Sunday, August 05, 2012

Shoebox Macro Flash Bouncer

If you have been with me since the early days of my photography involvement (well, not that long ago, starting about 4 years ago) you would know that I was once truly fascinated, or more appropriately put, obsessed with macro photography, especially shooting tiny creatures (insects, spiders, etc). The love for macro photography has always been there, though I have not been doing any macro shooting that much recently. The reason was simple: street shooting was a lot easier, and less tiring. 

The beautiful thing about macro photography is the on-going experimentation on how to improve shooting techniques, most notably on ways to properly light the subject. This includes various methods of DIY lighting setup, to diffuse the flash in order to produce the ideal lighting condition. In macro, lighting setup is very, very important. My own technique has been rather stagnant for the past few shooting sessions, and I have not done anything to explore or improve further. It was the use of the flash being fired off camera, with an omni-bounce diffuser cap placed on the flash at all times. The flaws of my flash implementation have been raised by some readers a couple of times before: that the omni-bounce cap diffuser was actually not effective at all in doing anything diffusing, and the outcome of my photographs still exhibit too much harsh shadows and highlight blownouts in the wrong places. I admit, in terms of lighting in my macro shooting, there is a lot I could do to get better results. Therefore, in this particular shooting session, I decided to give macro photography a go, with something "new" I have thought out in mind. 

Allow me to introduce my new invention (well, not really an invention since many others would have thought of something similar as well),
the Shoebox Macro Flash Bouncer. 

Olympus DSLR E-5 + Zuiko Digital 50mm F2 macro (Japanese describes this lens, as the lens of God)



Olympus FL-36R flash, triggered wirelessly with TTL remote control function.
The large white bouncer was made from cut-outs of an old Shoe-Box. I pasted a white A4 size paper on the bounce surface for "real-white".


I wanted to improve the flash lighting setup. In order to accomplish what I had in mind, the following considerations are needed:

1) Flexibility
I need to be able to move my light around my subject, and not being fixed at one light source. The reason was simple, the insects do not pose nicely at auspicious positions, most of the time they hide underneath a large leaf, behind a branch, or at the side of a flower petal. They do not stand nicely on a flat surface, in an open area. I need to be able to work with many obstructions. Having the flash mounted on the camera will work against my shooting needs when I hunt for my subjects, because the reach of the light is limited, no matter how I move around the subject the light source is fixed at one direction. Therefore, I still need the flash to be moved off the camera. 

2) Even-Lighting
One of the main concerns from my previous macro photography attempts was the harsh image output, with flash too intense, having highlight burns and shadows at wrong places of the images. The aim of my new method to improve my flash shooting this time, is to produce gentler flash, to illuminate my subject and its environment more evenly. Learning from my limited experience of shooting with flash on my DSLR system, the best result I have gotten so far is from large white ceiling bounce. The flash head being pointed upward and having the ceiling acting as a large, wide source of light to cover the subjects beneath it, creating a very nicely, flattering and beautifully lit results on human portraits. Using the same theory, I cut out the hard paper-board off a shoe-box (with reasonably amount of rigidity so the whole thing wont wobble so much) the size of an A4 paper, to be utilized as a fake ceiling, or an effectively large bounce surface for the flash. To create properly accurate white color balance for the flash, I glued an A4 sized paper (ordinary paper) on the bounce board. The flash head will fire onto this large bounce card, and being bounced off to spread into a wider area, illuminating my intended macro subject. 

3) Budget
I do not intend to spend much, and just recycle on whatever material I can find in my room. The shoebox was an obvious choice, and just by cutting it out with the scissors, and a few reinforcements there and here to add on overall stability for practical usage (use common sense, weak areas need extra care), pasting everything together with mix of cellophane tape and masking tape, I have sort of created a Shoebox Macro Flash Bouncer within 10 minutes. I did some indoor test on watches and coins, and they turned out satisfactory. The next step, bring them outdoors for real life shooting. Off I went for macro shooting !!

All images were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital 50mm F2 Macro lens. The Shoebox Macro Flash Bouncer was attached on the FL-36R flash at all times. 









The following is the list of camera settings that I used for this shooting session:

1) Manual Exposure control. I set the aperture, ISO and shutter speed manually. 

2) Manual Focus. I used manual focus, pre-setting the focusing magnification to either full 1:1x ratio or less, depending on the subject size and the working distance. After I have set the focusing (say, maximum magnification), I would not touch the focusing ring anymore, and just rely on my eye through the viewfinder as I rock the camera back and forth, judging the zone of focus, and as I saw the eye of the subject was clear in focus, I clicked the shutter button. 

3) Shutter speed: 1/80sec minimum, to prevent shake/blur. Ideally I would use 1/100sec, using the rule of thumb of 1/ (focal length x 2)

4) ISO set to 200, which is the native ISO for optimum image quality. 

5) Aperture set variably from F/5.6 to F/14 to correspond to: 1) amount of depth of field required, 2) the higher the magnification, the more DOF required, hence narrower aperture being used. 

6) External Flash FL-36R used in all shots, being fired wirelessly. Exposure compensation for flash (EV +/-) adjusted with TTL exposure accordingly in each situation, as necessary. 

7) Shoebox Bouncer used, placed with light coming from top and front of the subject whenever possible. 

8) Flash + Shoebox Bouncer were held in my left hand, while E-5 + 50mm macro lens were held by my right hand. I have become very used to executing this shooting method, which can prove to be very challenging if you do not have enough practice shooting single-handheld. 


One thing to keep in mind is that there is no fixed setting, or one magic setup that can apply to all conditions. There are many tips and suggestions available online or from photography books pertaining to macro shooting and how to optimize your results, but do take note that every single shooting situation is different, and it is prudent to be able to judge your current circumstances, and fine-tune your camera controls as well as the lighting setup to cater for your unique situation. For example, when an insect is hiding underneath a leaf, having the flash mounted on your camera wont be able to capture the shot, no matter how you twist and turn the flash head. Hence, taking it off the camera, you have the freedom to move the light to wherever you want, even if you need the light to fire from below the camera. In another case, most subjects love to hide in layers and layers of leaves and branches, hence being in deep shadow, contrast may be lacking for use of autofocus, even for most advanced DSLR focusing system. Switching to manual focus, and learning how to use manual focus effectively can save a lot of time and trouble. When you fire one shot, and the flash seemed  to have over-powered the subject, immediately there are a few things you can do: move the flash further away from the subject, or tune down the intensity of the flash output. How much further away should the flash be placed, or how much lower the power to be turned down? It all comes to your sense of judgment, with a little bit trial and error. This is where experience will help you minimize your steps of trying out what works, because you have a set of preceding trials, you should have developed a sense of what to do when you see a similar situation. 

The only way to improve is to shoot again and again until you get it right. Do not stop from there, shoot again and again until you do not get it wrong anymore. That is how technical efficiency work, you don't just stop when you get it, you only stop when you have already mastered it. Yet you still need consistent practice to maintain the level of mastery. Again, there is no short-cut. 










Do bear in mind that this was my first experimentation with the Shoebox Bouncer, hence it was more like trying out what worked and what did not. Composition and subject choice may not be up to usual expectations. Nonetheless, looking at the images, I was very pleased with what the Shoebox Bouncer can do. The flash was being spread out very evenly not only on the subject, but on the surrounding elements too such as the leaves and branches. Shadow was very minimal, and even when there was evident shadow, it was soft and not intrusive. Blown out highlight control was very good this time, though still not perfect, but it was significantly less than all my previous macro shooting attempt. I particularly liked the even lighting created by the Shoebox Bouncer. I dare say that this first round of testing with the Shoebox Bouncer proved to be successful, and yes, there is always room for improvement and further enhancement. 

I have been shooting a lot of black and white lately on the street, and this set of macro images reminded me of how much I loved Olympus colours. Even when flash was used the color output still maintained to be very natural, and true to life. I like how Olympus render the green, to be honest, it was very, very close to what I remember seeing in real life. The joy of shooting macro all came flowing back to me as I was attacking the insects and spiders. The satisfaction of getting the shot right, nailing the perfect focus and spot-on exposure was something that words cannot describe. This is the fun, and fulfillment of a learning photographer, I celebrate at every single small success that I have made, and through each small steps, I grow, and I learn. 

As for the Shoebox Bouncer, its cheap, light, easy to use, and easy to carry around (most camera bags these days come with a compartment for I-Pad or Tablet). It was not built to last, surely it might get torn off or destroyed after a few rounds of rigorous use, but hey, the fact that it can be easily made should not worry me. 

Any macro shooters out there? Do share your experience and techniques. 


19 comments:

  1. Wow, you've got some amazing shots here, with the red dragonfly and the small spider (third image from below) being my favorites. Oh yes, the big red and black spider is great as well. It's obvious that you really, really know how to do macro.

    Myself? No, I've always admired good macro shots but never done any. I've even bought an expensive macro flash kit for my Nikon and two macro lenses, but in reality I never use the flash and use the lenses only as short teles.

    The Sigma 70/2.8 was one of my favorite walk-around lenses on the Nikon D300 (crop factor 1.5), while the Sigma 150/2.8 was always rather under-utilized. Now, on the OM-D, I like to use the 150 as a long tele :)

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    1. Hello Andreas,
      Thanks for the kind words. Macro was the first thing that I got really serious into, when I was exploring photography few years ago. There is still a lot to learn and improve on, but thats the fun part about macro, always things to try out and experiment.
      Olympus should be coming up with their 60mm F2.8 macro soon !! Can't wait for that to happen.

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    2. Actually what I'm waiting for is a wide angle lens with some macro capabilities. On the Nikon D300 I have the Sigma 20/1.8, a lens that focuses down to an inch from the front element. Wide open this gives you images like in "836 – The Threat", "299 – Re-make / Re-model" or "298 – The Secret Life Of Plants". For me this opens a view into an entirely unreal and beautiful world. Of course I have used the 20/1.8 for other things as well, but that's what I love it for.

      Let's see, I'd need something like a 15/1.4 that fosuses extremely near. Hmm ... with 1:4 the Voigtlander 17/0.95 has exactly the same maximum reproduction ratio as the Sigma 20/1.8. It's only not as wide and certainly a lot more expensive. And manual focus. And big. And heavy. Hmm ...

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    3. Oh dear, wide angle lens that has close up capability, that is not easy to make technically, and of course, if micro 4/3 system has one, it wont be cheap !!!

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    4. Alternatively how about fisheye lens? They do offer very close focusing capability, but then the distortion is not something to love in every image.

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    5. I have a Nikon 10.5/2.8 fish and as much as I like some of my images with it, I also have an obsession with lines running into corners of the image. That's pretty hard to do with a fish :)

      No, a fish, probably a Samyang, is among the lenses that I would consider at some point, but it is certainly no replacement for what I used the 20/1.8 for. On the other hand, since I've used a Panasonic LX5 almost exclusively for about a year, I am much less obsessed now with shallow DOF.

      m4/3 is amazingly alive at the moment. Just think of it: Panaleica 25/1.4, Olympus 12/2.0, Panasonic 7-14 (or maybe Olympus 9-18 for its lighter build), Olympus 75/1.8, Panasonic 12-35/2.8, the two Voigtlander Noktons, all these are lenses I currently don't have, and each of them is arguably extremely desirable. Add the rumored Panasonic 35-100/2.8 and whatever Olympus plans to still come up with this year and this is already above 6000€. Very much more than I can or even want to spend :)

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    6. Andreas,
      It is true, micro 4/3 is moving into a more mature direction, and it is not difficult to imagine what else will crop out in the future.
      Exciting times indeed.

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  2. Hi Robin, I own the 50mm F2 but have been enjoying the greater working distance I get from an old Nikkor 105mm, on my E-M5. I know you can't do that on the E-5, but thought I'd throw that in here. With the 36R flash (the only one I have) I have used a deflector "card" made of plastic with folds in it that when attached to the flash aimed upward makes kind of a "scoop" that deflects/bounces the light forward. This piece of plastic cost me about US$4. the advantage is that it is indistructable and can fold flat when not in use and for easy storage in my camera bag. I don't think I can add photos here so will email you a picture of it.

    Peter F.

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    1. Hello Peter F,
      Thanks for the tip !! Sure will be interested to see your scoop diffuser.
      Is the Nikkor as sharp as the 50mm F2? There is a Nikon adapter to 4/3 mount, I believe somewhere out there.

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    2. Robin, I have the 105mm and 55mm Nikkor Micros. I use a $20 adapter. I also have the Olym 50mm F2 and the comparable Nikkor 55mm is F3.5. But that's (i.e. slower lens) is no big deal for macros. But a big deal on the streets, for sure. I've done some desktop studio shots of fishing flies and have done photostacking to get great DOF. I find the results to be identical between the Nikkor 55 and the Oly 50. The Nikkor is at least 20 years old. I like the mechanical focus ring of the old Nikons. And I like that if I turn the camera off that the focusing doesn't change and the lens does not retract, although I have found on the E-M5 there is a setting that keeps the Oly lens from retracting if you turn the thing off. I have not compared the 105mm with the Oly 50mm yet. But I really am happy with what the Nikon gives me. I will send you a link by email to a set of flowers I did a week or so ago using the 105mm.

      You should have received the images of my deflector by now....

      Peter F.

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    3. Thanks for the emails Peter. Yes I have seen the diffuser you made, it functions very similarly to mine, having a larger bounce surface for even spread of light on the subject. I would say the results are rather similar too.

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  3. What a difference the light makes, hm Robin? Great photos as always!

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    1. thanks wolfgang!! The light makes all the difference !

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  4. Robin, your Shoebox Flash Bouncer looks a lot like the ExpoImaging's Rogue FlashBenders that I use.

    http://www.expoimaging.com/product-detail.php?cat_id=13&product_id=21

    I have not used mine for macro insect photography, but your results look very, very good indeed!

    I must also say that the insects in Malaysia look very large and scary!

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    1. Thanks for pointing out Gregg !!
      The insects were actually very small, but macro lens can be deceiving I would say !!

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  5. you have some really great images!

    Thanks for the bouncer idea, I'm learning macro photography, and this article is very useful.

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    1. Thanks Enrico, glad I could help in whatever small ways.

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  6. Robin, I tried out your technique and here is an image . This was shot with no ambient light but only with flash as it as dark. Thans once again for your tips.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rameshsa/8011994037/in/photostream/lightbox/

    cheers

    ramesh

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  7. Robin, every post you make just confirms you are an amazing photographer.
    Does the blinking red light on the front of your flash bother your subjects? I realize that part of the flash must be pointed at the photographer as confirmation the flash is ready plus the sensor that communicates with the cameras flash is also facing the camera but am curious if that red light blinking on your face distracts your tiny subjects?

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