So what should I be doing when I am low in cash, but still in high trigger happy mood? I figured I could go macro frenzy. This time, I have a real macro lens in hand, no more tricking my non-macro lenses in thinking that they were macro and forced them mercilessly to work macro for me. I have got a copy to try out, and I did not have to travel far for this trial out session. The park nearby my house which I have always been reluctant to go for jogs, I found it very inviting for insect photography. Ironic is it not, when photography comes in the equation, everything becomes willing.
For those of you who are new, or have not followed my historical progress in macro photography, here is a quick recap:
1) I started macro by using the standard kit lens 14-42mm combined with the Hoya +4 close up filter.
Pros: Very usable results, even at full 42mm zoom. Could get really close to the subject, as close as 5cm. Autofocus works, and combined with manual override, focusing was a breeze.
Cons: The magnification is still very limited. Even compact cameras can produce much better macro results.
To view the pictures this combination produced, click here.
2) I used my zoom lens 40-150mm for tele-macro.
Pros: Ability to shoot subjects from 1.5m or further away, and this is useful not to startle butterflies or bees.
Cons: Results are not even close enough to be considered as anything near to what macro stands for. Works only for large subjects, like butterflies with huge wings.
To view the pictures this option produced, click here.
3) I combined the tele lens 40-150mm with the Hoya +4 Close Up filter.
Pros: Capable of achieving almost full macro 1:1 magnification at full 150mm zoom !!
Cons: Autofocus was disabled, and the zoom lens suffer from serious chromatic aberration issues from 100-150mm end. There is also an adverse impact on the details captured, images appear very soft throughout all zoom range.
To view the pictures this combination produced, click here and here and here.
After all the experiments I have carried out over the last year, I have concluded that while the cheap alternatives to macro lenses can get you some decent and usable macro shots, but those shots are still far from what macro satisfactory standards are, and the only option to produce a good quality macro is none other than using macro lens. Of course, provided there is enough cash to go along with it.
Nevertheless, like Jian (click) has pointed out to me, all those trial sessions I have done before, though results were just so and so, they have prepared me in a lot of ways, expanding my knowledge in macro-photography. I may not be that good yet, but of course, we all improve from one point to another, and I am seeing slow but stark progress in my pictures. Throughout all the previous attempts, I have gained the following:
1) Basic knowledge about macro. Stuff like stopping the F-number to achieve greater depth of field.
2) Steadying the hands !!!! This is the most tricky part, though I have still improved, but theres still a lot to work on. To obtain that shake-free shot, you not only have to steady your fingers, but also your entire body from the way you bend you knees, hold your breath and so on. I kid you not !!
3) Manual focusing. I was totally put off by the idea of manual focusing the first time I used it, but through all the attempts, manual focusing gave me the most accurate results, as it allowed me to pin point the exact zone of focus. Although I still have hit and miss focusing manually, but I feel completely comfortable using it now, and I consider this a huge step forward.
4) Flash macro. As much as I hate to admit it, flash is VERY necessary in macro photos, even shooting under bright day. I am still improving in getting the exposures right, but having an external unit of flash improved the shots dramatically.
5) Have patience. Patience is crucial in all photography, but especially so in macro. Bug hunting is not easy, and the bugs are not readily available for you to shoot. You have to find them, under the leaf, behind the stick, and in all impossible places. And most of the times, they run away from you, or face their butts towards your lens. If you could wait just a few minutes, maybe you will spot a bug you have missed while scanning the area, or the bug may feel safe enough to come closer to you.
To all the bokeh (blur background in images) worshipers, and those who think that every good photo MUST have bokeh, then your ideology will work against you in macro. This is one particular field of photography where you require great depth of field to accomplish wider zone in focus. Hence, your F 0.01 lens (exaggeration intended) may be fast and bright, but utterly USELESS in macro. When you are photographing something as tiny as 3mm, you will find yourself using aperture of F10-F22, and the greater the better to obtain as sharp of a shot as possible of the entire subject. Yes you may think that just having the eye focused and the rest of the body blurred seems nice, but you will find it so hard to even just focus the eye right at such a small scale image, and in the end you end up squeezing the eye of whatever sorry insect that you were shooting because you could not get the tack sharp shot of the eye after 100 attempts.
Having said that, Olympus DSLRs have the upper hand when it comes to Macro photography, since it has greater depth of field in comparison to other manufacturing brands of cameras. I can get away with F16 in a shot to achieve that desired depth of field, which a full-framer (Canon 1Ds MarkIII or Nikon D3) will need to use F32 to accomplish the similar effect. It is recommended not to push beyond F16 when you use any lenses, as the sharpness tends to drop significantly as you stop down further. Yes, Olympus may not produce as nice bokeh as Nikon and Canon. When it comes to taking pictures of tiny bugs, it is the other way around. The less bokeh, the more area you will have in focus.
If you think macro is the only photography that requires greater depth of field, think again. There is also landscape, but we shall talk about that some other day.
So what are the things worth highlighting in this session?
1) Most of the bugs I have found this session were extremely tiny !!!!!! Some were as small as 2mm if I measured correctly. This truly pushed the lens to its limit.
2) The lens was capable of 2:1 macro magnification, but a lot of the time I found myself not using the maximum magnification, just to fit the entire subject. Most of the pictures here were crop-free, save a few badly composed ones, which I did very little cropping only. More magnification can be accomplished if I added on an extension tube.
3) Spiders and dragonflies are easily found. They were almost everywhere. However, most of the spiders and dragonflies are of the same species, or closely related. I guess that is the limitation of just photographing bugs in a park, for more colourful, and dangerous looking insects, I guess I have to venture into the real jungle. *gulp
4) The baby praying mantis was TINY !!!! Less than 1cm in length. It was so cute, and I failed to capture the cuteness.
5) I know you guys must have seen macro pictures of HUGE spider eyes, and obviously this lens was not capable of doing that, unless we are dealing with much larger spiders. The spiders in the pictures are approximately 1.5 cm or less in length. Maybe using an extension tube could help?
6) My common camera settings are: ISO100, Shutter speed: 1/40s-1/80s, Aperture F12-16, Manual Focus with TTL Flash (bounce adapter attached). Setting vary from shot to shot depending on lighting conditions, and obviously the size of the bug.
7) I spent more than four hours just to capture around 80 pictures, and most of the pictures were trial and error. Most of the time was spent on hunting the bugs.
8) It was not easy taking those pictures, as the bugs usually do not stay still, or stay at one spot for very long. I have very limited chances to snap the pictures, some of them were truly lucky ones, and one time shot only.
9) I used manual focus all the time, setting to 1:2, 1:1, 1.5:1 or 2:1 magnification factor. Having a fixed focus, it means that the only way to get the shots was to gently rock your body back and forth until you find that sweet focus zone.
10) I think I exerted a few liters of sweat throughout the shooting session. Steadying the shots, keeping the frame right, require the whole body at work. I should bring a huge bottle of water the next time I hunt bugs.
11) How did I get so close to the bugs? Skills I tell you. Skills.
On the whole, I am quite happy with the overall outcome of the pictures. This macro lens, 35mm F3.5 Zuiko may be a budget macro lens from Olympus, but the image quality is screaming nothing budget at all. I was quite amazed by the amount of details this lens was able to resolve, and gosh, the overall sharpness was just breathtaking. Click the images for enlarged views to pick up those sharpness. The contrast and color were typical of Olympus style, which I have grown to love very much. There are tiny traces of chromatic aberration though, which can be eliminated through post-processing. This was expected since ED element was not included in the lens. Considering the low-price tag, the capabilities and functionality in 2:1 magnification macro shooting, producing pleasingly sharp results, I think I am sold.
I shall be getting a copy soon, preferably a second hand unit, and I will make it happen.