In my last post (Portrait of a yellow rabbit snail) I mentioned that I thought maybe it was time to invest in a new modern flash. So I checked around and found a ripping deal on a used Olympus FL 36 flash. It’s a little smaller and lighter than the old Vivitar 283’s I have been using for the past couple of decades, and, amongst other advantages, offers me the option of TTL exposure. It’s reasonably small and compact too…excellent for macro photography.
I originally started thinking about a new flash to make aquarium photography easier. But by the time I got the flash the nice spring weather had shifted my attention back to insects. I’ll get back to the aquarium eventually.
Last summer most of my field photography was taken using an Olympus RF-11 ring flash. It is a great piece of equipment, and does an excellent job, but I found that my photos tended to be a little too low in contrast for my taste. The other thing about the ring flash is that it lights the subject directly from the front; so when the subject is properly exposed the light drops off and results in a darker background. That isn’t always a bad thing…but it’s also not always optimal. When looking at macro photos on the Internet I was struck by how many were taken using “normal” flashes with some sort of diffuser attached to soften the light. I used to use a system like for photographing somewhat larger creatures like snakes and lizards. S0 now that I had a spiffy new flash I thought I’d try this technique for myself.
After some trial and error I ended-up attaching the flash to a TTL cable (linked to the camera), which was clipped onto a ball-joint flash adapter mounted on an old Vivitar flash bracket. This somewhat awkward assembly allowed me to position the flash sideways so that the flash tube was positioned above the camera but pointed down at the appropriate angle for macro photography. A LumiQuest Softbox diffuser was attached to the flash. The somewhat unwieldy apparatus is shown in the photos below (taken with my phone).
Below are photos of moss taken using both the ring flash and the LumiQuest diffuser. In general I prefer the picture taken with diffuser, but note how well lit the vertical green stems in the forefront are. I think that the ring flash would be superior for vertical subject such as a spider in the middle of a web.
The next step was to test the diffuser in the fied with live bugs. I went out into the garden and found a few tiny flies (Meiosimyza sp.) wandering around on a bracken fern. Meiosimyza are flies in the family Lauxaniidae; they are yellowish-brown or black and typically have colourful eyes. These flies were tiny (4-5mm long; about 1/10 inch), colourful and mobile: the perfect test subjects.
As you can see from the photo at the top of the page, the diffused flash produced a very nice result, and TTL made the process a snap… each frame was perfectly exposed with no fiddling on my part. The photo below is a very tight crop of the original (approximately 3:1) and at this magnification the soft light looks great.
I shot the fly at F16, so the resolution isn’t as sharp as it could be. I would have preferred to use F11, but I needed as much depth of field as I could get because the biggest challenge was getting the flies in focus! Hand-holding the camera for subjects this small is difficult at the best of times, but I found the set-up a little too heavy and clumsy. It didn’t help of course that the flies were sitting on a fern only about 30cm (1 foot) above the ground, and it would have been easier if I’d attached the camera to a monopod. So I got a lot of nicely exposed but out of focus pictures; a few nicely exposed pictures where the fly had turned away from the camera; and this one nicely exposed, composed and properly focused photo. Clearly I am on the right track as far as lighting, but I think I need something lighter and simpler that gives the same results. I really need something that sets-up in seconds, preferably with the flash attached directly to the camera hot shoe. I have some ideas for how to put that together…stay tuned for flash diffuser, Mark II…
The technical stuff (for the fly):
Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M5
Lens: Zuiko 35mm macro
Settings: manual exposure (F16 @ 1/200 sec)
Lighting: Olympus FL-36 flash (on TTL)