I hope everyone is keeping well during this pandemic. I’ve not been able to do much photography due to Lockdown 2.0 in Melbourne, however, a couple of weeks ago, ShotKit.com published an article I wrote about my photography and the gear I use. Here's the link (https://shotkit.com/jesslyn-saw/). In the article, I briefly describe the gear I use when photographing the different genres, e.g. macro, wildlife, landscape, etc. While writing that article, I realised that over the past 5 years or so I've accumulated a lot of accessories to help me with my photography. A LOT! Some were good and some not so good. So I've decided to expand on my Shotkit article and describe in more detail my experiences with the gear that I use for each genre, and what I liked and didn't like about them.
I'll begin with macro photography, the genre that first got me hooked. In my Shotkit article I mentioned using the Olympus OM-D EM 1 II and the Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. With the micro four thirds 2x crop factor, that's an equivalent full frame focal length of 120mm. Olympus and Panasonic have other short focal length macro lenses, but for the type of macro I like to shoot, i.e. insects, the longer the focal length of the lens the better. There's a rumour that Olympus will be producing a 100mm macro lens. If that is true, I'll probably be one of the first buyers.
I have used several Olympus camera bodies over the years, the Olympus OM-D EM 10, the Olympus OM-D EM 5 II and finally the Olympus OM-D EM 1 II. However, no matter which camera and lens is used for macro photography, getting enough light is the main factor in getting the shot. I use flash to give the extra light, but there are other methods without flash which I will mention later. The first flash I bought when I was just starting out was the Metz mecablitz 24 AF-1. It was basic and cheap but only used two AA batteries so recycle times were very slow and there were no extra controls or settings. I very soon ditched that flash and bought the Olympus FL600-R. It had fast recycles times, and the flash power could be adjusted on the flash or in camera, and because it was an Olympus flash, it could be synced with the focus stacking feature in the Olympus camera. I also upgraded to rechargable AA NiMH batteries. The brand is Eneloop Pro and they can hold a charge upto 2550mAh which can last for quite a long time before needing to be recharged.
The next issue with using flash in macro photography is the light intensity. The light from the flash needs to be diffused to give the photo a pleasant soft light instead of the harsh bright light of an undiffused flash. Diffusers come in all shapes and sizes but sometimes, the simplest homemade diffuser is the best. For example, on a trip to visit my father in Malaysia, I shot a photo of a jumping spider in its nest (top photo) using the Olympus OM-D EM5 II with the Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens and a diffuser made out of cardboard and white paper (pic below). That photo earned me a Highly Commended rating in the 2020 Nature TTL Photographer of the Year, and also Top 10 place in the 2019 Photographer of the Year competitions.
I’m currently a little obsessed with trying to get greater magnification in macro photography. The Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens can reach a magnification of 1:1, i.e. a subject measuring 1cm in length in real life will measure as 1cm on the camera's sensor at its minimum focusing distance. On a micro four thirds sensor, that 1cm is about half the size of the sensor at about 19cm minimum focusing distance on the Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. But what if your subject is smaller than 1cm? Or too difficult to get close to?
Earlier I mentioned wanting a longer focal length for insect macro photography, this is especially useful for insects like butterflies and bees. Similar results can be achieved by adding extension tubes to normal telephoto lenses, although it is not really macro per se. This increases the distance between the lens and the camera sensor and decreases the minimum focusing distance of the lens, thereby allowing you to get closer to your subject. To determine the minimum focusing distance and magnification, I found this handy website (http://extreme-macro.co.uk/calculators/) that will do the calculations for you. However, having extension tubes between a heavy telephoto lens and camera body can spell disaster if the lens is not properly supported, and, as you can imagine, very tiring for the arms after a long period of time. Believe me, photography is a very time consuming activity.
In the photo above, I used a set of Kenko extension tubes (16mm + 10mm) attached between the Olympus EM-5 II and the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f4-6.3 telephoto lens. This allowed me to focus on this Blue-banded bee less than a meter away (the normal minimum focusing distance of the lens is 1.5m). I couldn't use my flash in this instance but luckily the bee was in the bright afternoon sun, so even though I had to to increase my aperture, ISO and shutter speed, there was still enough ambient light to see the bee. Unfortunately, that meant my photo was a little bit grainy, but there is now a nifty bit of software called Denoise AI by Topaz Labs that smooths out the grain without destroying the detail in the photo. I now use Denoise AI in most of my wildlife photos that have been shot at higher ISO.
The 26mm extension tubes can also be used on the Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens of course, with a new magnification of 1.4:1, and a minimum focusing distance of around 25cm. However, I wanted even more magnification, at least 2:1. I did toy with the idea of purchasing a Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x ultra macro lens, but that is a full manual lens, and I always like having the option of auto focus in all my lenses. But still, 5:1 magnification! Almost like using a microscope. And the downside of course, is the extremely close focusing distance, extremely shallow depth of field and extremely low lighting. They don’t call it extreme macro for nothing.
On the extreme macro website I mentioned above, there was also a calculator for something called the Raynox DCR 250 adapter. I discovered that it is a close up filter that clips onto the front of a lens and allows any lens to focus more closely. Sort of like putting a magnifying glass in front of a lens. When paired with my Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens, it theoretically gives a magnification of 2:1 at a minimum focusing distance of around 12cm. I say theoretical because to achieve that magnification with the Raynox DCR 250 attached to the Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens, the subject will have to be right in front of the lens. However, it is useful for attaching to non macro lenses such as my Panasonic Leica 12-60mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens when I'm out hiking and don't have the macro lens with me.
Then one day, I came across a post in a forum (can’t remember which forum) in which someone mentioned using the Olympus MC-14 1.4x teleconverter with the Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens with the help of a couple of 10mm extension tubes. It also said that the brand of the extension tubes were very important, particularly the one connecting directly to the teleconverter. Essentially the camera would be connected to the teleconverter followed by the Fotga 10mm extension tube followed by the Kenko 10mm extension tube and finally the Olympus m.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. I’m not exactly sure what the magnification is, but I would say that it’s around 2:1. In the photo below, I used this combination to photograph a tiny jumping spider with its prey. It was only about 6-7mm in length and at maximum magnification, has almost filled the frame. The most challenging part is trying to hold the camera steady enough to take the photo as I like to do all my macro photos handheld. I found that leaning the camera against something really helps with stability.
Now, almost every macro photo is taken with flash, and I do love my Olympus FL-600R flash, but sometimes, having the flash on camera is a little limiting in terms of light direction. That’s when I decided to try out the Olympus STF-8 macro twin flash. It is attached to the front of the lens via an adapter ring, and the two little flash units can be moved independently to any position on that ring, essentially allowing me to direct the flash in any direction. The downside of such a flash though, is that the light is very close to the subject and thus harsh bright spots can be seen on subjects with shiny surfaces such as beetles. Where it did work brilliantly was when I photographed a white cabbage butterfly at 1:1 magnification drinking nectar from a Star Jasmine flower (as seen below). I was able to direct the light of the flash from the left side of the butterfly instead of directly above, and because the butterfly didn’t have shiny surfaces, there were no harsh light spots anywhere. The small form factor of the flash also helped to not disturb the butterfly like the larger flash and diffuser would have done.
Most of the time though I found the Olympus STF-8 macro twin flash a little unwieldy to use, and because the flash heads can also be tilted in 3 different directions, it was hard to tell which position was the best for your subject. Insects and spiders aren’t inclined to sit still until you got your settings right. Sometimes, the simplicity of an on camera flash makes the process so much easier. After my trip to Malaysia where I made a makeshift diffuser out of cardboard, I returned home and set about designing my own custom diffuser. There are actually many designs of custom diffusers to be found on the internet from the quite elaborate dome shape with additional lighting for focusing to the simplest ones made out of Pringles tins. I ended up using black foamboard lined with aluminium foil and packing foam as the diffusing material. However, it still had the same problem of showing up as harsh hotspots on shiny surfaces, as seen in the photo of the ladybug below. I tried to hide it during post processing, but once you know it's there you will never unsee it.
My latest creation uses opaque cuttingboards and foam purchased from Daiso, some black felt, tape and rubber bands (pic below). I will probably refine it a little more, since I have another 2 weeks of lockdown to go. I also upgraded the Olympus FL600R flash to the Olympus FL700WR flash. It is slightly bigger, recycles faster and it is also weatherproof, unlike the FL600R. Now all I need is for the weather to warm up and for the insects to emerge.
Right, I think I’ve rambled on long enough about my macro gear. Do let me know what you think. Would you like me to continue with the rest of my gear for other genres? I have stuff for bird and wildlife photography, landscape and also astrophotography. Drop me a comment below if you would like to read more about my photography gear.
Until next time,