The Shoebox Experiment

Since my first trial run with the Shoebox Macro Flash Bouncer I have invented DIY-made about two weeks ago (click to read the blog entry) I have been itching for more macro shooting adventures. To satisfy that itch, I took advantage of this long weekend (I am still on Hari Raya holidays) to hunt for more macro subjects. I visited the Butterfly Park, Kuala Lumpur earlier today and this time, I had more luck on my side, spotting some really interesting tiny creatures, some I have not encountered before, and a few that I have been looking for, and found them this time. That is the thing about insect/spider macro shooting in the field, half the fun is actually in the hunting process, and the other half on the killing part (nailing down the shot). I would say the same about wildlife or bird photographers, but we know that those two are far more challenging, physically demanding and requires hell lot more patience. 

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 with Zuiko Digital lens 50mm F2 Macro (most shots) and 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 (a few shots). Most of the images had the External Flash FL-36R fired wirelessly, bounced via the Shoebox Macro Flash Bouncer. 

Forgeneral camera controls/settings and how I use the shoebox bouncer, please refer to my write-up here. 

This is a spider. 100% crop from the previous image to show the eyes more clearly. 

Ant-Mimic Spider.
I have been looking for this type of spiders many times, and rarely found them. It was not easy shooting this because it was acting like an ant, including the movements that was constant, and seldom stopped.

100% crop from the previous image (the previous image was already cropped, that spider was tiny)

Most of the tiny creatures love to hide behind leaves, or underneath them, posing a challenge for the flash to be used effectively, if mounted on the camera hotshoe. The solution to this problem which I adopted was moving the flash OFF camera, and fired it wirelessly. 

I was quite happy with this session's findings. I know it was nowhere near what you could find in the jungle (or in the underground drainage system which I did few days ago) but the Butterfly Park itself housed a very healthy and diverse ecosystem. 

Now I want to talk a little about that Ant-Mimic spider. We were always told, and were given the impression that animals do not lie. That is NOT true. Ant-Mimic spider was a special species of the spider (probably through evolving process or adaptation to survival through millions of years, my assumption of course) that "pretended" to be like ants. They have altered their appearance to look like the ants that they were trying to mimic, hence they could be red, or black. Not only that, spiders have 8 legs, while ants have 6. Hence, in order to resemble the ants, this type of spider had to walk on 6 legs, and raise the front two legs to look like antennas. Moreover, the arrangement of the eyes have also changed and are usually different from normal spiders, There are indeed many types (they look different according to the ants they are mimicking) of Ant-Mimic spiders. Therefore, there are many reasons why the spiders behaved this way. One notable reason was for survival, hiding together with the colony of ants will ensure protection, especially from larger predators. Ants rarely go around alone, and they come in large numbers, and will attack enemies together. The more interesting part was that the spider of course, would stealthily get closer to the ants by looking the same, and feed on them. 

Come to think of it, this Ant-Mimic spider is very human like. We lie to survive, we lie so that we can fit in, and we put on a mask on our faces everyday to show that "like-able" appearance and behaviour among-st our friends and everyone around us. Sometimes, we have to pretend to be someone we are not, and usually the reason is for the "greater good". And when they least expect us, or did not see us coming, we chop their heads off. Ok maybe not the last bit, but you do get my description. 

100% crop from the previous image. This was one of the things I did that got much attention during my E-5 review days. 

Not the best lighting, with shadows, but this was acceptable, considering the obstacles, as shown in the following photograph

I know there are many gigantic extra advanced DIY flash diffuser which could probably work better than my setup, but it is pointless if you can't make it work. Most situations require practicality, and designing a flash bouncer or diffuser that is flexible and easy to move around should be the priority. I think it does not take a rocket-scientist to understand that flash mounted on camera will NEVER work on this shot. 

I do think that I was executing the Shoebox Flash Bouncer with a lot more confidence this time, and had higher success rate in comparison to the previous session. Practice makes perfect, I suppose. I shall try to make improvements and fine tune the flash setup as I go along and do more macro shooting. 

If you have not done any macro, and you are a learning photographer, you might find macro photography very beneficial, especially when it comes to technical understanding and control of your camera. You will have to have strong fundamentals of the exposure settings (all of them, including shutter speed, aperture and ISO), how to control the depth of field and set the aperture to get enough zone in focus, how to perform manual focusing for pin-point accuracy, and playing with flash to properly light your subject. After going through the diligent process of understanding and controlling all the above-said parameters, you will find that those that you have learned will help you in most other photography genre. Believe me, if you are not technically sound enough, you won't be able to produce any decent macro shots. Try it to believe it. No expensive equipment, no amount of photo-manipulation and no ridiculous excuses (such as blur is art) will save you. Sharp, is sharp, blur is blur. There is no such thing as "oh I love the film grain in the image" or "oh I prefer the 3-D rendering of that lens". Macro photography is straight to the point, cutting out all the crap. That is what I like about macro shooting. 

Weekend is still alive, and yes, I shall have even more shutter therapy. Can a person have too much shutter therapy?


  1. Robin, I am very impressed with your macro photography of insects. It is truly amazing to me that you take these photos with one hand, while the other hand holds the flash. Excellent job!

    1. Thanks Gregg !! It takes some practice, and I treasure its flexibility, as I can move the light to wherever I want. Of course smaller and lighter camera like the OM-D or PEN would be easier to handle !

  2. Robin: Is there any ideal distance to take photos of insects or minimum distance before scaring the critters away and do any (butterflys or insects, spiders) react at all to the light flashed off "Shoebox" bounce card or not at all?
    How far away were you to subject for 50mm macro and I would guess the 55-200mm you probably have more room to zoom in. With the 50mm macro do you do cropping after or actually getting in that close to the dragonfly for example (the first picture not marked as cropped). Very curious?
    Fascinating to learn about macro! I read the link in first paragraph on camera settings. Thanks.
    I will try macro next time I visit "butterfly world" exhibit in Niagara Falls area in Canada.

    1. Hey Adrian,
      I was about 20-25cm away from the tiny creatures, and the insects were not scared of my lens at all. For butterfly, yes, they are very sensitive, hence I shot the butterflies from a distance (1 meter or further) with my long tele-lens (50-200mm). For the tiny bugs, I went very near for the magnification.
      None of the insects reacted to the flash.
      All the dragonfly photos in this entry were not cropped. They were not at their maximum magnification either. to be fair the dragonflies were actually rather big, not as small as the spiders and mantis. Hence a close up shooting was enough. For the spiders I did some cropping, perhaps 80% crop from the original size.
      I am sure you will enjoy shooting macro. When you are the butterfly world, please do look around the leaves for other smaller things. Next to the butterfly there could be a spider eating up an ant. That kind of shot would be more dramatic in my opinion !!

  3. Hi Robin,

    Are u preparing for the review of the new 60mm macro from Olympus? Wonderful macros by the way.

    Eric V
    Edmonton Alberta Canada

    1. Thanks Eric. Nope, no news about the macro 60mm yet. Lets hope that lens will be up to our expectations !!

  4. Rafael Alcaide Juan8/22/2012 01:50:00 AM

    I love the macro photography, and i have to say that my prefered lens for the job is a lovely zuiko OM 50 mm f1.4 with an extension tube! That's all! ... And is fantastic. I'm really surprised for the beautiful light and colors showed in your pictures. Are amazing! And the selection of images is a masterclass on Macro-photography. Congratulations, one more time, for a so well made blog. I have an E-520, and a PEN EP-2, and i want to ask you: what combination of sharpness, gradation, saturation, contrast, etc... did you use? Have you a magic formula? Ha ha! ... Thank you for share, Robin!

    1. Hey Rafael,
      Thanks for the very kind words, I am still nowhere near masterclass !! To answer your question, I set everything to their default, sharpness, saturation and contrast to "0" and gradation "normal". There is no magic formula, the technique to get the colors and contrast is through the bounced flash, and of course, a little post-processing.

  5. Robin: I agree 100% with your statement about macro photography being a great teacher! I recently spent a few hours at the International Rose Test Garden here in Portland with my E-PL3 and 35mm f3.5 macro lens (on a 4/3 to m4/3 adapter). It was a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to the 60mm macro lens announcement (tomorrow?). Hopefully it won't be too expensive. Like Anonymous, above, I hope that you'll be abel to review one.

    I also have an OM 50mm/1.4 and extension tubes, but haven't had much chance to try them out. To me, the OM 50/1.4 seems softer than native lenses, perhaps due to light scatter inside the adapter. That might be a nice effect for certain macro shots.Time for some shutter therapy!

    1. hey Dwaine,
      Glad to see another macro shooter, and that 35mm macro lens is a gem ! I am thinking of getting one again (I sold off mine to fund for the 50mm). Indeed the new digital lenses such as 35mm and 50mm zuiko digital are optimized to be used on DSLR or micro 4/3 bodies, delivering more sharpness and details. I sure hope to hear something about the 60mm macro soon !