This is part two of a series of posts dealing with learning macro photography.
My wife and I went to the Ladew Topiary Gardens (north of Baltimore, MD) in May 2015, so that I could practice off-camera flash and some basic techniques on flower photography. The day was gorgeous and although many of the flowers were already past their prime, we still had plenty of great flora (and some fauna) with which to practice. Before we knew it, we had been there for over six hours, with over 600 shots between us.I was using the E-M1, 60mm macro f/2.8 lens, the FL-LM2 flash on the camera as the remote control, and FL-600 flash as a slave. About half of my shots were hand-held. The rest were made with the camera on my Really Right Stuff TVH-24L tripod, BH-40 ball head, and macro focus rail. I also had a Vanguard Quovio sling bag with me, which proved invaluable later on even though I was hand-carrying the camera attached to the tripod.
My wife was using the E-M5 and the 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lens, no flash. She went off chasing birds and butterflies and left me to my own devices (as always). The Pro lenses are known for very close focusing distances, and the 40-150mm Pro (which has a close-focusing distance of 27.55 inches and a magnification of x.21) is excellent for light macro photography because of this. For catching flying insects like butterflies, dragonflies and pollinating bees, its reach, sharpness and lightning-fast focus may make it the best lens choice for the system to date. For flowers, however, I found it may be a little limited for light solo work, as even the two-foot minimum distance means that without the use of a flash stand, the photographer does not have as much control over lighting from a flash.
The FL-600, as I suppose all advanced flashes are, can be a little intimidating, but RC mode is very easy to set up. On the camera, just press Menu, go into Shooting Menu 2, and turn RC mode on. On the flash, press “Mode” until it cycles to RC. With the FL-LM2 on the camera and the head pushed up (having it in the down position is a quick and easy way to disable it), every time a shot is taken, the slave flash will wirelessly be set off instead of the flash on the camera. It helps consistency to ensure on the camera flash menu that Fill Flash is selected as opposed to Auto.
General Flower Photography, Hand-Held
For general flower photography, there is no need to shoot at true macro magnifications (unless trying to focus on its interior parts), and I shot plenty at lesser magnifications. I set the lens’ focus limiter to 0.19-0.4m, left the camera in autofocus, hand-held the camera in my right and the flash in my left, and fired away. The ranges set by the focus limiter equate to 7.5 inches to 15.75 inches, so I had to be sure to be at around a foot or less away from my subject. To prevent shutter shock from being a problem, it is best to use Anti-Shock mode from the Super Control Panel or Shooting Menu. Anti-Shock, or Electronic First Curtain (only available on the E-M1 via firmware upgrade and newer cameras) is limited to 1/320th of a second or lower shutter speeds – more than enough for flower photography in most cases, and more than I was getting anyway with flash synch (limited to 1/250th second).The only time this may not have been the case on such a bright day was if I was going for such a shallow depth of field that even at these close distances I needed much higher shutter speeds to keep my aperture wide open. I let the camera meter the exposure via Aperture Priority and TTL modes (walk before you run, right?), and was shooting at about f/8 to f/13. If I felt the lighting was too soft or harsh, I simply moved the FL-600 closer or farther away from the subject. If I thought the angle of the lighting wasn’t right, I simply moved it and shot again. This method worked great. I had plenty of control, the flash added vibrancy to the images and controlled the shadows, and the lighting and image stabilization was such that even at higher apertures the pictures came out sharp. If simple flower shots are all you are after, there really is no need to do other than this.
I even tried a method I learned reading Mark Berkery’s blog, which helped when the breeze picked up. Ditching the flash, I used my left hand to hold the foliage steady, steadied my camera using my left arm as a brace, and fired some pretty stable shots that way. Mark does true macro using this technique, but I think I am going to need some practice.There were two things I noticed with the flash. One, the flash will effect the white balance. Flowers that looked more blue in the camera became more violet with the flash. The camera white balance settings appeared to have changed as well, from Sunny to what I believe to be Auto. I am certain this is simply a matter of knowing the effect and compensating for it either with the camera’s white balance settings or in post processing. Two, since I was shooting in Aperture priority mode (as I usually do unless there is action or some compelling reason to go full manual) there was a window of aperture settings I could use for the flash to work. Too low and I got the blinking warning that my shot was beyond the camera’s capabilities. This was certainly due to the shutter speed limitation of the camera synching with the flash at 1/250th second. I was not using high speed synch — there was no need and I don’t understand it yet anyway. If the Aperture was set too high, it seemed as if the flash wouldn’t fire for reasons I don’t yet understand either. I will figure them out and post my findings here next time. Yes, I’m a total noob with using flash…
I don’t believe in hard rules for art, but there are nevertheless guidelines that generally make for more pleasing pictures. Composition with flower photography is very similar to portraiture. Just like when photographing an attractive person or a loved one, the subject should be in a nice pose and with a nice background. Consider the Rule of Thirds to frame the subject; don’t always center the flower on the frame. Also, in one sense, it is the opposite of most macro photography in that separating the background with a shallow depth of field is usually desirable, so don’t worry about opening up. Otherwise, any clutter of foliage in the background can make the scene too busy and distracting. Lighting that casts shadows can make a brilliant flower look flat, which is why the flash technique described above is so important. Backlighting flowers can create a translucent glow through the petals, so use the sun to that advantage. This late in Spring, many of the flowers were already past their prime, so some of my subjects had spots on them, which I could remove in post if they weren’t too big. Also in post, make sure the lighting is bright and the colors pop, but not so overly-saturated as to make the image look fake. These guidelines are easier to forget with flowers, perhaps because they are so striking on their own and yet don’t offer any interaction with the photographer or adjust on command. We have to remember to move ourselves and the lighting and compose the background and framing to find the best composition, and the flower doesn’t complain when we are done.
True Macro, Hand-HeldHowever artistically pleasing, that sort of shooting wasn’t all that technically challenging. I wanted to try shooting true macro with flash, which changed the game considerably. At 1:1 magnifications, manual focus is quicker, more reliable, and more exact than autofocus. I can place the plane of focus exactly where I want (more on this later). However, while it seems like common sense now, I quickly discovered that I only having two hands was a problem. I couldn’t hold the camera in my right, the flash in my left, and manual focus at the same time. I needed that sling bag to lay the flash into when I needed a free hand.
The plane of sharpness when shooting true macro is only a sliver deep. There are two ways to deal with this, but for now, I am limited to stopping down my aperture to increase my depth of field. (The other option is focus stacking, which will be the final macro technique I learn.) This is one area where the micro four-thirds format is an advantage, because its greater depth of field (which can be undesirable in genres such as portraiture) means I do not have to stop down nearly as much as with a DSLR. This is a good thing. Stopping down too much causes loss of dynamic range and introduces diffraction, which reduces sharpness, though it doesn’t get noticeable until around F/16 or so. It also reduces shutter speed (without an equivalent bump in ISO, which introduces noise), which could also reduce sharpness, although on a tripod that is no matter.There were a couple of techniques I tried to get sharp pictures in true macro while hand-holding the camera, but even with the help of IBIS on Olympus cameras, none of them were home-run successes that can be turned to all the time. Part of the problem was having to reduce shutter speed to get a deeper plane of focus (as explained in the previous paragraph), and part was because while autofocus is usable in good lighting, it will often hunt before finding focus. Furthermore, its not always possible to be in a body position to use the viewfinder. Sometimes I had to extend my arms and rely on the tilting LCD, which meant my body and arm positions were not as stable. If I can steady my hand on something (like the ground, a rock or tree branch), I might try that route first. I had to learn what it visibly means to be within 0.19m (7.5 inches) from the subject, and get the camera somewhere between that range and touching.
When bracing my hands is not possible, the only other hand-held way with manual focus is to not try to focus with the ring at all, but to rock back and forth from the subject, shooting on burst mode. As long as the range of motion comes within 7.5 inches, some of the shots will be in focus, and the rest can be deleted. I have gotten good shots with this method, but the keeper-to-shot ratio is very low, and I can’t say I’ve really taken to it. Special care must be taken to have a smooth motion as perpendicular to the desired plane of focus as possible, and this takes practice. Also, positioning may require shooting with hands extended — losing stability, use of the viewfinder for framing, and control of my angle of motion. Lastly, trying this with flying insects will generally scare them off.
General and True Macro, Tripod-Mounted
Even with the shoulder bag, shooting with the tripod proved to be even easier still. It freed up another hand, and allowed me to take the time to get my positioning, settings and focus straight, and use the LCD screen to compose and trigger the shutter. (Using the touchscreen as opposed to the shutter button cuts down on vibration, which means sharper pictures. Or, a remote shutter or even WiFi can be used.)That said, there are limitations to a tripod. Its more cumbersome to carry and slow to get set, meaning fleeting shots can be missed. I was also limited by the tripod’s reach. If I couldn’t arrange the tripod in a way that got the angle I wanted (and didn’t damage the garden grounds), I had to switch to hand-held. Really Right Stuff uses Arca Swiss quick-release camera plates designed to fit specific cameras like the E-M1 and E-M5, so mounting and removing the camera is quick and easy. I also had at my disposal extension and macro focusing rails to get the camera even closer to its target.
Getting sharp pictures is easy with a tripod. First, remember to turn off image stabilization and keep Shutter Shock mode enabled. Once the settings are correct, if trying autofocus, fire away. If using manual focus (preferred for macro), there are two methods. The first is, naturally, the manual focus ring. This can be a finicky exercise in its own right. As always (unless I change it in the Menu settings), turning the manual focus ring counter-clockwise moves the plane focus away from me, clockwise moves it closer to me. That was of little help, however, when I couldn’t tell where I was starting my focusing from in the first place. If I pushed the plane of focus too far away from myself, the lens focus limiter would switch to the next longest setting (0.19-0.4 meters), so I often found myself focusing right out of true macro mode. Fortunately, Olympus has settings that can help with that. By going into the Custom Menu 1 and turning on Focus Reset, the lens resets position every time you turn it off.Better still is turning on Focus Peaking in the same menu, as it highlights the area in focus. On the other hand, I am not a fan of the Magnification Focus Assist, which magnifies the image by a factor of 10 when (and only when) the focus ring is being turned. Its disconcerting to me in any occasion, but in macro I find its even worse, as I have even less real estate to see to figure out where the plane of focus is. If I want to magnify the image, I much prefer toggling on and off the x2 Digital Teleconverter. If I am shooting RAW (which I usually am), the digital teleconverter has no effect on the final image, but does double the magnification in the viewfinder and LCD. (When shooting JPEG, the Digital Teleconverter doubles the magnification of the final image, as well.)
The second manual way to focus on a tripod is to leave the focus ring more or less alone and use a macro focusing rail. This is a mechanism to move the camera toward or away from the subject in very tiny increments so that it enters into the plane of focus, preventing many of the problems I described above. Its similar in that sense to the rocking back and forth method described earlier, but with much more stability and control, and no frustration.
All in all, the day at the Ladew Topiary Garden was very instructive. Much of what I learned seems like common sense as I am typing it, but when figuring out what gear and mindset one needs when trying a new form a photography, the basics are the place to start. For the next phase of my development, I will take what I learned to the next level of advancement in macro photography. It’s a good time for it. Spring is in full swing, and the insects are starting to appear in numbers.