Robert OToole Photography

May30

Handheld Macro Photography

Example

Honey bee on approach to land on a Calandrinia. Nikon D800E, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 EX APO Macro HSM lens, single Nikon SB-R200 flash @ 1:8 power with diffuser, handheld, 1/250th sec, f8. ISO 500.

Handheld macro photography in the field can be one of the most fun and rewarding ways to photograph nature. The required equipment setup can be simple and lightweight and easy to use and does not have to heavy, overly complicated and cost an arm and a leg. Over the next couple of weeks I will cover my favorite close-up tips and techniques in multiple parts; macro flash basics, my recommended equipment, and finally field techniques. I hope this will inspire and motivate you to get out in the field and give close up photography a try, especially my favorite, hand held macro flash photography.

I prefer to shoot handheld and with flash when doing macro photography. Using flash allows you to attain sharp results even in breezy conditions without the use a tripod. In fact using flash means you can photograph in all kinds of less than satisfactory situations like midday sun, dark cloudy skies, or even at shooting at night with good results. Flash can record and reveal an amazing amount of detail and sharpness in the field that would be difficult or impossible to attain even with a tripod. For an idea of what kind of sharpness you can expect look at the example directly below then look at the image below that made at a 100% view or 100% crop of the very same image below at the actual pixel level in Photoshop, Menu > View > Actual Pixels. Note that these images were made with a Nikon D800E.

Example

Daisy close up. Nikon D800E, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 EX APO Macro HSM lens, single Nikon SB-R200 flash @ 1:8 power with diffuser, handheld, 1/250th sec, f8. ISO 200.

Take a look at the full frame daisy image above, then look at the same image below cropped at 100% view to show you the amount of detail present in the same image above.

Example

This kind of detail is impressive but when you consider that the image was made handheld at close to life-size magnification with a 180mm telephoto lens without a tripod it is almost unbelievable.

Handheld close-up photography gives you freedom and speed that is just not possible when using a tripod. You can shoot at different angles and perspectives freely without the need to constantly adjust a tripod. Even more importantly shooting handheld makes shooting small fast moving objects possible and even fun, like this Robber fly image below.

Example

Robber Fly, Dysmachus trigonus, southern Hungary, Europe. Robbers are interesting to watch and photograph, they can take prey larger then themselves. Nikon D800E, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 EX APO Macro HSM lens, single Nikon SB-R200 flash with diffuser @ 1:8 power, handheld, Manual mode 1/250th sec at f9, ISO 200. Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

Almost any flash will work well for close up but remember to always place the flash as close to the subject as possible for the best light quality,  and always use of a flash diffuser for softer lighting. Choose a flash that allows you the capability to control the output with manual control or exposure compensation. Low size and weight are very important considerations when choosing a flash for hand held use.

If you have trouble holding the camera steady, monopods are fast enough to use for close up work without all the bulk and weight of a tripod.

Considering a ring flash or dual flash set up from Canon or Nikon? This type of system is really suited for scientific applications. They are heavy, expensive and a little large to have to carry for long hours in the field. A single small flash is all you need for good results in the field.

The downsides to a macro flash set up is most of all the initial cost then there is the extra weight and extra set up time. The macro flash set up does not have to be expensive, my current Nikon set us was less than $250.

My current macro gear set up

I will post a complete breakdown and description of my macro equipment in a few days but this image will give you a good idea of what the system looks like.  At the front you have a single Nikon SB-R200 attached to a Nikon XS-1 adapter ring mounted to a Sigma 180mm macro lens mounted on a Nikon D800E, simple, fast and deadly sharp.

After shooting macro with Canon DSLRs for about 7 years and Nikon for the past 5, I have to say the set up as seen below is about as close to macro gear perfection as you can get, super sharp, light, quick, responsive and wireless.  Nothing can come close to matching this set up in terms of portability, reach, resolving power and it is all available off the shelf for a a very low price, that is if you find a D800 or D800E in stock that is. You do not have to use the same equipment as I do, a shorter macro lens and an older body would work very well.

Example

For this image I removed the flash diffuser so you could get a good look at the flash. I use this system handheld about 90% of the time. Also the D800E flash is down but it would be up during normal use in the field.

All content (including text, design, photos, layout, and graphics) are copyright © 2012 Robert OToole. All rights reserved.

18 Comments

  • Comment by Bunn Martin — May 31, 2012 @ 6:59 am

    Robert

    Are you using the camer’s custom functions for commander mode, camera flash up, and 1/8 power set with the camera custom function as well?? Do you have a diffuser on the camera flash or the IR flip thingee that comes with the r1 kit? thanks for such an informative web site.

  • Comment by mjspringett — May 31, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    Love your approach to macro, i hate using a tripod for macros, nice to know there is another way, i will try it, thanks MJ

  • Comment by admin — June 1, 2012 @ 7:21 am

    thanks MJ.

    Need any help please ask.

    I also use a monopod sometimes, it can be a big help.

    Robert

  • Comment by admin — June 1, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    Robert Are you using the camer’s custom functions for commander mode, camera flash up, and 1/8 power set with the camera custom function as well?? Do you have a diffuser on the camera flash or the IR flip thingee that comes with the r1 kit? thanks for such an informative web site.

    Yes, It is under commander mode

    Menu > Custom Setting Menu > Bracketing/Flash > Flash Ctrl for built-in Flash

    Diffuser is on the SB-R200.

    Pop up flash set to 1/128th power, nothing special.

    Will cover this in more detail on a future post. I am still in Europe right now so it will have to be next week before I can get to writing.

    Thanks, hope my info helps.

    Robert

  • Comment by Sascha — June 12, 2012 @ 3:17 am

    What diffuser did you use?

  • Comment by admin — June 12, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    What diffuser did you use?

    Right now I use a few different units depending on the application but I prefer these two:

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/526348-REG/Gary_Fong_LSU_CLOUD_Lightsphere_Universal_Inverted.html

    I also have had great looking results with a Vello mini softbox.

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/749296-REG/Vello_VE_1002_Mini_Softbox.html

    The GF unit is $30 something at BH or Adrama, the Vello is about $8-10.

    Thanks,

    Robert

  • Comment by Sascha — June 12, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    Thanks Robert for your quick reply!

  • Comment by Jackie Schuknecht — July 11, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    Great Macro series. I have enjoyed them all. Makes me enthusiastic to go out and try macro HH. Tripods really are a pain.

  • Comment by Jackie Schuknecht — July 11, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    Also have you heard anything about the new Sigma 180 2.8 ?

  • Comment by admin — July 11, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    Also have you heard anything about the new Sigma 180 2.8 ?

    My source at Sigma says September unfortunately, no word on why such a late delivery!

    I am looking forward to trying one but this new lens has a filter size of 86mm up from 72 of the current version so I think this lens will be a monster.

    Robert

  • Comment by Jackie Schuknecht — July 11, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

    Thanks, look forward to your thoughts on this lens when it eventually comes out. I think the price point is much better than Canon/Nikon 180. But if it doesn’t deliver then it is not worth it.

  • Comment by Bruce — November 13, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    Robert I have the Nikon D90 with the Sigma 150 and I’ve been using the SB 600 with cable hookup on an extension arm. From what I see here I like your setup much better … It’s a take from from there R 1 setup … what I didn’t realize and correct me if I’m wrong but you can set off the SB-200 Flash from the onboard flash ? I thought from everything I’ve seen is that you needed the SU 800 unit to trigger the SB-200 flash?

  • Comment by admin — November 14, 2012 @ 12:39 am

    Bruce,

    Robert I have the Nikon D90 with the Sigma 150 and I’ve been using the SB 600 with cable hookup on an extension arm. From what I see here I like your setup much better … It’s a take from from there R 1 setup … what I didn’t realize and correct me if I’m wrong but you can set off the SB-200 Flash from the onboard flash ? I thought from everything I’ve seen is that you needed the SU 800 unit to trigger the SB-200 flash?

    Yes I trigger the SB-R200 with the built in flash. In the up position the flash can be set for no output and still retain control of external flash. This way the built in flash will not affect the subject exposure. Works well. Hope this helps. Robert

  • Comment by Sally Gunter — December 3, 2012 @ 1:32 am

    I can’t seem to find the macro ring for sale anywhere, and a Nikon representative wasn’t even sure if they sold one at all. I’m using a Nikon 105 macro lens, do they sell rings based on the lens size?

    Also, where?

    Thanks

  • Comment by admin — December 4, 2012 @ 10:18 am

    Hi Sally,

    I have posted these on my blog a couple times but they still still hard to track down. Here they are, they should be in stock at any big camera shop. Thanks.

    Nikon SY-1-62 62mm Adapter Ring for the SX-1 Flash Attachment Ring

    http://www.adorama.com/NKSY162.html

    Nikon SX-1, Replacement Attachment Ring for SB-R200 Wireless Remote Speedlight

    http://www.adorama.com/NKSX1.html

  • Comment by Lyn Yates — November 24, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

    Hi Robert
    I have been doing a workshop this weekend, and it was so hard trying to use my Nikon 105 macro. I sure will try this setup your photos are amazing. I have an 800E on order so looking forward to getting it.
    Regards Lyn

  • Comment by Sathish — February 24, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    Rob one thing i need to ask u is what attachment rings u used for the flash unit…
    u said about the sx1 adapter ring and sy1 threading..
    im planning for sb400 flash unit which also works the same i ttl mode which is set triggered by the in built flash of my d5200 for sigma 180mm 2.8 macro lens…
    i need to know which adapter ring will suit ma need.. in the r1 kit adapter rings till adapters for 77* is given but this lens needs till 86*…
    help me in the way of building ma macro setup…
    correct me for any mistakes…
    looking forward for ur reply soon
    thanks in advance

  • Comment by admin — February 24, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    Rob one thing i need to ask u is what attachment rings u used for the flash unit…
    u said about the sx1 adapter ring and sy1 threading..
    im planning for sb400 flash unit which also works the same i ttl mode which is set triggered by the in built flash of my d5200 for sigma 180mm 2.8 macro lens…
    i need to know which adapter ring will suit ma need.. in the r1 kit adapter rings till adapters for 77* is given but this lens needs till 86*…
    help me in the way of building ma macro setup…
    correct me for any mistakes…
    looking forward for ur reply soon
    thanks in advance

    Sathish,

    With the 180-f2.8 I would recommend using an articulating flash bracket. I like the SX1/SY1 combo for simplicity but as far as I know there is no way to mount it on the 180-2.8.

    Articulating arms are not as compact but a lot more flexible.

    Hope this helps.

    Robert

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