Saturday, August 29, 2015

Insect Macro Photography

Note: Before anyone starts asking, the focus bracketing feature in E-M10 Mark II does not work with my usual macro shooting technique. For the focus bracketing to work the camera must not move when the bracketing was in action, and tripod use is a must. 

In the very beginning of my early adventures of photography, I started with insect macro photography, something I did fairly often. Macro photography is probably one of the technically more demanding types of photography, it is an all rounder in getting all your photography basics right. You have to take care of accurate focus, steadying your shots with proper hand-holding techniques, trying different techniques to gain magnification and more importantly, the use and control of additional lighting which usually require diffuser or reflector. 

After shooting a little bit of insect macro last weekend (for the OM-D E-M10 Mark II review), the itch to hunt for insects returned, and I decided to do a little macro shooting this weekend. In this blog entry I shall share my techniques and execution of insect macro photography. 

Before proceeding further, kindly take note of the following important points:

1) For new comer to photography, do not skip your basics. If you still struggle in understanding the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO, then make sure you master these very fundamentals of photography before venturing into macro photography. 

2) My techniques are not entirely made by me, I devised it based on information I have read, observation of other macro photographers as well as my own limited experience in shooting. Each time I go out I did trial and error experimentations. It is still work in progress, hence my technique I am sharing is not perfect, and there is plenty of rooms to improve. 

3) My technique may not necessarily work for you. There is no right and wrong, there are more than one ways to accomplish the same goal. Pick what works for you best. 


1) A camera, of course, and my own camera is the OM-D E-M5, I also use any other OM-D cameras. For this weekend, I have used the new OM-D E-M10 Mark II. A camera with a viewfinder, ability to do macro, or attach a macro lens, and have wireless flash control capability. 

2) A macro lens. I used Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro. 
You need a true macro lens for the large magnification. For Olympus 60mm I get 2:1 magnification in 35mm equivalent format. 

3) External flash, fired off camera. I had the Olympus FL-50R. 
I have tried many methods of flash use in macro photography and find using wireless flash to be most practical. Most of the insects do not just sit on top of the leaf posing nicely for you. They often hide underneath the leaves, behind the branch, or sticking vertically on a tree trunk, with their face looking down to the ground. With flash being attached on top of the camera, I have no control of where the direction of light will fall, and often not successfully light the parts of the frame that I want. By moving the flash away from the camera, I can position in anywhere I want, and this has allowed me to shoot at very difficult angles. 

4) Mini Softbox attached to the external flash unit. I had recently acquired the Gamilight Box 21. 
I have previously created my own diffusers or reflectors, from all kinds of materials, including shoeboxes, but they did not last very long and I could only used the fragile constructions for a few limited times. Now I decided to not go through so much trouble each time I needed to shoot macro and just bought a proper mini softbox. Gamilight Box 21 was the only one I could find within short notice, and it was not expensive, and got the job done decently. 

1/125sec. F11, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

1/80sec, F5.6, ISO640, no flash used

1/160sec, F11, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

1/125sec, F7.1, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired. 
Note: image rotated 180 degrees. The spider was originally UNDER the leaf (as seen on the leaf structure)

1/125sec, F13, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

1/160sec, F16, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired
Note: image rotated 180 degrees. The spider was originally UNDER the leaf (as seen on the leaf structure) I decided to rotate the image because the image made more sense this way. 


I did not do anything different than what I have already described many times before whenever I am blogging about macro photography. Here is what I do to accomplish my high magnification shots

1) I hold the E-M10 Mark II with 60mm F2.8 Macro lens attached on my right hand, singe-handedly. 

2) On my other hand (left, obviously) I had the FL-50R flash, with the Gamilight Box 21 mounted. 

3) The camera was set to manual focus, and I decided what magnification I needed before I shoot. The smaller the insect, the larger the magnification that I need, and most of the time the magnification is close to full 1:1. 

4) I shot through the Electronic Viewfinder all the time (make sure you calibrate the diopter settings to fit your eyes perfectly. Or else everything will appear out of focus). I then moved the camera closer to the subject, until I saw the insect in focus. I rocked myself slightly back and forth until I can see the parts I wanted in focus appear sharp. Yes, the electronic viewfinder has sufficient resolution and sharpness to do this. It was clear enough to differentiate the in focus zones. Focusing is extremely important, and crucial. Even one mm away from the focal plane, you will get soft output. 

5) The flash I was holding on the left hand was aimed at above the head of the insect, simulating light coming from side, and above the head (much like what a photographer would do for shooting a human portrait with one light setup). The camera to flash wireless TTL communication was engaged. 

6) First frame was fired as a test for getting exposure right. Then some quick adjustments were made and a few subsequent frames were shot to ensure accurate critical focus. Focusing was the most difficult thing to achieve, but can be done quite efficiently with sufficient practise and experience using this technique. 


The camera settings I used are as follows:

Full Manual Exposure. 
Because I want everything in control. I do not trust the camera. The camera did not do anything wrong to me, it was me having issues. 

Shutter speed 1/80sec to 1/160sec
I will slow the shutter speed down if I need to gather more ambient light (not turn everything to sea of black in the background). 

Aperture about F8-16 
The closer I am to the subject, the larger the magnification needed, the tinier the insect is, the smaller aperture is needed to maximize the captured depth of field. 

ISO200. At all times. 

Flash set to wireless TTL, controlled via camera wirelessly
through Remote Control mode. I will adjust this as necessary, via the flash exposure compensation. I find the flash TTL to work rather accurately most of the time. When they do not work (about 1 in 20-30 shots) I will override the TTL settings and control the flash manually (setting the power levels, 1/1, 1/4, 1/32, etc)

Live View Boost on. 
If you disable this, with F16, ISO200 and 1/160sec shutter speed under dark shade conditions, you will see all black. 

Manual focus. 
Adjustment of focus based on magnification factor as indicated on the lens (1:1 full magnification, 1:2, less or more depending on the size of insect and how I want to frame my shots). 

An important tip: for most cameras these days, you can save your macro settings to a shortcut menu (I assigned to the ART option in the mode dial). So I can access all these settings quickly during shoot. Another benefit of using customized settings in the shortcut is that, when I see something else I want to shoot but I do not intend to use all the manual focus, wireless flash, F16, or etc, instead of changing all the settings one by one, I can just turn the mode dial to, say A (aperture priority) and fire away with autofocus and other standard settings that I would normally use. 

All the photos of me in action below were taken by fellow friend and photographer blogger Tian Chad. Do give his blog a visit, he has got some amazing photography happening there too. Take note that these images were taken one week ago, during my visit to the KL Butterfly Park to shoot some images which were used for my OM-D E-M10 Mark II review. 

Photo Credit: Tian Chad
Holding the camera + lens on one hand, and viewing through the EVF to confirm focus, while my other hand holds the flash with mini softbox mounted. Flash was fired wirelessly

Photo Credit: Tian Chad
Varying the distance of the flash from the subject can affect the outcome of the photographs. 

Photo Credit: Tian Chad
Very, very important to review the images! Chimping is mandatory in shooting insect macro photography. YOU MUST CHIMP.

Photo Credit: Tian Chad
That was a pass. Moving on to the next shot.  

1/160sec, F10, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

A few notes and facts about my macro shooting:

It is recommended to use this technique with smaller camera system setup.
If you have a gigantic full frame camera, you may want to consider other options, eg using a tripod, or monopod, and different way to light your subject instead of holding the flash with your hand. Holding the camera single-handedly worked well with Olympus, because of the lighter and smaller size, as well as the versatility of built in 5-Axis Image Stabilization. 

Insect Macro Photography is physically challenging. 
In general, macro photography itself is a physically demanding if shooting hand-held. You need to stand, squat or do anything in between in the most awkward positions to get your shots, as the subjects never stayed at your eye level for you to shoot. 

Just get a Macro Lens
If you are considering to venture deep into the world of macro photography, a word of advise, just get a macro lens. I have tried numerous methods: reverse lens mount adapter, close up +4 filter, extension tubes, all these on non macro lenses. The results are usually not good enough, or extremely difficult to use in real life shooting conditions. You may add extension tubes or further magnification on a true macro lens, but having a macro lens will save you so much trouble. I have been there, I know. 

For newcomers to photography, learning macro photography will improve your technical knowledge and control of the camera
You will need to deal with extreme magnification, finding ways to stabilize the camera, using proper hand-holding techniques, using advanced flash controls with aid of diffusing or reflecting the light. All these lessons learned can be applied all across other photography genres. Some people asked me how I can achieve critical focus in my street shooting and nail my focus accurately with such high hit rate. Believe me, if you have done all you can to get accurate focus in insect macro photography, you will prioritize and  take care of your focus accuracy in everything else you shoot with your camera. Same with exposure, and lighting. My street photography, at least the technical controls were benefited from my macro shooting days. 

Drinking Water
You will lose plenty of sweat shooting macro. Having drinking water is a must. Just like any other physical activities (at least true in hot tropical countries like Malaysia)

1/80sec, F4, ISO1600, No Flash used

1/160sec, F13, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

1/160sec, F8, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

1/125sec, F7.1, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

1/125sec, F8, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

1/125sec, F16, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

1/200sec, F4, ISO250, No Flash used

I hope some of you have found my sharing on insect macro photography useful. This is after all, just an update, with minor changes of what I have already shared before. Nothing is entirely new here, but I thought a refresh would be good, and especially true for new visitors to this blog. 

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  1. Thanks for the article Robin.
    Could you say something about the new Focus Bracketing feature in the new E-M10 II ? Have you tried it?
    So far I've heard different things about it. It seems to use the electronic shutter at 11fps? Does it allow a maximum number of 99 or 999 steps? One video I've seen mentioned 99, but in a podcast I've heard they mentioned 999. I'm a bit confused now :) I think especially for macro photography this could be an interesting feature.

    1. Hi Leif,
      As I have mentioned in the beginning of my article, the focus bracketing is not applicable in my technique, as I move a lot, and the bracketing requires a tripod (no camera movement) to operate.
      The maximum number of photos able to be taken with the focus bracketing is 999 shots.

    2. Thanks Robin, that info already helps.99 would have been a bit low for some situations, but if it supports up to 999 images this sounds like a really nice feature. As far as I know it's the first time a camera with interchangeable lenses has this build-in.

    3. Hi leif,
      No worries! I am not too sure if I am the best person to test this. But I shall give it a try soon.

  2. Great shots, and a great tutorial, packed with a lot of good information.Thank you, Robin!

    1. Thanks, and my pleasure to share!

  3. I am a newbie when it comes to flash, so bear with me. I have an EM1 and an Olympus FL600R flash. How are you triggering your flash? I thought that to trigger off camera you either had to use a remote communicator attached to then camera hotshot or trigger via the 600R's sensor when it "sees" the little auxiliary flash. I have found the latter technique to be very difficult as the two flashes have to "see" one another, which means to be almost pointing at one another. Obviously I am doing something wrong as you are making this work quite well. Thanks for any pointers!

    1. Hi Dennis,
      You need to enable the wireless flash settings both on camera and on Flash. I do not have an FL-600R which has a revised menu.
      I am sure you can find the info on how to enable the settings online. Here is one I have found with video tutorial

  4. Thanks for the great article. Have you ever tried something like this? It works fine for me with the OM-D E-M5 and the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro -

    1. I see a few problems with that setup:
      1) light being too harsh. there is a need to diffuse/reflect the light, try not to fire the flash directly
      2) the position of the insect is fixed, and it is difficult to shoot insects at varying distances (and sizes) you need to move the arms on the flash so that they work every time.
      3) That thing is huge and surely heavy!

  5. The best blog post on macro photography I've ever read. And if you're an Olympus shooter, this is a page to place in your photography bible. In particular,the shots of Robin holding the camera in one hand and the flash in the other are extremely helpful. You're the best, Robin. Thanks! Dustin (Taipei),

    1. Thanks Dustin! I admit that this may not be the best technique and may not work for everyone, but if you can do it, it is the most versatile approach to shooting insects out there

  6. My favorite subject revised, how lucky can I get! Your original blog on the subject is what led me to your site two years ago, and resulted in my dumping my Canon gear and buying an E-M1. I used to use a 7D with the new Canon 100mm macro lens plus mack twin-lite. It worked very well, but as I am now over 70 it became too unwieldy. I am just now getting around to learning your technique with an Olympus 600R plus Rogue FlashBender plus diffusion panel. It makes a very nice light source. I would never have believed that hand holding two devices in two different hands could work as well. My keeper rate so far has been very low because I've been going very active insects. One thing I have to learn is how to keep my hat from interfering: it keeps hitting the LM-2 on the E-M1 and closing it so that the flash doesn't fire. Again, another beautiful set of photos from you. You have some wonderful subjects at hand.

    1. Thanks FredT and I am glad you have found my original sharing on macro useful. I am still learning and improving, so surely I will keep this updated when I have discovered or able to do something better.

    2. I forgot that I actually had a question. I have found that TTL flash has been consistently underexposed. I have dialed in +1 flash compensation, and that seems to be working pretty well. You indicated that you find it to be accurate most of the time. Do you have any thoughts as to why I might be getting a different result?

    3. I have no idea why but it also depends on how the type of diffuser and reflector used. if it is consistently underexposed by one stop, I am not worried because the metering is working well (giving consistent calculations) and this can be fixed easily but if the flash output is all over the place then you might want to have your flash checked.

    4. Robin, I have the FL600R flash and for wireless it requires the use of the built-in camera flash to give a pulse of light that triggers it (no other form of wireless built in). Is that what the FL50R does or can you fire wirelessly it without needing the built-in camera flash up?

      The problem with wireless via pulsing the camera flash is that (as Dennis said above) you need to have the remote flash pointing somewhat at the camera, so that it can see the flash. So it doesn't work at all angles. Also I have notice that the built-in flash does still affect the final image (even though it is not meant to).

      Is the FL50R different? Does it have radio frequency wireless or something?

      PS: I did some macro shooting today and held the flash with a light monopod (in short mode). It was a good way to hold it and gave more reach for creative lighting.

    5. David,

      Yes, you need to fire the flash mounted on the camera to trigger the external wireless flash. I find this not to be an issue for my macro shots, because the flash was quite near from the camera (even if I fully stretch my hands, still no issues).
      there is an option to minimize the power of the on camera flash (turning it off in the setting, so it gives a very weak pulse). I know in some situations this will affect the outcome of your photo. However I was shooting at ISO200, F11, 1/160sec. There are times I accidientally turned off the external wireless flash and all i get was black, though the on camera flash was fired. So in this particular set up that on camera flash used to trigger the wireless flash did not do anything to my final images.

    6. Yes I should look to turn the Camera flash down to a minimum to reduce it's effect on the image. I tried turning it fully off thinking it would still fire a small trigger pulse but it didn't, so it must be another setting. It wont matter in most situations as you said, mainly noticed it when I was in a darkened room trying to get a high contrast "lit from the side" look on faces.

      Thanks again.

  7. Hi Robin. Thanks again for a fabulous blog article. I just bought Zuiko 60mm f2.8 Macro which I'll use with EM-5 MkII, then this article was very informative. Fantastic great pictures again in this blog, pictures that I never thought possible with a handheld camera. I can not wait to try the new lens. I have unfortunately not Olympus flash, but Metz 44AF Digital. I'm struggling a bit to get it to work optimally wireless, but it should be possible. I can investigate further, or buy an Olympus flash.

    1. Dear opas,
      I am sorry there is not much I can comment on Metz flash as I do not have one.

  8. Hi, Robin, again astonishing pictures. Besides your technique with the 2.8 / 60mm manual focus, I adjust the enlargement factor on my Pen E-P5 to maximum 14x in order to obtain an minimal focusing area and use the touchscreen shutter release option at the image point I'm interested in.

    (OM - Macro fan since OM-2n with 2.0/50, 2.0/90mm, as well as Auto-Macro Tube with 4.0/80 and 4.5/135mm.
    Even attached to Sony A7R, the OM - Macros perform extraordinary well.)

    1. Hi Ludwig,
      That is one good way of achieving manual focus. I would assume that you were shooting on a tripod, because that method is just not possible to execute with hand-holding!

    2. Hi Robin, without any flash usage it works as well hand-hold due to the amazing 5-axis stabilization and the super-fast auto-focus mechanism! I could provide 1:1 macro shoots of little insects too! The camera decides at the exact in-focus moment, when to release the shutter. The Olympus High-Tech (cameras and glass) is really great – and in your hands it delivers breath-taking results, too !!!

  9. That fly's photo and the eyes. So amazing =DDD

    Thanks for the shoutout to my humble blog!! Photographer do need photographer buddies to take their photos some time haha. I am looking forward for our next shutter therapy!

  10. Hi Robin - if you have a second, I have a question re: flash. What do you set your X-Sync Slow Limit shutter speed to? And does this vary depending on what kind of photography you're doing (i.e. macro vs. moving people)? Thanks!

    1. For macro shots I use regular sync. Only use slow sync if you need to gather a lot of ambient light (night photography, with night cityscape as your background). Even so, when I shoot manual, I shoot with full manual, and slow down my shutter speed (dragging shutter), how slow depending on how much light I want to gather.

  11. Thanks very much, Robin , for this fantastic article. Surely the best educational article I've read on Macro work. I'm so impressed at your ability to focus .. i've tried enough macro to know how much practice it takes! Keep wanting to ask you one question: why do the insects not fly away before you can get so near?

    1. Hi Derek,
      Thanks for the kind words! Not all insects are sensitive to human presence, and using the 60mm macro lens I still have quite a comfortable working distance between myself and my subject.

  12. Hi Robin,

    I hope you can answer this question for me. I want to try your macro techniques, but right now only have the small LM3 flash that came with my EM5 II.

    I looked for the 50R flash on Olympus' store and it's "discontinued." They do have a 600R flash for $300 USD. Would I be able to achieve similar results with that flash?

    Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks.

    1. FL600R is a newer flash designed for Micro Four Thirds system, it should work well, so rest assured you can achieve similar results.

  13. Hi Robin,

    This is a great article. I really appreciate it. My 60mm Macro lens has just arrived, and I'm excited to get out and begin experimenting.

    I wondered - could you write sometime about how you assign your macro settings to the ART option on the Mode dial? I've spent a bunch of time with the user-manual and on the internet, and can't figure it out. I can set them to a 'myset', but don't see how to then assign that to a Mode Dial setting. (For what it's worth, I'm running an E-M5ii).

    Best wishes,

  14. So luck to come across your excellent blog. Your blog brings me a great deal of fun.. Good luck with the site.
    creative photography

  15. I really like your Macro blog, as I'm hoping to buy a E-M10 (mk2) soon and, eventually, the 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. I'm not into tripod and rails, so like your hand-held technique(s).
    With regard to the new focus bracketing (FB) feauture of the mk2 (soon also on the E-M1 and E-M5 mk2 through FW update), I've read and seen various good examples on the ne where peole have managed to use that hand-held with satisfactory results. Mainly due, I guess, because for FB it goes in high speed silent shutter mode and will thus be able to shoot, say 5, focusbracketed shots in a second. This may work less satisfactorily, or probably not at all, with flash ofcourse.

    Here's an example, first attempt even, but not of an insect:

    Here's another article about focus bracketing with E-M10 mk2, some hand-held, some with tripod, some even with fllash!

  16. Robin, you mention using a shutter speed of 1/80 to 1/160. On my E-M10 MkI, the shutter speed increments for me are 1/60, 1/125, 1/250. How are you getting 1/80 and 1/160?

    1. OK, answering my own question. I had EV Steps set to 1EV instead of 1/3EV in cog "E"

  17. Thanks for this write up and the pictures Robin. A nice starting point into Olympus OM-D macro shooting.
    Question: Did you ever use the MAL-1 to light your subjects? If so, what do you think of the results?

  18. I wish to say this post is stunning, enchanting made and circuit for the most part hugely fundamental infos. I may need to see more posts like this.
    Wireless Camera in Lahore

  19. رش المبيدات من اهم الاشياء التى تساعد القضاء على الحشرات على الفور فاذا كنت تعانى من اعمال المكافحة التقليدية وتعانى من الوصول الى افضل الخدمات المميزة فى القضاء على الحشرات فعليك ان تعلم ان شركة رش مبيدات بالرياض هى افضل الشركات التى تساعد فى القضاء على اى نوع من انواع الحشرات الزاحفة والحشرات الطائرة فاذا كنت فى اى مكان فى الرياض او المملكة العربيه السعودية وتعانى من وجود الكثير من الاسباب التى تؤدى الى اعمال المكافحة وسرعان ما يتم عودتها مره اخرى فعليك ان تتصل وتتعاون معنا على الفور فالشركة تعتمد على عدد من الخدمات المميزة فى اعمال الرش من اهم ما تقوم بيه شركة رش مبيدات
    - الاهتمام بالتعرف على اجود انواع المبيدات المميزة المتعارف عليها ذات جوده عالمية وتم اختيارها عن تجارب سابقه والتاكد من فاعليتها فى القضاء على الحشرات الزاحفة والطائرة
    - الاعتماد على اقوى الاجهزة والالات المميزة فى اعمال الرش والقضاء على الحشرات فى اقل وقت ممكن دون ان يتم انتشار السموم فى المكان المتواجدين بيه والسعى فى القضاء دون ان يتم البحث عن اماكن تواجد الحشرات
    - العماله المميزة لديها الخبرة والوعى الكافى فى القضاء على الحشرات الزاحفة والطائرة واصعب انواع الحشرات المتواجده فى المكان والتى يستصعب القيام باعمال المكافحة التقليدية
    عزيزى العميل اذا كنت فى اى مكان فى المملكه العربيه السعودية وتبحث عن افضل الخدمات المميزة فعليك ان تتصل وتتواصل بينا على الفور فى القيام باعمال المكافحة والقضاء على الحشرات فاستعن بينا على الفور فى القيام بكل ذلك شركة رش مبيدات بالخرج .

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Robin, You say "Very, very important to review the images! Chimping is mandatory in shooting insect macro photography. YOU MUST CHIMP."
    Reviewing I know, Chimping? That's new term to me. Can't find it anywhere. What is Chimping?

  22. oh, I found it - Chimping is checking the photo you took after every shot using the LCD.

  23. Hi Robin, I'm a silent reader of your blog for a while now, but this old post triggered a question. Do you think your technique would work with the 60/2.8 Venus MF mft lens? Aka Laowa, if you please. I'm a father of a two year old, so budget is tight as always, here in Ireland the Oly Is pricy, but you can get the MF Venus pretty much around 1/3 of the Oly's Rsp. I read you do quite a bit of manual focus so I'm hoping it might work. ☺️

    A side note to the public re: external flash, moved to MFT From Nikon Dx, still have my YN468II and to my surprise id does fire wireless when the olympus little flash is firing. Haven't played with it a lot, yet to experiment how far you can lower the flash power to be still able to fire the YN, but looks promising. Might save me a few quid towards to the Olympus 60/2.8

    Last but not least, keep up with the great blog, you're trully inspiring many folks out there. Cheers

  24. Looks like you are using on camera's flash to control FL50R. Is it limiting external flash position? Does it have sensors all around or you have to turn it only one way so that it catches control light from the camera?

    I use setup similar to yours, but instead a legacy radio synchronization and universal manual flash (no TTL). I usually set camera in manual mode, then F/8-F/16 and 1/200s. I'm not afraid of higher ISO settings, 400-800 are OK for Olympus. Thus I can control the subject lightness by power of flash and background by ISO rate.

    I usually use 60mm macro, but I also like 50mm and 35mm from 4/3 and 80mm from OM.

    1. Joe, the sensor on the Olympus Flash is on the front of the flash body, so they have to be somewhat line-of-sight to the camera flash. But you can rotate the head of the Olympus flash so that the sensor and flash don't have to point in the same direction.

      Still sometimes I got problems with it not firing, so I bought a flash short cable which has worked well for tricky angles.

      For reach, flexibility (and stability) I have started putting the flash on a handheld monopod (not extended). I can sit the point of the monopod on my belt and can use it to stabilise the elbow of the other arm holding the camera (easier to see than describe!).