Side Note: Click on image to open enlarged view.
Over the weekend I have had the privilege to try out an external flash unit borrowed from a dear friend, an FL36R, the lower end Olympus flash designed to complement the DSLR system. It was not my first time using external flash, and I have come to know some of the functions and controls through my previous limited experience with another copy of flash, which was FL50 from Chun Chow to shoot my colleague's baby (one month old). Having it again in my hands, I was anxious to try on something different.
People have had the conceptions on Flash being an important equipment mainly for shooting people and portraits, especially in low light situations or indoors. True enough flash has become a necessity in above-mentioned conditions, but it is definitely not limited in such usage only. Application of flash if used creatively can add drama and depth to almost any kind of photography, and FishTan has kindly pointed out to me that it could work wonders in macro photography too. Since I have been craving to do some macro lately, I brought the flash unit with my Ollie and gang to the KL Butterfly Park to have a quick test run.
At first I have little faith in the flash being able to aid much in my style of macro shooting, since most of my shots are performed outdoors anyway, with adequate sunlight and brightness. However, after one full session with the flash mounted tightly on my E-520, without a doubt I can conclude that the flash made a whole world of difference !!! It improved all my shots in virtually every single aspect, and eliminating a handful of my previous complaints about the limitations of my current equipments on macro shots.
Before I go into details on how the flash has improved my pictures, for those of you who has not followed my blog before, here is my set of tools I brought along for the shooting:
[Olympus E-520 body] + [40-150mm Zuiko f3.5-4.5] + [Hoya Close Up Filter +4] + [Olympus FL36R flash] + [Cheapo Phottix Flash Diffuser]
Do keep in mind that I did all the photos on this entry without a dedicated macro lens, and I have devised my own method of capturing macro with my tele lens with close up filter mounted. All the time, manual focus was engaged since AF does not work with this combination. The magnification factor was quite stunning, but somehow still not as great as the real macro lens.
Alright, so how did the external flash aid me in the butterfly pictures? I shall itemize the reasons.
1) Constant and Evenly Distributed Exposure
Working with ambient lighting can be extremely tricky when the butterflies love to hide under branches and bundles of leaves, casting terribly distributed shadows and brightness over the wide wings, causing metering to be a disaster for the camera. You can get streaks of bright lights along one end of the wing, and a completely dark shadow cast on the other. With flash, you create your own lighting onto the butterfly, placing the light evenly on every contact parts. The result was surprisingly pleasing and details on the darker portion of the wings were generously captured from the slight reflection from the flash !!
2) Elimination of Blurring due to Camera Shake
Engaging the help of artificial lighting can help boost up the shutter speed, and this in turn resulted in less blurring chances due to camera shake, even at telephoto (zoom) end of the lens. I shot everything in manual mode, and I deliberately set the shutter speed to 1/100 seconds or higher to prevent any shaking blur, and I was very happy with the results. Couple the flash with the built in Image Stabilization system, all I was worrying was getting my focus right, and I was able to shoot comfortably without shaking. This reduced my stress by a great deal !!!!
3) Ability to Use Base ISO 100
Without the aid of flash, there was no other choice to boost up the shutter speed but to increase the ISO setting. Higher ISO number up to ISO 800 is undesirably detrimental to the picture quality, and Olympus is known for having this issue prominently in comparison to other brands. However, with flash mounted, I could achieve similar shutter speed and brightness even at ISO 100 !!! This directly imposed an enormous improvement on the photo output, since the details captured using base ISO of 100 was nothing short of stunning with any Olympus camera. The sharpness was seriously outstanding bringing out the potential of the lens. Noise was absent.
4) Ability to Adopt Higher Depth of Field
With the external flash, I did not have to worry about slow shutter speed due to the F-number/aperture setting. I can increase the F-number to F-8 flexibly to achieve greater depth of field, which was very significant in macro to cover wider area of the frame in focus.
5) Prevention of Overexposed Background
Since it was under bright daylight, there are chances that the background could appear extremely bright against the subject, causing a backlit situation. Without using flash, you will either get the subject underexposed with a properly exposed background, or your subject correctly exposed with an overblown bright background. Referring to many guides to photography, one simple way to eliminate this problem and accomplish the right balance between the subject and the brightly lit background is to fire the flash.
6) Beautiful Colours
I have always thought that applying flash, an artificial sort of lighting effect on the subjects could render the output rather less realistic and colours not as convincing as non-flash results. Fortunately, I was proven very wrong in this regard. The colours captured by flash was very well controlled, and the balance it was able to achieve was incredibly accurate. The subject illuminated very natural looking colours, but slightly punchy in one sense, creating the popped out look which was very cool though unexpected. Being able to darken the background could further bring out the colour brightness and separation.
On the whole, I was very, very happy with the session. I have decided to purchase a unit of external flash soon, and now I am still deciding if I should be getting an FL36R or an FL50R. FL50R is the higher end version, with faster recharge rate and significantly more powerful, but judging from this butterfly shooting session, the FL36R did sufficiently well. Worth noting is the fact that the FL50R costs twice as much as the FL36R, and somehow I do not see the necessity of buying such a powerful system. Nevertheless, I shall think carefully before making the move.
For those of you who owns a camera but without an external flash unit, I highly recommend you to get one. It expands your possibilities in many ways, and with currently available wireless flash systems you can create a wide array of creative lighting effects on your pictures. In comparison to my previous attempts on Butterflies here (click) and here (click), there is a notable difference.