This post is going to be part image deconstruction and part lesson in technique. It's also going to prove that I'd make a terrible magician since I'm giving away my secrets ;)
Let's start out with a shot of a Cuckoo Bee taken at five times life size, F10, and ISO 100:
What if I told you that taking an image like that one, hand held, is easy? Here's the setup: I found this bee on a cool, partly cloudy, day when it was just starting to get active. Since the temps and light were low it was really lethargic -so slow that I was able to cut the plant it was on with a small pair of scissors that I carry in my camera bag and move it to a shaded area on top of a stone wall (to keep it from warming up and flying off). I then clamped the stem of the plant into a small wood clamp that I also carry in my bag and I've got an instant studio. I simply rotated the plant to get the angles that I wanted and rested my arms against the wall to keep everything steady. Granted I had to nail the composition and the focus, but it's really just a matter of practice...
Same critter, but this time at 3x, F13, and ISO 100:
Notice how the background isn't black? That's because I've got the critter as close to the surface of the stone wall as I can and I'm shooting from an angle that allows me to illuminate the wall with the flash -there is no natural light in that scene. Easy to do because I'm in full control of the frame and how the elements in it are arranged. Seriously once you get past the mechanics and understand how things work then an image like that one isn't difficult -it only looks hard due to the magnification.
In contrast here's a shot at life size, F13:, and ISO 100
The background is black because it has to be: I'm shooting in an unkempt flower bed that's less than half a meter wide. The wall behind the bee is dirty and too far away to be illuminated by the flash. I could crank up the ISO or even lower the shutter speed to get some ambient light into the scene (it's almost noon on a cloudless day) but there's one little problem -the bee is hyper active. Even though it doesn't take me long to focus and shoot this little guy gave me all of three frames and he was in constant motion. The only way I could get a sharp image is to take full control of the light and freeze the motion in the scene with the short duration of the flash -to literally use the flash as my shutter. If the flash didn't fire then the only image I'd have is a little bit of that yellow flower (the bee would have been a silhouette).
The same principals hold true for this shot of a honeybee at life size, F13, and ISO 100:
The flower in the background? Well I saw it in the view finder and framed the scene to get it, but the fact that it shows up in the image is luck. It just happened to be close enough to be lit by the flash. Of the four images in this post the last two were the hardest to take since the critters in both of them are in motion.
Footnote: I intentionally left out the shutter speeds that I used for those images because the shutter only effects the amount of ambient light that makes it to the image plane and it has no effect on the flash (as long as you're shooting at or below your camera's flash sync speed). The point that I'm trying to make by not including the shutter speed is that it doesn't matter when shooting at macro magnification and high Fstops -there just isn't enough natural light making its way into the lens to have a major effect on what the camera records. Also by shooting at high Fstops and ISO 100 I'm intentionally trying to eliminate the ambient light in the scene so I can take full control of the light with the flash. So when you look at my images you're really viewing a form of stop motion photography where I'm freezing the motion in the scene with a short duration flash pulse -and now you know the secret to my sharp images... ;)