How Shooting Macro Boosted My Photography Growth

For those of you following me and this blog for many years now, it is a known fact that I have started macro photography very early in my younger days of photography learning. I picked up insect macro photography from the first year I bought my first DSLR, and have been practicing it very frequently ever since. I have found that shooting macro helped me significantly in my early tears of of developing as a photographer and I am sharing my experience and benefits I have gained here. I am sure shooting macro can also help boost your photography growth if you are currently starting out and are very new to the photography universe. 

If you want to learn more about my techniques on shooting macro, you can check out my video sharing my full insect macro shooting execution here (click). Alternatively, you may also choose to read the blog article version here (click). 

Special shout out to a friend and someone who have inspired me a lot to pick up and do macro photography, Amir Ridhwan. Do check out his Flickr site showcasing many wonderful photographs of Malaysian spiders. It is impossible to see his work and not be inspired to shoot more macro. 

It was because of my first few outings with Amir that got me super excited about macro, and soon after it became a weekly endeavor, hiking up forest reserves outside of the city area just to hunt for those tiny critters. I admit part of the fun was in the hunt and seeing some small creatures that I have not seen before, and having the ability to capture their portraits and bring those photographs home was like a superpower. The shooting process was addictive, together with the thrill and the rush of doing something physically intense. Yes, you do sweat buckets and burn tonnes of energy doing a session of insect macro photography. I sometimes wonder if I sweat more in an hour's intense insect macro shooting or a two hour tennis match. 

Macro photography was very helpful to my learning part of photography fundamentals, especially on exposure, focus as well as flash execution. You have no excuse but to fully understand how the ISO, shutter speed and aperture affect your photographs. Typically to get the best result we stay at the base ISO, which is ISO200 for Olympus cameras, and this yields the best results, giving sharpest, most detailed images with good contrast, color tones and dynamic range. Raising the ISO number unnecessarily will quickly have serious consequences to the final image. Shutter speed was also important to mitigate hand-shake, if the shutter speed dips too low, the chances of camera shake is magnified. The high magnification shooting combined with use of typically a long lens for macro shooting exaggerates the risk of camera movement blurring the image. Also, aperture is extremely crucial in making sure that we have good control over depth of field. Choosing too large of an aperture will result in images not having sufficient zones in focus. It is not that straightforward in finding the balanced settings, it takes a while to fully master the exposure control and be able to shoot confidently. Then there is the creative use of flash, which I fire wirelessly off camera and diffused with a mini-softbox. You need to get your basics right, there is no shortcut when it comes to technical execution of your shot. 

One important strength that I gained from practicing macro photography is shooting discipline. Shooting discipline was a phrase used by Ming Thein, and you can read about it in his blog article here (click). To me, shooting discipline means doing everything in my power and ability during the shooting process in the field to achieve the shot as close as intended. That means, doing my best to get critically sharp and accurate focus for each and every shot, while going as close as I can and taking care of composition to minimize cropping. Exposure should be captured close to ideal expectation, so that there is minimal post-processing done to the images to mitigate pixel quality degradation. Since macro photography requires you to multitask, having to consider so many different technical execution at the same time - focus, composition, lighting (flash), exposure, timing, and you have to act fast because not all the insects stay still and pose willingly for you - it is the best shooting discipline practice that I can ask for. Setting a high level of strict discipline does not come easily, it takes years and years of training, and the benefits of this greatly improve your technical skill as a photographer. It has benefited me in all my other photography, both commercial shoots as well as personal projects. People often asked me "Robin what is your secret in getting sharp images?" There are two answers to that - 1) the lens that I use, and 2) shooting discipline. 


Perhaps the most important lesson I get from doing macro photography for so many years was patience. I have observed the biggest problem with a lot of young photographers and newcomers to photography is lacking patience. You have no idea how important being patient is. You do not always get what you want, and you cannot shoot everything. It is perfectly fine to miss shots, it is ok if you do not get keepers from a photography outing, there is nothing to be frustrated about. The joy of doing photography is not just getting nice looking images at the end of the day, you have to enjoy every single part of it, from the moment you pack your camera into your bag, stepping out of the door to your destination, the shooting process and the fellowship that you have with the friends that you are shooting with. The thrill of hunting for a shot and finally getting one. A lot of waiting is needed, a lot of failures will happen, you will miss shots, you will make tonnes of mistakes before you finally get the shot that you want.

One of the biggest complains I have heard is the macro lenses being slow in AF. It is not a secret, all macro lenses are slow, because of the longer throw when it comes to focusing extremely close up to the subject. It is not an easy task technically, but all things considered I never faced any difficulty in getting critically sharp images consistently. While some people used the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro lens and gave up after the lens hunts and hesitates for a few times, I managed to nail critcially sharp images again and again, confidently. How did I do it? I used the exact same lens, on the exact same camera body, and I used AF. The difference between me and the others? I have used that lens a few hundred times over and I fully understand the behaviour of the lens. Knowing your gear is extremely crucial for you to be able to get the best out of it. Just because you fail to make it work does not mean that the lens or camera is not good, you need to be able to control and tell the camera what you want. The camera and lens cannot read your mind, but you can certainly do your best to figure out how they work. How do you do that? By shooting again and again and again, 100 times, 500 times or more if necessary to get it right. Once you have finally got the grasp of how the camera and lens work, then keep shooting again until you don't get it wrong anymore. Going out shooting macro week after week for many years gave me a deep understanding of my gear, and I know my camera inside out. 

If you are looking for ways to push your photography boundaries and move up to the next level, and you are still at the beginning of your photography journey, I highly recommend that you pick up macro photography. It may not be easy, but trust me, what you gained from this will bring you the boost to your growth that you are looking for. It worked wonders for me, and even today I still do insect macro shooting, though not as frequently as before, since I am a working photographer now, and on my spare time, I am out doing street photography more. 

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Basic Portrait Photography Tips

Considering the entire country is under lockdown and there is nothing much I can do, I was digging through my photography archives and found these set of portrait shots of Carmen Hong that I have taken for the review of Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III quite recently. I thought it would be a good idea to explore simple, lifestyle/casual portrait photography and I can certainly share some tips on how to do that here. Carmen is an amazing friend and a talented photographer herself and of course she uses Olympus system. She has volunteered to be the model to test out the new Eye/Face AF tracking feature on E-M1 Mark III which helped greatly in my review of the camera. Special thanks to Carmen for being such a sport, and also Jackie Loi for some behind the scenes footage of me in action in the video. 

For any portrait photography, it is crucial to maintain a healthy and open communication between the photographer and model. It is important to listen to the model and not get her to do anything uncomfortable during the shoot. I highly encourage the photographer going into any portrait shooting to prioritize respect above all else. 

This is not a professional portrait shooting tutorial, but this may be a good guide for you if you are new to portrait photography. Remember, there is no right and wrong when it comes to shooting people, and my tips are aimed to simplify the shooting process by addressing some critical considerations that a portrait photographer should take care of. 

1) Use longer lenses
I highly recommend to start with telephoto lens for portrait shooting. The longer lens helps to get rid of excessive perspective distortion which can render very ugly looking human images. The perspective exaggeration due to wide angle use normally cause disproportionate looking limbs, legs appearing longer or shorter and also head looking weirdly big in comparison to the overall body size. To maintain a more flattering look on the subject, a long lens helps to minimize any odd perspective. Also, a long lens typically means you have less background to work with, having the compression effect to your advantage, aiding cleaner and simpler composition. On the other hand, a longer lens can create shallower depth of field, able to blur off the background more effectively than wider lenses. My primary lens for this particular shoot was the Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8 and also 45mm F1.8. 

2) Make Sure The Eye is in Focus
I know a lot of photographers are taught to use center focus and recompose method, but this technique should not be used for critical portraiture work, especially if you use long lenses with wide open aperture. Shooting with, say an Olympus 45mm F1.8 at a close up distance, the risk of miss-focusing due to focus and recompose is extremely high. I highly recommend that you shift the focusing point and place it exactly at the eye of the subject in your frame. Olympus cameras generally have reliable face/eye detect AF, but other than E-M1 Mark III, I still manually move my focusing point each and every time I shoot any portrait shot. For E-M1 Mark III, especially for this particular session, I just relied on the camera's newly upgraded and improved face/eye tracking AF, it nailed the eyes consistently throughout the entire shooting duration. 

All images in this blog entry were shot with Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.Zuiko lenses 12mm F2, 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8

Long lenses create a more proportionate look on human subjects

Use of longer lens can render shallower depth of field, combined with wide aperture. 

With a longer focal length, there is less background to deal with, having that "telephoto compression" effect. 

For more "professional looking" result, always opt for longer focal length. I'd highly recommend the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 (or the F1.2 PRO if you can afford that), or the 75mm F1.8

3) Use wide angle lens
This may contradict the first tip, but if you have an interesting background that can add to the story, to create an environmental portrait, then using a wide angle lens, such as at 14mm or 12mm wide end of your lens can be an effective way to tell a story. Just be careful not to fit anything that may not necessarily add any value to the photography, shooting wide angle is challenging because often times you may accidentally include something that can destroy the image. Just watch the frame from edge to edge and corner to corner, and make sure the background builds up the story, not take away the story. 

4) Adopt Creative Composition
To make an interesting portrait photograph, you can always make use of the environment and your surrounding to amplify the impact of your final image. For example, I always like to add reflection into the frame, finding reflective surfaces such as a puddle of water, a window, glass or metal walls to make the image a bit more dramatic. I also play with lines, repetitions, patterns, geometry, light and shadow, or anything interesting within my frame to add something extra to the composition. 

I always find ways to include a reflection to make the shot look more intriguing. 

Whenever there is a repetitive line, it works very well for composition too. 

The neutral grey tone and the vertical lines work very well against Carmen's flesh tone as well as her red dress that pops out of the frame. 

Playing with shapes and framing here, placing Carmen in the middle of the arch opening of the building, creates a natural framing around here. 

Repetition and framing used in this simple composition, Carmen is placed in between two columns, which immediately highlights her in the frame. 

Leading lines is a tried and tested technique, have been overused but is super effective way of drawing attention to your subject. The line of the hand-rail leads you directly to her right arm, which then points to her face/head. 

I don't use wide angle a lot, but if you have an interesting background, wide angle can help make a strong visual story-telling. 

Just be careful not to include distracting elements if wide angle is used. 

5) Lighting
For simple, outdoor portrait, I generally keep my setup minimal and I do not carry a lot of gear with me. I don't quite like to use strobes or flash on outdoor shoots, unless I want to create certain effect or look, or if it is demanded by clients. I also do not like to work with reflectors, I have seen many wrong execution of reflector causing light to shine unevenly, causing very unnatural looking skin tone. When I was shooting Carmen in this session it was an overcast day, the clouds completely covered the sky. The light was flat, even, dull and honestly quite uninteresting. Nevertheless, that meant that I can have very nice and pleasing looking skin tone. Else I would have to find shades to do most of my shoots, and find creative ways to work with harsh light. 

6) Communication, and shooting with LCD screen
Communication is key in any portrait shooting, you have to interact with your model. One way to improve your communication is not to shoot through your viewfinder all the time. When you shoot through your camera's viewfinder, you are blocking your face, the model, posing while looking at you and listening to your direction cannot see your facial expression. There is no eye contact. That is poor communication if you ask me. One simple and effective way to improve this situation is take the camera away from the eye level, use the LCD screen and when you talk to your model look her in the eye and make sure your instructions are clear. Any improved communication can enhance the outcome of the portraits you are taking. 

I hope you have found these sharing useful, and if you have friends who are starting out on portrait photography, why not share this blog post with them? If you have more tips to share about basic portrait shooting please leave them in the comments. 

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Lens Talk: Olympus M.Zuiko 9-18mm F4-5.6

Following up my article (and video) of the Olympus M.Zuiko 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 Mark II mini review, I thought why not do something at the complete opposite end of the spectrum - an ultra wide angle lens? I have also asked for a loaner unit for the Olympus M.Zuiko 9-18mm F4-5.6 lens and I have spent an entire afternoon shooting with this underrated lens. Being so small, light and compact, this lens deserves a bit more attention, and here is my mini review of the Olympus M.Zuiko 9-18mm lens. 

The Olympus 9-18mm was originally designed for Olympus DSLR cameras, there was a Four Thirds Zuiko version of the lens. When Olympus initially made that lens, they were very proud of their achievement especially in the Dual Super Aspherical (DSA) lens element used in the 9-18mm lens. The DSA lens element was particularly difficult to design, make and mass manufacture, with the center of the lens element being extremely thin and fragile. Olympus prides themselves to be able to overcome the challenges and included the DSA into their 9-18mm lens, making the lens truly small, compact and light yet with no image quality compromise, delivering sharp images. The same DNA is also found in the later M.Zuiko version of the 9-18mm made for Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, having similar DSA lens element. 

The lens is extremely small and light. It is about the same size as an Olympus prime lens, such as the M.Zuiko 25mm F1.8, which makes it quite incredible, being a zoom lens and having an ultra wide angle coverage. The lens weighs only 155g, being so compact and light, the Olympus 9-18mm matches the smaller bodies such as PEN E-PL9 or OM-D E-M10 series very well. Perhaps some will be quick to point out that at 9mm (18mm in 35mm format) is not exactly very wide in the world of ultra wide angle lenses, but 9mm is still a lot wider than the typical coverage from the Olympus kit lens 14-42mm EZ lens or even the M.Zuiko 12-40mm F2.8 PRO lens. While I do not see myself using ultra wide angle lens that much, but I admit there were critical times when that extra width can make a difference, and having the 9mm wide coverage can be a lifesaver. When you need it, you need it, there are just no other solutions that can replace a true wide angle lens. 

Lens Talk: Olympus M.Zuiko 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 Mark II

I have been receiving numerous requests for me to do something with the Olympus M.Zuiko 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 Mark II lens, and I finally got my hands on a loaner from Olympus Malaysia recently. I thought why not have some fun shooting some cute animals at the National Zoo and at the same time invite you guys to come along with me for this short shooting adventure? No animals were harmed I promise, just camera shooting away with my trigger happy fingers. I brought my E-M1 Mark II and made a mini review of this lens, which is a budget super telephoto zoom lens that should sit high on your consideration list if you want to start shooting wildlife, bird or sports without the need to break the bank. 

The Olympus 75-300mm is made plastic, but the lens body does feel solid and there are no creaky parts. The lens does not have internal zoom, it extends out when zooming to the longer telephoto range. There is no zoom creep when the lens is fully extended, the lens holds its position without falling back in when pointing the lens upward. The lens is light - weighing only 432g, having a compact and lightweight construction makes this lens such a joy to handle. It should match any Olympus cameras perfectly, and handling was not an issue. I was shooting at the zoo for more than 3 hours, hand-holding the Olympus 75-300mm lens on my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera body. I did not feel any strain or got tired from this combination, the lens felt perfectly balanced and using it for long hour shooting was not a problem. 

Practical Composition Tips For Beginners Besides Rule Of Thirds

Rule of Thirds has become the default go to recommended guide for beginners when it comes to composition but I personally believe there are other more practical tips to help you compose your images better. Composition is an important consideration for all photography, it can either make or break the shot. I have nothing against Rule of Thirds, I think it works for most cases but I also believe composition is more than just drawing some invisible lines in your frame and place your subjects along these lines. There are other more important things to consider doing proper composition if you want to step up your photography game, and I am exploring these practical tips. 

Too many newcomers to photography focused on how to shoot the subject, not many asked the more important question - "what is the main subject?"

The techniques in shooting can only get you so far, if you have not identified the main story, the idea,  message or emotion that you want to convey in your shot, that image will end up looking quite empty. Instead of thinking too far ahead, I strongly suggest you identify the main subject first, and do all you can in ensuring that your viewer's attention is drawn to that main subject. 

We all love shooting from the viewfinder, but when we do that, we create images that look very ordinary and plain because everyone is standing at almost the same height and seeing the world through similar perspective. Therefore, one effective way to immediately create images that look a little different is to show them from a different level. Move the camera away from the eye level and start using the LCD screen to compose your shots. Most cameras these days do come with some sort of tilt or swivel screen which allows easy shooting from the waist level or even lower. Go as low as to the ground level to create some impactful shots looking up, or climb stairs, a hill or anywhere giving you a higher vantage point overlooking a vast area for a more dramatic outcome. Go high or go low and you will see that the composition will be stronger than just shooting everything through the viewfinder. 

There are many ways to direct attention to your main subject in your photographs that does not require drawing crazy many invisible lines that do not make sense. Forget the lines. Look for more practical methods to frame your subjects and here are some suggestions - use lines, patterns, repetition, color and geometry, the art basics for composition. Most of the creative framing opportunities are right in front of us, we just have to spot them and use them effectively to frame our main subjects in the photograph. Being able to see and identify these opportunities may present a challenge for many as they may not know what to look for in the first place. Then train yourself to see things more beautifully and do your best to find the beauty even in the simplest and normal every day things. Photography is not about capturing epic moments or visuals only, photography is also about finding beauty even in the most ordinary things, and should be a continuous effort that is done consistently. 

I have observed many images that are greatly composed but somehow the photographer did not pay sufficient attention to what goes on in the background. The background can mess up your shot. Ask yourself if you do want to include the background to your main subject, which background to include if you have a choice (most of the time you do, by shifting the angle away to a different direction where you point your camera at), and how much background you want in your image. Avoid strong glaring colors like red and yellow that may distract the attention away from the main subject easily. Avoid unpleasing looking objects like rubbish bin or anything messy in the background. If the background adds to the main subject constructively, supporting the story-telling element, such as an environmental portrait, then compose the background carefully to enhance the image. Otherwise, take the background out and include as little as possible. 

If your photography is not good enough you are not close enough, the famous saying has been repeated countless times and still holds true. Fill your frame and your main subject will immediately become dominant. However, do not go too close, do leave a bit of room to breathe. In some cases when it is difficult to predict the movement of the subject (sports shooting, birds flying, etc) framing the subjects too tightly may unintentionally chop off some important parts of the subjects. Also, having a bit of room to breathe is not a bad thing, you may crop in a little during post (don't over do it) or straightening a slightly uneven shot will benefit from that extra bit of headroom. 

That's all I have to share in this blog entry, I acknowledge these are simple tips, but I am sure they can be effective in bringing out the best in many photography situations. I sure hope you have found them useful, and if you have more to add, please share in the comments below. 

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