Sunday, January 21, 2018

Let's Talk About Light

I'm going to kick off this article with some "ground rules". I'm more interested in talking about light in terms of diffusion and flash eficiency, since both are going to have an impact on the amount of detail that can be captured in the subject. Even the angle of the light can make a difference in how much detail you'll see.

The funny thing about macro is that it seems to attract a lot of really intelligent people. Unfortunately most of them can't wrap their heads around anything that cannot be measured in a lab and successful tested. An example is that I like diffused light that looks "feathered". Do I know what that light looks like when I see it? Yup. Can I accurately describe it to you? It would be tough, especially since I don't feather my light by rotating the flash away from the subject. We're also not going to get into a discussion about the best way to diffuse a light source because it's too style dependent. I'd love to be able to use studio lights and huge soft boxes. Unfortunately it's a little tough to hand hold that kind of gear and chase after hyperactive subjects...

Feeding Honeybee

Note: The 1/focal length rule for determining the slowest shutter speed for hand holding a lens breaks down at 1x and higher magnification. You actually need much faster shutter speeds for shooting macro because motion as little as half the width of a pixel is enough to amplify diffraction. When shooting with the flash as your primary light source for the subject the duration of the flash becomes your "shutter speed". Although not as obvious as stopping a balloon in mid pop, or a bullet as it passes through an apple, flash based macro is a form of flash based stop motion photography. The more control you have over movement (yours and the subject) and the shorter the flash duration the sharper your images are going to be. A lot of the image softness that is blamed on diffraction is really just motion amplified diffraction, or what I like to call "macro motion blur". It won't look like traditional motion blur, but it will rob you of sharpness like diffraction does. The technique that I use to control motion and the way I diffuse my flash and get it close the subject are the reasons why I can capture a lot of detail even though I'm shooting with a lens stopped down to F11 or more.

Let's start off by looking at a common mistake that I see people making, especially people who are struggling with the bright spot in the specular highlights that a flash tube can make. I was speaking with a shooter several years back who had solved the hot spot problem by cutting a hole in a white opaque plastic cutting board and mounting it to the front of his lens. On the surface that might seem pretty good. No small central hot spot and light that looked pretty soft. But the guy who was using it to diffuse his flash for macro complained about slow flash recycle times and that his images seemed under exposed above 1x. The problem was that the cutting board was doing a better job of blocking the light than diffusing it, and his flash was firing close to or at full power most of the time. I think that a cutting board is a good example of a material that will diffuse a flash, but just because it can diffuse the light that doesn't mean that you should use it.

Lens mounted diffusers can be pretty effective, provide the flash is actually pointed toward the subject, is close to the diffuser, and not just camera mounted and firing straight ahead. Here's an excellent example of one made by John Hallmen, although it could use some improvements:

DIY Lamp shade macro diffuser

The general idea is to use the diffuser to shade the subject, so that the flash is the primary light source. You can then "walk the shutter" (decrease the shutter speed) to expose for the natural light in the background. One way to improve his design it to place something over the flash that will force any reflected light off of the back of the diffuser to go out the front. It would also prevent ambient light from coming though the diffuser (easier to make the flash the only light source on the subject). If you click on the image you'll get John's Flickr post with his list of pros and cons on using that diffuser. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Hallmen because he's one of the few people in the macro community that's willingly sharing his technique and experience.

Here's an example of what I mean by using the flash as the primary light source on the subject:

Image One

While shooting that bee the flash didn't fire and you can see that the critter is almost a silhouette. I have the camera set to expose for the background (although a little under exposed). So I can use the flash to expose the subject and it's shorter than the shutter speed duration help to freeze motion.

Image Two

A camera mounted flash, with a lens mounted diffuser, will work (example here) and the light will be feathered because the flash isn't pointed directly at the subject. But since the flash is firing straight ahead it's not very efficient and you might run into problems keeping your flash duration short enough to freeze motion.

Food grade plastics are another example of a potentially poor choice for flash diffusion. A food container might be blocking certain wavelengths of light to protect the product, and could cause problems with your light quality that can't be easily fixed in post. I was using some plastic from a liquide yogurt bottle a few years back that made my light way too warm.

Ring flashes -just say no. They are very convenient and easy to use. But the light will look flat because the flash heads are too parallel to the lens, and because a ring flash almost wraps completely around the lens. So even when using ratio control to make one flash head brighter than the other the resulting light can still look pretty flat. Here's an example of the light "quality" that I was getting with a Canon MR-14EX over 10 years ago.

Bee at twice life size series 1-2

For some of you the light in that image is gonna be acceptable, but for me it's not. Even with a 4:1 ratio difference between the two flash heads the light still looks flat, and the specular highlight is pretty ugly. I have seen some attempts at adding a diffuser to a ring flash, as well as trying to mount one by not connecting it to the end of a lens. But unless you're a dentist, who needs to photograph a patient's teeth, you're better off with any other light source.

This may be part one of this discussion depending on the questions and feedback that I get. Stay tuned ;)

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Facebook Effect

The more I post on forums the more I think I shouldn't. When I see people asking for comments and critique (C&C) I try to be fair, and honest, with my assessment of their work. But most of the time that's not what the person asking for C&C really wants -they just want to be "liked". They want me, and everyone else, to pat them on the back and tell them that they're doing great even when they're not. So I can either get on the "nice capture" train, macro's version of the like button, or say nothing at all. Heaven help me if I actually give someone honest advice! In the end all of the major discussion boards have pretty much degraded into circle jerks of mediocrity, with no one making any real improvement in their photography.

The more well known a photographer is, in any community, the more difficult it is to give them advice. They're addicted to the  gratification that they get every time they post an image, not realizing that being well known is like a feedback amplifier and for every positive comment they give they're likely to get several in return. That's why they shouldn't listen to any of the positive comments. The moment that they do they're probably going to stop pushing themselves to improve, and they'll stop listening to jerks like me who are telling them where they need to make changes.

Even when people ask for equipment advice it's not genuine most of the time. What they really want is reassurance, because they've already decided to spend the money.  But they'll go looking for someone, even an Internet stranger, to make them feel good about parting with the cash. I frequently make the mistake of looking at the person's gallery and telling them that they need to improve their composition, or lighting, or both and that new gear isn't going to help. But that's not the answer that they're looking for, and odds are the new kit is already on it's way or they had it before they even made a post asking for advice.

If you really want to improve your photography then you're going to have to learn how to subjectively critique your own work. It's OK to make mistakes, but you're going to have to figure out where you're going wrong. Odds are no one is going to help you see the errors you're making because they're afraid you'll stop making positive comments on their work if they do. So you'll have to pick your own work apart because everyone is just going to "like" you.

For some of you honest self evaluation is going to be tough due to all of the positive feedback that you're getting. But that feedback is like a birthday or Christmas present -the only reason that you're getting gifts is because you give them.

I though that the obsession with absolute image sharpness was killing macro, and to some degree it still is. But everyone's overwhelming need for approval might just put the final nail in the macro coffin...

Monday, December 4, 2017

Canon MT-26EX-RT Diffusers

I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon becoming one with the universe, Legos, and a hot glue gun. The result is a diffuser set that stays together, but I can easily take it apart and swap out some of the diffusion material. Currently using the Canon supplied diffuser, two layers of 1/4 stop white silk, and a Gary Fong Puffer Plus. Also in the diffuser that I took apart to show you the guts there is a layer of 1/8 CTO gel.

The diffuser that Canon supplies with the flash is made of some really opaque plastic, and it's solid. The clips on the diffuser, and the larger/deeper indent on the flash heads, lock the diffuser in place really well and can support some weight. No need to hot glue the diffuser onto the flash heads like I had to do with the MT-24EX.

A few years ago I was watching a tutorial on Youtube and in it a portrait photographer was using layers of white silk until he got the diffusion that he wanted. I really like the effect, but the amount of space that I have to work with is pretty limited so I'm restricted to just two or three layers. There has to be a gap between the layers or the amount of light reduced by the silk seems to go up exponentially. Done right the light from the flash becomes "feathered" and looks really soft.

I use the Puffer Plus as a last stage for a couple of reasons. The outside surface is dimpled, so it has a lot more surface area than a flat piece of diffusion material. I can also use a larger section of it because it's curved. I use the heads in a key and fill arrangement, just like portrait lighting. So I need to be able to position the flash heads as close to 45 degrees apart as possible (key at the top with the fill off to one side). The 1/8 CTO gel is to make the light from the fill a little warm -really makes the subject "pop". Nearly all of the inspiration for my lighting comes from portrait photographers.

Here's a shot of both diffusers on the flash heads with the focusing lamps on. The brightness of the focusing lamps can be controlled in five increments, and this is with them set to level 4.

When my son was younger he gave me one of his Hot Wheels cars to use as a test target and I like using it due to the curved surfaces, windshield, and the gloss finish on the paint (although it has seen better days). Both images where taken with the Canon MP-E 65mm at 1x, so they represent the worse case in terms of light quality for me, since the diffusion only gets better as the distance between the subject and the diffusers gets shorter. Both images were shot in RAW with only minor changes in the RAW editor, and then converted to JPG.

With the bare flash:

With the new diffuser:

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Hitting Limits

European Wool Carder Bee IV
It's been a while since I've blogged about macro photography, and truth be told it's been a while since I've held a camera in my hand. It's not the first time I've taken a break, but this one seems to be the longest I've gone without getting "macro withdraws". I've hit a couple of road blocks that have kept the camera in the bag. The first, and I think foremost, is "what's next?". I've been pushing the limits of what I can do with the camera and the subjects I shoot, and I have images that are truly unique compared to what I see in the amateur macro community.

Feeding Chafer Beetle

Feeding Honeybee VIII

Finger Fed Bumblebee

But after a while my gallery seems to just be repetitive, and I don't like taking the same shot over and over any more than you enjoy seeing them. So part of the problem is just an issue of inspiration. What can I do next that's going to keep my gallery fresh? I haven't found the answer to that one yet.

I thought about getting into focus stacking, but then I'd lose the ability to take "action shots" like the images above. Plus I just don't see the challenge in photographing something that doesn't move. Granted I'd get more detail, but I really don't think that detail is a problem even with my "diffraction limited" macro photography:

European Wool Carder Bee VII

Over the years I've come to realize that the quality of the light I'm using has a really big impact on the level of detail in my images. A lot of texture data can get lost due to light that creates too much micro contrast. In addition the better the light quality the more I can push my images in post, and for me everything from what I do with the camera to what I do in post is connected. It's unfortunate that the main stream media has projected the impression that post processing is just for correcting mistakes, instead of post just being a normal part of the the photographic process. You have to develop your "film" and it doesn't matter if the negative is a piece of celluloid or a RAW file.

Light is the one area where I've really hit a hard wall. Due to my style of shooting I have to use Canon's MT-24EX because it's the only flash that gives me the balance I need for hand holding the camera while chasing semi-active to hyperactive subjects. I also benefit from the close working distances at life size and higher magnification since the diffusion of the light gets better the closer the diffuser is to the subject, and getting the flash close also helps to keep the duration of the light as short as possible so that I can freeze a lot of motion. But the short distance between flash and subject limits what I can do to diffuse the flash, and I've pretty much taken the MT-24EX as far as it can go.

Sadly the MT-24EX is the only Canon flash that has not been updated, and I'm hoping that they do in fact come out with a better version of it.

My macro journey isn't over and if I can come up with something unique I'll post some abstract work this winter. Just wanted to let you know that I'm still here, but just finding inspiration a little difficult at the moment.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Published in the July issue of Digital SLR Photography Magazine

Mason Bee Series 1-3
I maintain several galleries, and although I've had a 500px gallery for quite a while I wasn't keeping it up to date. Just too many places to post an image to already. But after one of the editors gave me an editor's choice award for one of my photos I decided that I'd push some more images up to the site. While I was uploading photos one of the editors for Digital SLR Photography Magazine contacted me about publishing four of my images in the Portfolio section of the magazine. Three of the images would appear on a page with a short paragraph to describe them, and then a fourth photo would be printed full page (the image of a Mason Bee in the upper right hand side of this post). At roughly the same time that I was working on the text for the images my 500px gallery took off, and I'm not sure why. But over a weekend I had over two thousand new followers and it's been growing by over three hundred a day. As of this post there are over 13,500 people following my work at 500px!

Special thanks to Mr. Jordan Butters, contributing editor for Digital SLR Photography Magazine, for such a great opportunity!

Update 10 July 2016: I've passed the 25 thousand followers mark at 500px :)