll be able to take some fantastic eye-catching images!
Got any creative macro photography techniques of your own? Please share them in the comments section below.