Thursday, 24 April 2008

Using Flash for Digital Macro Photography

Ring Flash – Is it the Answer to all Macro Photography Problems?
Welcome to my Macro Photography for Beginners website. In my last post I documented the way in which I successfully cleaned my Camera Sensor. This was much easier than I had anticipated and has given my camera a new lease of life. I am now enjoying using my camera again and making full use of small aperture values. In the UK the weather has been quite cold this week which does not bother me at all but it is not the best conditions for macro photography. Despite this I hope you enjoy this post and pick up some useful macro photography tips along the way. If you are a regular reader of my website you will already know that I use a Sigma EM 140 DG Ring-flash. I chose to use this equipment because my main interest is flower photography. If your main interest is bugs, spiders, insects, butterflies, moths or similar creatures you may prefer to use a standard flash unit on a bracket (or arm) and fitted with a diffuser. This is possibly the most versatile use of off-camera flash for macro photography. Using an ordinary flash gun has quite a few advantages as it can be used as an ordinary flash gun as well. A ring flash or twin flash is only really going to be useful for macro, although some people have been known to use them for portrait photography. Photographers argue and debate these topics day in day out all over the internet on forums, blogs and social network communities. It’s a matter of finding the set-up that suits your photographic requirements. Ring-flash always gets a bad press for giving flat results with no shadows. I believe that some of this criticism is unjustified and often propagated by photographers who have never used ring-flash themselves. There are a lot of nature photographers who use and recommend ring-flash for macro photography. The fact remains that macro photography is a tremendous challenge whether you use a ring flash, twin flash or a diffused flash gun attached to a bracket.

Figure 1. Bob-the-Builder taken using Sigma EM-140 DG Ring Flash (Click to enlarge)

How to Solve Lighting Problems?
It would be reasonable to assume that by adding a ring flash to your existing equipment all your lighting problems would be solved. If only macro photography was that simple. Adding an expensive flash unit will only give you more options of how to solve lighting problems. The problems still exist and in many cases the flash may cause some new ones. It certainly adds more weight to your camera! This will add more stress to the ball head of your tripod. Be prepared for this by using a suitable and high quality ball-head on your tripod.

The flash will usually do a reasonable job of illuminating the subject but in some situations will make the background dark. This is generally the argument against using this type of flash. However this is the consequence of using a ring-flash as the primary light source. Sometimes this effect can be beneficial depending on the subject. I have seen comments on photography forums and websites about black or dark backgrounds in macro looking amateurish. This is nonsense if you fill the frame with an interesting subject the background will become less significant. When your subject fills the frame there will be very little area of background. The problem can be rectified by adding more lighting or using additional (slave) flash units. Too much is made of dark backgrounds in macro photographs in my opinion. There are lots of ways to avoid dark backgrounds. Make as much use of ambient (natural) light as possible and use the flash to fill-in. . Image editing software can be used to alter the backgrounds appearance afterwards. This type of creative image manipulation is frowned upon by many photographers. In my opinion all is fair in love and war and we should do everything possible to improve the images.

The Power of the Sandwich!
Batteries – flash units need power. This means you now have to keep the camera and your flash unit fully charged. If one of them loses all their power during a session and you have no spare batteries your session will be short lived. This can cause missed opportunities and in some cases hair loss. This is not the fault of the flash unit it is a consequence of poor planning. It’s an obvious and slightly expensive solution to have a set of fully charged spare batteries for your camera and flash unit. It can be difficult managing all the separate equipment required for macro photography. It is a good idea to write a check list and refer to it before setting out. Tick everything you need to take with you off the list. Make sure you put a flask of tea on the list and a sandwich to eat. Macro Photography can get very physical and you will need plenty of energy. (read my post on the perils of macro)

The Sigma ring-flash is not waterproof, are any other ring or twin flashes waterproof? This is a major concern when faced with a British summer. However you can make a cover and use waterproofing solution to make it waterproof. I have not investigated whether a commercially made cover exists for this product. I really enjoy a day out in the rain with my camera, and I have learnt how to keep my camera and equipment dry. Water and complex electronics generally do not tend to like each other! I think that it is important not to be dictated to by the weather. If you do not go fishing you will never catch any fish!

Bumhole Syndrome
Remember that all photography forums and clubs have a resident “bumhole” who knows everything there is to know about photography but oddly never produce any photographs of any worth back up their wealth of knowledge. A “bumhole” is the type of person who reads an article or forum post about ring-flash and then copies the sentiments of the writer to lots of other blogs. forums and social networking communities. This means that one photographer who has used a product and found it unsatisfactory for his purposes suddenly becomes 10,000 people. I would guess that 90% of comments made about camera equipment are by people who have never used it. This means you have to read very carefully and eliminate any information that has been added by “bumholes”. In the words of the legendary singer, Morrissey:-

“There is always someone somewhere with a big nose who knows and he will trip you up and laugh when you fall”

The moral of course is to find someone you trust and find out what they think of the particular piece of equipment. The fact is no matter how you choose to do your macro photography there will always be problems to overcome. This is all part of the challenge and should be met with great enthusiasm by the macro photographer. Two of the most difficult obstacles you need to overcome with macro photography are motivation and dedication. How motivated are you to succeed and what is the consequence of failing? Are you dedicated to Macro Photography or just taking a few pictures to pass the time? The more determined you are to succeed can make a lot of difference to your results.

Lets face it there are thousands of different ways to take macro photographs and we are all trying to apply macro to different subjects. I like to take insects and wild flowers but also will attempt a shot at anything else. I recently spent an entire weekend trying to photograph water droplets. I suspended a bag of water over a bowl and punctured it. I then pressed the shutter release every time a drop of water fell. I managed to get a few good shots but also splashed my camera and lens. Not a good idea really but after two days and 500 shots later I had about 3 decent water droplet shots (see figure 2). I really enjoyed it, if only I had done this after cleaning dust from the sensor they would not have all been covered in dirty sensor marks. This makes it difficult to generalize a subject as diverse as macro photography and flash. Many people fail to realise the complexity of adding flash to the equation. Suddenly there are sudden bursts of light that have to be understood, initiated and understood to reap any benefits.

Figure 2. Water Droplet Macro (click to enlarge) - you can see that this was taken before I cleaned the camera sensor.

I very nearly bought a twin flash set-up for my camera. It was at the last minute that I opted for the Sigma EM 140 DG Ring-flash. Why I hear you ask? Well I realised that the sigma does everything that I need at the moment. It cost half as much and is compatible with my camera and my lens (albeit with a 72mm adaptor ring. BTW this does not cause any problems with the 150mm lens to my knowledge). I have certainly not detected any degradation in any of my photographs taken with this set up. The sigma ring flash works very much the same as a twin flash. It does not fire as a ring of light but as two bursts at either side of the lens. The flash assembly connects to an adapter ring that fits into the threads of the lens. The ring flash assembly can be rotated around the circle to any position you find productive. I have been very impressed with it and never regretted my decision to by the sigma. I am sure that Canon, Nikon and Sony twin flashes are also versatile and would do as a good a job, if not better but at such high prices this has to be expected.

To summarise this post a ring flash is only useful when working in macro or at least very close-up. If you are not close enough then you are simply re-creating the pop-up built in flash scenario. The anti-ring flash photographers may have never considered that the device can be operated off the camera. I often disconnect the ring flash assembly and hold it at an angle (between 35 – 45 degrees) towards the subject. This is a inconvenient and I have begun investigating ways to attach the ring-flash in this position permanently. I have designed a bracket but have not built a prototype yet. If anyone has found a way to do this easily already please let me know. It is also possible to diffuse the flash for softer lighting increasing the ratio of ambient light in the exposure. This should help with the black or dark background situation. There are lots of subjects that do not require any flash. I have taken a photograph of a coin with and without flash in figure3. Which photograph do you like best?

Figure 3. Which of these coins is taken using flash? (click to enlarge)

I have no other news or information to divulge this week. Except that I bought a new battery for my Canon 300D (Rebel or Kiss Digital). This is quite a useful tip for any users of this camera. Instead of buying the original battery as a replacement (BP-511) you should try to get the longer lasting BP-511A. It is a much better battery for this camera because it keeps it charge for a very long time. Remember that generic batteries are not a good idea and should be avoided. I have had them fail completely in the past and this could have damaged my camera. Keep away from the “bumholes” of this world and enjoy your macro photography.

Marvin Africa

N.B. the first reader to call me a "bumhole" in the comments gets to keep the coin!


Anonymous said...

You are a bumhole. :) Love your articles!

Marvin Africa said...

Anonymous, (please remain anonymous)

Some people will do anything for money!

I'm contemplating writing some new articles for this blog in the near future.

Thanks for the comment - it made me laugh (a little bit)

Anonymous said...

I am a bumhole, I resent your derogatory comments about bumholes, bumhole. :)

Flatulus Bumhole, Founder of Bumholes for Sarah Palin, (Boston Teaparty chapter.)