Macro Photography – External Flash

After the AF modes and areas, we now talk about the external flash and how to use it for macros.

Firstly, check and set your flash sync speed and make sure you never exceed the shutter speed specified here. You will start getting black on the bottom of the frame if you exceed the sync speed.

Second, check the flash mode on the camera. If it is set to red-eye, then make sure you change it to normal. Most flashes support the red-eye double flash and that can totally ruin a wildlife shot.

Keep in mind that not all camera bodies have a popup flash.

Let’s now look at the modes a flash would offer. In general, you would have an auto or TTL mode which works exactly like a popup flash and you can control the flash via the camera. There are master and slave modes which allow controlling either a single or multiple flash setup. Finally, there is a manual mode and that is the only mode we are interested in here.

Since we use a flash cord to connect the flash and the camera body, we only need to set the flash to manual mode along with the zoom and power we want.

In the wild, one would generally not get a chance to fiddle with the power and zoom of the flash and we will see how to get around that. Recall the inverse square law for light falloff we discussed earlier? Yes, that is how we control the power of the flash in the wild. Simply changing the distance of the flash to the subject will increase or decrease the power of the light on the subject. We would, in general, never need to change the power once we are set for that depending on the GN of the flash and the capability of our camera sensor.

This is an aspect you will have to experiment and find out for your setup based on the aperture you use. I will discuss what I generally use in a later video.

Let us now look at the zoom and power aspects of the flash and how they impact our macro shots.

First, the zoom.

The zoom on the flash tries to match the zoom or focal length of the lens to cover the FoV for that focal length. A 50mm zoom would cover a wider area than a zoom of 90mm. In the TTL (auto) mode, the flash would automatically set the zoom to match the focal length of the lens on the camera.

So, where would we change the zoom to be more or less than the actual FoV of the focal length?

Recall the example in an earlier video where I used a zoom of 50 on the flash instead of the 90mm focal length of the lens? This was to spread the light out a bit more so we could see more of the surface and the reflections the objects created on the surface. The other case would be where you are lucky enough to get a subject in a clear area and want more of the natural background to blend in the frame rather than holding the flash on top of the subject for a dark background. In this case, you would point the flash directly at the subject, but, do not want intense light on the subject itself and therefore you can reduce the zoom to spread the light more than required for the FoV.

Now, let us look at the flash power.

Almost all flashes will shoot at the full power based on their GN, down to around 1/128 of the full power. Generally, the increments would be in 1/3rds but, can differ for different flash units.

In general, we will never use the full power mode for macros. A higher power for the flash implies a longer duration of the flash and vice-versa for low power. Understanding this part is critical for macros. Using a low power not only allows the flash to recharge faster (generally under a second), but, more importantly, since the duration of the flash is so short, it helps in freezing the subject and eliminating any shake we might get when shooting at 1:1 or higher magnifications.

For example, the flash duration range on my Godox flash is 1/300 – 1/20000 of a second. Imagine the speed of the low power flash. This is also the reason why the shutter speed cannot be used to cut the flash light and only the aperture can.

Therefore, my recommendation would be to use the lowest flash power that allows you to shoot around the base ISO of your camera to get the best possible details in your macro shots.

Now that we have covered the flash part, let us look at a few examples…

Photography #Nikon #Macro #Wildlife

Macro Photography – AF Modes and Areas

In the Desktop Macro Photography video, I did not go fully into the camera auto-focus modes and what the general recommendations would be for different scenarios. This is what we will discuss here.

I have only Nikon bodies, so, I can only talk in those terms. Other brands would have equivalents of the modes that I will talk about here.

For this brief session, I would strongly recommend that you put on the macro lens on your camera body and pause the video, where needed, and try out the settings that we discuss here.

Depending on the camera body, the number of focus points and groups would differ, but, we are generally not really concerned with that since we will generally use only a single focus point for the Af-Area (S).

The AF-Mode, unlike for most other purposes, will also be single shot or AF-S instead of the more commonly used AF-C.

As I explained in an earlier video, Nikon users would have to go into the custom settings and make sure that AF-S is set to focus, which is the default. As a side note, I use focus priority for AF-C as well.

I am assuming that your camera is already set up for back button focus. This is a requirement and not optional in this case.

So, for the Nikons, you would use AF-S/S for macros and make sure the AF-S is set to focus priority.

What this setup does is that the camera will not release the shutter unless it has focus on something. You can keep the shutter button pressed and nothing will happen till there is some object that the camera thinks it has the focus locked on to.

Now for the exercise to check this out…

  1. Rotate the focus ring on your lens to the minimum distance, i.e. at 1:1. For most macro lenses, the MWD would be around 10 cm, but, do check your lens’ specs for that.
  2. It does not matter what the camera settings for the exposure are for this test. You can set the camera to full auto mode as well. We are not concerned with the exposure here.
  3. Place an object, I will use the same sanitiser bottle we used in the earlier video, on your desktop and look at the object through the viewfinder of the camera while keeping the shutter release button pressed. The shutter will only release once you have the camera close enough to the object for the camera to acquire a focus lock on the object. This will not work if you do not have back button focus set up.

This is also referred to as a “focus trap” and can be used in other scenarios as well.

So…How does this experiment help?

Given the razor sharp DoF when shooting macros, the point of focus becomes critical.

For example, this is a snapshot from one of the many DoF calculators available online. Although lenses in real life are far more complex than this simple computation, but, this does give you an idea of the DoF when fully stopped down on this Tamron 90mm macro lens.

This is also the only way you can be sure that at least the camera “thinks” it has the subject in focus. This will almost always be correct unless your lens is front or back focussing. I will explain how to correct this issue in a later video.

Now, one might wonder if this is it!
The ultimate settings for macro photography…

Not really, this is just the ideal scenario which may or may not happen in the wild or even your own desktop unless you have sufficient light for the camera to detect and lock focus. This is just the only way to go about getting the smaller subjects where you want to make sure you are shooting at a full 1:1 magnification. Using AF would generally lock at any distance over the MFD and you might not get 1:1.

For subjects larger than the sensor size or if you are looking for more of a composition close shot, the AF works fine most of the time in all such cases. In fact, for larger subjects, you can even switch back to AF-C/Any Focus-Area mode.

Okay, so, where would this fail or not be desirable?

One, of course, as we already discussed, for larger subjects, it does not matter what modes you use. The prime macro lens will give you a much better IQ than a zoom in all these cases.

The second is in low light scenarios. I don’t mean low light as in late evening or similar. What I mean is when shooting wildlife in the open, the subject might be in a location where the light and/or the contrast of the subject will not allow the camera to figure out if it has acquired focus. Even though you might see a sharp image in your viewfinder, the camera will refuse to release the shutter. In such cases, just change to a group focus or auto and shoot before the subject vanishes.

The third is if you get lucky and get a subject in the wild that is stationary for a few seconds even after the first shot with the flash. This is a perfect opportunity to try and get multiple shots and stack them later. This is generally referred to as focus stacking and we will see how this is done in a later video.

Of course, there are specific instances as well. For example, if you are shooting some object in a glass and want to focus on a specific point.

I hope this clarifies the focus mode and areas when shooting macros.

Photography #Nikon #Macro #Wildlife

Desktop Macro Photography

After the long discussion on the gear required for macro photography, I will demonstrate some desktop shots in this one which would allow building up more for the future videos.

So, this is my “desktop”…Actually, just a corner which I use for most of my desktop macros. I recently got some small acrylic sheets just before the lockdown. It is a good replacement for not cleaning my desktop 🙂

I am using a Nikon D850 with a Tamron 90mm macro lens for this demonstration along with my Godox flash on a cord as explained in the previous video.

For this demonstration, we will see how to get objects with a black background.

First, a brief explanation as to how…

  1. Light from a flash can only be controlled by the aperture and not the shutter speed. The flash, in general, is way to fast for the shutter speeds on most cameras.
  2. Light falls off, or dims out according to the inverse square law. In simple terms, the light will get weaker with distance.
  3. Based on the above points, if we have an aperture value that is high enough (f/18 for example), it will cut out all the ambient light when shooting and only the light from the flash would have any effect.
  4. What follows is that fact that if we use a flash to light our subject and make sure the flash power and direction is just good enough to light only the subject, then, we will get a black background.

A basic understanding of the depth of field would be very helpful. In general, the larger the distance of the camera to the subject, the larger the area that appears to be in focus. A good site to get a general idea on how this works is

For macros and close ups, the DoF is generally very, very narrow and it becomes critical to have the focus exactly where we want it.

Another critical term to understand is the flash sync speed. This is essentially the highest shutter speed you can use when using a flash. There are ways of using a higher shutter speed, but, we are not going to get into that for macros.

We will discuss all of this in more detail in the future videos.

For now, let’s just check the settings that I am using for the demo desktop shots and how to improve them in post using Lightroom or any equivalent application.

I have my shutter speed set to 1/250 which is the flash sync speed for the Nikon D850. The aperture is set to f/22 and ISO to 100 (I would take it down to 64 for the D850 most of the time). The AF is set to single point, multiple shots AF-C/S (this is another one we will look at in more detail later).

My flash it set to manual mode at 1/16 power and a zoom of 50mm. Yes, I know I am using a 90mm macro lens, but, we will get into all those details, one by one, later.

One word of caution before we start, when shooting desktop macros, make sure the object is clean otherwise the shot will show all the dust and stuff on it. If possible, wash with soap and water.

I have these 5 objects that we will shoot and see how changing the angle and distance of the flash changes the image.

#Photography #Nikon #Macro #Wildlife

Starting Macro Photography – Gear for Wildlife and more…

There are quite a few options for macro photography and I will briefly touch on those and move on to what I use and recommend after years of macro photography. This video will primarily cover the gear required for wildlife and other kinds of macro photography.

For a more formal definition, refer to Wikipedia.

1. Reverse Ring

This is one of the options that allows you to mount your kit lens (generally) with the front element reversed. Yes, like all the options I will touch upon, I have tried all this and although it might be good fun, but, not recommended for a variety of reasons. If you happen to get your lens stuck…

2. Diopters

These are generally simple magnifying glasses that attach to your lenses as a lens filter to give a magnified image. In general, they have high diffraction and will not provide a reasonable image quality.

3. Lens Stacking

This is essentially where you reverse a shorter focal length lens over a longer one using an adapter. Again, while this might sound geeky and fun, that is all it is. I would not recommend trying this. Both #1 and this use specific adapter sizes and can only be used with the same lens filter size.

4. Extension Tubes

This is where you put empty tubes in between your lens and the camera to achieve magnification with any lens that you might have. Extension tubes are easy and safe to use. This is the method I would recommend for all who want to start with macro photography, but, are not ready to invest in a macro lens.

5. Macro Lens

This is the right way to go and there is no replacement for a real 1:1 macro lens. One of the reasons I recommend the extension tubes is the fact that you can use the tubes with a true macro lens to achieve even more magnification. The 1:1 means that you get a 10mm subject as 10mm on the image sensor also called “life-size”.

6. There are other combinations, but, we will get into that later…Much later

For macro photography, there is no replacement for a true macro lens and we will get to the reasons.

Let’s talk more about the Extension Tubes and then the Macro Lens.

Extension Tubes come in 3 different variants.

  1. Plain plastic with no contacts to communicate with the camera. These can only be used with a manual lens that has aperture control on the lens.
  2. The second communicates with the camera and supports AF as well. This one does not have metal endings on the mount points
  3. This is the same as above with metallic plates on the mount points and is slightly more expensive than #2.

In reality, though, the AF support does not make a difference for macro photography since it would be manual focus even with a macro lens. The ability to control the aperture over the tubes does matter and therefore I would recommend only #2 or #3.

The extension tubes generally come in a set of 3 parts and depending on the magnification we require, we can use all 3 together or in parts.

Macro Lens

A true macro lens would imply two points:

  1. It is a prime or a fixed focal length lens
  2. The image quality from a prime will always beat a zoom

Although by popular definition, a macro is considered to be 1:1 only, but, in practice, we do have larger subjects like butterflies, large spiders and other insects. On the other hand, 1:1 might not be good enough for tiny subjects like Aphids or Fruit flies and similar insects.

Although some brands put the word “macro” on their lenses even when they are not 1:1, you should know the difference and decide accordingly.

Let us look at some of the key factors while deciding on a macro lens.

1. MWD (Minimum Working Distance) vs MFD (Minimum Focus Distance)

While the Minimum Focus Distance of a lens is generally specified from the focal plane of the camera, the Minimum Working Distance is far more critical for macro photography. The working distance specifies the distance of the subject from the front element of the lens. Before purchasing any macro lens, make sure you look up the working distance for the lens since there are some known brand macro lenses which are not practically usable for 1:1 macros.

There is a legacy thought that a longer focal length would offer a higher working distance. While this is correct for a single-lens setup, camera lenses are far more complex and if you check out the specs for some of the more current macro lenses, you will see that almost all of them have a working distance of around 100mm (10cm) for 1:1 reproduction.

2. Focal length vs DoF (Depth of Field)

This is an often-overlooked factor, but, given the razor-sharp depth of field we have when shooting macros, it might be an idea to remember that shorter focal lengths will offer a marginal increase in the DoF.

3. Full-time manual focus override.

This is essential for wildlife. The option to be able to AF and override that is extremely useful in the wild. Otherwise, by the time you switch the lens from AF to Manual or vice-versa, the subject might have vanished. We will see where this becomes critical in a future video.

4. New vs Old lenses

This is actually a no-brainer IMO. Always prefer newer models of lenses over older ones. The first thing that would have changed is the construction. The glass might also be better as technology has moved on. The other is the coating on the glass which has evolved quite a bit in the last few years.

External Flash

An external flash is absolutely required for a variety of reasons. We will learn more about the flash and why it is required as we go along with the macro sessions. I would also recommend getting a flash cord rather than using RF triggers for the flash. The flash does not have to be an expensive one since we will be using that in manual mode only. In short, the cheapest manual flash is good enough. Just make sure the GN (Guide Number) for the flash is at least around 48. A higher number would be better once we get into more than 1:1 magnification.

Okay, so, why would I use the model I am using currently?

The simple answer is the battery. This one has a Li-ion battery which lasts a lot longer and charges fast as well when compared to the normal AA or AAA batteries.

What about a diffuser?

This is a challenging one…I have tried all kinds of diffusers including DIY types and ultimately dropped all those and use a plain bare flash. The reasons for this will be more apparent in later videos.

I would also recommend that you check and keep the sensor clean as I have already demonstrated in an earlier video. A clean sensor is critical for macros.

Lens hood would probably never be used in the wild for macros.

Now that we have talked about the basic gear one should start with, we will get into the practical shots with this gear in the next and some future videos.

#Photography #Nikon #Luminar #Birding #Landscape